The Kaminsky Cure is a poignant yet comedic novel of a Jewish/Christian family caught up in the machinery of Hitler’s final solution. The matriarch, Gabi, was born Jewish but converted to Christianity in her teens. The patriarch, Willibald, is a Lutheran minister who is an admirer of Hitler on one hand but the conflicted father of children who are half-Jewish on the other. Mindful and resentful of her husband’s ambivalence, Gabi is determined to make sure her children are educated, devising schemes to keep them in school even after learning that any child less than one hundred percent Aryan will eventually be kept from completing education. She even hires tutors who are willing to teach half-Jewish children eventually hiring Fraulein Kaminsky, who shows Gabi how to cure her frustration and rage: by keeping her mouth filled with water until the urge to scream or rant has passed.
Terrifying yet darkly humorous, The Kaminsky Cure is the story of Gabi Brinkmann’s fight to keep her family alive in a world determined to destroy them.
“The Tin Drum meets Life Is Beautiful in this tragicomic, one-of-a-kind novel.” —Kirkus Reviews
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The Kaminsky Cure
By Christopher New
DELPHINIUM BOOKSCopyright © 2015 Christopher New
All rights reserved.
Well here I am at five and three-quarters
It's Christmas 1939 in a little Austrian village that's now part of Hitler's Third Reich and I'm just beginning to notice things. Like what my brother and sisters are about and why my parents are often crying and my father usually shouting when he isn't crying. I think it has something to do with the war we're fighting, which according to the wireless is due to The International Jewish Conspiracy, whatever that is. But that's not all. I don't know it yet, but I was born at the wrong time and in the wrong place.
Not that it wasn't quite an achievement getting me born at all. I arrived too early, presented myself the wrong way round (Was I trying to climb back inside? You couldn't blame me), there was no doctor, and the midwife had to yank me out like a cork from a bottle. No wonder I protested. No wonder my mother never had another child, either — both of us had had enough. But anyway there I was, a pint-sized runt, the last of the litter, and that's how I've stayed.
Achievement or not though, you could say my getting born, or conceived for that matter, was really a big mistake. First of all there's the as yet unraised question of my paternity. (Paternity's going to be a favorite topic in my family.) And then there's the undoubted fact, though I don't know that yet either, that my mother Gabi is a Jew (she converted to Christianity in her teens), while my very Aryan father Willibald Brinkmann — if he is my father — is a Lutheran pastor who has a sneaking admiration for Hitler. (Many Lutheran pastors have, and for some of them it isn't sneaking, either — they're openly trying to prove that Jesus wasn't really a Jew.) On top of that they don't like each other anyway.
For all these reasons they each wish they weren't married to who they are. But separation is just about unthinkable. For one thing, marriage is supposed to be a sacred union for Lutheran clergymen. For another, the only thing that can protect my mother and possibly us children is that she's married to an Aryan. And Willibald's admiration for the little corporal doesn't extend so far that he'd actually throw us to the Nazi wolves.
My sister Ilse, the oldest child, is closest to him, insofar as anyone is. She goes in fear of a Jewish curse (that is, our mother's) and wishes she could become a nun. My brother Martin is my mother's favorite. He wants to be a Panzer commander when he grows up, which in a sense he never will. Sara's nearest me in age. Her only wish is to sit next to one of the other girls in the village school (even Leni, just in front of her, who has head lice), instead of being relegated in despised half-Jewish exile to the back of the class alone.
None of these wishes is going to come true.
The village we live in, Heimstatt, is lodged deep in the Alps, squeezed between the cliff-like mountains and a black and glacial lake that holds many bodies and many secrets, with more of both to come. For five months of the year the winter sun never makes it above the surrounding mountain tops, and when the merest sliver of it makes its first brief gleaming reappearance each spring, the villagers all come out of their houses to watch and celebrate. The chief business of this ancient place is its ancient quarry, the chief characteristics of its inhabitants inbreeding and goiters. People were living here in the Stone Age, and some of them still are.
I'm told it was snowing when I was born, and I believe it, because it's always snowing here in Heimstatt in February. Thick silent wodges of it, filling the somber daylight with their muffling presence. The mountains that stand like grim gravediggers round the coffin-shaped valley become invisible, and you can hardly even see the lake, which is frozen solid except for the swath the ferry crunches through the ice as it grinds its way across to the railway station on the other side. Gloomy and cold — it's not an auspicious way to start your life.
