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The Death's Head Chess Club by John Donoghue
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The Death's Head Chess Club

by John Donoghue

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I received this book from Real Readers in exchange for a review which follows.

Set in Auschwitz which was liberated 70 years ago means it's publication is timely.


It tells the story of two men in Auschwitz, Emil a Jewish prisoner and Paul Meissner an SS officer sent there after being injured to improve the moral of the German troops. Meissner decides to set up a chess club and when he discovers that Emil is a master chess-player decides that a game between the Jew and the Germans is the ideal thing to prove the supremacy of the Germans.

Interspersed is the events surrounding a chess tournament in 1962 which will leave those involved changed for ever.


This is a fascinating book and very brave in its premise to explore the nature of humanity of those on both sides in the concentration camp.

It deals with issues such as forgiveness and are there things which cannot be forgiven, the nature of friendship when your past is invading your present. However in amongst the darkness there are glimmers of hope and compassion.

The scenes in Auschwitz are at times extremely harrowing but not unrealistically so and you are left in no doubt as to what happened there and I found myself willing the characters to survive the horrendous conditions. The relationship between Emil and his bunk-mate Yves shows that it's not always straight-forward as Yves is angry at Emil's attempts to save him from the worst of the punishments.


I really enjoyed the way that the game of chess is used to show the intricacies of life both inside and outside the camp.

Well done to the author.

( )
  Northern_Light | Dec 20, 2016 |
The Death’s Head Chess Club by John Donoghue is a wonderful moving story about forgiveness, friendship and redemption.

The story follows SS Obersturmfuhrer Paul Meissner, a Waffen-SS officer who has been sent to Auschwitz III-Monowitz after being badly injured on the Eastern front. His administrative duties include the slave labour factory and to raise the morale of the soldiers. He starts a chess competition amongst the officers and soldiers and eventually finds out that the inmates have their own chess competition, won by an unbeatable Jew everybody calls the Watchmaker.

Emil Clément is a French Jew who works at the workshop and after repairing a few watches for the Nazis gains the nickname of The Watchmaker. He manages to bribe an entry into the inmates’ chess competition and beats every contestant with his highly skilled game.

Fate unites Paul Meissner and Emil in Monowitz and later at the 1962 Chess Championships in Amsterdam, where they will reminisce about life, fate and their unlikely friendship.

The beginning of the story is a little hard to believe, I mean, what are the chances that an Auschwitz inmate would meet one of his SS captors at a chess championship in 1960s Amsterdam? However, if you can accept the setting and get past it you are in for a wonderful and enjoyable read. The story is very touching and it expresses very human feelings of redemption, forgiveness and acceptance. Through the story the characters will form an unlikely friendship between people who would never have met otherwise and have to trust each other to survive. They both get a chance to express how the war and Auschwitz

The author sets the story when the characters meet in Amsterdam in 1962 and uses flashbacks to Auschwitz at the end of the War to provide the needed background to follow the characters and understand the reasons which brought them together. I am not an avid chess player and was a bit worried the chess references and moves would be hard to follow but I found it easy to understand and it didn’t put me off the story.

I have read many books (both fiction and non-fiction) about WWII and this has become one of my favourites, which I totally recommend to anybody interested in this time in history.
  ninnytendo | Mar 2, 2015 |
The Death’s Head Chess Club – Fantastic Read

The Death’s Head Club by John Donoghue has written a wonderful book that draws you in and delivers a book that may seem bleak with the background of Auschwitz but delivers a clever and entertaining book. Each chapter is given a title that tends to reflect a chess move, but then that should be no surprise as a book that is set around chess games. This is a moving novel that examines an impossible friendship between a Jewish inmate of the death camp and a Waffen-SS Officer in which forgiveness, survivor guilt and bitterness are challenged.

SS Obersturmfuhrer Paul Meissner is an officer of the Waffen-SS who has been badly injured on the deadly Eastern Front and he is only fit for administrative duties and a position has been found for him at Auschwitz organising the work at the Monowitz slave labour factory complex. He is charged with raising the morale of the soldiers in the camps and organises a chess competition which is successful, wins praise from senior officers even if a Gestapo Officer wins the competition. That Gestapo Officer, Klaus Hustek will clash throughout the story with Meissner and played a deadly game of cat and mouse with him.

