Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 19, 2018

The Seventh Cross, by Anna Seghers, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo #BookReview

  A brilliantly written escape novel, written while the Nazis were in power and one of the only depictions of a concentration camp to be seen in the midst of war.  The Seventh Cross was an international bestseller in 1942, but it hasn’t been in print in the UK since.

That blurb is a story in itself, eh?  Anna Seghers was a significant author of novels and short stories in pre-war Germany, but as a Communist of Jewish descent she fled with her husband and children to Mexico.  This novel was published there and it became a movie starring Spencer Tracy in 1944.

At this distance it looks like a woeful movie, disappointing because it fails to capture the nuances of the book.  Yes, The Seventh Cross is an escape novel, but it’s also more than that, it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of surveillance and the way distrust sabotages the sense of community which binds us together as human.

The seventh cross of the title, is the last of seven erected for the purpose of executing the escapees from the (fictional) Westhofen Concentration Camp.  The inmates of the camp are political prisoners – dissident communists and unionists and people who’ve spoken out against the Nazi regime.  The commandant of the camp is unhinged by the mass breakout: his petty ambitions are on the line and so he butchers these seven plane trees to prepare a cross for each escapee – as a warning to the rest of the camp and a signal to his superiors that this escape will not go unpunished. The allusions to the crucifixion of Christ are an overt reminder that many of the Nazi perpetrators of evil were Christians.

The novel follows the pursuit of the seventh man, George Heisler.  One by the others are recaptured and subjected to interrogation by Fahrenberg to find out how the escape was planned.  Segher’s great strength in this novel is her sense of restraint: the rather matter-of-fact way she exposes their brutality makes it all the more horrific because it is so routine.  The recaptured prisoners know what is coming, and hope only to survive without giving out information until their inevitable death…

Heisler’s journey is marked by his fear of betrayal.  His family and ‘known associates”, of course, are under surveillance.  But he has friends and acquaintances not known to the authorities – which among these can he trust?  And even if he can trust a man, can he trust the wife who has legitimate fears for the safety of her children?  Once again there is restraint in Seghers’ delivery: just one short clause tells us about a man who could not live with himself after his betrayal…

‘They had to arrest the Bachmann woman in Worms too.’

‘Why? Overkamp asked brusquely.  He had told them he was opposed to arresting her, for it would only arouse curiosity and tension among the populace, and overtly considerate treatment if the Bachmann family would be more effective in isolating them.

‘When they took Bachmann down from the attic where he’d hanged himself, his wife had yelled that he should have done it a day earlier, before the questioning, and it was a shame about her clothesline.’ (p.178)

The novel also shows how people did not always intend the terrible consequences of their actions.  In the town of Buchenbach – amalgamated from Ober- und Unterbuchenbach in an administrative reform, two mayors vie for the one remaining position.  The treacherous Wurz wanted only to usurp his rival – he wasn’t expecting him to be arrested and never return.  In addition, Wurz had expected only that there would be financial advantages for his sons joining the SA (the abbreviation of Sturmabteilung, a paramilitary group known also as the Storm Troopers or Hitler’s Brownshirts). But now he fears that one of the escapees, Aldinger, is on the run in order to kill him in revenge.

The damage to social relationships extends everywhere.  Lifelong friends fear giving themselves away and drift apart, until they have a moment of shared comprehension.  It’s worth quoting this passage in full:

Meanwhile, George had eaten his fill. He’d left the automat without looking to the right or left.  In the process he’d brushed against the fellow who had just a moment before started at the sight of him.

‘Do you know him?’ the other fellow asked his companion.

‘Fritz,’ the first one said, ‘you know him too.  At least you used to know him.’

The other one looked at him questioningly.

‘I’m sure that was George,’ the first one went on, quite beside himself.  ‘Yes, George Heisler, the one who escaped.’

‘God, you could have earned yourself some money!’ the other one said with a half smile and a sideways glance.

‘Could I really have done something like that?  Could you?’

They suddenly looked directly into each other’s eyes with the terrible look of … creatures whose intelligence is imprisoned during their lifetimes and remains incommunicable.  There was a flash in the eyes of the second one, and he said, ‘No, I couldn’t have done it either.’

