One Life

One Life

by Tom Lampert

Documentary history or gripping literature? One Life is both. Lampert's reconstruction of the lives of eight real people in Nazi Germany explores the difficult choices faced by a wide range of individuals.

Among them is Miriam P., a juvenile delinquent who finds herself on a path to the gas chamber. And then there is the rabid Nazi Wihelm K., who assumes the

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Documentary history or gripping literature? One Life is both. Lampert's reconstruction of the lives of eight real people in Nazi Germany explores the difficult choices faced by a wide range of individuals.

Among them is Miriam P., a juvenile delinquent who finds herself on a path to the gas chamber. And then there is the rabid Nazi Wihelm K., who assumes the position of commissioner general in White Ruthenia only to fight for the lives of Jews in the Minsk ghetto; a retiree who is sentenced to death for scribbling a few words of anti-Hitler graffiti in a public toilet; and a family man turned SS murderer. As the stories of people on both sides of the terrible rift unfold, their interconnected lives branch out in astonishing patterns, shaped by the logic of racism as well as by accidents and coincidences.

Based on exhaustive research in archives all over the world, Lampert's stories re-create the horrors and terrible choices of that time in a way no conventional history could.

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Editorial Reviews

"Readers may find themselves engrossed before they realize that the stories they find so captivating are firmly grounded in fact"
Washington Post Book World
"A thoughtful study of the lives of eight Germans, some Jewish, some gentile, during World War II"
Curled Up With a Book
"There is a grittiness and intensity to these stories that will haunt the reader"
Chicago Tribune
"Lampert raises provocative questions about the interaction between individual character and historical circumstance"
From the Publisher
"This book will come to be seen as the latest chapter in a series of works-beginning with Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah, and including Schindler's List and the debate surrounding Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners-on how we remember the Holocaust."-Frankfurter Rundschau

"I could hardly put the book down. It is an extraordinary documentary reconstruction and at the same time a riveting piece of literature." -Amos Elon, author of The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933

Publishers Weekly
The author, an American-born scholar living in Berlin, documents the Nazi era in Germany through eight largely unconnected stories of lesser-known figures-some perpetrators, some victims, one a vicious dog at Treblinka (or perhaps it's really about Konrad Lorenz, a former Nazi party member and later Nobelist who testifies on the dog's behalf). Despite Lampert's prodigious research, he is less than successful in meeting his intent "to alleviate some of the moralizing pressure... that make[s] it impossible to think concretely about... the Holocaust." He wants readers to see that not all perpetrators were evil, nor all victims innocent. Miriam P. is a young, criminally destructive Jewish psychopath executed by the Nazis in their roundup of mental patients. Erich B. is a ruthless SS executioner who loved his children and suffered greatly from physical ailments. The most nuanced and compelling chronicle is that of Karl L., who headed the Jewish police in Theresienstadt, obsessively pursuing stealing and corruption by prisoners; later, when accused of Nazi collaboration, he defended his actions as in the best interest of the inmates. But it's not news that some Nazis, like Wilhelm K. in the title piece, tried to save some Jews, or that some Jews may have collaborated with the Nazis. Does knowledge of this interfere with clear moral thinking about the Holocaust? Though his tales are fascinating, Lampert's purpose in telling them seems muddled. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fragmentary portraits of quotidian life-at least life of a kind, as lived by less-than-ordinary people. Lampert, an American writer resident in Berlin, works the margins of history, probing the fates of eight Nazi-era Germans who ended up on both sides of the barbed wire. The young woman called Mirjam P., for instance, tries in Lampert's account to make a home in Palestine, does some modest swindling in Zurich, and ends up in a German mental hospital, where she meets her end through newly promulgated Nazi provisions for what was called "mercy killing of incurably ill patients." More fully developed is a case study devoted to an endlessly complex author and political operative named Wilhelm K., who, even as a high official in the Nazi-occupied Russian province of White Ruthenia, can never quite figure out what he really believes in; he orders some Jews killed but many others saved to work in his palatial headquarters, and he professes to be bothered when his fellow Nazis kill them in an apparent effort to irritate him. Grandly, Wilhelm K. proposes that the bombed-flat city of Minsk be renamed Asgard: "It is of Gothic origin and has yet to be used as a city name." Alas for Wilhelm, he is blown apart by a partisan grenade, and perhaps fortuitously: "Himmler is reported to have said that K.'s death was a blessing for Germany, since otherwise he would have had to put him in a concentration camp." Fascinating, too, are Lampert's other tales: of an elderly man in just such a camp, put there for having written anti-Hitler graffiti in a toilet stall; of a Jewish veteran of WWI made to organize a police unit at Theresienstadt, for which "war crimes" he is arrested after the Allied victory but thenreleased, "shortly after several former members of the Ghetto Guard have been interrogated by authorities and described L. as a strict but just superior"; and of a vicious murderer who is only following orders. A small but potent piece of work, up there with recent, influential banality-of-evil scholarship, such as Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996).

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

White Lies

In September 1933, Mirjam P. emigrates from Germany to Palestine.

Earlier in the summer, her mother, sensing the impending threat of the new era, sent for the fifteen-year-old, requesting that she return home to Berlin from the city of Jena. P., banished to a reformatory school and youth sanatorium on the outskirts of Jena for the previous year and a half, has long been considered a "difficult child." After her parents' divorce in the early 1920s, she was raised by her doting grandparents. When her mother remarried in 1929, P. returned to live with her. The stepfather, a lawyer, proved to be a strict disciplinarian. P. was convinced that he didn't like her, although the stepfather refused to admit it. She wasn't fond of him either and made no effort to hide it. After a fight with her mother in February 1932, P. wanted to run away. She took money from her mother's purse, then decided not to leave after all, giving part of the money to her friends and spending the rest foolishly. Afterward, she was sent to the Trüper'sche Home on the Sophien Heights near Jena. When P. returns to Berlin eighteen months later, preparations to leave the country have already begun. Shortly thereafter, daughter, mother, and stepfather travel to Tel Aviv.