Ilse came in to see me in my parents' bed soon after I bawled my indignant birth-announcement out. Giving me the ghost of a tender smile and a bit less for my mother, she returned like a shadow to the cloister of her chilly room. Ilse was made for a quiet life, but a quiet life has not been made for her.
When Martin was allowed, or rather cajoled, in to see me, he took an even more cursory glance. My appearance in the world didn't interest him very much, and my continuation in it doesn't either. Nothing ever does interest him very much, in fact, except himself.
Sara came in last. She peered across the bed to where I lay exhausted beside my mother like a blob of toothpaste that's been squeezed out of a too narrow tube, then put her hand out to stroke — not my face, crumpled and outraged as it was — but my mother's, one side of which is always stiff and set, as though half of her can't smile anymore. Which it can't. Then she went off to sit by the big green tile oven in the kitchen and tell herself another story. Since the real world was disappointing her already, she'd begun building a make-believe one instead, a refuge where she could refashion the days of her life before going back to face them.
The midwife was soon heading for the door, wrapped up to go and deliver the next baby, and if Frau Kogler thought anything about helping Jewish women reproduce, she didn't say so (but then the Nazis hadn't taken over yet). Her lifelong boast is going to be that in all the three villages she was responsible for she never had two babies arrive at the same time, a coincidence she'll put down to a benevolent Providence rather than the essentially casual and unsynchronized character of alpine coupling. Or would she put that down to Providence too?
Willibald is given to powerful bursts of emotion, whether of joy or anger, and on the day of my birth, having tearfully thanked God rather than Frau Kogler for a safe delivery, he spent the next few hours in his study composing doggerel about the miracle of life and God's gift of another child. He's over six feet tall (or would be if he unrolled himself and stood up straight), but stooping, hollow-chested and narrow-shouldered. He also wears a cat's pelt, a tabby of no great distinction, next to his skin, which he claims prevents rheumatism. He's never separated from prophylactic Tabby and they even bathe together in the zinc bath once a week, after which Tabby gets dried on the tile oven in the kitchen along with the towel. If my mother had to share the wedding night with Tabby, it's not surprising she soon fell out of love.
Whenever they meet a hard stare, Willibald's large brown eyes slide away like raw eggs slipping off a tilted plate. But he uses them to melting effect in church, where he's a throbbing histrionic preacher and never has to lock eyes with a single soul. In Heimstatt no one understands his sermons, and almost no one comes to hear them. But things have been better in the past and will be so again. His most appreciative audience though will always be himsel£
A Protestant pastor in a Catholic country, his congregation consists of about a dozen rigid elders who come to nearly every service, and a couple of hundred flaccid backsliders, who rarely come at all. The Catholic church up the hill by contrast is larger and always full, and at first Willibald, watching the villagers going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve — seven hundred strong and all carrying lighted candles — must have felt like a snake-oil salesman wondering if he isn't marketing the wrong brand. But for a long time now he's had other and more pressing things to worry about, and he will have for a good while still to come.
The other creatures in the Pfarrhaus — parsonage — when I was born were Frau Jäger, who cleans for and filches from us, a Saint Bernard dog called Brutus, several rabbits and a few rats in the cellar. All of them are purebred Austrians with village pedigrees a meter long. But we are of different stock, we are not like them at all. No, my parents are German, native Berliners. They speak High German, and however much they try, they can no more get their tonsils round the local yodel than they can fit their limbs inside the local dress — which is one more strike against them in the village, as if there weren't enough already.
I don't know it yet, but we are here only because my father's marriage to his no longer loved or loving Jewish wife cost him his fashionable parish in Germany. No sooner had the Nazis been voted into power there than a trio of brawny Brownshirts turned up on his doorstep and told him to go and find another twig to perch on. He was offered a refuge in England by the Bishop of Chichester, but his patriotism prevented him from going to a country which might one day be at war again with the Fatherland. (Patriotism's going to be another favorite family topic.) So he found a parish in neighboring pre-Nazi Austria, which he should have known was more or less like jumping out of the fire into the frying pan. It didn't take long to feel the heat again. I'd only just had my fourth birthday in fact when our German brothers marched into Austria amid general jubilation to unite us with the Fatherland and rid us of the malignant Jew, whatever that was. (I thought it was something like the rats in the coal cellar.)
