“Do you know any books of essays that are, maybe, not so heavy?” I ask a friend who also teaches. We are lying in the park on one of the last warm October days and we are lying down because exerting additional energy feels impossible.
Throughout the first full pandemic semester, my creative nonfiction students were all, to varying degrees, traumatized, confused, struggling to continue with the roles that used to be normal for us. In general, I consider my most important strength as a teacher to be my willingness to go there; to be in the depths with my students as they write about their panic attacks, their COVID depression, their election stress, their deep confusion about the meaning of higher education “in these times.” But now, what I need help with is lightening the mood.
My friend suggests that I teach Samantha Irby or R. Eric Thomas, who both write very funny essays about contemporary life and politics.
“But is that doing my students a disservice?” I prop myself up on one elbow and feel the damp of the ground seeping through the wool blanket. “Isn’t it unfair to try to be light right now?”
My answer to this question changes by the day. At times it feels like a matter of survival: Of course I must make jokes about how loud my husband is breathing on our 5,246th day on simultaneous Zoom calls in the same room. When another member of my extended family reports a grave illness, I call it ridiculous, meaning absurd, worthy of laughter. Of course I must laugh that shrill laugh about how incredibly unmanageable life feels, the kind of laugh that filters through my mask when I sit six feet away from a friend on a frigid bench and the sound seems a little bit less desperate for the company.
But does making light of the situation detract from the gravity of voter suppression, ferocious wildfires and floods, police murder, the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on low-income Black and brown people? What do we do with the endless gravity of this material? How do we hold it?
I have been thinking about these questions for much of the last few years through the lens of historical fascism as I researched a book on the games people play in order to process historical and inherited trauma, with a focus on reparative kink practices and Nazi roleplay. I’ve spent the last few years thinking about how we hold the things we can’t.
Through this work I came across Takis Würger, whose novel Stella, released in Germany last year, initiated quite a bit of public controversy regarding who owns Holocaust “material” and what ethical literary treatment of this material entails—particularly because Würger’s novel is a romance. Boy meets girl, yes. But then: Boy realizes girl is not who she says she is. Boy tries to pretend everything is fine, despite the violence swirling around them.
“As a German, as somebody whose grandparents were perpetrators, I believe it is necessary to be very sensitive and precise when writing a novel set in the time of the Nazi era. I tried to be that.”
The violence that swirls around these characters has been addressed in many ways. We know Theodor Adorno said it couldn’t be treated with poetry, and we know Elie Wiesel said it defeated culture and art.
Würger’s book, in contrast, is straightforward and sometimes oddly breezy in tone. It deals in a fictional character, Friedrich, who comes to Berlin in 1942 from Switzerland hoping to lose himself and his past in the city. In an underground jazz club he meets a woman who goes by the name of Kristin, based on the real-life figure of Stella Goldschlag, a beguiling woman who will share little about her own background. Eventually she comes to Friedrich’s apartment after a beating by the Gestapo and admits that she is in fact Stella, a Jew passing for Aryan, trying to survive under Nazi rule unscathed. This surviving under ultimately involves working for the Gestapo as a greifer, (“catcher”)—of fellow Jews. Though Würger’s book does not touch on it, other accounts of Stella’s story highlight how little Stella identified as Jewish, and how much her desire to be a jazz singer and a woman of the world contributed to her willingness to collaborate.
In Würger’s book, the Stella character is by turns charming and tragic. It is for this reason (among others) that the novel has been accused of being “Holocaust kitsch,” of dealing with this material in a sentimental, unserious way.
Würger resists this critique.
“Stella is a love story set in 1942 in the time of the Nazi era in Berlin. In this novel people love, dance, and drink champagne, but in this novel people also hate, fear, torture and die,” he wrote to me. Würger refuses to consider certain topics off limits for fiction, and perhaps this is why the accusations of kitsch or “Holocaust-light” intensified. His prior novel, The Club, uses a similarly jaunty style to address rape and men’s secret societies at privileged English universities.
