by Ingeborg Day
Viking, 244 pp., $11.95
A Model Childhood
by Christa Wolf
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 407 pp., $17.50
When Ingeborg Day, who lives in New York, had finished the manuscript of this book, she showed it to a Jewish friend. The point of the book is the statement—startling, and in the circumstances courageous—that she has “a thing about Jews.” She has discovered in herself, deeply buried and for many years unnoticed, a visceral revulsion. The discovery appalls her, and it puzzles her too. She was born in Austria, but she was only four when the Nazi regime collapsed, and her parents never uttered a word about its doctrines afterward. All the same, the gut feeling has turned out to be there, like a hereditary disorder of the blood which makes itself felt only in early middle age. Ingeborg Day wants to find out how this happened, and why.
It was not a popular project. The Jewish friend said uneasily that he didn’t like the parts of the book about anti-Semitism. That was “a strong word…you are not an anti-Semite.” It might all be a matter of language, he suggested hopefully. They argued. Ingeborg Day asked what you called somebody prejudiced against Jews if you did not call him an anti-Semite. Finally the friend lost his cool and shouted, “But Ingeborg, don’t you understand, an anti-Semite is a terrible person!”
This was hardly helpful. People with all kinds of other predilections might be encouraged to come out. But this was beyond pedophilia, more awful even than being born an Elephant Man. Anyway, a person who could write even a halfway attractive book about being anti-Semitic couldn’t really be an anti-Semite. Ingeborg’s father, many years before, had made an even more useless contribution.
“What was the war about?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Did you gas any Jews?”
“If you care to leave my house, forever, right now, you need only repeat what you just said.”
The point about that conversation is its un-Austrian nature. Or, to be exact, its un-Austrian questions. A properly brought-up Austrian child of Ingeborg’s generation would have sensed that you do not ask these things directly. But Ingeborg’s upbringing had been a little different. At sixteen, she had been sent to the United States as an exchange student. There she had lived with a surrogate Mom and Dad, enjoyed having her very own room with a chenille bedcover, shared a pink bathroom with only one other person, gorged on oranges and Lorna Doone cookies—and watched TV. And on television were the war movies. It was 1957, but Ingeborg simply had not known what the Third Reich had done, or how the outside world regarded those—like her father—who had been members of the Nazi Party. She borrowed a history book, hoping to find something to reassure her that the old movies about soldiers in jackboots exterminating the old and helpless were just old movies. The textbook, however, told her more and worse things than the television screen.
Some readers will already …