I had such a great 5* experience when I last read an Ali Smith recommendation, that when she advocated Fred Uhlman’s Reunion at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, I knew it was just a matter of time. As Uhlman was born in Stuttgart in 1901, this is counting as my GLM X read from Baden-Württemberg. I’m not worrying that he wrote it in English.
And yes, it’s another 5* recommendation from Ali Smith.
Reunion takes us back to the early 1932, to a Stuttgart which believed that those knuckled-head Nazis were a problem for Berlin to deal with. It would never catch on there …
Hans Schwarz, the narrator is a 16-year old middle-class boy from an assimilated Jewish background. He attends the local grammar school, where his Jewishness makes him a bullied outsider. Then the new boy arrives. They are not natural allies as Konradin is a member of the aristocracy, the son of the Baron von Hohenfels, but they bond over shared interests. The friendship becomes close and Konradin visits Hans’s home on many occasions and meets his proud parents. reciprocal visits to Konradin’s castle, however, are rare and only when the Baron and his wife are not at home. This does not pass Hans by, but he does not challenge his friend about it.
The crunch comes one night at the theatre, when Konradin, who is escorting his parents, cuts Hans. His explanation the following day is plausible, but both boys know damage has been done; it is the beginning of the end of their friendship.
Outwith the boundary of their relationship, the world has been turning and Nazism is encroaching on the Jewish community. Hans’s father decides to send him to America.
We believe this will be the best for you … the separation won’t be for long! Our people will come to their senses in a few year’s time. As far as we ourselves are concerned, we shall stay. This is our Fatherland and our home and we belong to it and we won’t let any “Austrian dog “ steal it from us.
Konradin sends a letter of farewell to his friend, devastating in that it shows the width of the breach that has opened up in a matter of months.
How very sad I am that you are leaving for America … On the other hand it’s probably the wisest thing you can do. The Germany of tomorrow will be different from the Germany we knew. It will be a new Germany under the leadership of the man who is going to determine our fate and the fate of the whole world for hundreds of years to come. You will be shocked when I tell you I believe in this man.
Skip forward 30 years to the reunion of the title, which comes unexpectedly, and in a manner not to be divulged here. All I will say is that the poignancy of the foregoing is nothing, absolutely nothing to the emotional impact of this reunion with Uhlman saving the knock-out blow for the final sentence. The ending is “a masterpiece within a masterpiece” according to Jean D’Ormesson’s introduction.
Reunion is only 80 pages long but in it Uhlman captures the essence of the misapprehensions that led to Hitler’s takeover, and the reason why so many assimilated Jews failed to flee when they had the chance. It is obviously autobiographical (though not entirely). Uhlman left Germany 2 months after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, finally settling in England, where he became a celebrated artist. But in my head, Hans is Fred, no more so than in the following paragraph:
Hans talking of speaking to fellow Germans in America:
I pretended that speaking German was an effort for me.
It’s a kind of protective facade that I put up (though not quite) unconsciously when I have to talk to a German. Of course I can still speak the language perfectly well, allowing for my American accent, but I dislike using it. My wounds have not healed, and to be reminded of Germany is to have salt rubbed in them.
Is that the most likely explanation for why this most German of novellas was written in English?