They packed up their bags.  They used to be good friends, these two; then came the years when they no longer talked about anything meaningful with each other for fear of giving themselves away, in case the other had changed.  Now it turned out that they were both still the same; neither one had changed.  They left the automat, friends again.  (p.196)

But for those who have to decide whether to help or not, it’s not an easy decision. Franz, George’s former friend and rival in love, vacillates through phases of wanting to help or wanting to hinder him.  And for George, with his own fears and loneliness, his anxiety about who to trust, being on the run makes it surprisingly easy to sum up a man’s character:

A couple of dozen people went through his head who were probably just then working at their jobs or picking at their food – with no idea of the terrible scale om which they were being weighed at that moment. A Last Judgement on a bright autumn morning without trumpet blasts.  (p.207)

The Seventh Cross is an exciting novel – well paced and with a rising sense of tension as the dragnet closes in time and again.  I admit to reading the last 40-odd pages when my attention waned during the Barry Hill session at the WillyLitFest – I just had to know if George made it to freedom or if the seventh cross was his doom…

And no, of course I’m not going to tell you if he is caught or not!

Author: Anna Seghers
Title: The Seventh Cross (Das Siebte Kreutz, Ein Roman aus Hitler-Deutschland)
Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo
Publisher: Virago UK 2018, first published by El Libre Libro, Mexico, 1942
ISBN: 9780349010670
Review copy courtesy of Hachette Australia

Available from Fishpond: The Seventh Cross


Responses

  1. You won’t be surprised that this is the kind of book I am automatically drawn to, just ordered from Abe Books (despite me telling myself to stop getting stuff while I am renting!).

    • That’s interesting, can you tell if it’s the same translator? I think there must have been someone else who translated the 1942 edition, but I can’t find out anywhere because so often people don’t #namethetranslator – often not even the publisher.

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. Great review Lisa. I’ve only read one Seghers – Transit – which I thought was excellent. I’d very much like to read this too, but I’ll have to make sure I have the emotional stamina first… :s

    • I’d like to read one of her later novels… it intrigues me that someone who could write so perceptively about the effects of surveillance could willingly return to live in East Germany which was infamous for the same phenomenon.

  4. I’m really looking forward to reading this. I couldn’t help but order it as soon as it was published over here.

    • You won’t be able to put it down, I romped through it in two days.

  5. It does sound excellent, a really gripping and important read. Like Kaggsy, I loved Seghers’ Transit but wonder if I have the emotional mettle to read this one – probably not right now but maybe in the future. It’s great to see it getting a release though – I think Virago has published it over here.

    • I can see that I’m going to have to chase up Transit:)

  6. Hello fellow Seghers-enthusiasts. I just wanted to let you know that there is currently available one English-language translation of a Seghers’ East German work, ‘Crossing: A Love Story’. I should declare an interest, in that I translated the book from the original German. It is a very good, well constructed story, more compact than both ‘The Seventh Cross’ and ‘Transit’, in fact it’s more a novella than a novel. I’m afraid it is currently a bit costly to obtain, as it is a US publication.

    I have had nothing to do with the translations of ‘Transit’ or ‘The Seventh Cross’, but it is very exciting to see renewed interest in this important German writer. And for the first time in a long time, Anna Seghers should find a place in UK bookshops, as Virago bought the translation to ‘The Seventh Cross’ from New York Review of Books.

    In April of this year a German film was released of ‘Transit’, updating the story to take in our present-day European refugee crisis. I don’t know if the film has English subtitles as yet.

    Harder still to obtain is a fresh English-language translation of Seghers’ unforgettable, devastating short story, ‘The Excursion of the Dead Girls’. This was published in the Fall 2017 edition of the American literary journal, American Imago.

    Possibly some time next year the same US publisher of ‘Crossing’ is set to publish in English translation for the first time Anna Seghers’ last little book, ‘Three Women from Haiti’, which I translated. This is a very different text to these other aforementioned works, and shows her keen interest in Latin American and the Caribbean, as well as her deep concern for those marginalised in history, especially women.

    Exciting times for fans of Seghers!

    Best wishes from Scotland,

    Douglas Irving

    • Hello Douglas – and thank you for all this valuable information! Let us hope that publishers will take note of the interest from bloggers and make all these new translations available:)
      And maybe the film will come to us in Australia as part of the German film festival!


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