“We all felt how profoundly and how terribly outside forces can reach into a human being, to his innermost self. But we also senses that in that innermost core there was something that was unassailable and inviolable.”
Many books are published every year that detail the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during World War II, but The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers, translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo, and originally published in 1942, is one of those rare books that provides us with an almost eye-witness account of the time when these horrifying events where still unfolding, and without the hindsight that later novels about this time period have.
The novel begins with the escape of seven prisoners from the Westhofen concentration camp, who were imprisoned there for their communist beliefs, and their escape causes a turmoil among the Nazi officers, who are tasked by their Commandant with recapturing them within a week, as well as the local community, who live in a town close to the concentration camp. Almost all of the fugitives are soon recaptured, except for one, George Heisler, who manages to evade his pursuers, and is on the run. But who can he trust in this precarious situation? As George tries to stay ahead of his pursuers, the novel uncovers the many layers of the fascist regime, vividly evoking the atmosphere of fear, distrust, and oppression, and providing a glimpse into the lives, beliefs, hopes, and fears of ordinary Germans during this time.
The book mainly focuses on the effects that the escape has on the local community, as asks important questions about how informed the local German population was about what was going on in the camps on a daily basis. Some of the most memorable and chilling scenes of the book were the ones that described how the townspeople continued to lead their ordinary lives so close to the horrors that were happening almost next door in the concentration camp. We see different facets of the local community, some are willing to help George, and others, wilfully, out of fear, or simply ignorance, choose to not get involved. When George first arrives in the town, he is struck by the sheer normality of the situations that he sees on the streets:
“In Westhoven he’d pictured a street here differently. He thought he would see a feeling of shame in every face, on every cobblestone, and that sorrow would mute the steps and voices and even the children’s games. The street here was calm; the people looked happy.”
This is an important read that documents a particular moment in history, and shows the insidious, almost banal, rise of evil.
Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.