- Book Review Index
The Song is Over: Survival of a Jewish Girl in Dresden, by Henny Brenner. Translated, and with an introduction, by Barbara Fischer. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010. 104 pp. $14.95.
The memoirs and biographies of the Holocaust typically constitute a downward spiral. Jewish lives are seemingly secure, or least partake of the satisfying middle-class conventions of Western Europe or the reassuring communal comforts of Eastern Europe. And then, shockingly, unexpectedly, devastatingly, an abyss opens up that would swallow up millions of “non-Aryans.” Although all were doomed, some combination of caprice and cunning, judgment and luck spared a small proportion of the victims from the inexorable finality of the Final Solution. This engrossing memoir fits into that pattern, and records not only another instance of the inexplicable death sentence that was imposed upon a helpless and unprepared people but also the strange twists of fate that permitted a small minority of Jews to elude their killers. On the bulging shelves of those volumes that address the mystery of the genocide (and that also take note of the occasional gestures of humane decency amid the horror), Henny Brenner’s testimony deserves a valued place.
Smoothly translated from Das Lied ist aus (2001), this account bristles with the contrast between the normality of a solidly bourgeois family life during the Weimar Republic and the mounting tension and white-knuckle fear that Jews experienced as the Third Reich consolidated its power. Born in 1924, Henny Wolf enjoyed growing up in a city dotted with parks, divided by the flowing Elbe. The “Florence of the North” boasted of the sublime high culture of opera and the visual arts as well. Even Dresden’s major synagogue had been designed by the same architect, Gottfried Semper, who was responsible for the famed opera house. The author’s father ran a cinema, the Palace Theatre; a photograph survives from 1935, announcing the screening of the hit of five years earlier, Das Lied ist aus. He was a man of pacifist principles, who contrived to avoid military service in the Great War.
Because he also stemmed from a liberal Protestant family, and because he refused to divorce or distance himself from his Jewish wife (or from the daughter who was raised as a Jew), the Wolfs were in the last category of Dresden Jews who were scheduled to be deported. But otherwise the family shared the fate of Germany’s stepchildren. Already in the 1930s the Wolfs were stripped of citizenship, and beginning in 1941 were obligated to wear the yellow star. Nor were Jews permitted to use public transportation or to participate in the cultural life of the city. Henny’s own education was curtailed. The Gestapo interrogated her, and she was subjected to forced labor in a local factory. (Another worker there was Victor Klemperer, whose diaries would bring him posthumous fame.) Without lapsing into self-pity, The Song is Over provides a grim portrait of the noose tightening around an ever-so-slightly privileged Jewish family (and of course German Jews were treated with less cruelty than their brethren to the East).
Then on February 13, 1945 the Wolfs got the letter that they had dreaded. Three days later they were required to join the city’s few remaining Jews in the square where the synagogue had once stood, and to be prepared for resettlement and a new “work assignment.” The threat that this letter posed was understood to be lethal, provoking Henny’s father to exclaim: “All that can save us is a massive attack on Dresden!” (p. 59). That night 796 R. A. F. bombers unloaded incendiaries that turned the Altstadt into a raging firestorm as fierce as a hurricane. On February 14, 431 American B-17s dropped another seven hundred tons of bombs, which were intended to ensure that no resident of the city would survive the 1500-degree heat. But the author and her parents, ripping off their yellow stars, fled Dresden and somehow managed, miraculously, to be saved.
Having outlasted the supposedly thousand-year-long Reich, having emerged from the inferno, Henny Wolf and her parents had paid their dues. At least the family was intact. But the ordeal was not yet over. Having earlier rejected the swastika, her father refused the convenient option of flying the hammer-and-sickle. Nor did he yield to the temptation of joining the Communist Party, which meant that the family was classified as suspiciously bourgeois. As merely a “victim of fascism” rather than a “fighter against fascism” (p. 69), he could not get back the Palace Theatre that the Nazis had expropriated a decade earlier. Postwar conditions were grim. In 1950 a new synagogue was nevertheless dedicated in Dresden, but of course the contrast with the house of worship that Semper had designed was painfully obvious. Soon thereafter a campaign against “Zionism” was launched in the Soviet Union and in its satellites, and in East Germany Jews were being arrested again. In 1952 the family fled to Berlin and, before the Wall was built, got to the Federal Republic and thus to freedom. The author married and moved to Weiden, a town in Bavaria, where her son Michael holds a chair in Jewish studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich. The Song is Over mentions that its author occasionally returns to her beloved Dresden. There Henny Brenner lectures to young people on the impact of the two forms of totalitarianism that she endured—and so astonishingly survived.
Stephen J. Whitfield