Monday, March 4, 2013

Josh reviews "You Are Not Like Other Mothers," by Angelika Scrobsdorff

Angelika Schrobsdorff's "You Are Not Like Other Mothers" is not like any book I have read in some time. Telling the story of the author's mother as she lived in the first half of the twentieth century in Germany, Schrobsdorff equally combines memoir, fiction and letters between Angelika's mother and her friends and family. Note: by fiction, I mean reconstruction of events the author was either too young to remember or not alive or present for. Others have found the blending of narrative styles to be confusing or distracting, and while I can agree with them in principle, I found that it probably depends on how invested in the story one is. If the characters and their lives grip you, I'd wager you notice the style changes far less than one reading simply to review.

"Other Mothers" shows an aspect of Germany's history I've not come across before-that of a blended family with means, class and connections yet completely outside of the politics and government affairs. Else Schrobsdorff is born to well-to-do Jewish parents in Berlin. Growing up, she never quite accepts or embraces her Jewish nature. Moreover, she finds herself drawn to the Christian culture and community. Only in marriage do her parents and their expectations of a Jewish husband weigh on Else's youthful religiosity. In secret, she dates and falls for Fritz, a charismatic Christian playwright. Throughout her life, and her loves, she will meet and fall for many men, and have a child with each of the men she loves-Fritz, Hans and Erich (Peter, Bettina and Angelika respectively). Raised in affluence, never needing to work and always able to attract newer, more exciting men into her life, Else forgoes work, responsibility and reflection in pursuit of joy, passion and fulfillment. So much so in fact, that the First World War is almost a footnote in her young adult life.

The Second World War and the events and years leading up to it will be harder for her and her circle to avoid, though they try their best to do so. It's easy to forgive them their willful ignorance. Weekends, vacations and summers away from Berlin and Hitler's rise to power kept the policies and practices of the Nazi regime at bay. That Else's children are half-Jewish, that Else herself is fully Jewish factor little into the thoughts of her peers (even her uber-patriotic in-laws are bourgeoisie and "proper" enough that her eventual flight to Bulgaria is in part arranged through their connections). The characters floating in and out of the lives of Else and her family and friends seem the last to know or accept what their beloved Germany has become. Else's parents stay despite many Jews fleeing Germany at the time as they view the exodus as something those Jews living in ghettos are doing, nothing they in their comfortable upper-class home should be worried about or involved in.

I would love to report that this story has a happy ending, but I cannot. War eventually comes to Europe systematically destroying every vestige of the normal, civilized life to which Else and her family have become accustomed. I have to give credit to Schrobsdorff in respect to her foreshadowing. Many events, deaths, tragic results receive mention long before they actually occur. In some cases, this serves to soften the blow when they ultimately happen. I read in other reviews that readers felt "Other Mothers" bogs down in the middle and repeats itself. I did not find that to be true; yes, it repeats the theme of Else thinking she has finally found some stability amidst the chaos of war only to have it yanked out from under her, but never in the same way. Perhaps those readers simply became overwhelmed with the fatigue of hearing how many awful things could happen to one family.

I found this book more difficult and heartbreaking than the details of chaos and destruction unleashed by Hitler and his Nazi regime. Large scale depictions, mass graves, battle information and accounts from the concentration camps that killed millions of innocents, while sad and wrenching as well, didn't hit home the way this book did. The letters and correspondence Else kept between her and her family and friends over the decades paint such a complete picture of how much anguish and terror these people went through. Even after the war ends, things don't get better. Else's letters about the anguish she feels for her children and her inability to protect them are palpable. "Other Mothers" was one of few books where I had to stop and take a second to digest what I just read before I gathered up my resolve and forced myself on. After all, I am simply reading about these events whereas Else and everyone else in the book, the author included, LIVED them. To quit reading once I began, once it got hard, I felt would be a disservice to the determination and work these people put in to simply survive.

This one stays with you, I'm not sure in a good way, but most assuredly in a strong way. "You Are Not Like Other Mothers" challenges the reader, refusing to let them be a passive observer of this family's story instead dragging them right through the mud and filth of the joys and challenges they faced over 5 decades of peace, prosperity, war and destruction. In that respect, Schrobsdorff pulls off not just a successful work of literature, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a stirring tribute to her mother.