- The Song is Over: Survival of a Jewish Girl in Dresden
The memoirs and biographies of the Holocaust typically constitute a downward spiral. Jewish lives are seemingly secure, or least partake of the satisfying middle-class conventions of Western Europe or the reassuring communal comforts of Eastern Europe. And then, shockingly, unexpectedly, devastatingly, an abyss opens up that would swallow up millions of "non-Aryans." Although all were doomed, some combination of caprice and cunning, judgment and luck spared a small proportion of the victims from the inexorable finality of the Final Solution. This engrossing memoir fits into that pattern, and records not only another instance of the inexplicable death sentence that was imposed upon a helpless and unprepared people but also the strange twists of fate that permitted a small minority of Jews to elude their killers. On the bulging shelves of those volumes that address the mystery of the genocide (and that also take note of the occasional gestures of humane decency amid the horror), Henny Brenner's testimony deserves a valued place.
Smoothly translated from Das Lied ist aus (2001), this account bristles with the contrast between the normality of a solidly bourgeois family life during the Weimar Republic and the mounting tension and white-knuckle fear that Jews experienced as the Third Reich consolidated its power. Born in 1924, Henny Wolf enjoyed growing up in a city dotted with parks, divided by the flowing Elbe. The "Florence of the North" boasted of the sublime high culture of opera and the visual arts as well. Even Dresden's major synagogue had been designed by the same architect, Gottfried Semper, who was responsible for the famed opera house. The author's father ran a cinema, the Palace Theatre; a photograph survives from 1935, announcing the screening of the hit of five years earlier, Das Lied ist aus. He was a man of pacifist principles, who contrived to avoid military service in the Great War.
Because he also stemmed from a liberal Protestant family, and because he refused to divorce or distance himself from his Jewish wife (or from the daughter who was raised as a Jew), the Wolfs were in the last category of Dresden Jews who were scheduled to be deported. But otherwise the family shared the fate of Germany's stepchildren. Already in the 1930s the Wolfs [End Page 135] were stripped of citizenship, and beginning in 1941 were obligated to wear the yellow star. Nor were Jews permitted to use public transportation or to participate in the cultural life of the city. Henny's own education was curtailed. The Gestapo interrogated her, and she was subjected to forced labor in a local factory. (Another worker there was Victor Klemperer, whose diaries would bring him posthumous fame.) Without lapsing into self-pity, The Song is Over provides a grim portrait of the noose tightening around an ever-so-slightly privileged Jewish family (and of course German Jews were treated with less cruelty than their brethren to the East).
Then on February 13, 1945 the Wolfs got the letter that they had dreaded. Three days later they were required to join the city's few remaining Jews in the square where the synagogue had once stood, and to be prepared for resettlement and a new "work assignment." The threat that this letter posed was understood to be lethal, provoking Henny's father to exclaim: "All that can save us is a massive attack on Dresden!" (p. 59). That night 796 R. A. F. bombers unloaded incendiaries that turned the Altstadt into a raging firestorm as fierce as a hurricane. On February 14, 431 American B-17s dropped another seven hundred tons of bombs, which were intended to ensure that no resident of the city would survive the 1500-degree heat. But the author and her parents, ripping off their yellow stars, fled Dresden and somehow managed, miraculously, to be saved.
Having outlasted the supposedly thousand-year-long Reich, having emerged...