Promised Land

P. has difficulty adjusting to her new home. She finds the heat (not infrequently over one hundred degrees in the shade) inhuman-only early in the morning and late at night is it somewhat bearable. Instead of forests and trees, there is brown desert steppe as far as the eye can see. The roads are different as well: one doesn't so much drive them as careen from one pothole to the next. There are new languages to learn, Hebrew and Arabic. In spite of this, P. is determined to make a new start and not to cause any more trouble.

False Start. P. lives with her mother and works in the kitchen of a children's home. Everything goes well at first. After a while she begins to neglect her job, which isn't really very interesting. She's dismissed and finds a new job working in a private household, which she soon loses as well. The mother divorces the lawyer; her relationship to P., however, does not improve. In the fall of 1934, P. takes money and clothes from her mother and travels to Haifa to her biological father, who has also emigrated to Palestine. After a few days, she returns to Tel Aviv, rents a hotel room, and commits a series of petty crimes, buying expensive clothing in a number of stores under her mother's name. The debts that P. incurs are discovered, but the case never comes to trial. Her mother requests assistance from Child Welfare Services in Tel Aviv, which arranges for a detailed examination of P., including evaluations by two medical specialists.

The specialists take the case very seriously.

First medical evaluation (Dr. Ernst K., Tel Aviv): "The 16-year-old pubescent P. presents an advanced case of a serious psychopathy with pronounced ethical defects. She lies, incurs debts, and has stolen repeatedly from her mother and from her friends. She has run away from home a number of times, most recently with money and clothes from her mother's locked dresser. She roams the streets and is in danger of becoming morally depraved as a result of her strong sexual drives. In order to avoid further violations of the law, she must be admitted to a mental institution as quickly as possible. Since such an institution does not exist here, it is absolutely essential that she be sent back to Germany immediately. I recommend that she be required to report with this evaluation to Professor Seligmann, Director of Public Health for the Jewish Community, upon her arrival in Berlin."

Second medical evaluation (Dr. H. H., Medical Director of the Psychiatric Hospital Esrath Nachim, Jerusalem): "P. is a psychopath with severe ethical defects and insufficiently developed powers of judgment. She tends to thievery and vagabonding, incurs debts, and has already developed the character traits of a swindler. On the other hand, she is very agile intellectually, knows how to present herself well, and is at times very trusting and receptive to instruction in the best sense. According to both her mother and herself, she sometimes works very diligently. In order to avoid the threat of moral depravity, it is urgent that she be admitted to a remedial educational home. On the basis of my 10 1/2 years of experience here, I know that no such institution exists in Palestine or in the neighboring countries. It is therefore absolutely necessary that the patient be sent back to Europe without delay for the purposes stated above. Otherwise, serious damage to the patient herself, to her family, and to society as a whole will be unavoidable."

Second Chance. Child Welfare Services in Tel Aviv is able to place P. with a private remedial educator in Jerusalem. Later she is transferred to a home for girls, where she is under constant supervision and receives special instruction and treatment. P. struggles to fit in, without success. The director of the home sends her back to her mother. In Tel Aviv, P. finds another job in a private household but after a few weeks she begins to roam the streets, live in hotels, and incur debts. She is arrested, put on trial, given probation, arrested again, put on trial again, and finally expelled from the country. Her father tries in vain to stop the deportation order. In October 1936, P. is sent back to Germany. Her mother cries at her departure. P. doesn't believe her tears.

Alone and On the Move

Homecoming. In Berlin, P. stays with her grandmother. There are plans to travel with relatives to London, but these come to nothing. After three weeks, P. leaves Berlin, fearing the Gestapo will put her in an education camp.

On the Road. From Berlin P. travels to Luxembourg, where she looks for work. She finds a job through the Jewish welfare services. After three months, she is forced to quit. As a German citizen, she can't get either a residency visa or a work permit. P. leaves Luxembourg for Belgium. While looking for work in Antwerp, she meets a young man and becomes involved with him. The relationship quickly sours. P. travels from Belgium to Holland, where she looks for work for three weeks but finds nothing. From Holland, P. sets out for Switzerland, where she doesn't look for work at all.

By Other Means. At the end of March 1937, P. arrives destitute in Zurich. She manages to rent a room in a modest hotel and borrow 10 Swiss francs from the owner. She tells him that an acquaintance has stolen 100 francs from her and promises to pay the money back when her husband arrives. As collateral, she offers a worthless ring. Four days later, P. leaves the hotel without having paid her bill. She goes to a pension, where she rents a room under the name Frau Bühlmann and persuades the manager's husband to lend her 15 francs. She tells him she's in Zurich with her eight-cylinder Ford automobile and wants to buy gasoline with the money. She promises to pay him back soon; she is expecting her husband, an actor, any day now. In passing she mentions that she has an engagement in mid-April in a new revue at the Corso Theater. After a few days, P. leaves the pension with a debt of 53 francs. She is reported to the police and arrested the next morning. For twelve days she sits in the Zurich District Jail. On April 28, 1937, she is expelled from Switzerland. A policeman drives her to the German border. Two months later, the Juvenile Court in Zurich convicts P. in absentia of repeated petty larceny and sentences her to the twelve days she has already served in prison.

© Carl Hanser Verlag München Wien 2001
English translation copyright © 2004 by Tom Lampert

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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