Sunday, August 31, 2008

Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi

David Chotjewitz’s Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi (translated by Doris Orgel) occupies a rare place in Holocaust literature, sharing the perspective of a German boy whose life begins to unravel when he learns his mother is Jewish, and that he is--according to the newly established laws of the Third Reich--only half-human.

Until this moment of revelation, Daniel, the son of a successful lawyer, is simply another one of the German boys who make up his elite school, and best-friends with one of his soccer team-mates, Armin, the son of a dock worker, with whom he has sworn to share his deepest secrets.

So loyal is Daniel to his friends and the "new" Germany, in fact, that he even sneaks out one night with Armin to paint swastikas on the walls of houses in support of Hitler’s rising Nazi Party. And, like the rest of his classmates, he longs to join the Hitler youth.

But once Daniel learns the truth about himself, he struggles to come to terms with it, knowing he can’t share such a devastating secret with his best friend. Not only is there the risk of losing Armin’s friendship, there’s the high likelihood that he might find himself, along with other German Jews, imprisoned in a concentration camp.

Daniel's story is told from two different points of view spanning the years from 1933 to 1945. In brief sections dated "June, 1945," Daniel, now an American soldier, is sent to Germany as an interpreter for special interrogations of Germans after the war. These first-person accounts serve to bring Daniel back to the scene of the crime, so to speak, where his life as a German ended and his life as a Jew began.

But the bulk of the story--the longer narratives of Daniel as a boy in the 1930s--is told in third-person, revealing the incremental, almost imperceptible, way German society comes undone as the Nazis gain more and more power, and how each new law against the Jews makes life more unbearable for Daniel and his family, especially after his father, a decorated German war veteran of WWI and a non-Jew, loses his job because of his marriage to a Jewess. And, of course, each new law makes it harder for Armin and Daniel’s friendship to survive.

The two points of view–from 1945 and from the 1930s– converge at the end of the story when Daniel, as an American interpreter, hears a familiar voice and turns to find his old friend, Armin, undergoing questioning across the room.

But is Armin a friend (a good Nazi) or an enemy (a good Nazi)?

Initially overjoyed to see his old friend, Daniel notices a fresh scab on Armin’s arm and suspects that he must have removed an SS tattoo to hide his past. At that moment Daniel has to decide what he owes his “friend.” Should he befriend Armin again? Or should he punish Armin for the sins that he committed as a member of the SS under the guise that he was just doing his job?

It’s a mark of Chotjewitz’s skill as an author that he places the reader in the same difficult moral quandaries as the characters in this story.

By asking us to think of how we might have acted under similar circumstances, he leaves us with important questions that we can't ignore, even if we may never find adequate answers.

For more information (in German) about Daniel Chotjewitz, visit:

For information about the book’s translator, Doris Orgel, visit:

For other responses to Daniel Half Man and the Good Nazi, visit:

No comments: