A review of What the Living Remember by Nancy Gerber

Reviewed by Ellen Sherman 

What the Living Remember
by Nancy Gerber
Apprentice House
ISBN-13 : 978-1627202732, Paperback : 126 pages, 1 October 2020

What the Living Remember is the story of Karl Walter Zimmer, a Jewish teenage boy in Berlin who comes of age as Hitler ascends to power. This vivid and poignant novella starts when Karl is 13 and recounts the next harrowing few years as conditions for Jews worsen and eventually become impossible. 

This dark and increasingly unsettling account, told via Karl’s journal entries, begins with scarlet banners draped all over the city. Soon books are being burned, and Jews are being fired from their jobs and marginalized in other ways. Karl is ostracized at school. Eventually, even Karl’s father Otto, an assimilated Jew who for a long period of time remains in denial about the horrors sprouting up in his beloved city, realizes it isn’t feasible to stay in Germany. But before that, a lot of damage is done, especially to the psyche of the sensitive Karl, who reports all the details, both within and without the walls of his family’s apartment. 

One of the most haunting aspects of the book is that, while things are deteriorating markedly in Berlin, things are also deteriorating dramatically in Karl’s home. His mother is not assertive and Otto rules the roost with an oppressive hand. An inveterate eavesdropper, Karl learns that his father is having an affair. Karl is close to his mother, whom he calls Mutti. Her characteristic melancholia is exacerbated by her worries, and then intense fears when Hitler declares himself Fuhrer. When her own mother, Omi, becomes gravely ill, Mutti travels back to Weissendorf, the village where she grew up, but she is too late: Omi is in a coma. It is getting very late in Germany as well, and Mutti declines further. 

When he is still 13, Karl spends a summer with his mother’s sister and her husband in Weissendorf and these memories are among the only happy ones during his young teenage life. He has cousins to play with and falls in love for the first time. He is free to sketch, an occupation he loves but is forbidden by his father, who deems it unmanly. For several weeks, the rising terror in Berlin seems far away. 

Karl is a thoughtful and keenly observant narrator. He sees with an artist’s eyes. “Emblazoned with a white sphere in the center and a black cross on its side with four angled legs, the flags circle the plaza like a regiment,” he writes. And later, “I think about the curling flags, blood-red with a white-hot center.” 

As with Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank, it is fascinating how Karl pivots between accounts of everyday matters at home (unfortunately for him, mostly miserable) and the growing horrors of life at large in Germany. Over the course of the few years the story covers, he is bullied for his religion, has his heart broken, loses a friend when the friend’s family flees to Amsterdam, and witnesses his mother’s extreme decline. 

Another fascinating aspect of this compelling novella is the verisimilitude of the time it depicts, from 1933 to 1936. Unlike Anne Frank, author Nancy Gerber wasn’t there. But she has created a believable facsimile of what a young man’s life could have been, based on what she suspects, more than knows. In her preface, she tells us that this account is based on research and her father’s experience as an adolescent in pre-war Germany, although he shared little of his memories. But Gerber wants to remember and record this time, as does Karl, in order to honor the memories of those who perished in the hands of the Nazis, and also those who, like Karl, survived, but were forever haunted by those they lost. 

About the reviewer: Ellen Sherman is the author of the novel Just the Facts (She Writes Press).