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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

The Indignities Of History

In Hannah's Dress Pascale Hugues, a French journalist living in Berlin, investigates the history of her street which at the beginning of the twentieth century was occupied by wealthy bourgeois families, many of them Jewish. Everything changed with the arrival of the Nazi party, of course. A few of the Jewish occupants managed to get out in time, to America or Israel, abandoning or selling properties and belongings for a pittance, but most ended up victims of the Nazi killing machine.

 

At the heart of the book is the poignant story of two friends, one of whom, Hannah, escapes to America. The other, who joins a queue for a permit to leave the country fifteen minutes too late, ends up being carted off on one of the special trains that took Jewish people away to their deaths.

 

The book is not only about the Jewish residents. Pascale Hugues finds out everything she can about the street and its residents, the ones who did well out of the Nazi era, the ones who moved into the vacated apartments the damage wreaked by Allied bombing, the architectural transformation as post-war Berliners tried to re-build the city and escape from their history, the businesses that came and went, the social and cultural changes and, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the flat where prog-rock band Tangerine Dream lived and where David Bowie briefly stayed, and the gentrification that has finally begun to endow the street with a modern version of its original status.

 

For me, the most interesting thing about the book, is the small details like the shopkeeper who assured her that the bomb damage was so great because it was orchestrated by Jews bent on revenge, or the bureaucratic labyrinth faced by those Jews who survived and struggled to reclaim some of their property or to seek compensation.

 

It is let down by a rather stilted translation. Tenses are badly handled and word-order still feels distinctly Germanic in places. Nevertheless, it's an impressive piece of social history. We are so used to contemplating the horrific scale of the Holocaust. By focusing on the little indignities, Pascal Hugues makes it feel so much more personal.