Who are you, father?
Barbara Honigmann delivers a moving portrait of her father, a man full of contradictions about whom she has many stories to tell. Yet some things have been left unsaid.
By Holger Moos
After telling her mother Litzy’s story in Ein Kapitel aus meinem Leben [A chapter from my life], published in 2004, Barbara Honigmann now turns to her father with Georg. Born in Wiesbaden in 1903, he was the son of a Jewish doctor, his life characterised by many twists and turns along with his “free spirit” – and his lack of material possessions.
He attends the Odenwaldschule, at a time when the boarding school is still considered a model for progressive education, he is a bohemian, a member of the educated classes, married four times, becomes a spy first for the British, then for the Soviet Union, works as a journalist in Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and Berlin, escapes to London and later moves to the GDR where he soon becomes part of the cultural elite.
Accordingly, Georg’s life offers lots of scope for telling stories. In fact, his young daughter regularly demands them – “Tell me more, Daddy,” the child keeps prompting him. Yet there are things that remain unsaid. He never talks about the persecution and murder of the Jews, of his relatives, whom he lost track of during his British exile. Nor will he later discuss the disappearance of the Soviet intelligentsia in the Gulag system.
A life without security or stabilityAfter each of his failed marriages, Georg leaves the respective marital home with no more than he is wearing. In the process, he swaps out his circle of friends along with his women, “for he did not have any friends of his own.” His daughter experiences this instability, this insecurity of her father’s at the young age of 14, when the 60-year-old moves into a furnished room after the failure of his third marriage and starts crying when they go for a walk. She interprets his tears not as a reaction to the sudden sparseness of his existence but as an expression of his life “without any security or stability.”
Originally, he is married to Ruth. They flee to England, where he meets his second wife, Litzy, who converts him to Communism, even though he is – not least in his own opinion – entirely unsuited to being an ardent supporter of this particular ideology, given that he has “never progressed beyond Hermann Hesse.”
Next is a marriage to Gisela May, an actor for whom composer Hanns Eisler wrote many songs. Perhaps not surprisingly, living with and then divorcing this GDR diva is full of drama and includes betrayals, affairs and ugly scenes. Honigmann depicts his last marriage – once again, his wife is in her thirties (“He got older but his women continued to be around thirty”) – as a sad end of the line in the bourgeois province, wire-haired dachshund included.
A deeply sad father figureTo his daughter, her father remains a mystery, despite a narrative approach to understanding him better in this book: based on her own memories as well as on Stasi files and other secret service documents. In the end, however, she is no closer to determining which decisions he regretted, or would have made differently, when he tells her in a late letter: “Arrange, dear child, your life in such a way today that you won’t later say, oh, if only I had – like your poor father keeps telling himself.”
In Honigmann’s narrative, Georg never really belongs, caught between two stools wherever he is. In Germany, he is – though not religious – considered a Jew, in England a German, and in the GDR, he is too bohemian for the workers' and peasants' state. To his family, he is “the one who disappeared.” The jury of public broadcaster SWR’s List of Top Books calls his fate “prototypical for the life of an assimilated German Jew in the 20th century.”
Nonetheless, Georg is also a remarkable, tender, yet not uncritical declaration of love for her father. A deep sadness surrounds this father figure in Honigmann’s book. It begins with the above-mentioned visit of the fourteen-year-old to his sparsely furnished room – and it ends there as well: “Bath and toilet down the hall.”
Honigmann, Barbara: Georg
München: Hanser, 2019. 160 S.
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