I woke to find Heimstatt in a party mood that March day, with swastikas flapping in the breeze over every house but ours. "We've been united with the Fatherland," Willibald said in mingled pride and fear. Then he locked himself in his study and I heard him alternately crying and shouting. Frau Jäger and my mother swiftly closed the windows; I didn't understand why — it wasn't a cold day.
We children weren't allowed out. We never were. Standing on the balcony of the huge rambling Pfarrhaus, we watched the processions like bemused prisoners at a Roman triumph — or in my case like a child that hasn't been invited to the next-door kid's birthday party. When I waved and cheered with the rest of the village, my mother told me to stop that at once; when I started jeering, she told me to stop that too. So what was I supposed to do? Martin told me to just shut up, so I did that.
I concluded the reason why we'd been excluded from the celebration was that we were proper Germans, while the Austrians were not, little knowing that in fact it was the other way round and it was now the Austrians who were proper Germans while we were not. Nobody told me what had really happened, what it really meant, knowledge being rightly considered more dangerous in my case than ignorance. Never mind, the false conceit propped up my self-esteem. I came to think we Brinkmanns were a people apart, a Chosen People. As indeed we were. Chosen for what, I fortunately didn't know. But I certainly enjoyed lighting the obligatory candle in my window that night to celebrate the Führer's return to his native land. It almost made up for not being allowed to hang out a swastika during the day.
How much apart we were Gabi was naturally the first to realize. The inadequate painter in Berlin had turned his attention back to the land of his birth well before the Union, and a frothy stream of anti-Semitism had begun to flow into the village like shit from a leaking sewer, except that there wasn't a sewer to get leaks in yet. Month after month she'd felt people turning against her. At first her "racial background" was merely like a hump or cast in the eye. It made people uneasy, and she began to feel less welcome as the Pfarrer's wife, the visitor to the sick and comforter of the bereaved. Still she persisted, and no one shut the door on her. Then her race became something vaguely sinister, like a gypsy's curse. That was when some doors were shut and those that weren't were opened grudgingly. Finally, after the Union, it was like a leper's sore, and everyone with any sense avoided her completely.
In the beginning, before she got used to it, she would stop people in the street or lane and ask them why they'd cut her. She was afraid she might have offended them by some chance remark — she knew tact wasn't one of her strong points, although she lacked the worldly wisdom to see that worldly wisdom wasn't either. One laborer's wife with rotting teeth and breath to match gave it to her fair and square: "Because Jewish blood stinks!" she spat out before she turned and stumped off on her grim self-righteous way.
All that had made being a Pfarrer's wife difficult enough, not to speak of her unhappy marriage. But since Union with the Fatherland, the life of a Pfarrer's wife has been as closed to her as the local inn, the park and the public bench (I needn't add the public baths).
Precious few in the village will speak to her now, a precious, precious few who go their stolid independent way and take her as she is. Frau Jäger, an illiterate natural poet and filcher of food. Fraülein Hofer, the seamstress. Frau Kogler, the midwife, who dragged me rightly complaining into this world. And Tante Helga, the blind geography teacher, who doesn't really count because she's an outsider like us, an immigrant from Vienna. Blind as a bat, but you should see her open her atlas, feel the corners of the page, then place her finger unerringly on Moscow, Paris or London. She could teach navigation to Luftwaffe pilots. She knows about flying blind all right.
Of the village men, there are still fewer who will pass the time of day with Gabi now. And even so, one of those few, few men is the Catholic priest, who's really an outsider too, an immigrant like Tante Helga. Besides, he greets everyone anyway, because he's too shortsighted to see who they are. And Dr. Koch, the village doctor, who though he's not allowed to treat her, shyly says "Grüss Gott" when he meets her in the lanes. And Dr. Kraus, who's not a doctor for people, and whose wife wears a wig — he nods at everyone as well, although he never speaks. But they're all outsiders too.
