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Germany: Surviving the Whispers

Do keep an eye on my friend, won’t you? Only a child would refuse to save himself….…And all because he cannot bear to leave his house or his Rembrandts.
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Cloisters Collection/Metropolitan Museum of Art
A fifteenth-century German Palmesel, depicting Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, now at the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters. A similar object is among the possessions of the Metzenburg family collection in Susanna Moore’s novel.

From the first, Beatrice understands that “the objects seemed more real to me than the people”:

I’d never seen anything as pretty as the silver plates decorated with bees, snails, and mulberries that had been bought, Kreck said, at the Duchess of Portland’s auction. The dinner service with mythological figures in red and gold had been used by Frederick the Great at Sanssouci. A fluted white beaker and saucer, painted with plump Japanese children, had come from the palace in Dresden….

The china is but a fraction of the family wealth that is transferred from Berlin to Löwendorf, along with paintings, silver, linens and lace, valuable books and sculptures, such as “a melancholy barefoot Christ, the size of a child, sitting on the back of an equally downcast donkey. It was called a Palmesel…and it depicted Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.” (It may not be a coincidence that the Palmesel at the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters in New York City had once belonged to an Ernst Münzenberger.)

Furthermore, Löwendorf becomes a repository not only for the Metzenburgs’ valuables but also for those of their friends:

Not a week passed when something did not arrive from the Metzenburgs’ friends in Berlin for Felix to hide. Silver teapots and rolled canvases were easily managed, but chairs and tables—even an organ on a wagon drawn by two weary horses—were more difficult.

The entire estate becomes a hoard of buried treasure that will be destroyed by Allied bombs and rampant looting.

At the heart of Felix’s collection is “a painting by Cranach that he kept in his bedroom,” which he initially asks Caspar to bury for him and then chooses to hide instead in the cellar of the Pavilion, a building on the Löwendorf property, “where he could at least look at it now and then.” This painting, which he is later forced to sell and which Beatrice delivers to its Nazi buyer, depicts Venus and an unhappy Cupid swatting at bees, along with a Latin inscription meaning “The pleasures of life are mixed with pain.” Unnamed in the novel, it is one of Cranach’s masterpieces, Cupid Complaining to Venus, which now hangs in London’s National Gallery and was discovered, several years ago, to have made its way into the private collection of Adolf Hitler. (It was then taken from a warehouse in Germany at the end of the war by an American journalist named Patricia Hartwell, who brought it to the United States and eventually sold it.)

Needless to say, the exact fate of this painting is not announced in the novel, and must be inferred. All that Beatrice records is her encounter in the village, at nighttime, with the driver of a black Daimler flying a Nazi flag, and the exchange of the rolled-up painting for a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales containing a brown envelope and five large hampers of food. Like the Metzenburgs’ hidden treasures, the ever-expanding remarkable stories contained in Beatrice’s narrative lurk beneath its surface. With a little more digging, we may or may not find untold riches.

While never insisted upon—Moore is a mistress of understatement—the ironies of compromise are rife in the novel, for those who care to see them. What appears to Beatrice a life of glamour and worldliness that has been petrified, by hardship, into one of endurance and gritty determination is, in fact, more nuanced.

The Metzenburgs are simultaneously more innocent and more entangled than Beatrice wishes to acknowledge. Aware of the risks, they remain in Germany in order to protect their valuables—and with them, their code of honor and their only known way of life. Unlike the phoenix Inéz, their inner conviction is that they have standing and ethical logic only in Germany: in leaving, they would sacrifice not only their heritage, but their very selves. Their valuables would be destroyed, their way of life usurped. And yet, almost to the last, the Metzenburgs’ treasures can buy them invisible indulgences. They cannot save Herr Elias, it is true; but Cranach’s painting, rolled and delivered like a first-born child into the hands of the Führer, will protect Dorothea’s life—albeit in strips and tatters—until the war’s end.

Then come the Russians: the end of the war destroys the last vestiges of the known. What years of Nazi madness and Allied bombing could not achieve, the Russians accomplish in a matter of weeks: they break the bodies and spirits of these survivors, they shatter irreparably the small Metzenburg family, and reveal the futility of all their efforts. When, sometime later, Dieter, the household’s driver, visits Beatrice and Dorothea in Berlin, he brings “a loaf of sliced white bread, a jar of Nescafé, powdered eggs, and three bars of Palmolive soap from the American PX,” gifts that are, to the women, greater treasure than any gold or silver. This is a new world, in which the chauffeur and his comestibles have more to offer than the grande dame and the remains of her salvaged hoard. Beatrice recognizes that

if the old world had remained the same, I would not have been invited to lunch with Felix at the Adlon, or to swim with Dorothea in the river, or to sit with them after dinner to listen to Jean Sablon sing “Two Sleepy People.” Had the men not been sent to the war and the maids not been forced into slave labor, I would have disappeared into the sewing room with my bobbin and thread. I knew that the war had given me a life.

In the unlikely—but utterly possible—trajectory of Beatrice Palmer, Susanna Moore has shed telling light upon the complexity of ordinary lives in that terrible, tumultuous time. From her modest Irishwoman’s unexpected perspective, Moore grants the contemporary reader access to a long-vanished and long-obscured way of life; and in so doing reminds us of our own unthinking and compromised reality, in which history happens to us and around us, changing us even when we are unaware. Only a few can alter the course of history directly; most of us bumble, often unsure until afterward of what has occurred. Our eyes on the beauty of Inéz’s black silk peignoir, we hand over our passports without thinking; and from such unconsidered moments, lives become changed.

At the novel’s close, Beatrice allows that

over the years I’d learned many things. I was less ignorant, of course, \than when I arrived, a greedy girl from the west of Ireland. I’d known nothing of politics….… I knew that I was susceptible to influence….… I was easily impressed and easily gratified.

From that initial position of blithe naiveté, in the company of the Metzenburgs, Beatrice passes through fire into another selfhood, one she would not have renounced in spite of everything: “the war had given me a life.”

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