Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 26, 2021

Ein Stein, by Joe Reich

The inspiration for this remarkable book by Melbourne ophthalmologist Joe Reich AM was, he tells us in the Acknowledgements, his previous book, the biography of Zwi Lewin (My Sack of Memories, see my reviewand the difficulty of reconciling memory with history.  The result, in Ein Stein, is a cunningly constructed mystery which kept me reading long after I should have turned out the light.  This is the blurb:

Ernst Leitz II (“the photography industry’s Schindler”) not only designed and manufactured Germany’s most famous camera, but also saved hundreds of Jewish lives from certain death during the Holocaust. From the kernel of this true story, Joe Reich weaves an interesting – sometimes outrageous – blend of fact and fiction, historical and current times, drawing the reader into the fictional life and exploits of the protagonist elderly “survivor” Jack (Yaakov Stein) now living in Melbourne. After trying to pass off a false testimony to a young Catholic photographer, Ian Gross, he then relents and tells us the truth … Or does he? With false memoirs all the rage, this is clearly a fictitious story with some real characters, at once highly entertaining and deadly serious.

There are three narratives about the life of Yaakov Stein: the false video narrative told to cover his tracks; the subsequent more expansive and confessional account that he writes himself; and—after his death—the investigation by his granddaughter and her lover using all the resources of the Internet and DNA databases.

The novel raises all kinds of interesting questions about truth and history; about identity and politics, and about the ethical pressures that bedevil people in times of war, not just in Nazi Germany but also in the Cold War.  In this novel we see a man who made dubious moral choices, when really, at crucial times in his life, his only choices were whether, when and how to flee.  However, his reasons to flee were only partially to do with having Jewish antecedents.  I think that book groups will have a fine time unpacking the morality of the postwar decisions he made.

Ein Stein confounds glib judgments about guilt or honour.  After the war, Yaakov Stein retrieves an old identity to search in Wetzlar, Germany for his missing wife and son.  He visits the industrialist Herr Leitz whose Leica Freedom Train enabled his escape and the escape of many others, but is surprised to find that the business is in limbo and Leitz is being investigated for war crimes because of the Faustian bargain he made to be allowed to make a 35mm camera, a toy compared to the serious scientific microscopes my father built this company on.

“Perhaps we were criminals.  We had so few able-bodied men for our factory we needed forced labourers to complete our orders.  Over six hundred Ukrainians and others from Central Europe.  Nine hundred and sixty-two.  Let me be clear, they were slave labour, vital for the war effort.  So now the Americans who guard this building don’t know what to do with this old fool.  A major supplier of the Nazi war machine, a member of the Nazi Party, an enslaver of men.  They are talking of trials for the Nazis.  How would they do that?  There is, I believe, already a list of one and a half million cases to prepare and so few German-speaking American lawyers to prosecute them.  And if they succeeded and jailed us all, who would restart the factories, rebuild Germany, stop the Russians from taking over all of Europe.  So they don’t know whether to free me or put me in a cell for ten years.” (p.161

Despite Stein’s gratitude for the hundreds who were saved, Leitz struggles with the guilt of knowing that “If a Panzer tank has an accurate sight, each shell will hit its destination.  It will kill more.  There were thousands of tanks.  How many did I help kill?” 

Later in the novel, a character hurls a cruel insult, accusing a fellow-Jew of being a kapodespite knowing that any kapo who refused his wretched task in the Nazi camps faced death.  There are no easy answers to the questions surrounding collaboration.

Testament to the skill of the author, each of the three narratives are equally convincing, and it is not until they are interrogated by those who are supposed to believe them that the reader feels the same doubts.  What is finally revealed is astonishing, but it’s impossible to discuss it in a review without ruining this compelling reading experience for others.

The various settings both contemporary and historical have an authenticity that breathes life into the story, while the characterisation and dialogue (including some droll jokes) made Ein Stein a most enjoyable reading experience.

Author: Joe Reich
Title: Ein Stein, a novel
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2021
Cover design by Gittus Graphics
ISBN: 9781925736564, pbk., 290 pages
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Hybrid Publishers (including as an eBook) and good bookshops everywhere.


Responses

  1. I may have to add this to the list …

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    • You may have to wait a little while… we’re just about to hear the details of the impending lockdown, and there may be short-term disruptions to delivery…

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  2. Sounds fascinating, Lisa, and you are so right – the choices were impossible to make, and who knows how any of us would have behaved in those circumstances.

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  3. This sounds like a most delightfully rewarding reading experience. And well done on not even brushing close to a spoiler. Even though it sounds like the kind of read that leaves you desperate to discuss its cleverness in detail!

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    • You’re exactly right about it being a book that cries out for discussion. I can almost hear the book group starting with ‘at what point in the book did you realise…..’

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