Letter from Berlin: Lies for Life

By Stan Persky | December 15, 2004

Sander Gilman, Jurek Becker: A Life in Five Worlds (University of Chicago, 282 pages, 2003)

Jurek Becker, Jacob the Liar (1969; Plume, 244 pages, 1999)

BERLIN — One of the better if lesser-known Holocaust novels is Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar. The recent observance here of the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (Nov. 9, 1989) and the appearance of a literary biography provide the occasion for thinking about Becker, the author of Jacob. Until recently, little was known about this East German writer, at least outside of Germany. That knowledge gap is now informatively filled by Jewish Studies scholar Sander Gilman’s engaging biography of his late friend. It makes available to us, for the first time, the remarkable life of this German-Jewish writer. As it turns out, Becker was much more than the author of a good novel. And the novel is better than good: Gilman rightfully calls it “the greatest Jewish novel written in postwar Germany.”

Even in Germany, Becker’s book is largely known through director Frank Beyer’s 1974 film version of the novel, which garnered an American Oscar nomination for best foreign film, the first East German movie to do so. (A 1999 American remake starring Robin Williams flopped.) Among the readers of Jacob, some are perhaps aware that Becker himself was a survivor of both the Lodz ghetto in Poland, and the Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen concentration camps, where he was shipped with his mother in 1944. But very few people outside of Germany and its cultural circles know of Becker as one of the key transitional literary figures in the divided, then unified, Germany of the past quarter-century.

Gilman, who teaches at the University of Illinois in Chicago, knew Becker for some 30 years, until the latter’s early death from cancer in 1997, at age 60. In what is a testimony of friendship as well as a solid scholarly work, Gilman traces Becker’s multi-faceted life through several “worlds” and identities: a Polish-Jewish child, a Holocaust survivor, an East German screenwriter and novelist, an oppositional writer forced to live in West Berlin, and finally, after 1989, a German literary figure in an uneasily re-unified country. It’s a life so labyrinthine that it’s almost emblematic of the twists and turns of German history in the last decades.

As the author of many books about Jewish life, Gilman understandably focuses on the meaning of Jewish identity, a particularly appropriate topic in relation to Becker. In the course of examining Becker’s life, he also conjures up a Jewish social existence that disappeared a half-century ago.

Lodz, where Becker was born in 1937, was known as the “Polish Jerusalem”; a third of its population of 700,000 people was Jewish. It was also a sort of Polish Manchester, an industrial city that manufactured textiles. Becker’s father, Max, was an assistant manager of a textile mill, part of the upscale Jewish middle-class. Prior to World War I, Lodz was German, between the wars it was once again Polish, and by the time of Becker’s birth, it was one of many places in Europe that harboured a deep, virulent anti-semitism. When the Nazis invaded and quickly conquered Poland in September 1939, a ghetto area was fenced off in Lodz as a holding pen for Jews before shipping them off to death camps. The fate of the Jews was not, to put it mildly, a major concern of their non-Jewish Polish neighbours.

Life in the Lodz ghetto (which was renamed Litzmannstadt), as elsewhere in the “concentrationary universe,” was designed to be disorienting and isolating. Jews were forbidden to own clocks or wristwatches (even though they were required to obey an 8 p.m. curfew) or radios, the best link to the outside world, and a source of hope for the imprisoned Jews, even when the news only turned out to be rumours. The radio plays a pivotal role in the life of Becker and his novel.

Jurek’s father claimed to be one of those who had risked his life to listen to the radio, and who passed on bits of news to his fellow ghetto dwellers. In fact, Max said, it was the discovery of his radio that led to his deportation to Auschwitz in 1944. When Auschwitz was emptied by the Nazis toward the end of the war, Max was transferred to Sachsenhausen camp, just northeast of Berlin. Around the same time, Becker’s mother, Chana, and 7-year-old Jurek were sent by cattle car to Ravensbruck, the women’s camp located about 50 kilometres from Sachsenhausen. Ravensbruck was evacuated in March 1945, leaving behind only sick prisoners. When the Soviets liberated the camp the following month, among those found were Chana and Jurek, who were sent on to medical facilities at the now liberated Sachsenhausen. Chana Becker died of tuberculosis and malnutrition in Sachsenhausen and was buried there in June 1945. Remarkably, amid the immediate post-war chaos, Max, who had recently been released, managed to locate his emaciated son in the former camp’s makeshift hospital.

