A Physician Examines His Novels
By STEVEN ERLANGER
Herman Wouters for The New
BUSSUM, the Netherlands — When Hans Keilson’s first daughter was born, in 1941, he was in hiding in the Netherlands. A Jewish doctor from Germany who had published a novel in 1933 and seen it banned months later, he fled the Nazis in 1936, when he was forbidden to practice medicine. The Nazis soon occupied the Netherlands too, and the woman who became his first wife, a German Roman Catholic, pretended the child’s real father was a German soldier.
The doctor and novelist Hans
Keilson, 100, in the Netherlands.
After the war the mother was regarded with distaste by her Dutch neighbors until Dr. Keilson could make her parentage clear. Now 100, he said he felt no sadness then for a purely practical decision.
“I did so consciously,” he said in an interview at his home here, where he practiced child psychiatry for many years. “It was just a consequence of the way I lived my life, and I accepted it.”
Dr. Keilson devoted his life to his patients, many of them Jewish children traumatized by the war and separation from their biological parents, some of whom the Nazis had murdered. He wrote a groundbreaking and widely translated study of “sequential trauma.”
But he wrote novels and poetry too, and it was an extraordinary and puzzling surprise for him, he said, when last month in The New York Times Book Review, Francine Prose, reviewing “The Death of the Adversary” and “Comedy in a Minor Key” — two of his novels written more than 50 years ago — called them masterpieces and labeled him a genius.
Herman Wouters for The New
Dr. Keilson, hunched with age and recovering from a hip operation — “I’m 100 years old and 8 months, and the last 8 months have been the hardest,” he said — is lively, considerate, articulate in German and Dutch. When pressed on personal issues, like his religious beliefs, he dodges and weaves, asking counterquestions like a good psychoanalyst, or quoting poetry.
“My parents were the basis of
my life. I still feel guilt over my
parents, and it never ends.”
HANS KEILSON, a Jewish
doctor, psychoanalyst, poet and
novelist who fled Nazi Germany.
He remembered vividly the day that the old patriarch editor Samuel Fischer called him into his office to say that S. Fischer Verlag would publish his first novel, “Das Leben Geht Weiter,” or “Life Goes On.” Alfred Döblin, a prominent novelist of the time, was in the waiting room, and Dr. Keilson said impishly, “I thought that Döblin is in good company here.”
But Dr. Keilson also remembers his editor’s words after his book was banned. “He said to me: ‘Get out of here as quickly as possible. I fear the worst.’ ”
Unable to practice medicine, Dr. Keilson worked as a sports instructor at Jewish schools and as a musician. He had met a graphologist, Gertrud Manz, and in 1935 showed her a sample of Hitler’s handwriting.
“She said, ‘He’s going to set the world on fire.’ You know what I said? I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
“I was so German,” he said. “I thought they would not do this to me. I am one of them.” But he soon realized that Germans no longer recognized him as part of themselves. He remembered a literature class in which he read a poem by Heinrich Heine, who was born Jewish. The class president stood up and said: “We refuse to talk about this. This is not a German poem.”
His teacher was devastated, Dr. Keilson said, adding: “But I knew this was the beginning. Our paths were separate.”
In 1936 Dr. Keilson left Germany for the Netherlands with Miss Manz. They could not marry in Germany because he was a Jew, and they couldn’t marry in the Netherlands because they were German; they finally married after the war. Then, disgusted with Pope Pius XII — “who seemed to think Stalin was more important than Hitler,” he said — she converted to Judaism.
“She is buried at a cemetery in Amsterdam, and when I die, I will be buried with her,” he said.
He met his current wife, Marita Keilson-Lauritz, in 1969. They married a year later; now 75, she works as a literary critic, specializing in gay literature. They also have a daughter, and Dr. Keilson has three grandchildren, all girls.
His daughters, he said, are the ones most thrilled with the new attention on him from an unexpected place, the United States, where his novel “The Death of the Adversary,” published in German in 1959, was published in English in 1962 to warm reviews but soon disappeared.
That novel, with its 1962 cover and somewhat stilted translation, done originally for a British publisher, was just reissued by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It will be on the New York Times paperback best-seller list in the Book Review of Sept. 12. Farrar has also published the first English translation of “Comedy in a Minor Key,” a novella from 1947.
The novels are partly autobiographical, sparse but intricate and psychologically compelling. “The Death of the Adversary” portrays Jewish life in Germany as the Nazis gain control, but the words Jew, Germany and Hitler, referred to as “B,” never appear. The protagonist, a young Jew, feels distanced from both his own people and current events. He develops an intimate obsession with B, understanding that, as Dr. Keilson said, “B needed the Jews to project onto them what he dislikes in himself.”
He wrote about 50 pages of the novel in the Netherlands before the German occupation; buried them; then finished it years later.
“Comedy in a Minor Key” is dedicated to the Dutch couple Leo and Suss Reintsma, who hid Dr. Keilson in Delft after he treated their daughter. The novel is about a young Dutch couple who hide an older Jew, who unfortunately dies, of natural causes. Because of their carelessness in dumping the body, they must go into hiding themselves.
Dr. Keilson worked with troubled Jewish children in hiding with foster parents, which formed the basis for his later research. After the war he stayed in the Netherlands, requalified as a doctor and became a psychoanalyst.
It is his scientific work that has defined his life and in which he takes most pride. Now, however, after Ms. Prose’s judgment, he said, “It’s hard to give a kosher answer.” But later he said, “My work as a psychoanalyst is more important than my writing, and I mean this honestly.”
Dr. Keilson has one battered copy of the first edition of his first novel, “Life Goes On,” which focuses on his father, Max, and mother, Else, as Max’s textile business suffers between the wars, and German politics turn rancid. He would love his first novel translated too, he said: “Then you would have my whole biography.”
One of the most moving scenes in “The Death of the Adversary” is when the protagonist watches his father packing his battered old rucksack for exile. The father packs the son a suitcase, for more civilized train travel, with the implicit plea that the son leave quickly, before it is too late.
Dr. Keilson did leave, but his father — “a decorated veteran from World War I” — did not want to go. His parents followed him a few years later. But they were too old and ill “to really sense the situation,” and he said he did not press them hard enough to hide. Like most Jews in the Netherlands, they were arrested and deported; they died in Auschwitz.
Even at 100, Dr. Keilson blames himself for failing them: “My parents were the basis of my life. I still feel guilt over my parents, and it never ends.” Then later, he said, “Sadness is the basis of my life.”
In 1997 Dr. Keilson wrote a poem, “Dawidy,” in part about his father.
Recall and forget. In the dregs of history
Is he angry with God? He said, “A God, if there were a God, would work in such a way that I wouldn’t have to be angry about what’s happening in the world.”
there is no other measure for flight and death.
Beginning is like the end: no stone, no grass gives tidings.
Destroyed and past, meaningless, unending pain,
orphaned, what’s left: as if he’d never been, my father —
called Max, but later bore the imposed name Israel,
Did not tell me much, I didn’t ask him enough.
No traces left in the vast smokestack of the skies —
speechless heaven ...
Asked if he believed in God, Dr. Keilson answered with lines from another of his poems:
Jews in this world are a dirty heap of cheap money long devalued by God. He does not rescue us, he throws us away, he calls us back, we pay all the debts.
Told that his answer seemed evasive, he laughed and said, “And it is.”
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