cover image Remote Sympathy

Remote Sympathy

Catherine Chidgey. Europa, $26 (528p) ISBN 978-1-60945-627-6

Chidgey (The Wish Child) brilliantly explores the intersecting stories of a former German S.S. officer, his sheltered wife, and a survivor of Buchenwald. In 1954, Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn, imprisoned for war crimes as a commander at Buchenwald, continues to defend himself during taped interviews with an unknown interlocutor. His young wife, Greta, battled ovarian cancer during the war, the details of which she writes about in her diary. Dietrich tells of how he arranged for the arrest and imprisonment of Dr. Lenard Weber at Buchenwald, to get Weber to treat Greta. Chidgey weaves these threads together with short choruslike sections from the Weimar residents during Buchenwald’s operation and after the war, ranging from complaints about how the camp disrupted business to denigrating the American liberators, all of it building symphonically toward a cascading sense of cultural loss and human devastation. In addition to treating Greta, Weber is assigned to the camp’s photography lab to process film, and his descriptions of the photographs convey an eerie sense of mundane day-to-day life surrounding the death camp. (“Here is the cinema, here is the shooting range... this is an example of the inmates’ accommodation, see how clean, how decently equipped... this is the oak tree beneath which Goethe may have written poetry,” he imagines an officer saying on a tour.) Even more striking are Weber’s elegiac letters to his daughter in 1946, which offer aching glimmers of what Germany lost in the war. With its multiple registers and complex view of humanity, this marks a vital turn in Holocaust literature. (May)