Critiques of Würger’s novel hold that it takes advantage of this material as opposed to acknowledging the gravity of it; some reviewers slammed the novel for what they called frivolity and carelessness. Würger is not Jewish, and several of the critiques accuse him of an amoral stance or of not taking his own German historical inheritance seriously enough.
This is not how he sees it. Würger insists that his writing is part of an “active process” of remembrance and ongoing integration: of integrating grave material into Germany’s contemporary understanding of itself and its history.
“Stella caused a controversy in Germany. I did not enjoy that,” Würger wrote to me. “But it also caused many people to think about how we want to remember the crimes of the Nazis and how we want to remember the people who suffered in Germany 80 years ago. I think remembrance culture must be an active process. And I was happy my novel contributed to it.” This “happy” is a particular phrasing. It gestures more towards the satisfaction of being of use, rather than towards a kind of celebration or joy.
“I do not consider my novel light,” he wrote, describing the project of his book as an act of shouldering responsibility. “It would be easier to understand the evil of the Nazis and the fact that six million Jews were murdered if we could say the devil did that and in 1945 he disappeared … But the murderers were German people. People with families, dreams, people who played soccer and went to the theatre, people who fell in love and who made cookies for their children. It was evil. These people were murderers. They were human beings who became murderers and that is one aspect I wanted to show with Stella.”
Notably, some members of Germany’s Jewish press sided with Würger in the controversy. “Quietly, credibly, and yes, also unsparingly, but at no point in an unattractive, sensationalist or even lurid way, the writer and Spiegel reporter tells the story of the Jewish Greifer Stella Goldschlag,” wrote Philipp Peyman Engel in Jüidsche Allgemeine, “who had the incomprehensible done to her and then did the incomprehensible to others.”
Würger’s novel does humanize a historical character who is notoriously difficult to comprehend. Stella Goldschlag, known to many as “the blonde poison,” is said to be responsible for the murder of upwards of 3,000 people.
It’s not the first time someone has worked with this material: a childhood friend of Stella’s wrote a memoir about her in which he attempts to understand her evildoings, and the musical based in part on this memoir ran to great acclaim at the Neuköllner Oper Berlin.
I didn’t know if I’d hate the musical, or Würger’s book, but I was eager to take in both. I wanted to see what could be made from this kind of material, and I wanted to understand the conversations around its use. I experience this desire mainly because I am invested in whether stories are allowed to be told, by whom, and when. I want to see how we digest the heaviest of stories.
As an educator, I watch my students alternatively sink under the current heaviness and dodge it for all they are worth. Both of these are legitimate coping mechanisms, but I try to watch the dodging carefully to make sure it is not based on deceit or misinformation. This past semester I asked students over and over how it affected them to live in the time of “alternative facts.” They said little other than vague references to tension. Many grew cynical and apolitical and chose to believe in nothing. They spoke to fears of speaking up, fears that any discussion at all would cause a controversy or eruption.
I listen to them and think of Würger, who defends his right to free speech as a writer to nearly astonishing ends.
“I believe that freedom should be at the core of our social contract,” Würger wrote to me. “People should be allowed to live the life they want if nobody is harmed by their actions. It is so simple that it almost sounds naive to say it here.” Würger’s straightforward rhetoric of freedom is a bit jarring cut against an American context, where this very word has been co-opted by conservative political actors seeking to sway their constituents.
I can’t say I believe as wholeheartedly in a freedom that does not harm others, at least not in a country with the racist and classist history of this one. For this reason, it is important to remember that Würger’s work is not American, that it carries with it its own German cultural context around speech, ownership, and repair. Würger is pushing for freedom of speech from a country that has been engaged in a specific kind of memorialization and reparations for over 50 years. But as his book lands in the US in translation, it might serve as a set of fresh eyes on what it means to speak with, around, or through fascist histories. His perspective—and his novel—conveys the dramatically disjunctive qualities of holding horrific histories alongside the concerns and conversations of what he experiences as the everyday.
