Wars bring tragedies no matter which side you are on. Imagine living in fear as so many are made to leave their possessions, lives, families and businesses and given little in order to find another place to exist. The Jewish population was targeted by the Third Reich as too rich, too successful and too smart being labeled as not worth being allowed to live, Vienna was no longer their home or haven. Documents were needed, possessions taken from them at will and many killed, murdered and others sent to camps to be tortured or burned alive. Within this heart wrenching novel, we meet Kurt Berlin age 23 and enlisted in the service and a Corporal until he agrees to work for the OSS as an interpreter aiding his superiors when they interrogated Nazi war criminals for a specific purpose. Some would face trials but one man was sought after and when you hear his answers, feel his hate for the Jewish people, listen to him brag about how he killed so many, took away what was there’s and showed no remorse it’s amazing that Berlin didn’t snap as his family was victim to what he bragged about. The author allows readers to go back in time to 1939, Vienna to meet his parents, his Uncle Sam, Elsa who he fell for when meeting her in the train leaving Vienna and the people that would help or try to help his parents escape. But things happen, fear is paramount, and Kurt and Elsa make new lives in Brussels, Belgium living with a religious family , the Mandelbaums following their rules for the Sabbath and dietary restrictions.
The times with his parents are heartbreaking and the fear for their safer real. Hertz his father is resourceful and planned as he managed to save somethings and hiding them from those that tried to rob him of it all. His wife was even more resourceful and when Hertz was in the back of a truck hoping to get to safety but having to bribe a guard, he realizes that Berta places in his pouch not the three diamond stones he thought were there but her engagement ring, her diamond stud earrings as she wanted to hide them from the Nazis who demanded that the Jews sell all the gold and jewelry. They felt they were entitled to it all. With the help of his friend, Coleman, Hertz was hoping to get to greedy, bribing a guard and running for his life. He escaped the Reich but to where and what was the question.
Both time periods mirror the events that so many endured as Kurt and Elsa share their stories but even though she’s free to a point she can’t reconcile that she is Jewish after living her life as Aryan . Pasts come back to haunt both Elsa and Kurt, but he faces his demon, reliving events that he’d rather forget as killing was part of his job in the military and other people visited his nightmares. Home with the Mandelbaums was just a place to live and he never felt comfortable or perfectly at ease and yet going to Temple, greeted by the men attending services, given a high honor to go up to the Torah brought back memories that I shared with my grandfather growing up and attending a temple similar to the one he attended.
Many voices are heard during each time period but none as terrifying and stirs that of the Nazi prisoner that killed, maimed, burned and stole from innocent Jews that earned their money but happened to be in the crosshairs and target of a maniacal maniac who wanted power, control and superiority of what he wanted to create a supreme race. Hitler literally brainwashed so many while others as you will hear firsthand took pride and pleasure in carrying out his wishes no matter what it cost the victims and the pride it gave each of these prisoners as they were interrogated but one seemed proud, bragged if his accomplishments and the two interrogators reveled in his words because they had a special job for this man and he would skate punishment if he agreed. As Kurt was shocked, appalled and terrified at hearing his words and yet having to focus on the task of translating his words .
His superiors want him to do something that goes against his morals and ethics but if he refuses he might be sent out of the country and somewhere away from the people he’s close to so he confides in his uncle but can he be trusted?
Joachim Van Hauptmann is the prisoner in question. He is in the list right on top of SS officers responsible for the deportation of the local Jewish population. Every country involved in the war wants to recruit him. He’s admitted to murder and they were directed against civilians. He committed them willfully and confessed and with relish. His commanding officers want him and what they are asking Kurt to do would give him a free pass, new identity working for American intelligence and a new name and new life .
In the past we learn about the fate of Elsa’s parents when Hertz worked through channels to get them out of Vienna but the Nazis are cruel and the end result when you read it will give you the chills.
In the present he and his friend Rod Saul who he is helping talk about the deportations and Saul’s parents. Helping others proved tragic at times and the stigma of wearing a star and the fear of the gestapo kept many insides.
Truths are heard and Kurt must try and stay impartial when McClain and Rosenthaller question the prisoner and at times it seems like McClain and Van Hauptmann are comrades not enemies.
In the past you witness his father and McClain and the revelation is startling,
Kurt devises a deadly plan to enact justice, but will he pay in the end and at what cost? War criminals did get away with their crimes but justice at times took a blind eye as author A.J. Sidransky takes us back to both 1945 and 1939 to revisit the harshness and the fears the Jews from many countries faced as the Nazis justified their greed, murder and devastation on people that they were basically jealous of because of their earned wealth, intelligence and loyalty to each other.
The reality of what Kurt and Saul did would either bring satisfaction to those who endured what Van Hauptmann relives for survivors and in the end dies anyone win? With his morals and ethics intact and yet hoping to find Elsa and keeping his promise to her the author brilliantly draws the story to close in both timelines periods but where will his parents wind up? How do they feel about those who took away their home and their dignity at times as Hertz and Berta had to compromise their ethics and face a monster in order to save themselves, others and their son after learning the true secrets of what he had to do and what the final outcome is being The Interpreter. As you read the forward you will learn just how close Kurt is to the author and the research and help, he received from family members.
Never forget? Never again?
Powerful, inspirational characters, true life situations that bring back a time period that affected so many all over the world this novel is important to remind us that anti-Semitism is not just in the past but in our daily lives today. The characters speak to the reader and the worlds in both time periods come alive.
Fran Lewis just reviews
Dedicated to all those who were killed by the hands of those that were cold and callus and to the survivors that remind us the Holocaust did happen and in memory of my grandmother Katie and her sisters who lived it.