Johann Blumenthal is a German silversmith, a talented silversmith who counts both Gentiles and his fellow Jews among his regular customers in The Silver Music Box (2017) by Mina Baites. Filled with love for a homeland that doesn’t always love him back, he enlists in the German Army to fight in World War I. Before he leaves, he crafts an exquisite silver music box for his young son, Paul, to remember him by. When Johann doesn’t return from the front, Paul and his mother, Lotte, are left to pick up the pieces with the help of Uncle Max, also a talented jeweler.
Fast-forward to the 1930s. Paul, now a young adult, is still captivated by his father’s music box. He’s also captivated by Clara, a doctor’s daughter who longs to be teacher, an occupation closed to those of her religion. So she determines to convert to Christianity in order to fulfill her dreams. Paul does the same in order to be with the love of his life, and for a while all is well. Of course, we know that things don’t stay that way. As life in Germany gets increasingly more difficult and dangerous for Jews, the Blumenthals looks for ways to protect themselves from the coming storm. Each of them — Lotte, Uncle Max, Aunt Martha, and Paul and Clara — seek different paths to safety.
I wasn’t in the best head space to read historical fiction about the run-up to the Holocaust, to be honest, but I was invested enough in the characters and story to keep reading, and I’m glad I did. The narrative takes a big leap in time from 1939 to 1963, content to fill in the tragic details in the form of a later descendant of the family searching for her roots. This lightened the tension, which I appreciated.
It’s a good story, perhaps a bit simplistically told, but captures well the growing fear of the German Jewish community as the Nazis grow in strength and power during the lead up to World War II.
Vonnegut could not have known how his homegrown Nazi theme would play out in the 21st century
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Howard W. Campbell Jr., the narrator of Vonnegut’s brilliant 1966 novel Mother Night, is pretending to be a Nazi — or as he puts it at the outset of his so-called confessions, “I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.” In Campbell’s version of his life story, he became a writer and broadcaster of Nazi propaganda out of expediency — his father-in-law was the chief of police in Berlin; Campbell and his German wife wanted to remain in Germany even after the war began in 1939; joining the Nazi cause was the easiest way to do that. His broadcasts were notoriously vile, filled with hatred and venom toward Jewish people and anyone else who did not conform to the Aryan ideal.
And that for me was the most upsetting thing about this story — that someone could spew such hatred, knowing it would have the most terrible consequences for its targets, without actually feeling strongly one way or the other about the truth of what he said and wrote. The hateful propaganda was a writing exercise, a way for Campbell to keep his creative juices flowing for when the war would end and he could resume his playwriting career. To freely disperse such hate without believing in it — is that not more horrific than the mad ravings of the true believer?
I’ve seen a number of references to this book recently as a sort of foretelling of the current political situation in the United States. As I began reading I expected to find that Campbell represented the people who stormed the US Capitol and tried to overthrow the government, but after reading it I’ve changed my mind. Campbell is the spitting image of every politician, from the very top down to state and local levels, who cynically perpetuated lies and conspiracy theories that they knew to be false, in order to rile up that mob and incite the insurrection. In the end, which is worse?
That’s the question that’s going to keep me up nights.
I had hoped, as a (propaganda) broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.