Max then settled in nearby east Berlin with his child, claiming to be a German Jew, and cobbled together a shaky existence on victim pensions, some shady trading on the blackmarket, and increasingly heavy drinking. His world, like that of many survivors, was one of shifting identities, changed names, multiple languages, dubious stories and brooding silences. As Gilman comments, “to survive under such circumstances you had to tell stories.” Jurek Becker later remarked that he entered a world, that of his father and his cronies, that was “a contest in storytelling.” He remembered that he “once told a story and was unhappy with the reception it got. I thought about why it had not been successful: it was not the story’s fault. It is a good story that I know well. It must have been how I told it.” He also remembered that his father never praised him for his tales, but would say, “You call that a story?”

Between 1949, the year that marked the birth of East Germany, and 1955, when 18-year-old Jurek graduated from high school, Becker became a German, having mastered the language, and, what’s more, an East German, having imbibed its socialist politics.

Biographer Gilman also examines the problematic status of “being Jewish” in East Germany. On the one hand, Jews were slotted into an official category, “victims of Fascism” (which made them eligible for state benefits), but on the other hand, since the East German state wanted to deny that it shared a Nazi past with West Germany, there was also a tendency to make Jews invisible. Becker’s own identification (or lack of it) with being Jewish reflected the ambivalence of the context in which he grew up. His writing, from Jacob through a half-dozen later novels, was often haunted by the question of Jewish identity. Yet, as Becker himself later said, “Whether one was or was not a Jew was something I experienced haphazardly, if at all. If someone drew my attention to it, I always asked myself: Why is he telling me this?” In a television interview near the end of his life, he said that if asked about being a Jew, he always said that his parents were Jewish, never that “I am a Jew.”

Just as important as sorting out identity was Becker’s intellectual development between 1955-60 when he fell in with a young, artsy East German crowd that included Manfred Krug, who was later to become a well-known German screen actor, and Wolf Biermann, a songwriter and performer later expelled from East Germany, one of the country’s best-known dissidents. It was also in this period, as a philosophy student with writerly ambitions at east Berlin’s Humboldt University, that Becker’s literary tastes matured. He read everything from the Russian classics to contemporary murder mysteries and Westerns. He read the plays of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and Hemingway’s novels, but the writer who most influenced him was the great mid-20th century Swiss playwright and novelist, Max Frisch, author of I’m Not Stiller and Homo Faber. It was Frisch’s work that taught Becker that the serious and the comic were closely related, and that “tragedy doesn’t always have to wear a dark suit, and comedy a T-shirt.”

Given the milieu into which he settled, the young writer naturally gravitated to penning satirical sketches for student cabaret performances, and got into mild trouble at school for upsetting and “misleading the authorities,” as this ideological crime was euphemistically known. Soon, though, in the early 1960s, Becker successfully made his way into the East German filmmaking industry as a screenwriter. Gilman provides a solid account of the snakes-and-ladders ideological games required to survive in Communist cinematic circles.

Becker wrote a later novel about his apprenticeship as a screenwriter, titled Misleading the Authorities. As Gilman explains, “One has to mislead the authorities, but only within the limits they themselves permit. It is what writers do.” Further, “it is this awareness of the permitted bounds of critical writing in the GDR that provides the (accepted) critical edge to writing.” And it’s the comic genres in which such a critical voice can best make itself heard.

In 1961, the 24-year-old screenwriter made his first trip back to his birthplace in Poland. “He was looking for whatever scraps he could find of his family’s presence there,” Gilman tells us. “He found their names in a few of the archival records of the Litzmannstadt ghetto.” More important, the idea for a screenplay began to take shape after Becker came back from Lodz.

Gilman then tells the fascinating, politically tangled tale of how Becker’s idea for Jacob the Liar, which started out as a screenplay, eventually was published as a novel some seven or eight years later in 1969. It took another five years for director Frank Beyer to be permitted to make a film version of Jacob, which by then (1974) was a successful, prize-winning novel that had been acclaimed both officially in East Germany and independently by West Germany’s leading literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, also a Holocaust survivor. The hurdles Becker had to surmount in this period were both personal and political. Becker had heard his father’s heroic story of his secret radio, but that wasn’t the story the young writer wanted to tell.

