My understanding was that this was historical fiction in the style of All the Light We Cannot See. What I discovered in the Afterword, however, is that this story is based on the lives of real characters, and in particular, the grandfather of the author’s husband, born in 1904 in Stuttgart to a devout Catholic family.
Anton Starzmann, 38, previously served as a friar who taught music to developmentally and/or physically challenged children at the St. Josefsheim school. The Nazis came, disbanded the order, took the children away, and put the men into the army as soldiers. [We later are reminded that Hitler initiated the T4 Program in 1939, a campaign to “rid the Fatherland” of such “drains” upon the economy as the disabled.]
Anton thus joined the Army, but what he had to do haunted him. Then, while jumping from a plane when the army went into Riga, Anton sustained a back injury, or so he claimed, in order to avoid further service in the Wehrmacht. It was his first act of resistance.
As we begin the story, almost a year has passed since Anton’s days as a friar, and he is traveling to Unterboihingen, a small village near Stuttgart. [Today, the Württemberg town of Unterboihingen has been absorbed into Wendlingen.] He had come to Unterboihingen for the surprising reason that he answered an ad by Elisabeth Hansjosten Herter, a young widow. She said she was seeking “a humble, patient man” for a husband who was willing to be a father to her three children. [You may think this a bit too contrived and predictable for a plot line, but as indicated above, it is based on actual fact.]
It is clear each is reluctant to take on such a role with a stranger, but Anton is looking for redemption, and Elisabeth is looking for help. She admits she is “only seeking a husband for his money.” Elisabeth has three children: Albert, 11, Paul, 9, and Maria, 6. It is hard for her to feed and clothe them in this time of war.
Elisabeth was clearly nervous, however, and Anton tried to reassure her. He told her about his back injury to imply he would not be able to be a husband in every sense, so she could relax on that score.
They each took two weeks for “prayer and reflection,” and then got married.
In the meantime, Anton became friends with the local priest, Father Emil. Anton went to him in anguish: he didn’t know how to be a husband or a father. Emil reminded him he also has never been either:
“But I think it can’t be so different from being a man of the cloth. You must be guided by integrity, mercy, and justice. You must let love carry all your decisions, all your words. . . . That is all the Lord asks – that we live by Christ’s example.”
Anton agreed to play the organ for Father Emil at his church St. Kolumban on Sundays, and Father Emil helped Anton get work teaching music in order to support Elisabeth and the children. Few families could afford lessons, however, and it did not generate enough money to take care of growing children. Then Father Emil got Anton a more lucrative position, taking messages to other members of the resistance in nearby towns.
Anton didn’t tell Elisabeth at first because he knew it is dangerous. Even in remote Unterboihingen there was a town Gauleiter – a district leader who served as the Reich’s eyes and ears, working to promote the Nazi agenda, and threatening to report anyone who seemed the least bit disloyal. But as Anton whispered to his stepson Albert, “Herr Möbelbauer,” as the boys called the Gauleiter because of his profession as a furniture maker, “answers to his ambition, but I answer only to God.”
When the Gauleiter insisted that Anton be in charge of a Hitler Youth group for the town, Anton was desperate to come up with a plan to avoid this task. Playing to the Gauleiter’s ambition, he proposed forming a town band for the boys instead, that putatively would bring even more glory to Unterboihingen and therefore to the Gauleiter himself.
Anton still had the instruments he brought with him from St. Josefsheim. He believed that “music eases every pain we don’t know we carry.” It was, he declared, a balm for our hearts. Moreover, music was a common language anyone could speak together: “it’s the greatest miracle God ever wrought, for it shows us that we are one.” [Many of the Nazis loved music, including Hitler, but it was a nice theory in any event.]
Time went by, and Anton developed strong feelings for Elisabeth, but “[t]wenty years of celibacy . . . left him unprepared to confront his own heart.” Yet he came to understand that he loved his wife, even though he did not think she returned his feelings.
At the same time, they experienced increasing adversity and danger, much of it on account of the tyrannical power wielded by the Gauleiter. Before long they received information that the Gauleiter suspected Anton, so Anton agreed to “lie low.” But then word came that the SS were going to every small town to take away the church bells to melt down for the brass. Anton, with his love of music and his hatred of Hitler, was determined not to let that happen.
Anton and Elisabeth had to confront their feelings about one another and the family they had forged together, as well as to weigh the risk of taking ethical action and possibly losing their lives, versus the psychological and spiritual cost of going along with the Nazis and losing their souls.
Discussion: The author says in her Afterword that she kept notes on this family story for years, but never felt a compulsion to complete it until the election of 2016 showed her that history can repeat itself. She admonishes, “We are fools to think the past remains in the past.” She writes:
“As I watched the U.S. I thought I knew devolve, seemingly overnight, into an unrecognizable landscape – a place where political pundits threw up Nazi salutes in front of news cameras, unafraid – a place where swastikas bloomed like fetid flowers on the walls of synagogues and mosques – I knew the time had come.”
She inserts into her story many developments about the growth of Nazi political power that are not only historically accurate, but sound alarmingly like what is happening again now.
She notes, for example, about the Nazi era:
“We could have stopped them long ago, but we didn’t. We hid our faces behind our hands. We told ourselves, ‘This won’t continue. It won’t be allowed. Someone will stop them; someone must.’”
But the Party quickly became thoroughly entrenched, and as for the people:
“They are all too willing to shut their eyes, to pretend nothing evil has happened. . . . They are ready to believe, now, that mankind was always meant to hate his neighbor, to kill the weak and the outcast, since God first dreamed us into being.”
And yet, because of what the author has seen with her husband’s family, she believes that “darkness cannot last forever. And beyond night’s edge, there is light.”
Evaluation: This ironically timely book is all the more moving because so much of it really took place. The focus is mostly on Anton’s interior landscape, who, because he was a man of God for so many years, is confused and distraught that such evil has come to inhabit the world.
Published by Lake Union Publishing, 2018