in the garden

 

Mar 2014 Journal

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Justice - it’s never too late

It took half a century after the Second World War to begin to face the enormity of what had been allowed to happen. By this time, many of those who had survived had died without the injustice of their suffering being realised.
But it’s never too late. Generation after generation of scholars are increasingly taking up the task of unearthing yet untold stories and thereby giving literary justice to those who received only injustice in their lives and in their deaths.
Two books recently reviewed in the AJR Journal have contributed much to this welcome research, in particular exposing the myth that the suffering of survivors ended with the end of the Second World War: Landgericht by Ursula Krechel and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich by Steve Hochstadt (reviewed by Peter Fraenkel and George Vulcan respectively).
These two books are linked in that my father, Judge Dr Robert Michaelis, was one of the 18,000-20,000 Jews who found refuge in Shanghai during the Second World War and is the main character in Landgericht, which Ursula Krechel calls a novel. In fact, Landgericht is a biography of my father with the gaps in the author’s research filled in from her imagination. I first became aware of this book when a member of the Mainz Local History Society emailed me in October 2012. He had invited me to address the Society in November 2012 but we had not met. So a total stranger was informing me that the 2012 Frankfurt Book Prize had been won by a book about my family that I knew nothing about! It was even more of a shock when I saw interviews with Krechel on YouTube and read the book. I was plunged into a weird state of identity confusion – what was fact and what was fiction?
It wasn’t long before the local Mainz paper printed a full page about the book together with photos of my parents. Friends in Germany sent me more news cuttings and internet interviews with Krechel. When I got to read the book I found it was indeed a biography of my father, carefully researched from archives in Shanghai, Berlin, Lindau and Mainz, where he finally settled after the war. She called him Richard Kornirzer. So I was Selma Kornirzer??? Really? Krechel had appropriated a part of my family history I didn’t even know about! Why had she not at least contacted me before her book was published? She named my book, Person of No Nationality: A Story of Childhood Loss and Recovery (2010), in her acknowledgements and used it for a chapter about the Kindertransport and my brother and me coming to England. So she could have contacted me through my publisher. Why didn’t she?

Krechel had my father escaping to Cuba instead of Shanghai and having an affair in Cuba that produced a baby girl. Did I really have a half-sister whom I never knew anything about? My niece in Germany was convinced that Krechel must be that daughter – and, date-wise, he worked out that it was just possible. But what confused me most was why I hadn’t been contacted before the book was published. I was determined to find out.
My publisher wanted to sue Krechel but I didn’t want that. He put me in contact with Krechel through her publisher and I eventually got to meet her just before my talk to the Mainz Local History Society. She seemed a very friendly, but rather frail, highly-strung and anxious person, which surprised me. She told me she had contacted my brother in 2008 and that he had ignored her two letters and hung up on her when she had telephoned; she had been extremely hurt by his rejection. My brother had never mentioned this to me, perhaps because he knew I would talk him round but, more likely, because his wife was by then in the later stages of Alzheimer’s and he was very stressed. He also suffered from the same lack of welcome as my father: as described in Krechel’s book, refugees returning to Germany were treated with suspicion and even contempt - they were seen as having had a good time abroad and not having suffered what the Germans had suffered at the hands of the Allies. Krechel claimed she hadn’t contacted me because, with her poor health, she couldn’t risk being hurt again. I couldn’t quite accept this. She must have read my book as she had used it for an entire chapter of her own book and must have realised I was very different from my brother. She had no answer to this.
I nonetheless told Krechel that I was grateful to her for giving my father literary justice, 40 years after his death, as he had failed to receive justice or even acknowledgement of the injustices he had suffered in his lifetime. Moreover, Krechel’s book has given me renewed impetus to seek answers to the many questions I didn’t ask my parents - because I couldn’t - while they were alive. One outcome is that I wrote to the Berlin Rechtsanwaltskammer (Bar Association) and asked to meet them to talk about my father. By the time I met with six senior jurists there, they had all read Landgericht and were deeply interested. My father’s file had been taken from Berlin, probably to Mainz, but they offered to look for a law student who would do further research on my father. (They also took me round the awe-inspiring Palace of Justice, built in art nouveau style in 1900, where my father had worked as a judge until he was sacked in 1933. It has been carefully renovated after the DDR misused it, in particular by using its majestic foyer with a cascading double staircase as a dance hall!)
I was especially impressed that the street, formerly Friedenstrasse, had been renamed Littenstrasse. This was in honour of Hans Litten, the defence lawyer who had the courage to subpoena Hitler in the early 1930s in the case against the SA thugs who smashed up the Workers’ Club (see Anthony Grenville, ‘Opponents of Hitler’, AJR Journal, November 2011). He had shown Hitler to be a liar in court. But Hitler’s support was already too strong and Litten lost the case. In 1933 Litten was arrested and suffered five years’ unrelenting torture until he committed suicide – but not before he had been ordered to recite a poem for Hitler’s birthday. He chose to read Die Gedanken sind frei (Thoughts are Free - full version available on Wikipedia). If only all the German jurists had had Litten’s courage!
Landgericht describes in details how my father too, with courage and tenacity, stood up to the former Nazis running the legal system after the war. The large plaque on the outside of the court buildings and Littenstrasse gave belated justice to Hans Litten; Landgericht gives belated literary justice to Judge Robert Michaelis – ‘Richard Kornirzer’. It’s never too late.

Ruth Barnett

previous article:The drama of German Expressionism
next article:Gathering the Voices