“I have to dare to join in, take the step of becoming part of something where I think I belong, something that offers me a chance to live. I need to find a new, stable way to live, and something more than just an external structure. I understand it differently now—the mind, I mean. I’ve felt differently about it ever since I’ve had to spend all of my time living and working, which for me have been basically the same thing,”
—Albrecht Sedersen in Hans Keilson’s
Life Goes On (1933), pp, 243-4
In a book review (“Displaced Persons;” January 4, 2013) in The New York Times, of the novel, Life Goes On, by Hans Keilson, Judith Shulevitz writes about the Sedersen family in a small town in Germany after the First World War, when hyper-inflation mixed with low employment to create an economic disaster for many:
“Life Goes On,” also translated by Searls, is not a masterpiece, but it is certainly worth reading. Partly a work of social realism and partly a bildungsroman, it contrasts the financial and psychological decline of a clothing merchant and his wife in a small German town during the Great Depression with the artistic awakening of their watchful, worried son. The boy’s father, Herr Seldersen, already exudes a downtrodden timidity when his fat, mincing landlord comes into his store to announce that he’s expanding his stationery business and moving Seldersen to a smaller space next door.The son is Albrect Sedersen, who has to watch all of this unfold in real time and also make sense of it in real time. This was the beginning of the decline of the family and its fortunes, however modest they were at one time. The writer himself said that he based the story on his own family, and what he witnessed and felt while growing up as a young adult in these times filled with uncertainty and change (“Afterword,” 1984, 261). Keilson, a Jewish-German writer, acutely felt the effects of the Great Depression and the populist rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.
His book was banned in 1934, shortly after it was published. He left in October 1936 for the Netherlands, after seeing the writing on the wall, most notably the pernicious and racist “Nuremberg Laws” (1935), thereby interrupting a medical career that quite never got off the ground in his native Germany; he had passed the required medical exams but was banned from practicing medicine by these same laws.
He spent the years of the Second World War in The Netherlands, living under an assumed name. He wrote some poetry and a couple of other novels: Comedy in a Minor Key (in German, Komödie in Moll, 1947; in English with trans. by Damion Searls, 2010) and The Death of the Adversary (in German, Der Tod des Widersachers, 1959; in English with trans by Ivo Jarosy, 1962). It was only in the latter novel, years later in the Netherlands, that the author says that he filled in the blanks: “I wrote the other part, about being young and Jewish in the Germany of the time” (262).
Moreover, it was only after the war that Keilson was able to continue and complete his medical studies, 45 years after he began, receiving his Ph.D. in 1979; his thesis was titled Sequential Traumatization in Children. He worked as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in his adopted homeland, focusing on the victims of war, particularly Jewish war orphans, displaced by events beyond their control. Keilson, like many others of his generation, proves that life does indeed go on, even after the most tragic and horrific of events in modern human history.
Post Holocaust: It was also during this period that Keilson could come to terms regarding the death of his parents, whose lives ended in Birkenau (Polish: Brzezinka), which formed part of the massive complex known as Auschwitz (Polish: Oświęcim). It had as its sole purpose the opposite of maintaining and nurturing life. The vanquishing of the Jews, and their intellectual and religious ideas and ideals, formed an important mission of Nazi Germany, which they carried out with enthusiasm and zeal.
It was in this work of helping those that needed it most that Keilson found his place in society, echoing those passionate words of young Albrecht Sedersen in the passage above. He helped people to regain their humanity. Hans Keilson lived to the age of 101.
This is one of the most enduring and endearing of Jewish ideas, that life goes on, that it does continue, and that it does move forward. It is an intellectual idea bathed in practicalities. While the past is remembered, it is the future that is viewed with anticipation and joy, especially if the past (or present) is rife with misery and uncertainty. After all, things could always be better; they must be better. And who but us can make it better. We do what we can in order to achieve some measure of success. We do what we can; and that its all that we can do. We have no choice in this matter.