Monday, March 2, 2015

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson (a novel) published in 1947, published in English in 2010, translated by Damion Searles

"... [T]his is entirely attributable to Keilson's artistry, knowing the small details, having a sense of the house where Nico is being hidden, knowing the main characters well … all this makes the fear, anxiety and distress of the situation these 'normal' people find themselves in palpable." from a review in the Globe and Mail by Andre Alexis 9/3/2010

Hans Keilson, a German Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, has written a novella that draws on many of the experiences of his life: He fled to Amsterdam and hid, and he worked with the Resistance. This work gives readers an opportunity to immerse themselves in occupied Holland and to experience the occupation from the perspective of a Christian couple cooperating with the Resistance and from the perspective of a Jew in hiding.

In this novella, first published in the same year as Anne Frank’s diary, Keilson creates a young Christian couple who’ve agreed to take in a stranger – a single Jewish man in his 60’s. In the first chapter we learn that after many months the hidden Jew has died of natural causes. The rest of the novel is mostly made up of scenes from the past – from his being introduced to the couple, to his settling in, to the nervousness on everybody’s part.

Several chapters deal with the dilemma of how to get rid of the dead body without the couple being suspected of having housed a Jew or without their being caught red-handed with the body of a Jew.  This focus reinforces in the novel an absurdist element created by a political reality that has the world turned upside down. Here a young couple have put their lives in jeopardy to extend hospitality to someone in need. The person who is in need has committed no vile act for which he is being hunted. His sole crime – he was born a Jew.

As we read, we become aware of the many potential problems that can and do arise – issues that the young couple had not thought to anticipate. How safe is it, for example, for the Jew they call Nico, to come downstairs? Can they trust anyone with their secret? Which family members? Any family members? What about venders who come regularly, like the milk man? What to do about the woman who comes to clean twice a week? Caution is intensified by fear.  His being hidden in their home becomes a focus of their day-to-day lives. We can imagine this situation occurring all over this small country and wherever in Europe Christians offered to hide Jews.

The young couple starts off talking amongst themselves about the stranger’s being a Jew. It is clear that Jews are strangers. They are curious about what it means to be Jewish since the stranger explains that he’s given up Jewish ritual practice.  But through the months of forced closeness they become connected and their common humanity transcends their difference. He had put his life in their hands. They mourn his death. They will be forever changed.

Hans Keilson (author)


To read the obituary for Hans Keilson published in the New York Times, click here.
To read the obituary for a Dutch Christian who helped and hid many Jews, click here.