Würger has had relatively few appearances thus far in the United States, but on a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival in 2019, he showed obvious discomfort in a discussion of what it means to take sides and identify truth in today’s political climate. As the conversation moved toward writerly entwinement with politics, Würger said, “I never wanted to be a political writer. What I want to be is a good citizen. Liberal democracies exist in Germany and the US, and we can debate things.”
It was at this point in the discussion that I began to wonder about the specifics of national context, and how much it matters where Würger comes from. As other members of the panel explained their politics and why literature matters to them, Würger dug into his position that speaking freely is all that matters: that one should not have to modulate it based on one’s own identity or position, and that literature should not be judged by the identity of the writer. As members of the panel discussed the issue of readers of color suggesting that white writers should not tell their community’s stories, Würger interrupted, saying, “but if you don’t want to listen to the story, don’t listen—just buy a different book.” He continued, “One of our greatest values is our freedom. Of course you’re allowed to write what you want to write. Why not? If you’re white, male, privileged, whatever, I mean, why shouldn’t you be allowed to write that?”
Lauren Wilkinson, another member of the panel, engaged him at this point, turning the conversation towards the quality of the literature, and how this might be more important to the conversation about backlash and identity. “It’s a straw man argument to say that it’s about an individual and whether an individual should be able to write about what they want.”
There was visible tension during the discussion, but the conversation did continue and move on. This exchange replayed part of inflamed discussions we have seen in many contexts, in which people arguing about craft and lived experience talk past people talking about freedom of speech.
When I first met Takis Würger, he arrived clearly prepared for this kind of tension. We met in Berlin in the summer of 2019, and he was wary at first, telling me nothing could be on the record and that as a policy he no longer takes interviews in Germany. He had been burned, he said, by the scandal around the book, which ranged from accusations of recklessness and historical inaccuracy to criminal charges against Würger for disparaging the name of Stella Goldschlag and demands to stop the book’s sale.
Stella has an ingénue quality that conveys an alienated individuality.
More than a year later, Würger answered my questions about the book by pointing to the amount of research he did prior to its writing, and by explaining the history with a kind of brazen relationship to the facts.
“As a German, as somebody whose grandparents were perpetrators, I believe it is necessary to be very sensitive and precise when writing a novel set in the time of the Nazi era. I tried to be that,” he wrote. “I worked with three historians as counselors, I spent two years doing research, went to the memorial in Auschwitz, went to Israel to talk to survivors. I read for a year straight about Berlin in 1942.”
The amount of time he spent is important to Würger, and this emphasis in his discussion of the book’s writing belies a kind of optimism, too, or at least the conviction that if one spends sufficient time, one can reach an objective and appropriate understanding of historical events.
“In Berlin in 1942 Jewish people were murdered and at the same time Germans went to secret jazz clubs and danced on the tables. Both of these things are true,” Würger wrote to me. This is what he seeks to address in the book: two stark realities against one another—the reality of conviviality and romance simultaneous to terror. The complexity—and perhaps the lesson—of the book occurs in the dissociative features of the narrative that attempts to touch on both.
Stella has an ingénue quality that conveys an alienated individuality. The narrator, Friedrich, moves through his childhood with a kind of willful straightforwardness (“Mother drank arak, which clouded when she infused it with ice water. I would pretend she was drinking milk. There was a jetty on the lake that creaked in the summer heat”) that with repetition begins to feel almost asocial, an inability of the narrator to find himself in context. (“Once I stood there in the fall, on the far edge, at dawn, and skimmed flat stones across the water. When the cook and Father had no time for me, and Mother drank away her days, I felt invisible.”)