Becker’s Jacob is not a hero, but a shlamazel, the classic Jewish hard-luck character who features in Yiddish folktales. In Becker’s story, which takes place in late 1944, Jacob Heym is the former owner of a small Jewish diner, out for an evening walk in the ghetto. Suddenly a spotlight from a watchtower falls on him. Do you know what time it is, demands the watchtower guard. Naturally, he doesn’t, since Jews are not permitted to own wristwatches. The guard tells Jacob to go into the police station across the street to report that he’s violated the curfew. Jacob fearfully obeys, knowing that people who go into the station seldom come out. In the station, not knowing his way around and stumbling about, Jacob accidentally hears a radio report that says that Russian troops are advancing into Poland and are only a couple hundred of kilometres from Lodz. Afterwards, he finds the German duty officer, who turns out to be decent and isn’t amused that the guard has played a trick on the frightened Jew. On the duty officer’s clock, it’s only 7:30, still a half-hour before curfew. The duty officer lets Jacob go home.

There’s only one more important turn of the plot you need to know, the one that provides the impetus for the rest of the story. Jacob passes on the news that the war is going badly for the Nazis and that there’s still hope for the rescue of the ghetto inhabitants. The only problem is that he can’t say he heard the news in the headquarters of the Nazi occupiers because everyone knows that you once you go in there, you don’t live to tell the tale, or if you do, you must be an informer. The next day, working down at the freightyards unloading boxcars with the other Jewish prisoners, Jacob passes on the news to Mischa, a workmate just about to foolishly attempt to steal some potatoes from a nearby boxcar. To forestall this potentially fatal act, Jacob tells Mischa. But when challenged about the source of his information, he lies, blurting out that he has a hidden radio from which he heard the news.

Jacob doesn’t initially realize that having provided one bit of information, his fellow ghetto prisoners will expect more. After all, if he has a secret radio, he’s getting daily news. So, in a comic chain of gallows-humour lying, Jacob finds himself, after having told the truth about the Russian advance, now forced to make up lies about it, more and more lies. They’re lies, he notices, that provide enough of a glimmer of hope that suicide rates inside the ghetto sharply decline and the ghetto dwellers begin to anticipate the appearance of liberating Russian troops. There’s a whole cast of characters to flesh out the tale, from Jacob’s old shopkeeper friends, to young lovers, to a little girl in Jacob’s care for whom he ends up doing “radio performances.”

This is the basic story that, more than a dozen years after its inception, was finally filmed in East Germany by Frank Beyer. The movie is a conventional, well-acted, poignant-verging-on-the-sentimental tale of ghetto life. Gilman provides an engrossing account of the ideological hoops that the script, writer, director and cast had to jump through to get the story on screen. Twists and turns in communist cultural policy, internal battles within the East Germany cultural sector, difficulties with censors, and straightforward practical problems of sets, location and shooting all combined to produce the decade-long delay between script and movie.

This is one of those cases where you’d rather read the book than see the movie. Despairing of the film being produced, Becker decided to turn the script into a novel, since getting a novel published in East Germany was a slightly less politically sensitive matter than producing cinematic art for the masses. As a result of that bizarre ideological maze, a small literary miracle was born.

The film, as I say, is watchable but hardly remarkable. Focusing on Jacob’s adventures, it is presented through the camera’s omniscient eye, is thoroughly conventional, and despite the gritty realism, a bit treacly. But in writing a novel, Becker had to figure out how to frame his story. And that’s where the magic called art begins:

“I’ve tried hundreds of times to unload this blasted story, without success,” says Becker’s unnamed narrator of Jacob the Liar. “Either I tried it with the wrong people, or I made some mistake or other, I mixed up a lot of things. I got names wrong, or, as I said, they were the wrong people. Every time I have a few drinks, it comes up again; I can’t help myself. I mustn’t drink so much. Every time, I think these must be the right people, and I think I’ve got it all nicely together, nothing can go wrong when I tell it.”

The solution Becker came up with, a survivor narrator, is simple but superbly effective. His narrator is not one of those postmodern “unrealiable narrators,” just a narrator who maybe drinks a bit too much and who has a hard time telling this improbable story. And with this solution, suddenly, what was merely a clever, touching story also becomes a story about storytelling and the nature of art.

Becker’s narrational device works for two reasons. The first is pure art, and not explicable: it’s the voice. From the opening pages, there isn’t a moment’s doubt that this is the sure voice of a 46-year-old camp survivor (telling his story in 1967). Because the voice is utterly believable, an otherwise minor war episode acquires memorable depth and resonance. The rasping voice of the narrator successfully undercuts the story’s sentimental aspects, and thus the tone of the story is distinctly different from that of the film.