Emil Clément is a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz who arrived with his wife, children and their grandmother and he has no idea whether they are dead or alive. He is spared due to the fact that he is skilled and can be used in the workshops at Monowitz, where his fame as watchmaker grew amongst the Nazi for repairing watches. When he hears that there are chess games played in the barracks he is able to bribe his way in to the game and his reputation as unbeatable grows from there.

Meissner hears about this unbeatable Jew and starts to have him play members of the SS officers who had won various games in the chess championship. Again he wins time and time again until the time he has to play Hustek and the game of cat and mouse begins to keep Emil alive and out of the way of the Gestapo and his bullying tactics and the attempt to have him selected for the chambers.

Emil Clément is in Amsterdam for the World Chess Championship and he is well known for his writing and thoughts that there are no good Germans, and he has drawn Willi Schwengier who had worked at the Propaganda Ministry during the war. It is not until a Catholic Bishop introduces himself to Emil that throws him in to a confused state of remembering the war as that bishop was Meissner.

As the story is told as to how unbeknown to Emil and Willi, it was Willi that indirectly had helped save his life. Switching between Amsterdam 1962 and Auschwitz we are told the story via the game of chess and how a strange friendship and respect grew over the board. We also see the game of cat and mouse develop that is more than Jew verses Nazi there is something far more medieval taking place and it will be a fight to the death.

This is a wonderful book that can challenge you on friendship and trust at the same time is a wonderful story that really does draw you in. While the events that were taking place in Auschwitz are not covered the spectre of them is always there in the background and the fear that Jews felt towards the captors. This is truly a great read and an enjoyable something that is not usually associated with Auschwitz. ( )
  atticusfinch1048 | Feb 27, 2015 |
The Death’s Head Chess Club - John Donoghue

I suppose this is a timely publication given the 70 year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

But it is a brave writer who attempts a work of fiction about the Holocaust. Is there room for sentiment or poetic licence? The history of the Holocaust is well documented so there is no room nor excuse for inaccurate research. There are survivors for whom the subject is too painful for them to speak of so there is an argument for those who can, to perpetuate, by whatever means, fact or fiction, the knowledge of this atrocity. And so Mr. Donoghue receives a mark for that.

The use of the chess game as metaphor in the cultural arts is not a new one. It’s the first time I’ve seen it used within the subject of the Holocaust. And its given me food for thought. Did anybody see it as a game? I liked most of the chapter titles being given a particular chess reference. I do not play chess and am ignorant of the subtleties of the game. I believe it to be a thing of beauty from what I have seen and heard and I think it has been cleverly used here. I am sure that the term ‘pawns’ has been utilised to describe the occupants of any concentration camp. Mark number two for Mr. Donoghue.

Also the story raises the ever present conundrums that must perplex all students of the Holocaust.
Why there were so few rebellions amongst the multitudes within the camps whom outnumbered their captors but were without ‘resources’. And why those engaged in such wickedness didn’t rebel against it at the time? Even as I write them I know they are questions without answers. We know of certain German individuals who saved lives, Oskar Schindler for one. And I have no doubt that there must have been German officers who did not believe that what they were doing was in any way ‘okay’. And in this novel Paul Meissner represents that view. I believe he is a symbol for the true feelings of many. I hope so anyway. So that is a third plus mark for John Donoghue.

I know, from what I have read and seen, that many survivors experience an overwhelming guilt for having survived when so many perished and also how many survivors never find it in their hearts to forgive what was done. It is suggested that Emil does but I remain unconvinced. No marks here.

What I also find unconvincing is the passage of time where the three protagonists appear to reconcile with each other at the chess tournament in Amsterdam in the 1960’s in such a relatively short space of time. All individuals are different, granted, but there are many survivors who took twenty plus years to even speak of their ordeal and the barbarity they witnessed to their closest family. No marks here.

