by Nancy Means Wright

I read obituaries and find them fascinating. If they’re about someone I know, I often learn something new about that person. Sometimes, though, I discover a total stranger, and feel that I’ve found a new “friend.” But too late, of course–unless one is a Zen Buddhist and believes in reincarnation.

Last month it was a German novelist, Siegfried Lenz, who died after a long career of writing novels and plays–many of them delineating the horrors of the Nazi regime. There was Lenz on the NY Times obit page, smiling bright-eyed out of a rather cherubic face, hair loose over his left eyebrow, right hand holding a burning cigarette.  One side of his collar was up, his tie slightly askew. For some reason I found myself smiling back, calling out, “Hello there!” When I read the wonderfully written obit by writer William Yardley, I really wanted to get to know Lenz.

From Yardley, and through more research of my own, I found that Lenz had been drafted into the German navy when he turned 18 in 1944, and was included in a “collective joining” of the Nazi Party–without his knowledge. Realizing what the Nazis were up to, he deserted in April of 1945 and became a prisoner of war. I think of Hemingway in World War One, deserting the Italian army where he was an ambulance driver. Surely it takes courage to desert a cause one deplores, knowing that one might hang for it.

But Lenz became wholly disillusioned with the Nazi regime, and later joined a post war group of German writers like Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass, who demanded free speech, democracy, and a full accounting of the Nazi horrors. Grass had even become an unwilling member, at the age of 17, of the cruel Waffen SS who ordered the displacement and killing of Jews. He later wrote The Tin Drum, which includes a devastating account of the burning of a synagogue and its parishioners. I think, too, of the poignant new novel by Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See, about a blind French girl during WW2 and a sensitive German youth who, like Siegfried Lenz, was commandeered by the Nazis.

One of Lenz’s novels, The German Lesson, tells the story of a student required to write an essay on “The Joys of Duty.” It grew into a recollection of his father, a police officer, obsessed with enforcing an order to stop an esteemed artist from painting. “So have them put into the mincing machine, for all I care,” the artist replied when he saw the order, “you won’t succeed in destroying them.” According to obit writer William Yardley, Lenz admired William Faulkner’s use of “memory as a literary device and the way he linked personal and historical trauma.” Many of Lenz’s stories insist that “memories and the past be accepted and honestly recounted, no matter how disgraceful they might be.”

At the age of 82, Lenz published a novella, A Minute’s Silence, about a passionate summer love affair between an 18-year-old boy and his female teacher–who tragically drowns during a storm. In a radio interview, Lenz said that the death of his wife of 56 years, Liselotte, had affected him so deeply that he developed writer’s block a few pages into the book. Had his wife Liselotte become that long ago teacher? And was this novel a memoir of their love? Perhaps so. Odd, isn’t it, how we writers fuse time, experience, past lives and loves as we create a story?

Lenz was 88 when he died, still a bestselling author and recipient of many honors, including the prestigious Goethe prize. According to critic Gerhardt Csejka, Lenz felt it was his duty to help the German people “to pay off the enormous debts” incurred by the Nazis, and “to take preventive actions against any danger of a re-occurrence.” And so he gave the rest of his life to that task. Though I am only beginning to read his books, starting with A Minute’s Silence, I will offer my own moment of silence this Thanksgiving to mourn his death.


6 Responses

  1. I’m curious to know the circumstances of where he deserted. By April 1944 it would be pretty hard not to have known what the Nazis were up to. Germans all across Germany knew well before that–there’s ample evidence. And in April the British and American armies where in German territory. It might not have been such a brave thing to flee. Hundreds of thousands of Germans were heading for Allied lines to escape the Soviets in the East. This is not a knock against anything he wrote. I’m going to ask German friends if they know anything about the circumstances of his flight. Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Your reasoning makes sense of course, Lev. I couldn’t find any more details about Lenz’s desertion in English ( I speak/read Romance languages but not German, alas). I only know that he was very young–a schoolboy–and that he fled–he claimed–when he fully realized what the Nazis were doing. Perhaps his later anger was partly inspired by guilt. I would be very grateful to know anything you find about the circumstances of his desertion! And let me know!

  2. He wasn’t a schoolboy or very young when he deserted, he was 18. I’ll keep checking!

    • Well, I think of 18 as young. Most youth, psychologists say, don’t reason well until they’re at least 25. But I do appreciate your checking with German friends. The more I think about it, the more I conclude that “guilt” played a large part in his post war writings.

      • This info was passed on, translated, from the Suedduetsche Zeitung which my friend who works in an American consulate in Germany thinks is a good source: “Lenz was 17 when he joined the German navy and admitted to being rather enthusiastic at first. The attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20th, 1944, changed that and he started having doubts. As he experienced death and destruction of the war, as well as desperate refugees in Northern Germany those doubts increased. Then he was sent to Denmark after his ship got bombed. Here he witnessed an execution of a comrade (one source has him as the one who was ordered to execute his comrade.) After that, he deserted with two other comrades and hid in the woods (aided by Danish farmers) until the war was over.”

        It doesn’t sound like disillusionment with the Nazis or “realizing what they were up to” had anything to do with his desertion.

  3. Thank you so much, Lev, for digging up this valuable information. Overall it might seem that Lenz was disillusioned after “being rather enthusiastic” re: the German navy, but obviously this was not the immediate cause of his desertion. If he was indeed ordered to execute a comrade (unimaginable to me), this sickening order could of itself be a reason for desertion? Though it’s all so complex, and I couldn’t pretend to know what went through his brain. From his books, I had imagined him to be an intelligent, sensitive person.
    I had recently finished rereading All’s Quiet on the Western Front before Lenz’s death, and was moved by Remarque’s description of the German soldiers, in many cases forced into the war. My older brother fought and was wounded in WW2, and my mother had filled my young brain with hatred for Germans in general. I wanted to try to overcome some of that prejudice.

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