The Seventh Well: A Novel
by Fred Wander
translated by Michael Hofmann
(Norton, 160 pages, $23.95)
This is an utterly beautiful novel about life in Nazi concentration camps, but the author, Fred Wander, nevertheless portrays the horror of those camps. As the narrator says, “No, we won’t presume that the hours spent standing under the gallows raise one’s consciousness of existence. That would be water on the mills of the despisers of life. Let’s take it at face value: dying means dying.”
Fred Wander knew whereof he spoke in this novel. Born in 1917 in Vienna, the son of a traveling salesman, he spent much time on the streets. In 1938 he left his family and ended up in France where, when the war began, he was imprisoned as an “enemy alien.” During the war, according to the translator Michael Hofmann, he was “an inmate of twenty different Nazi camps in France, Germany, and Poland.”
He survived to become a photographer and journalist who moved to East Germany. Though he was a lifelong leftist he grew disillusioned with life there and eventually moved back to Vienna. He survived to tell his story (the novel appears to be a thinly veiled memoir and you can tell when he is speculating or embellishing because the narrator tells you he is) which ends up being about the power of stories to help the prisoners remember, to go on living in the midst of the horror.
The first inmate to show the narrator this power is a “master of words, the magician, Mendel Teichmann,” from whom the narrator asks advice for telling a story. He knew that “[w]ords had magical powers [for the inmates of the camps], they could conjure up an entire beautiful lost world — a richly laid Sabbath table, the winsome loveliness of a Jewish girl, the heady aroma of sweet Palestine wine and raisin cake. It could take just one word to make the men turn pale, make them think, cry, laugh; words lashed them, choked them, made them ache and sweat.”
The narrator asks Mendel how to do this. Mendel’s answer is that “either you have it in you or you don’t.” He then goes on to tell of a young man coming to him back in pre-war days and saying, “‘I wouldn’t mind being a writer like you, but I’ve had no experience!’… How can such a thing be, I ask, and where did he live, because so far as I know there wasn’t anywhere in the world where you could hide from life.”
THERE ARE STORIES of men separated from their wives and children, of a son who goes mad because he sees his mother killed, of a father on a death march dying on the side of the road — when the prisoners give up and can’t go on anymore they just wander off the road and the jackboots shoot them — gently cajoling his son to go away so that he too is not killed: “Behind him stood the jackboot, like an embodiment of death. The prisoners held the boy’s eyes shut, and disappeared into the crowd with the boy. The bang was barely audible.”
The narrator at the end is in Buchenwald and as the jackboots keep calling out various nationalities for transport elsewhere, he does not go with his fellow Jews, he hides with the French and then sneaks away first to the infirmary then to the children’s barracks. The Americans are coming and camp discipline is breaking down.
The narrator drags a corpse out of a bunk and takes his place. On his right is an old man with a long white beard (who dies); on the left an older boy, his brothers and cousins, who, when told the Americans are coming do not run from the barracks. They cook and eat some potatoes an enterprising child has stolen from the kitchen. “They didn’t see the open gateway to freedom, because they didn’t know what freedom was.”
This book is hard to bear because of the fullness and clarity of its reality. But it is more than worth the pain and exhilaration you will feel when you read it. Hofmann quotes from Wander’s memoir, The Good Life, about Wander’s view of life in the camps, which makes a good last word on the subject:
Basically the same rules and conditions obtained in the camps as in the world beyond the barbed wire — which is to say power and violence, opportunism and corruption — only in an exaggerated, distorted form. But there is another side to this as well, which is hardly ever mentioned, but which seems even more crucial to me: the fact that you could observe — if you had eyes to see — how a few of us struggled to keep alive our true and actual selves, our self-respect, our human bearing, some vestige of our human dignity.
Franklin Freeman is a writer living in Saco, Maine.