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Remote Sympathy

by Catherine Chidgey

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543411,406 (4.56)32
This polyphonic novel of an S.S. officer, his ailing wife, and a concentration camp survivor "marks a vital turn in Holocaust literature" (Publishers Weekly, starred review). Being appointed administrator of the Buchenwald work camp is a major advancement for SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn. But as the prison population begins to rise, his job becomes ever more consuming. His wife, Frau Greta Hahn, finds their new home even lovelier than their apartment in Munich. She enjoys life among the other officer's wives, and the ease with which she can purchase nearly anything her heart desires. When Frau Hahn is forced into an unlikely alliance with one of Buchenwald's prisoners, Dr. Lenard Weber, her naïve ignorance about what is going on so nearby is challenged. A decade earlier, Dr. Weber had invented a machine: the Sympathetic Vitaliser. At the time he believed that its subtle resonances might cure cancer. But does it really work? One way or another, it might yet save a life. A tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels us to question our continuing and willful ability to look the other way in a world that is once more in thrall to the idea that everything--even facts, truth and morals--is relative. Shortlisted for the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards… (more)
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I picked up this book because it appeared on the 2022 Dublin Literary Award shortlist and the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. Set primarily in or near the Buchenwald concentration camp, the novel alternates among four narrators: Dietrich Hahn, Greta Hahn, Dr. Lenard Weber, and Weimar citizens.

SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn is the Chief Administrator of the camp; his story takes the form of taped interviews with an unknown person in 1954. His wife Greta has ovarian cancer; her story takes the form of an imaginary diary. Dr. Lenard Weber is a part-Jewish doctor, the inventor of the Sympathetic Vitaliser for the treatment of cancer, who comes to treat Greta; his story takes the form of letters written in Frankfurt to his daughter Lotte in 1946. Finally, there are chorus-like sections “From the Private Reflections of One Thousand Citizens of Weimar” which show the thoughts and reactions of the people living in the town around Buchenwald.

The book examines the human inclination to ignore evidence and lie to ourselves and others to avoid accepting the unacceptable. Dietrich says, “People want to make us into monsters, but it’s easy to accuse someone else of atrocities to deflect attention from our own involvement – to salve your own conscience.” Oh the irony: he refuses to acknowledge his role in the suffering of camp inmates; he focuses on the stress of his job and his difficulties because of budget constraints. He sees his depriving people of basic necessities as a sign of his doing a good job. Because he is “the man responsible for those savings . . . I deserved a small percentage. That was only fair” so he steals gold teeth fillings. He further justifies his actions and casts aspersions on others: “every single officer at Buchenwald skimmed off his share. . . . You see the corruption I was up against. How impossible it was to run a decent sort of place. My goodness, I wasn’t taking food out of anyone’s mouth.” When atrocities are brought to his attention, he says, “Before my time, and not my area – I was merely in supplies” and “I was merely in administration.” He avoids looking at things that might make him uncomfortable: “like all the other officers, I preferred not to have to visit the compound unnecessarily; you risked seeing something.” Everyone but he is to blame: “As far as I was aware, for instance, every prisoner had his own bed and his own bedding; if Wolff shoved two or three inmates in together, that was out of my control.” Even the victims are to blame: “most inmate deaths weren’t due to mistreatment on the part of our men but the result of disputes amongst themselves, or the diseases they brought with them into camp, or indeed the scheming by the illegal communist underground to do away with undesirables.”

Greta also ignores what is going on around her. She doesn’t ask questions about Josef, a prisoner who serves as her domestic. She accepts that she can have whatever she wants made by skilled workers at the camp and takes pride in having “the finest craftsmen in Europe” available to her. It is obvious that she may have some idea of what her husband does because she avoids walking near the camp. She visits the Buchenwald zoo where she sees bears: “I could see shreds of raw meat, bits of bone – the remains of their dinner, I supposed, but I decided not to look too closely.” She initially accepts the explanation that the shrieks she hears are made by peacocks. Only later does she start asking questions: “are the cries of peacocks always the cries of peacocks?”

