A Lookery at “Leaving Berlin” by Joseph Kanon

leaving-berlin

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon
Atria (Simon and Schuster)
March 3, 2015
384 pages

Alex Stein, a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany to America with the help of close family friends, is now going back to Russian-occupied Berlin, leaving behind his son Peter, and his estranged wife, Marjorie. Stein is a victim of McCarthyism, refusing to inform on his friends who may have Communist sympathies. Singled out because of his membership in the Party prior to World War II, Stein is forced to leave the United States for being in contempt of the Congressional committee.

Alex is asked by the precursor to the CIA to “keep his eyes open” while in Berlin; the incentive to comply with this request being the possibility of returning to the U.S. and his family.

Such is the premise of Joseph Kanon’s latest espionage thriller Leaving Berlin.

But immediately on arrival in the divided city, Alex’s singular contact with the U.S. government is killed, and he is left adrift without support from his adopted homeland. He is welcomed by the German Kulturbund, which is recruiting previously exiled artists to create a new artistic community in the Russian sector of Berlin. There he meets old friends — actors, directors, playwrights, poets, authors and of course, Irene, an old flame who is part of the family that helped him escape to the U.S. fifteen years ago.

But there is no free ride in the new Germany, under Russian control in the East. Before long, Stein is asked to inform on certain members of the Kulturbund and is unwittingly tricked into reporting on friends’ activities and conversations. At the same time, the U.S. makes contact with their green asset and pumps Alex for kernels of information on Russian and German actions only whispered about in the West.

Alex becomes involved with hiding Erich, an extremely ill escaped political prisoner. Friend and family ties are tested in the efforts to heal and hide the young man. When Stein makes arrangements to get his friend to the safety in the West, all hell breaks loose.

It is at this point that Joseph Kanon’s expertise at plot twists involving betrayals and secrets becomes evident. His characters don’t know who to trust and the tension and their fear is palpable on the page. Leaving Berlin is an excellent look at the emerging Communist society of what will become East Berlin.

The Berlin Airlift, the appalling rubble and ruin towering everywhere one looks and the confusion and fear of average citizens (even those who support Communism) is reported faithfully by author Kanon.

An insightful look into the fledgling East German Communist society, Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin is a tension-filled exciting page-turner. Recommended for fans of the early days of the Cold War and post WWII espionage and politics.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon is courtesy of the publisher Atria (Simon and Schuster) and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Advertisements

A Lookery at: “My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War” by Heinz Kohler

7684584

 

My Name Was Five:  A Novel of World War II

Heinz Kohler

Mill City Press, 1979, 2004, 2009

$17.95

I am a big fan of World War II literature, both fiction and non-fiction. “My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War” by Heinz Kohler is an excellent example of the blending of fact and fiction about the Second World War as viewed from the perspective of a young boy (Hans) who was born at the time that Hitler came into power.

Hans, his mother and his younger brother Helmut spend most of the war living in Berlin. His father is in a concentration camp for being a political enemy of the Nazi regime, but is released when it becomes apparent that more men are needed to keep the German war machine in action. An exceptionally bright boy, Hans is intellectually encouraged from a very young age by his mother, father and Aunt Martel. Naturally curious, he asks dangerous questions about Nazi policies and eavesdrops on conversations that are not meant for little boys. However, it is obvious that his parents, their friends and some of their family do not buy the Nazi rhetoric. They listen to illegal broadcasts from the BBC as often as possible. Hans collects handbills, posters, newspaper articles and propaganda about the war and Nazi policies. Throughout the book, much of this type of material is reproduced.

When Hans first attends school, he and his classmates are assigned seats according to their academic abilities. Hans sits in seat five, near the top of his class, and is thereafter called “Five” and not Hans, until his classroom status moves up or down. Even at school, which is run along party lines, Hans asks intelligent, controversial questions and writes thoughtful essays that often perplex and infuriate his teachers. His best friend, Dieter does not excel academically, but the boys are nearly inseparable. When disaster strikes Dieter, Hans’ life changes, and the episode haunts him for the rest of his life.

Eventually Hans, Helmut and their mother leave Berlin to live in a village that is relatively safe from Allied attacks. However, in the village, as in Berlin, aunts and uncles who support the Nazis make life difficult for Hans’ family. When the Russians liberate his village, the town becomes part of East Germany and is under Communist control. These same family members jump ship and become supportive of the new government, while Hans and his parents continue to doubt and question the new regime. Under the Stalinist rule, Hans is one of the very few students selected to attend high school away from his home in the village, thanks to the pull of an uncle who has become mayor of the little town.

Once Hans graduates from high school, his family makes a daring decision that saves them from a life of repression. But the wartime experience continues to cause trouble Hans for decades to come.

Written from an unusual point of view, “My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War” is fascinating in its details and insight into the life of Germans that were not supportive of Hitler’s policies, trying to survive first in a war-torn city that is the seat of power for the Nazi government, and later, in a village absorbed into a new country with a different, and equally repressive form of government. As the population of the WWII generation ages and passes on, it seems that more information is being revealed, shedding light on how average citizens were affected by this horrific time in history. Heinz Kohler writes an amazing account of a child’s exposure to war that should not be missed.

Five eyes from thebooklookery.