Comedy in a Minor Key

Everyone knows Anne Frank. No single figure has ever done more than this adolescent girl to make the world feel the plight of Europe’s Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. Millions have read of the hidden lives she and her family led for two years in the “secret annexe” behind her father’s offices, ministered to by gentile friends who brought them news and supplies. Anne’s narrative is a marvelously subjective account of what it feels like to be hunted: the cramped quarters, the enforced silence, the frequently uncongenial company.

But what of the helpers—those who risked their own skins to hide and protect these hunted Jews, people like the Gieses who tried so hard to save the Frank family? This is a subject taken up by Hans Keilson, a German-Jewish doctor who emigrated from Hitler’s Germany to the Netherlands in 1936, worked in the Dutch underground during the Nazi occupation and is still, miraculously, alive to tell the tale some seventy years later. Originally published in German in 1947, Keilson’s wry novella Comedy in a Minor Key was finally translated into English and published in England last year to celebrate the author’s hundredth birthday. Now it is making its first appearance in the United States.

Dedicated to the Dutch pair who concealed Keilson himself during the war, Comedy in a Minor Key is the story of an unremarkable young couple, Wim and Marie, who take in and hide Nico, a Jewish perfume dealer, during the German occupation of Holland. The book’s title might mystify, for of course the subject is not exactly one usually associated with comedy of any sort. But as Keilson cleverly reminds us with this gently mocking narrative, all human acts and activities have comic potential. It is the very ordinariness of the three characters’ daily concerns, set so incongruously against the heroic roles fate has cast them in, that creates an uneasy humor. (In his appreciation for the absurd, Keilson shows a marked affinity with another Central European writer, Milan Kundera.) How are they to deal with the cleaning lady? The milkman? Nosy neighbors?

Wim and Marie are heroic in spite of themselves; in their own eyes, they appear merely dithering and inadequate. It had not occurred to them to join the resistance movement, but when Wim’s colleague Jop approaches them secretly they readjust their vision of themselves and their role in the war effort.

“Patriotic duty,” Jop had said, and the concept, which had never made the slightest impression on Wim before, much less been able to move him toward any action, sounded, now that the Netherlands had been conquered and occupied, new and full of meaning. Jop knew the people he approached: with one he talked about “a purely humane act,” with another it was about “Christian charity for the persecuted,” and to a third he spoke of “patriotic duty.” This was how he achieved his goal, the same in every case.

The phrase that snares Marie and Wim might be “patriotic duty,” but it would not be enough without the element of empathy, and this is not lacking. Thinking about Nico, Marie reflects that

       She had seen fear: the terrible helpless fear that rises up out of sadness and despair and is no longer attached to anything—the helpless fear that is tied only to nothingness. Not fear or anxiety or despair about a person or a situation, nothing, nothing, only the exposure, the vulnerability, being cast loose from all certainties, from all dignity and all love…. And Marie understood that words like “love of your neighbor” or “national duty” or “civil disobedience” were only a weak reflection of this deepest feeling that Wim and she had felt back then: wanting to shelter a persecuted human being in their house.

So: Wim and Marie are prepared, along with the hapless Nico, to suffer major dangers and minor indignities, inconvenience, the painstaking necessity of planning every moment and every action for the foreseeable future. And then, disaster: Nico develops pneumonia and unexpectedly dies. “He had defended himself against death from without, and then it had carried him off from within.” The difficulties of hosting a dead body, it turns out, are every bit as great as those involved in sheltering a live one. How to dispose of the corpse?

Wim and Marie are genuinely grief-stricken (for they had become very fond of the unhappy Nico), yet they can’t suppress inappropriate thoughts and emotions.

It was practically a trick he had played on them with this death, on the people who had kept him hidden for an entirely different purpose. He didn’t need to go into hiding in order to die, he could have just simply, like all the countless others….

       And then, too, there was a small, all-too-human disappointment left over: that he had died on them. You don’t get the chance to save someone every day. This unacknowledged thought had often helped them carry on when, a little depressed and full of doubt, they thought they couldn’t bear this complicated situation any longer and their courage failed them….

       She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house…. It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction.

The two are now obliged to perform all sorts of undignified capers to rid themselves of their defunct guest. In the process they make a serious blunder, and the penalty for harboring a Jew is death. Will their case come under the attention of a “good” policeman—one, that is, who secretly supports the Resistance and will turn a blind eye—or a bad one, a willing servant of the Nazi occupiers? With no way of knowing, Wim and Marie now have to go into hiding themselves: the original situation is reversed. Will they cope with incarceration any better than Nico did? Keilson provides the unpredictable answer in elegant, understated prose.

In conjunction with Comedy in a Minor Key Farrar, Straus and Giroux is also reissuing another Keilson title, Death of the Adversarya novel that looks at the way Hitler’s rise to power was seen by European Jews at the time. Urgent moral fables, eyewitness reports from a time history cannot afford to forget, these two books should resuscitate the career of an almost-forgotten author.