Dr. Weber tries to convince himself and others that his machine does cure cancer though there is no scientific evidence that it does. Of course, admitting that his machine is inefficacious could mean that Dietrich would have no reason to protect him. Just as Dietrich refuses to believe that Greta is getting worse, Dr. Weber keeps trying to convince the Hahns and himself that she is improving. Despite what the doctor sees in the camp, he refuses to think that his wife and daughter, who were deported to another camp, could be dead.

The citizens of Weimar hear strange noises, smell smoke, and see signs of camp inmates being mistreated, yet refuse to admit what is happening at Buchenwald. When one man is seen with a gash in need of stitches, they see this as “proof they were unruly criminals, Bolshevik sub-humans who couldn’t resist violent dust-ups amongst themselves. It was proof they were in the right place.” When they hear rumours of beatings, torture, starvation, and executions, they are dismissed because there have been no newspaper reports. When Buchenwald is liberated by Americans and the townspeople are shown evidence of what happened in the camp, the citizens do not believe: “This was not real. The figure swinging from the gallows was a dummy filled with straw. Those were animal bones in the oven. And there must have been an epidemic; something that had spread so quickly it couldn’t be contained. Dreadful, of course, but nobody’s fault.” The townspeople do what Dr. Weber describes: “’Maybe you stop noticing after a while. Like a . . . like a cracked windowpane that you always mean to fix but never do, until you just don’t see it interfering with the view any more.’”

This book should inspire us all to ask some questions of ourselves: To what am I turning a blind eye? What lies am I telling myself? What we walk past is what we tolerate. Self-deception may make us feel better, but it doesn't make us innocent.

Note: Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Apr 21, 2022 |
Remote Sympathy captures the detailed thoughts of Dietrich Hahn, one of the many loathsome, immoral and ineffective nazis running Buchenwald, during post-war interrogations. Like most Germans, Hahn is indoctrinated with hateful misinformation and propaganda by his supervisors in the highest echelons of the Third Reich. To further his career, now that he has a beautiful, younger wife, he becomes fully vested in accepting these irrational and dangerous lies, and denying the common decency of truth. When questioned about his egregious actions during the war he assumes no responsibility, displays no remorse and blames others. Hahn tried hard to convince his interrogators he was helping prisoners get plenty of healthy food, good accommodations, and health care.

For Greta, moving from the home she loved, in Munich near her family, to the outskirts of Buchenwald was the start of a nightmare. We learn of Greta Hahn’s attraction to Dietrich while they were courting, and the love she feels for him when they marry. But in Buchenwald she complies with his ‘protective’ lies about the felons in the camp being re-habilitated and then released.

But little by little, she and the other nazi families, and the townspeople learn some of the truth.
Between the unfathomable odors, hearing screams from hell, sewage problems, and seeing emaciated prisoners, and piles of corpses they had to know what was happening. They forced themselves to believe what Hahn and other nazis told them. Residing in Buchenwald, distraction and denial were key to controlling their overwhelming fears not doing the right thing though one woman did try.

Is this when they realized just how they all were responsible for not protesting laws against their neighbors? Did they regret allowing a monster to charm and lead them down the road to hell where innocents were tortured and killed? Did they seriously believe they would ‘benefit’ from the wholesale murder of millions? Was any benefit worth this unfathomably evil loss?
Greta sensed, and then knew the truth, and that Dietrich had lied to her. This may have caused her illness. Perhaps if they had openly communicated with each other, talked about the horror, they could have chosen a different path. But it was too late for Hahn and most nazis and German citizens to acknowledge and admit what evil they had wrought and under whose weight they suffered.

We learn of prisoner Dr. Leonard Weber's through hopeful letters to his daughter Lotte, and the history of the Sympathetic Vitaliser, which he invented years ago when young and passionate about healing cancer patients.

Hahn wants to believe Dr. Weber can help Greta; Weber requests Hahn provide information about his wife and daughter in Theresienstadt. It does take time but Greta does improve briefly. Soon after an allied bombing reaches Buchenwald, Hahn and Weber both know the truth about Greta and try denying it for different reasons. Weber, trying to stay alive knowing the allies are coming closer each day, stalls for time. He is afraid that Hahn will not require his services once Weber admits he cannot help any longer; possibly sending Weber to his death.

