Monday, April 7, 2014

The Forger: An Extraordinary Story of Survival in Wartime Berlin by Cioma Schonhaus, translated from the German by Alan Bance, edition in English published in 2007

"In the vast literature devoted to the Jewish experience under the Nazis, Mr. Schönhaus’s slim book deserves a special place, as much for its tone as for the remarkable events it records: a catalog of hairbreadth escapes, clever ruses and brazen coups." from a review by William Grimes in the New York Times 1/23/2008

The Forger is fascinating to read. Although it is about Cioma Schonhaus’ distressing story of surviving in Berlin during World War II, the memoir is full of dark, absurdist humor which reflects the personality of the author. Many times observations he makes and the jokes he tells are quotes from his father who lives on in his memory and who serves as a beacon in dangerous times. The humor is undercut by the stressful set of circumstances he finds himself in and by the fact that his father is gone. Schonhaus was only nineteen years old and an only child when both his father and mother were deported.

Schonhaus avoids being deported because he knows people who know people who get him work in a factory that is deemed vital to the war effort. When they finally force him out, through his contacts he joins the resistance where he works as an invaluable graphic artist altering identity cards and passbooks for fellow Jews.

In the course of his work he alters documents for his own use, fashions multiple identities, lives in a series of rooms and apartments, and is constantly inventing and reinventing his life story in order to navigate as safely as possible in the world populated with potential German informers and Nazis. He tries for a bit of normalcy, often eating in restaurants off-limits to Jews, and enjoying the company of women.  His intelligence, his high tolerance for danger, and his luck contribute to his surviving the war.

A very interesting and a large part of the story he tells is about the importance of a number of Protestant clergy and their parishioners who worked in the resistance movement as members of the Confessing Church. In doing so they risked their lives to save many Jews, and, in fact, some were caught and were shot; others were jailed. He explains that parishioners handed in their identity cards which they then reported as lost. These documents were then handed over to Schonhaus so that he could alter them. Everyone involved in the process was impressed with his skill.

He also writes about a number of incidents where German citizens, not connected to the resistance movement, protect him. It is clear that, based on his experiences, he wants his readers to know that not every German was out to rid the nation of its Jewish residents. But eventually his identity becomes known, and he escapes by bike to Switzerland despite having been told by any number of people that it would be just about impossible to do because of the thicket of border patrols. Again, due to ingenuity and luck, as well as determination and stamina, he manages to escape into Switzerland. He settles in Basel where he starts a business, marries, and raises a family.

The last chapter consists of a list of many of the people he had known and worked with in Berlin and their ultimate fate.

To watch a thirty minute film interview with Cioma Schonhaus called Oifn Weg, click here.

Enta Marie Berman
     Fanja Berman – daughter of  Ente Marie; married Boris Schonhaus
             Samson (Cioma) Schonhaus – son of Fanja and Boris
    Adi Berman – son of Ente Marie
    Meier Berman – son of Ente Marie; married to Sophie

Friends and Acquaintances
Michael Kestinger
Walter Majut
Ludel Frank
Jonny Syna
Wolfgang Pander
Gunther Heilborn
Lotte Windmuller
Curt Eckstein
Walter Prager – married to Nadja
Julius Fliess
   Dorothee Fliess – daughter of Julius
Det Kassriel
Karl Wiesner
Paul Levi
Eva Goldschmidt
Gerhard Lowenthal
Ruth and Werner Schlesinger
Walter Heyman
Friedrich Gorner
Manfred Hochhauser
Franz Kaufmann
   Angelica Kaufmann – daughter of Franz
Ludwig Lichtwitz
Werner Scharff
Hanni Hollerbusch
Stella Goldschlag
Lotte Blumenfeld
Leon Blum
Ernst Hallerman

Minsk, Belarus
Berlin, Germany
Rishon LeZion, Israel
Bielefeld, Germany
Basel, Switzerland
Biel-Benken, Switzerland
Majdanek Concentration Camp, Poland
Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Czech Republic
Basel, Switzerland
Biel-Benken, Switzerland

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