Friedrich arrives in Berlin to escape a childhood with an alcoholic mother and detached, permissive father. While he is aware of the war, he assumes he will be able to stay out of it and enjoy the music, the vices, the nightlife for which Berlin is known. As he proceeds, he makes simple, naïve observations about his surroundings as if there were some key investigative pieces missing. Of the character going by Kristen, he writes: “In the government district she walked with quick steps in a westward direction. She talked to every policeman she came across. She wore her fair hair loose; nobody asked her for her papers. In Tiergarten she started picking up her pace, and then she ran. I didn’t understand why.”
It is as if some blinders cause Friedrich to be able to look only at what lies directly in front of him. (“I sat for a long time on the cold stone. I looked out on the water and only noticed her when she put her arms around me from behind. A couple of strands of hair had come loose from her bun and fell in her face. Her kohl had run. Her body exuded heat.”)
But at the same time, his narration includes snippets of historical context (“In the year 1938, the traveling exhibition ‘Degenerate Art’ opened in Berlin, 1,406 synagogues and places of worship burned down in Germany in a single night, and in late summer I went into the sunflower field with the cook’s son”) that present the surroundings as if they were a part of the landscape that the narrator does not touch.
“Every day in Germany I had been going through this, acting as if I could live with what was happening to the Jews in Germany.”
One could argue that this kind of skating across—or skating by—encourages obliviousness, encourages a reader to skim across history in order to follow Friedrich’s romantic capers. But for me it does the opposite: by presenting the rigidly detached inner narrative of someone who resists perceiving himself as interdependent with social and historical conditions, the book points at the brittleness of this kind of stance.
“I didn’t want my friend Tristan to be in the SS. I didn’t want Kristin to work for a Reich ministry. I wanted the three of us to dance some more.”
This slim paragraph is the narrator’s shrugging reflection when he finds out that his closest friend in Berlin works for the Nazis. Less than shock, his reaction feels petulant. I wanted us to be outside of history, the narrator seems to be saying, and if we are not than my whole illusion will collapse. This is true heartbreak of this book—not when the romance ends, but that the narrator realizes that no one can tunnel through these conditions unharmed. The narrator’s sense of his own separateness begins to degrade.
Friedrich reflects: “We will get through this. My father had spoken that sentence. Every day in Germany I had been going through this, acting as if I could live with what was happening to the Jews in Germany. I had put up with the flags with swastikas and with the people greeting me and roaring at me with their right arms outstretched.”
I’m captivated by the “acting as if” in the center of these lines. “Acting as if I could live with what was happening.” The narrator seems to imply here that something performative is happening, that he is gaining an awareness of performing hope, performing an independent normal life, perhaps even performing the idea of a romance, of a love story. He has aspired, perhaps, to make light, but the aspiration has become literally un-performable.
This is the moment that interests me most in Stella: the moment when dissociation becomes aware of itself. Dissociation is a common way of dealing under fascism, but it’s a way of dealing that has dire consequences for our psyches and our capacities to interact. Stella attempts to represent or render this dealing, and in doing so exposes the fallout of the task.
Stella’s engagement with fascism as a backdrop invites me to examine my own complicity in the same, in the ways I’ve sought to teach and act with the material of an attempted autocratic takeover in this pandemic, acting as if I could live with what was happening. It’s an impossibility. It’s heartbreak. But Stella helps me to consider more broadly when I am acting as if, and when I am actually living, living with. What would it mean to look at this all directly? What does it mean to continue inside of it?
For me, actually living with—seeing what is happening and an interactive and inescapable reality—involves moments of great darkness, but in equal measure some degree of making light. Of laughing, of romance, of dark humor in order to understand. I laugh into a sea of muted Zoom faces and I watch my students weakly smile, clinging to the idea that we are sharing something, even something unavoidably awkward and messy. I text LOLs to my friend who is trying to decide whether to attend a Zoom vigil for a victim of police violence or a conversation between the writers Jackie Wang and Nicole R. Fleetwood about art and incarceration.
Fun times! we say.
The humor allows me to continue. The humor allows me to live with, to stay awake. Without this kind of humor, I would likely get stuck, how Friedrich is stuck for much of Stella, in the acting, in the rigid attempt not to let the world pour into me.
