Though Amagansett-based author Ellen Feldman’s compelling new novel The Living and the Lost is set in Berlin shortly after World War II, with flashbacks to 1938, it resonates today with disturbing themes about the heritage of hatred, and suggests that the title “The Living AND the Lost” may well have been “the Living ARE the Lost.”
The implications are even darker if the word “living” includes not just those who managed somehow to endure the War, perpetrators as well as victims, but all of us — now — who inherit different historical narratives about what happened under the Nazi regime, why it happened and what people did or could or might or should have done to counter the juggernaut.
Explorations of horror, guilt, denial and, as one character in the book puts it, assertions of “ignorance, innocence” and “impotence” about Hitler and the Holocaust are nothing new, but what Ellen Feldman examines in this moving, unsentimental tale, which is also a love story, is how one young German Jewish woman, Meike Mosbach, now Millie, was psychologically scarred beyond her acknowledgment when her beloved father maneuvered her escape with her younger brother to America when the round-up of Jews began.
There she found a welcoming home, went to college on a scholarship and started in on an editing career. Millie returns to Berlin when the Allied occupation begins to find her family and former home, and to work with the U.S. military to ensure Nazi sympathizers don’t get jobs in publishing.
Her brother, who is secretly trained in the States with a special German speaking American intelligence unit, also returns. But Millie thinks his nightly disappearances mean he’s fraternizing with the enemy — a common, forbidden activity.
The scenes Feldman creates of bombed-out, black-market Berlin pulses with decadence and degeneracy — gangs, alcohol, rape, theft, drugs, hustling, the injured, impoverished and homeless everywhere. Feldman’s style is rich in description but understated in dialogue between Millie and her superior, an aloof but sympathetic Major Harry Sutton. He seems uncannily to understand Millie’s rage and self-pity, and their relationship has a sardonic, sorrowful authenticity.
The book’s two epigraphs are thought provoking: the first from General Dwight D. Eisenhower in a letter to his wife, September 1944: “God, I hate the Germans.”; the second, from a female survivor of a Nazi labor camp and a 350-mile forced march:” I can hate Germany and all things German with a passion, but I can’t hate individuals.”
This second quotation recalls Jonathan Swift’s famous comment in a letter to a friend — that “he hates and detests that animal called man,” although he heartily loves John, Peter, Thomas." This, from the author of one of the most pessimistic works of fiction ever written, Gulliver’s Travels, which concludes with Gulliver, living with horses, unable anymore to connect with the human race.
Of course, Feldman is not writing 18th century fantasy-satire but 20th century historical fiction about a terrible time of terrible behavior and terrible self-indictment, including what we now call PTSD. Men and women come home from war wounded, but as Feldman’s tale makes clear, the deepest injuries are invisible. “Loss can be consoled, pain can be solaced. But there is no comfort for shame. Because shame is not the result of a wrong suffered but of a wrong committed. Nothing can breech the isolation of that. Not sympathy. Not sex. Not even love.” Maybe.