Amidst events that have been recounted a thousand times by a thousand other writers, Cioma Schonhaus manages something truly remarkable: to tell a fresh and compelling tale of life in wartime Berlin. The Forger, Schonhaus’s memoir, is a tale of horror and heroism. Yet it is neither of these qualities which define Schonhaus’s work. Rather it is his ability to recount with shocking clarity events not as he would have them be, but as they were. He writes not as the older Schonhaus looking back on his life, but as if he were the younger Schonhaus experiencing such events anew.
Schonhaus is far from short of material. As a Jew in Nazi Germany, merely surviving is often a harrowing and death defying experience. But Schonhaus’s story is more than a tale of survival. His story is told through numerous anecdotes in an unassuming style which, while halting in its simplicity, quickly draws in the reader. Though dark overtones abound, there is a sense of wit and even humour about Schonhaus’s fortunes in such unfortunate circumstances. Fortunes that bring him love and pain, save his life, and in turn allow him to save many others.
It is these efforts in saving others which lend title to the book and have earned Schonhaus his nickname as the “Jewish Schindler”. His work as a forger, creating fraudulent documents for those fleeing Nazi oppression saved many lives, yet Schonhaus tells of his work with an endearing modesty. A modesty that stands in sharp contrast to the almost cocky swagger with which he recounts many other incidents of those fateful years.
Still, his many tales of resourcefulness and courage are often tempered by further tales of luck and recklessness. For every story relating his quick thinking and foresight, there is another that highlights the foolish impetuousness of his youth. From love affairs with the promiscuous wife of a German soldier, to eating at expensive restaurants and the purchase of a sail boat, Schonhaus relates his own foibles with the same spirit of the youth that committed those acts of intemperance. In Schonhaus’s own words, “Everything that was happening around me made life surge twice as strongly throughout my veins.” It is this sense of youthful exuberance that permeates Schonhaus’s memoir and ultimately makes it so powerful.
Schonhaus illuminates life in wartime Berlin in a way that few writers have previously managed; free of melodramatic machinations, he simply tells of life as it was. As such, one is left with a profound sense of that life. That against the apocalyptic backdrop of a world at war, life simply went on. People fell in love, were petty and bold, hopeful and hopeless, and in the end, ultimately human. The characters that Schonhaus draws are intrinsically relatable because they are real. They are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and it would seem that, beyond pretensions, Schonhaus merely considers himself one among them.
There is a sense of irreverence about Schonhaus as he recounts his exploits within the confines of wartime Berlin. While there are recollections of terror and fear, of insurmountable losses, and the most poignant moments of the human spirit, it is his ability to recapture the nature of his youth amid the realities of wartime Berlin, that make The Forger so compelling. In the end Schonhaus manages to create a work that is truly profound perhaps because it does not aspire to be anything of the sort.
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