Prisoner of Conscience
In 1942, Hitler settled on the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. The German conscience was the last line of defense against genocide and it failed. In her alluring historical novel The Year is ‘42, Ukrainian writer Nella Bielski deftly dramatizes a German officer’s crisis of conscience as the evidence of brutality and murder mounts before him.
Karl Bazinger is not your typical officer of the Third Reich. Urbane and literary, he is more at home on Paris’s Left Bank than he is in his native Saxony. Unlike the Gestapo, whose raison d’etre is intimidation and murder, Wehrmacht officers like Bazinger are preoccupied with the mundane administrative tasks of occupation. In this coveted post of liaison between the occupiers and the occupied in Paris, the forty-eight year-old Karl enjoys an oasis of the good life compared to the wretched life of the front. Because of his privileged position, Karl is unaware of the brutality the German army has been unleashing across Europe. But this is all about to change. First, the company he keeps—including his young French girlfriend, the poet Jean Cocteau, and suspected members of the French Resistance—arouses the suspicion of his superiors, who suggest Karl spy on his well-connected friends. To Karl has also fallen the unenviable task of translating the last letters of French prisoners executed in Paris. In this morbid capacity, he begins to confront the ghastly tactics of his fellow soldiers. Obliged to be present at executions, he witnesses the ruthlessness of one Corporal Schmidt, who aims his pistol at the faces of prisoners bearing any trace of dignity. The images of these shattered faces destroy Karl’s antiquated notion of military duty and the rules of war. Unwilling to spy on his friends and appalled by the executions he witnesses, he requests a transfer to the Eastern Front, thinking this will lift the cloud of suspicion over his head.
Before embarking for the Eastern Front theater of Ukraine, Karl returns to Saxony for a brief convalescence. It is here that we begin to appreciate the depths of Karl’s crisis of conscience. While reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Karl grapples with a passage from the novel’s memorable “Grand Inquisitor” scene. “The young, sticky leaves, the precious tombs, the blue sky, the woman you’re in love with. . .” Alyosha utters these lines to his brother, Ivan Karamazov, himself in the throes of a profound bout with his own conscience. The passage continues: “How will you live then, how will you love then? Will it be possible with this hell in your heart and head?” Bielski no doubt invokes Dostoevsky because he is literature’s finest chronicler of the human conscience in revolt. Though the sources of Ivan’s and Karl’s crises are vastly different, they are both racked by an unyielding conscience that demands they act counter to the dominant ethos of their times. With his growing awareness of Hitler’s crimes, Karl must decide whether to oppose the system, thereby endangering his wife and children living in Germany, or become complicit in the Nazi horror.
En route to Kiev, Karl begins to learn the full of extent of the Nazis’ plan to systematically exterminate Europe’s Jews when he meets a German chemical engineer on a mission to eradicate a mass grave in a place called Babi Yar. It is here that Karl develops a severe skin rash—a physical manifestation of his restive conscience. At this point in the novel, Bielski abruptly abandons Karl’ story and focuses on Katia, a fiercely humane and graceful doctor in Kiev well acquainted with tragedy. Her husband, a prominent psychologist in Moscow, is branded an enemy of the state based on trumped-up charges and imprisoned in a gulag, forcing Katia to return to her hometown of Kiev. Karl and Katia, we are told cryptically by the author, will eventually meet, leaving the reader to wonder how and when this will occur. This suspense-building device is one of the many qualities that gives the novel its thriller-like feel. Bielski’s skillful weaving of European history with the lives of her imagined characters inspires our confidence in her labyrinthine narration. An ostensibly throw-away detail or observation reemerges later as an important nexus that connects characters in meaningful ways, or provides the illuminating background behind a sudden development.
Bielski masterfully exploits this conceit when she effortlessly weaves together the seemingly disparate storylines of Katia and Karl to bring about the novel’s ingenious denouement. Shortly after her return to Kiev, the Nazis, who are now occupying the city, invite Jews to appear at a town hall for the ostensible purpose of a census. Katia learns that it is a trap, and implores her neighbor Ida Wassermann not to go. But Katia is rebuffed by Ida. “Obviously the Germans are no angels, but they’re a civilized people and they know how to respect the law . . . Our own wise men, our rabbis, all of them say we should go. We’ve always respected the law of the country we live in and we’ll do so once more.” (Hannah Arendt’s stinging indictment of many rabbis in her controversial book Eichman in Jerusalem comes to mind.) The Wassermans were sent to Babi Yar.
We then learn that Katia has been implicated in the rescue of a group of Jewish orphans, an offense for which she would have been executed if not for the intervention of Karl, who resurfaces as the Reich’s man in Kiev, in charge of resolving all “disputes” between the army and civilians. Karl, who drops the charges against Katia, is now one of a cadre of officers “who don’t accept the Nazi atrocities, and make it their business to attenuate them. . .” At the urging of a mutual acquaintance, Katia agrees to treat Karl’s worsening skin disease, setting the stage for their encounter. After their first meeting, Karl’s hitherto incurable skin disease begins to subside—and so does the tumult of his conscience.
At bottom, Bielski’s novel is a meditation on moral responsibility under the extraordinary circumstances of war and totalitarianism. Time and again, in the wake of great crimes, those who were integral to the killings claim they had no choice but to follow orders. There is always a choice, Bielski seems to be saying, reminding us of our moral obligation to defend the dignity of others, especially in the darkest times.
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