In that same park, with that same friend, in that same strange October, we are making Holocaust jokes. Time moves slowly. It is relatively easy for us to reference the Holocaust lightly, for several reasons: First, it is not the tragedy happening now. Also, we are both Jews, and she is the descendant of Holocaust survivors so we can get away with it. I am a white Jewish woman with parents born in the US and in Mexico, and though my family is not directly descended from Holocaust survivors, I am always one step removed: friends, uncles, second cousins, great aunts.
I am telling my friend how several of my family members on leave from their jobs during COVID spent their time doing genealogical research. They send emails to my extended family with subject lines like “AUSCHWITZ NEWS!!” in which the attachment is an image confirming that a family member who seemed to have disappeared into a blank space in history was in fact killed at Auschwitz. I laugh, and my friend nods; she has seen this kind of behavior before, oddly triumphant announcements of inclusion in mass murder.
“They are so hopeful when they find something,” she sighs, “as if it solved something.”
Does it? It fills in some blanks. It maintains a belief that this trauma could be resolved by Ancestry.com research or careful genealogical mapping. I think here of the theorist Lauren Berlant’s work on optimism, its dangers and politicizations. In the book Cruel Optimism, Berlant asks why we maintain faith or hope under conditions that actively undermine our flourishing. She terms “cruel optimism” a situation in which the object or scene we desire is itself an obstacle to fulfilling our desire, as in various fantasies of “the good life.” She argues that as damaging as they are, we cling to these optimisms because they organize the world for us.
I think about Berlant not only in regards to why we might hold fast to traumatic histories, but also in terms of how we hold to what is happening now, the current trauma, how we hope that things will turn out for the better even as virus infections rise outrageously, even as we reconcile with the record numbers of people who voted for Trump. For me, hope varies by the day, but when it arises it feels stubborn and familiar: a homecoming.
Hope organizes things for us the way it organizes much of Würger book, but in Würger’s book, too, we see the inevitability of something less organized, of a mess, of a moment when the characters and scenes around us will be tossed up in the air and fall to the ground in a different set of layers.
“But this is what it means to take the measure of the impasse of the present: to see what is halting, stuttering, and aching about being in the middle of detaching from a waning fantasy of the good life,” Berlant writes. Berlant goes on to call this “undoing a world while making one,” an attempt I believe is achieved in Stella through the ways in which Friedrich’s story is interrupted. Interspersed with Friedrich’s narrative are brief sections, titled with only the month and year (“February 1942”), which detail the historical events of that memory, including the rise of the Nazi party. Friedrich does not appear in these sections, but they operate as a frame, as if the narrator was skimming the newspaper headlines around him.
Later, Friedrich’s story is also interrupted by brief italicized sections of court proceedings. I found these sections baffling at first, but as the book progressed, I came to understand that they represent criminal accusations against Stella Kubler, details and testimonial from the Jews she hunted in Berlin on behalf of the Nazis and who had been sent to the camps. These sections foreshadow a complete reconstitution of this very story with different voices at its center. It is almost as if the book deconstructs its own structure, facing the looming reality that the narrator’s dissociation cannot remain intact.
If anything, this structural conjoining is the aspect of the book that I would term light, or perhaps more accurately: uplifting. It is an odd kind of optimism, but it is the kind I am in search of. It is porous, not escapist. It has been broken down by the conditions around it. It breaks down the material of narrative and story by showing the hollow, jarring disjunction inside. This is why I believe in reading Stella: because whatever the intent behind it, it takes up the weird, the eerie, the uncanny of interdependent reality, of co-relation.
While Würger may long for an unmediated transmission of the truth, his own characters belie it. The structure of his book as well as its reception belies it. The story of Stella is useful not because it is direct or utilitarian. It is useful not as a direct rendering of evil, but actually as an indictment of an individual’s capacity to tell a story alone.