Thursday, August 14, 2008

32. Hilmar and Odette by Eric Koch

Hilmar and Odette pictureThis was sitting on my friend's desk when I was crashing at his secret mountain getaway, nursing a sprained ankle and moping regretfully about the plastering I wasn't able to do. The premise intrigued me. Plus, it was fairly large in print with wide margins, so I knew I could get through it before I left.

The author discovered that there was an illegitimate child on each side of his Jewish German family, both of whom had grown up in Nazi Germany. They had each been given up for adoption into non-Jewish families. One was identified as being at least half-Jewish (Hilmar, the boy) and the other wasn't (Odette, the woman). Koch, upon discovering this, tracked them back and tried to find out as much as he could about their two stories. Hilmar lived a difficult life, not being able to fight for health reasons and being identified as a half-Jew. He struggled with an impoverished and crazed adoptive mother (the one who turned him in initially) and the increasingly desperate situation around him until he finally ended up in the concentration camp. He actually survived until the arrival of the American forces, but died in a military hospital a few days later he was so sick and malnourished. Odette, on the other hand, never even knew she was Jewish and ended up marrying relatively high into Nazi society. She came out unscathed and even rubbed shoulders with high-ranking members of Goebbel's propaganda team at some social events.

Both of their stories are fascinating and I'm sure there are thousands of others that are equally fascinating. That period was just so crazy and made more so by the extremity of it's culmination. We look back today and it seems hard to understand why young Hilmar didn't just take to the hills the first chance he had. But I believe that just underlines how crazy the situation was. Very few people in it could really believe how far it would go. This book wasn't great in the way it was written, but it did not fail to remind me of the enormity of Nazi Germany and that there really is no limit to human cruelty. It's something that most people seem to have already forgotten today in our wealthy, comfortable and relatively free society.

My complaint with the writing was that it is done in a breezy, almost conversational style. It communicated a certain lack of respect for the reader. I felt like he was writing it for his own family, which is fine in and of itself, but not so good when you are going for a general readership. That was mostly in the beginning and end parts. The main story itself was well told, so it's a minor complaint. The research and effort made to construct the story more than makes up for it. A quick and engaging read which, as I said, reminds us once again of a frighteningly recent period in our history.


Jason L said...

Whoa! What's the story with the ankle? PM me.

Buzby said...

How did you sprain your ankle? What the hell does "PM me" mean?

This sounds like a cool story and you are right, WWII is just riddled with stories like this. It is kind of sad that the younger generation doesn't really make an effort (or isn't really taught) to learn about the war.