Reviewing Jeremy Dronfield's 'The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz'
An emotionally demanding and beautifully written novel, The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz tells the story of an Austrian boy and his father who fall victim to the Nazi persecution of Jewish citizens in the 1930s and 1940s.
Based on harrowing true events, Dronfield offers an account of Fritz and Gustav Kleinmann's experience of the Nazi regime following the annexing of Austria. As Jews, the Kleinmann family are destined to live in fear until the fall of Hitler and his cruel regime. Whilst the eldest (Edith) and youngest (Kurt) children of the family are fortunate enough to leave Austria and find new homes in England and America respectively, Gustav and his eldest son Fritz find themselves prisoners in Buchenwald in Germany. Tini, the mother, and Herta, the second eldest daughter, soon follow.
Dronfield demands the reader's full attention as we witness the unimaginable treatment of Gustav and his son whilst they are incarcerated, moving between different concentration camps across Europe. The events of this book were kept alive the diary Gustav kept during his imprisonment. This promises for a raw and harrowingly vivid account of his and his son's experiences.
'They took their past with them, understanding that the living must gather the memories of the dead and carry them into the safety of the future.'
Previous to reading this book, I have read several others that consider the Jewish experience, such as Morris' The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Yet, what makes this telling of the Jewish experience particularly poignant is that it details the relationship between a father and son in their desperate and simultaneously strong-willed attempt to survive. Their love for another, maintained in a place of true horror and unthinkable evil, is remarkable, not least shown when Fritz pleads to be taken to Auschwitz with his father for fear of leaving him alone.
However, this book does not only offer an insight into the experience of the victims of Hitler's systematic genocide. It really opens ones eyes to the wider perception of Jews and political prisoners from an international perspective. Despite having knowledge of Hitler's perception of the Jews and the communities desperation to leave central Europe, the allies (including England and America) ignored their pleas for help. This quote, taken from the novel, captures this sentiment:
'Beyond all reason, beyond all human feeling, the world - not only the Nazis but the politicians, people and newspapermen of London, New York, Chicago and Washington - had closed off [their] future and irrevocably sealed it shut.' (p.154)
Written at a particularly heart-wrenching moment in the novel, Dronfield summarises how the outside world was not quick to help the victims of the Nazi regime and eventually prevented their migration into their countries. Their cries for help were ignored, until the allies felt it had gone so far, that enough lives had been lost, to justify an invasion to put an end to Hitler's horrific eugenic fantasy. Edith's experience whilst living in Leeds, England, whereby her Austrian husband is taken into prison, too shows how the Nazi perception of Jewish citizens travelled across the world. I find this truly horrifying.
Another moment of Gustav's and Frtiz's story that stuck with me was when Gustav's very identity is altered by the concentration camp's authorities. The irony is comical - because it suited the regime for Gustav and several others to be something they were not, they became 'Aryanized political prisoners', so that 'by mere alteration of a list and a badge, he officially ceased to be an intrinsic threat and burden' (p.200). This self-satirical measure captures the 'whole towering idiocy of Nazi racial ideology' (p.200).
In addition, the book reminds its readers of Hitler's barbaric desire to develop the Aryan race - a race he felt were physiologically 'perfect', a race that included some and excluded others. This was the belief behind the evil measures he took to eradicate the Jewish race, as well as political enemies, gypsies, the disabled and many more groups, out of existence. Yet, as Dronfield writes, this 'had never existed, and never could exist, because its blinkered puritanism was the very antithesis of all that makes a society great' (p.176).
A final aspect that must be discussed is how the Klienmann's experience highlights how the Nazi regime was to fall by its own accord. Maximilian Grabner, a member of the SS who was notoriously known for the scale of unnecessary murderers he committed, was brought down 'by his corruption' (p.225). His greediness led to his failure. This is allegorical for how the regime was 'choked by its own appetite' (p.339) and reminds us that, with a little strength, good can always reign over evil.
The novel inspires hope, endurance and strength. Gustav's and Fritz's commitment to survival and living as free citizens once again is truly, truly inspirational. I urge you to read this emotionally poignant novel.