At the conclusion of the book there is something touching about a survivor and a German returning to Birkenau but also something slightly unbelievable about it. It does convey how very bleak Birkenau is. I have never been anywhere in my life where the evil is so very palpable. So a mark there for accurately conveying how it feels to be at Auschwitz ‘after the event’.

I do find myself questioning why anyone wants to write a work of fiction about the Holocaust. John Boyne received some criticism for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas because there never would have been any children left alive to work at Auschwitz, they would have been gassed upon their arrival. It brings me to my earlier point about room for sentiment and poetic licence. But I suppose the real merit in these fictions is to never allow the Holocaust to be forgotten in the hope that nothing like it will ever happen again. People who may eschew factual accounts may read a story. And for that I’ll award two marks.

Put to one side the emotive subject matter and this is the work of a credible and capable writer. An ably constructed novel where the shift in time frames is dealt with smoothly. Some of the characters are stereotypical and subscribe to our existing view of Nazis, Gestapo and the SS but the main characters are allowed to develop their personalities. The research is sound and if this is a first novel, and I believe it is, there is something to look forward to in the future. A further mark.

You are a brave man, Mr. Donoghue, to tackle this subject in a fictional work and I award you seven marks out of ten. ( )
  shizz | Feb 16, 2015 |
I received a free copy of this book from RealReaders
This is a very intelligent debut novel, covering issues of guilt, forgiveness, hatred and religion. Paul Meissner is an officer from the Waffen-SS who was wounded on the Russian Front. Only fit for administrative duties, he is sent to Auschwitz, where he is set the task of improving morale among the camp staff. He sets up a chess club, which thrives when the officers and enlisted men are allowed to gamble on the results of the games. Eventually, Meissner learns that the prisoners also play chess, and that there is a Jewish watchmaker who is considered unbeatable.

The novel shifts between life in Auschwitz toward the end of the war, and an International Masters chess game in Amsterdam, in 1962; it tells how the inhumanity in the Camp affects the lives of the perpetrators and the survivors all these years later. The story makes a very strong case for forgiveness, showing how hatred and the desire for revenge can ruin the lives of victims.

I don’t play chess, or understand the moves, and I was concerned that this would spoil the book for me. In fact, I found that I was skipping the parts that described the games in detail, but I can’t say whether or not this spoiled my appreciation of the story. I would be interested to know the views of someone who does play, and who understands the moves described.

Initially, I found the story quite compelling although some of the details of life at Auschwitz were hard to read; however, I did feel that the way the characters were reconciled, how they lost the hatred and bitterness, all in the course of a few days, a little hard to believe. When one has felt so much animosity, for so many years - can it be overcome so easily? This book didn’t really prove the point for me, but it still made a very good read that I would recommend to others. ( )
  Carolintheforest | Feb 12, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374135703, Hardcover)

A novel of the improbable friendship that arises between a Nazi officer and a Jewish chessplayer in Auschwitz

SS Obersturmfuhrer Paul Meissner arrives in Auschwitz from the Russian front wounded and fit only for administrative duty. His most pressing task is to improve camp morale and he establishes a chess club, and allows officers and enlisted men to gamble on the games. Soon Meissner learns that chess is also played among the prisoners, and there are rumors of an unbeatable Jew known as "the Watchmaker." Meissner's superiors begin to demand that he demonstrate German superiority by pitting this undefeated Jew against the best Nazi players. Meissner finds Emil Clément, the Watchmaker, and a curious relationship arises between them. As more and more games are played, the stakes rise, and the two men find their fates deeply entwined.
     Twenty years later, the two meet again in Amsterdam—Meissner has become a bishop, and Emil is playing in an international chess tournament. Having lost his family in the horrors of the death camps, Emil wants nothing to do with the ex-Nazi officer despite their history, but Meissner is persistent. "What I hope," he tells Emil, "is that I can help you to understand that the power of forgiveness will bring healing." As both men search for a modicum of peace, they recall a gripping tale of survival and trust.
     A suspenseful meditation on understanding and guilt, John Donoghue's The Death's Head Chess Club is a bold debut and a rich portrait of a surprising friendship.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:00 -0400)

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