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'The Oppermanns' has lessons for today — almost a century later

The cover of "The Oppermanns." (Courtesy)
The cover of "The Oppermanns." (Courtesy)

Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1933 novel “The Oppermanns” tells the story of a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, Germany. who fall victim to the rise of the Nazis. It was reissued in the fall.

Here & Now‘s Scott Tong speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joshua Cohen, who revised the translation and wrote a forward to the new edition.

Book excerpt: ‘The Oppermanns’

By Lion Feuchtwanger

It was a few days after the appointment of the Leader to the post of chancellor. The streets swarmed with people. Everywhere the brown shirts of the Nationalist stormtroopers, and the Nationalist swastika, were to be seen. Gustav’s car, driven fast and expertly by Schlüter, could not make very rapid progress.

Still another traffic light. That American expression “the lights are against me” was an excellent one, Gustav thought. But he had no time to indulge his reflections. The persistent cries of an old woman selling dolls disturbed him. The dolls were likenesses of the Leader. The old woman held one of them to the window of the car. If you pressed the doll’s stomach, it stretched out its right arm with open palm, a gesture that the Italian Fascists had borrowed from ancient Rome and the German Fascists from the Italians. The old woman, caressing the doll, cried: “You hero, you fought, you suffered, you won.”

Gustav turned away from the grotesque spectacle. He, as well as the whole country, had been surprised by the sudden appointment of the Leader to the post of chancellor. He had not been so surprised as the Leader himself, but Gustav was unable to understand the course of events. Why was it just now, when the Nationalist movement was on the wane, that a man like the author of Mein Kampf had been put in charge of the highest office in the land? At Gustav’s golf and theater clubs it had been explained to him that there was no great danger in the business. The influence of the more moderate, more reasonable members of the Cabinet would hold the Leader in check. The whole affair was a mere ruse to keep the excited masses in hand. Gustav listened to this explanation and was very willing to believe it.

Since the appointment of the Leader of the barbarians to the chancellorship, very little had changed in the quiet streets of the residential quarter where Gustav lived. Now, during his first drive through the city, Gustav noticed with distaste the extent to which the barbarians were spreading themselves. Their troops dominated the streets. The stiff newness of their uniforms, with the smell of the tailor shop still upon them, their salutes in the ancient manner, reminded him of extras in a provincial theater. At street corners, collection boxes, whose contents were destined for election propaganda, were held out to the passersby. He let down the window of the car to hear what they were shouting. “For awakening Germany, for the one-way street to Jerusalem,” he heard. Gustav had been in the army and served for a few months in the field. It was Anna’s efforts that had saved him from further experiences at the front during that time. His military service, that senseless subservi- ence to the will of others, had been the most disagreeable period of his life. He had tried to wipe it out of his memory; it made him ill to think of it. Now, at the sight of those brown uni- forms, he was again oppressed by the unwelcome recollection.

They reached Gertraudtenstrasse. There stood the main building of the House of Oppermann, wedged between its neighbors, old-fashioned, solid. Here, too, in front of the princi- pal entrance, uniformed members of the Nationalist Party were demanding contributions for their election boxes from the passersby. “For awakening Germany, for the Leader, for the one-way street to Jerusalem,” they cried in their clear, boyish voices. Rigid and sullen, his stiff face with its gray mustache unmoved, the old porter Leschinsky stood at his post. He saluted Gustav in a noticeably surly manner, swung the revolving door around for him with a particularly brusque jerk; he wished to give the senior partner an impressive proof of his loyalty in the face of those young ruffians.

In the directors’ office they were already waiting for Gustav. Jaques Lavendel was there, as well as Frau Klara Lavendel, and the chief clerks Brieger and Hintze. Only Edgar was missing. Gustav came in with his precise, rapid stride and tried to appear unconcerned, beaming as usual. He pointed to

the copy of the picture of Immanuel Oppermann. “Excellent, that copy. I believe you put me off with a copy, Martin, and kept the original for yourself.” But it was only the brisk Herr Brieger who responded in the same boisterous fashion. “Business is excellent, Dr. Oppermann,” said he. “The Nazis are settling down on a great scale just now, and people who are settling down want furniture. And who supplies the furniture for their Brown Houses? We do.”

They got down to business. Martin said a few introductory words. The Nationalists had used anti-Semitism as a basis for their propaganda. It was possible, even probable, that now they were in power they would dispense with this expedient as superfluous and economically injurious. However, it would be as well to be cautious. He asked Herr Brieger to give his opinion.

The big-nosed, emphatically Jewish-looking little Herr Brieger spoke as flippantly as ever. There was now nothing else for it but to combine all the Oppermann branches into the “German Furniture Company.” In addition, it would be as well finally to come to an understanding with Herr Wels. He had sounded out Herr Wels. It was odd, but he was the one who got on best with that fire-eating goy. If there was really anything to the scare, and if it was destined to outlast the storm that was almost certain to come—in this case his outlook was more gloomy than that of Herr Martin Oppermann—then at least 51 percent of the stock of the firm must be transferred to non-Jewish holders before the elections. It was essential to prove this beyond shadow of a doubt, though, of course, the real state of affairs would be quite different. Technically, this could be done with ease. But the necessary transactions were of a delicate and intricate character and required a clear understanding, steady determination, and goodwill from both partners. Those are three points in which we are strong but Herr Wels is not.

This was Herr Brieger’s outline of the situation, described briskly, with many shrewd and witty turns of speech, with an ostensible ease of manner that was not, however, quite convincing.

The stately Herr Hintze sat stiffly aloof, his head held high. “I think,” he said, “that if Professor Mühlheim puts his mind to it we can get the German Furniture Company organized within a week. We’re not yet at the stage, thank God, where the Oppermanns have to run after a man like Herr Wels. Let us get the German Furniture Company established, gentlemen, and then we can wait quietly until our friend comes to us.”

“Well and good,” said Jaques Lavendel, directing an ami- able glance at Herr Hintze, “but suppose he doesn’t come to us? Suppose he listens to what the Leader says every day on the radio? Suppose he believes it? Alas, he’s not very strong in the head. Don’t credit people with too much sense, gentlemen. Present conditions show that has always, so far, been a bad speculation. Start negotiations with the goy. Start them today. Don’t be mean. Don’t starve the ox that grinds the corn. Give him a big bite to swallow. It’s better than giving him the whole thing.”

Gustav sat with the air of a man who listens to a discussion out of courtesy but who is secretly bored by it. Now, as he still remained silent, Martin demanded: “What do you think, Gustav?”

“I am not of your opinion, Martin,” he said. His usually amiable growl sounded irritated and determined. “Nor am I of your opinion, Herr Brieger, nor of yours, Herr Hintze, and most certainly not of yours, Jaques. I do not understand why all of you suddenly have the jitters. What has happened? A popular blockhead has been given an important office and has had a check put on him by the appointment of able men as his colleagues. Do you really believe that, because a few thousand young, armed ruffians roam about in the streets, there is an end of Germany?” He was

sitting very erect and looked very large; his pleasant face expressed annoyance and excitement. “What do you imagine is going to happen? What are you afraid of? Do you believe they will forbid our customers to buy from us? Do you believe our shops will be closed down? Do you believe your capital will be confiscated? Because we are Jews?

Excerpted from “The Oppermanns” by Lion Feuchtwanger, translated by James Cleugh. Revised translation copyright 2022 by McNally Editions.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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