The second thing that Becker’s narrator does for the story is to get us out of the claustrophobia of time and space that marks life in the ghetto. This has the surprising effect of making the sense of entrapment more real and powerful. While the film version has to stay inside the confines of the ghetto (and thus is only an “historical” scene), in the novel, the narrator is able to move in and out of the ghetto space and its time (thus giving the tale a contemporary dimension).

It also means that the narrator is subsequently able to check out details and gaps in the story that the film is unable to explore. What happened to Dr. Kirschbaum after the guards took him away to attend to a prominent ailing Nazi official, and he never came back? Becker has a sure hand with his narrator, injecting him unobtrusively into the tale, and only when absolutely necessary, as in this incident. In looking up a surviving Nazi guard in the 1960s, the narrator not only discovers Dr. Kirschbaum’s fate, but as well, gives us a sharp glimpse of how quickly the Nazi past was swept under the rug, and thus the novel becomes one that raises contemporary and relevant questions about German history.

As Gilman notes, “It is the close link between the mode of telling the story and the story itself that is part of the brilliance of Jacob the Liar as a novel. Its strength lies to no small degree in its extraordinary narrative framework… [which] puts the very act of storytelling into question.”

Remarkable as the story is of how Jurek Becker came to write a memorable novel, Gilman’s biography is more than the story of a successful one-book author. While Becker “was writing Jacob the Liar, the implications of state socialism began to change radically for him,” Gilman reports. Remember, the year is 1968, the year of the “Prague Spring” and the Warsaw Pact military invasion of Czechoslovakia to overthrow its reform communist regime. At the meeting of the German Writers’ Union, Becker “was among the very few who attacked the statement of solidarity in support of the Warsaw Pact invasion that was required of members of the Berlin branch of the Writers’ Union.” Thus, just as he was about to be established as an East German writer, Becker was also beginning his role as a member of the opposition.

Again, the strands of East German internal opposition are complex, and Gilman gives us a reliable account of it, using both internal communist party documents and the files of the Stasi, the East German spy agency that early on was keeping track of the figure codenamed “Liar.” The eastern European dissidents who were best-known during the period were figures like Wolf Biermann who was unceremoniously expelled from East Germany into West Berlin, and who subsequently engaged in open criticism of the regime. But the perhaps more interesting internal opposition consisted of those who remained within the fold but, like Becker, were always pushing the limits. Writers such as Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym and Heiner Mueller were the most prominent of East German literary figures who attempted to work within this ambiguous position. Becker, neither wishing to denounce East Germany entirely, nor able to remain within its institutional structures, ended up in a third, even more anomalous position.

In the mid-1970s, Becker, having published three more novels, and been active in the debates about cultural politics, came under increasing political pressure from the “authorities.” Nor was his private life easy. His marriage ended in divorce and a partial separation from his children.

It was at this point that Becker embarked on a new, penultimate phase of his career, that ran from 1978 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Rather than being expelled as a dissident, as had happened with Biermann, Becker reached what amounted to an implicit deal with the regime, in which he was permitted to emigrate to West Berlin, while still retaining official ties with East Germany. For his part, his criticisms of East Germany were muted but not silenced, taking on the tone of a loyal oppositionist rather than a dissident. He continued to attempt to get his manuscripts approved for publication in East Germany, with diminishing success. Eventually his books were primarily published in West Germany, and Becker began working in West German cinema and television. He also remarried, rebuilding his private life as well as his public one.

The interesting fact about Becker’s West Berlin life is that he remained an interesting writer and an important intellectual figure. Gilman convincingly chronicles Becker’s subsequent works and is persuasive that later novels like Bronstein’s Children (1986), the third in Becker’s Holocaust trilogy, and Amanda Heartless (1992) form part of a genuine oeuvre, and aren’t just the leftovers of a one-off success. The most surprising piece of work from Becker’s West Berlin years, however, wasn’t a novel, but a popular TV series, Liebling Kreuzberg.

It was his old friend, Manfred Krug, now a well-known name in the German film world, who approached Becker with the notion of a TV program. Together, they came up with the idea of a series of linked-dramas set in Kreuzberg, the city’s trendiest district, where anarchist squatters, Turkish immigrants, and political innovators all rubbed shoulders. From the airing of its first episode in early 1986, Liebling Kreuzberg captured the poetry of multicultural West Berlin and quickly became Germany’s number one hit TV show.