Soon after the Union, Frau Jäger was summoned to newly installed Ortsgruppenleiter (District Head) and also innkeeper Franzi Wimmer's office and informed she must immediately stop working in a Jewish household. That was illegal according to The Law For The Protection Of German Blood And German Honor: No Aryan female under forty-five years of age shall work in a Jewish household.
But Jägerlein, as we call her, has a mind of her own. "It's not a Jewish household," she said flatly, "it's the Lutheran minister's. And he's much more German than you are."
Which was true, of course, and stung. Some Austrians tend to have this nagging suspicion that other people think they stand to Germany as a light operetta stands to the whole of Wagner; and Franzi Wimmer, although he's never seen an opera, is one of them. Is that why some of the most fervent Nazis, starting with the Führer himself, are Austrians? Are they trying to prove they aren't just bit players in some light operetta, but can sing along with the leads in Twilight of the Gods?
"His wife is Jewish," Ortsgruppenleiter Franzi rejoined with irritated and ponderous distinctness. He'd known Frau Jäger all his life and, no genius himself, thought she was a bit simple.
"So it's a half-Jewish household, then," Jägerlein answered. "And you can just say I'm working for the Aryan half. Are you going to give me a job if I leave them? And besides," she added as she marched out, "what harm has that woman ever done you? She's only looking after her kids like everyone else. Why don't you just leave her alone?"
Most people wear their wickedness a bit uneasily, like a suit they've bought off the peg. It just doesn't quite fit them. They can throw their shoulders back and puff out their chests and suck their bellies in as much as they like, but still the thing just doesn't hang like one that's tailor-made for them. And Franzi Wimmer's no exception. He never does get really used to it, he never can quite fill it out. The fact is, he's just too small for normal wickedness, never mind outsize. Besides, he'd got nothing against the Pfarrer, so why not do the man a favor if you could? You never knew when it might come in useful.
Excerpted from The Kaminsky Cure by Christopher New. Copyright © 2015 Christopher New. Excerpted by permission of DELPHINIUM BOOKS.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story begins Christmas 1939, when our unnamed narrator is only five-and-three-quarters years old. He lives in the Austrian town of Heimstatt (which cleverly translates to "homeland") with his parents - Willibald and Gabi Brinkmann - and three siblings - Ilse, Martin, and Sara. Willibald is a Lutheran pastor, an Aryan, a staunch supporter of Hitler, and very much an absent father, who perpetually locks himself in his study to write religious plays that no one will ever perform. His wife Gabi was born a Jew but converted to Christianity in her teens. Nevertheless, in this time of the Nazi regime, she is not accepted by the townspeople - or even by her own husband. Her main goal in life is to ensure the education of her children. She constantly hatches new schemes to get around the laws that continually change to prevent Jews from getting educated. Along the way, she employs tutor Hertha von Kaminsky, who teaches Gabi the Kaminsky Cure - the art of taking in a mouthful of water to prevent oneself from speaking out inappropriately; this technique will come into play at crucial times throughout the narrative. The story is told through the eyes of our child narrator. His tone remains light and humorous despite the constant "disappearances" and atrocities being committed around him. He reports with an air of innocence and naïveté, but with the wisdom of an adult, using a lot of foreshadowing and portent to keep the reader engaged. Another trick the author employs is to cut off the last sentence of each chapter, thereby forcing the reader to turn the page to read the end of the sentence, which also becomes the name of the next chapter. The writing conveys a great sense of atmosphere and is peppered with striking metaphors and similes. The author paints beautiful portraits of each of the many supporting characters, showing us their flaws, foibles, and eccentricities. There's the slow and infirm Ilse; Martin, who's desperate to join first the Hitler Youth and later the Luftwaffe; the practical Sara, who serves as a sounding board for her mother, Gabi; Annchen, the Down's Syndrome child of their poetic housekeeper, Jägerlein; and Fraulein Kaminsky's former pupils, the Habsburgs, whose family is in line for the Austrian throne. This is storytelling at its best. The poignant ending with stay with you for a long time to come. One of my favorite lines: "Every scene in the drama of her life plays on that inner stage of hers, and no one gets invited to the show." I received this book in return for an honest review. Full blog post: https://booksdirectonline.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-kaminsky-cure-by-christopher-new.html