I felt the novel did drag a bit. But redeeming it: It is filled with horrendous scenes amidst stunningly beautiful imagery. As well irrational evil and hate in battle with love; love of life, family, friends, community and responsibility, nature, integrity, beauty, and memories.

I am very appreciative of a wonderfully moving surprise ending.
  Bookish59 | Mar 3, 2022 |
Catherine Chidgey is a versatile author: as you can see from this summary at Wikipedia she has written in a variety of styles and across wide-ranging topics. I discovered her work when The Wish Child became a bestseller in 2017, was captivated by the way she captured contemporary life in The Beat of the Pendulum in 2018 and then was lucky to find a copy of her debut novel In a Fishbone Church. She has won multiple awards both in New Zealand and internationally, and has just been longlisted for the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for her latest novel Remote Sympathy.

You might remember that I reported on the launch of this book via Zoom. This is how I summarised the story at the time:
One of the guiding images of the novel is ‘The Transparent Man’, an installation in Vienna. This was a model of a male body which had been on display in the 1930s, which Catherine knew of from her research for The Wish Child. ‘The Transparent Man’ was a sensation because it was the first time people had been able to see a model of the human body wired to show how internal body parts work. In the novel, Lenard, a doctor who is hoping to find a treatment for cancer, goes to see this model and that’s where he meets Anna, his future wife, who is Jewish. He doesn’t find the cure he’s looking for, but he gets sent to the camp to cure the wife of a prominent Nazi so he has to pretend that he can.
[caption id="attachment_104064" align="alignleft" width="225"] Source: Wikipedia[/caption]

The transparent man was on display in the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden which was bombed during the war, but there are replicas in many museums around the world. But in the novel, when Doktor Lenard Weber sees it, it is unique, and it is the catalyst for his invention: a cure for cancer called the Sympathetic Vitaliser. At the Holy Spirit Hospital in Frankfurt, he gets approval to run a trial, and remarkably, two patients with cancer go into remission. Weber is a good scientist, and he knows these are just cases of spontaneous remission, and he's disappointed but not surprised when these two cases eventually die.

All this is taking place amid the Nazi rise to power, and before long the restrictions that apply to Lenard's Jewish wife and child force them apart. Things get difficult for him at the hospital, but shortly after he is dismissed, he is summoned to the Buchenwald slave labour camp near Weimar, where to his dismay he is required to rebuild his Sympathetic Vitaliser in order to treat Greta Hahn, the terminally ill wife of the camp administrator, Dietrich Hahn.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2021/02/04/remote-sympathy-by-catherine-chidgey/ ( )
2 vote anzlitlovers | Feb 4, 2021 |
Showing 3 of 3
The novel is set almost entirely in Buchenwald, one of Germany’s largest and most infamous concentration camps of the Second World War. Accordingly, even the most ignorant reader must know they will enter a world of unmitigated horror. The early optimism offered by protagonist Doktor Lenard Weber’s joyful marriage to Jewess Anna, and his invention of the Sympathetic Vitaliser, a machine he hopes will cure cancer through electrotherapy, is necessarily short-lived. There can be no happy ending to a Holocaust story, even if it is fiction, even if the hero, by some miracle, survives.
 
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This polyphonic novel of an S.S. officer, his ailing wife, and a concentration camp survivor "marks a vital turn in Holocaust literature" (Publishers Weekly, starred review). Being appointed administrator of the Buchenwald work camp is a major advancement for SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn. But as the prison population begins to rise, his job becomes ever more consuming. His wife, Frau Greta Hahn, finds their new home even lovelier than their apartment in Munich. She enjoys life among the other officer's wives, and the ease with which she can purchase nearly anything her heart desires. When Frau Hahn is forced into an unlikely alliance with one of Buchenwald's prisoners, Dr. Lenard Weber, her naïve ignorance about what is going on so nearby is challenged. A decade earlier, Dr. Weber had invented a machine: the Sympathetic Vitaliser. At the time he believed that its subtle resonances might cure cancer. But does it really work? One way or another, it might yet save a life. A tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels us to question our continuing and willful ability to look the other way in a world that is once more in thrall to the idea that everything--even facts, truth and morals--is relative. Shortlisted for the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards

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