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  • The Trauma of Exile
  • Alicia Ostriker (bio)
A Refugee's Journey: A Memoir
Walter Hess
Blue Thread Books, an Imprint of Jewish Currents
319 Pages; Print, $19.95

Reading Walter Hess' beautiful and gripping memoir, turning the pages as fast as I could to learn what happened—even though I knew what happened—I kept asking myself this question: does Hess write more like a poet, or more like a novelist? And I kept replying: yes and yes.

Hess writes like a novelist who creates characters you care about and a story that is at once unique and universal. His scenes spring to life, filled with sensuous and memorable detail. He seems to remember every single thing that happened to him from the time he was a loved and indulged five-year-old in the tiny Rhineland village of Ruppichthroth showing off his new hobnail boots up to the present moment. His people talk and think like real people, whether they are the writer's grandfather negotiating the price of cows in the market or his mother smacking his father in the nose with a copy of Mein Kampf yelling "Here, damn it! Read it yourself!" There is a trajectory of events that keeps opening up new worlds of peace and war. But Hess writes like a poet, too, when he describes mushroom hunting in the woods near his village, dolphins playing in the spray of a ship heading to Ecuador in 1939, or his father blowing the only shofar in Ecuador:

I had seen those sounds, visible shofar sounds, sounds looking like sparks, white, yellow and red. Like sparks that hobnail boots could make on cobblestones. And the sparks all travelled, flew out into the open, through the open window, to the peak of El Corazon, out on this blue sky day.

From Ecuador, Hess' family finally arrives in New York. They find an apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and are desperately poor. Here the story bifurcates. We follow the experiences of the boy, parallel to but so different from his parents and their concerns. Hess pursues a boy's life of stoop ball with a friend, "who could pluck any ball out of the air with the ease of a hawk after a field mouse," there is school, at first confusing and then absorbing, as the boy turns into a good student, and then a period in an orphanage that is a little like the summer camp his mother claims it is, while his father is down with malaria. The war begins and continues. At the middle school he attends in Harlem: "there was not a black child in our class who did not understand the nature of race in the United States. There was not a refugee child who did not understand the stakes in the war against Hitler and fascism."

As the book proceeds, we watch Hess gradually becoming an American. Meanwhile, his parents struggle to raise money to get the grandparents, Oma and Opa, out of Germany. They fail. One of the most painful episodes in the book comes when his mother is turned down by two very wealthy cousins who scold her for being irresponsibly pregnant. The letter Opa writes from labor camp when he knows he will die but believes Oma will live—a letter delivered years after the war is over and both are dead—is heartbreaking.

Trauma, of course, runs like a thick thread through Hess' tapestry. Comical is the scene where Hess encounters his newborn brother, screams at the betrayal, "Get that little thing out of here!" and runs away, as far as the next village, where he is found and laughed at. Much less comic is when Hess' teacher without explanation walks him home from school and releases his hand when they arrive at the burning synagogue where SS men will force the child's father and other Jews to throw their Torahs into the fire. In America, the young Hess and his family follow the news passionately, but he finds himself often angry at his parents, ashamed of them, angry at Germany, angry that he has been torn from so many places...


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