Even at the height of his pop TV success, Becker remained a challenging voice in Germany. Invited to deliver the prestigious Poetic Lectures at Goethe University in Frankfurt in the summer of 1989, under the title A Warning About the Writer, Becker bemoaned the decay of writing and argued that “a true writer must be uncomfortable in society in order to produce serious literature.” He thought oppositional writing within East Germany had become too comfortable, and said “that without censorship there would be no audience interested in reading between the lines of those books that appeared in the GDR.” He was equally critical of the situation in West Germany where writing was measured by sales, and sales were ensured by eschewing politics for entertainment.

A half-year later, with the breaching of the Berlin Wall, Becker’s life entered its final “world,” that of the new Germany. The half-dozen years before his death were marked by the ups and downs of a writer’s life: a bestselling novel that the critics didn’t think much of as literature, some filmwork and a TV mini-series that were less than successful, a country house on the Baltic coast. An early death. All in all, an engrossing life in which Becker survived the concentration camps, lived through the ultimately failed East German experiment, and managed to bridge East and West Germany, while maintaining an admirably stubborn integrity. Plus, of course, one unforgettable novel, Jacob the Liar. Just as Jacob wasn’t an easy story for Becker to tell, neither is the story Gilman has to tell about Becker’s life. He does so with intelligence and remarkable economy in these days of doorstopper-sized literary biographies.

Last month, when the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was marked with low-key, decidedly sour observances, Jurek Becker rather naturally came to mind as one of the key intellectual figures who lived through all the phases of the transition. Those jubilant scenes of young people dancing atop the breached wall on November 9 a decade-and-a-half ago are pretty much faded now. This is not an especially happy period in contemporary German affairs.

A good deal of the subsequent disaffection, especially here in the eastern part of the country, can be traced to what’s happened economically to former East Germans. Yes, it’s true that the bursting asunder of the infamous Wall, which had become emblematic of the Cold War, marked the end of the international conflict between the American and Soviet empires, and equally important for Germans, it spelled the end of East Germany after 40 years of existence and the moment of German reunification.

Even at the time, though, not everyone in eastern Germany was enthusiastic about unification. For one thing, it was less of a reunion than an economic takeover by West Germany of the almost bankrupt socialist state. Still, for all its repressive characteristics, there were elements of life in East Germany — having to do with community values and a less commercial pace of life — that many people thought worth preserving. But the few remaining dreamers who hoped for a post-communist state that would somehow be an alternative to the more brutal forms of capitalism got a very short hearing from their compatriots. Nonetheless, the abruptness of unification spawned a considerable wave of nostalgia for the East, or what’s known as “Ostalgia,” a phenomenon that turns up in several recent German comedic films, the best-known of which is Goodbye Lenin!

What’s happened in the subsequent 15 years, despite an enormous pouring of German funds into the former East Germany, has been largely an economic failure. Today, while German unemployment runs at a postwar high of about 10 per cent, in the former East German states, it’s closer to twice that, nearly 20 per cent. Much of the debacle is a matter of international circumstance. Just as Germany was reunifying, it was caught in a crossfire of unfavourable globalized capitalism and enormous pressure to erode, if not entirely dismantle, its long-standing welfare state.

So, not only has the German economy been in a virtual recession for the last five years, but its Social Democratic-Green coalition government has been presiding over a tough reform program that has undercut the benefits once provided in one of Europe’s most social democratic societies. At the beginning of 2005, hundreds of thousands of unemployed German workers will lose their long-term unemployment benefits and will be turned onto the welfare rolls and a series of shaky, uncertain job-creation schemes. The bottom falling out of the welfare net has naturally had even more of an impact in economically hard hit eastern Germany. The sourness of post-unification disappointment isn’t hard to understand.

Jurek Becker’s ambivalances about the nightmare/dream of both East and West Germany seem particularly appropriate to the moment. The availability of Sander Gilman’s biography of the late German-Jewish writer makes such reflections all the more convenient. And in Germany, a country with perhaps too much 20th century history, November 9 is not only the date that marks the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s also the anniversary of the infamous Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when the Nazis launched an all-out attack on the Jewish community.  So, just as important as either the current political situation or the biography of a writer who lived through it all, is the availability of  the unerring narrative voice of Jacob the Liar. It can still be heard, wrestling with difficult stories, even as we do likewise. 

Berlin, Dec. 15, 2004


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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