At first this book seems slow and rather laborious. One notes that the author has written a number of serious political studies, "Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East," "Weimar: A Cultural History," and so on. And as one dips into "The Missing Years," a first novel, it doesn't sound as though it's going to work. It's too literal.
"Pre-war Paris has been described thousands of times by both visitors and natives. What impressed me were the conventional sights -- the broad boulevards, the Eiffel Tower, the brdiges over the Seine, the great state buildings, the color, the liveliness, the whole ambiance. Father had prepared a very full program for us, which included all the obvious museums. . . ."
But gradually, as this pedestrian account take shape, one realizes the fictitious narrator, Richard Lasson, is not Laqueur at all, but a much older man (born in 1898), whom one pictures as distinguished, tall, grave but not humorless, resembling perhaps Thomas Mann in his sober calm, his old-school formality, his profound Germanness.
He is also Jewish. And the heart of his book is his life in Berlin during World War II -- in the belly of the beast.
Many Jews apparently spent the war in the capital city of their mortal enemy. Richard Lasson had an Aryan wife, and this was his slender hope for escaping the deportations. Others hid in the homes of anti-Nazi Berliners. Still others went underground, spent years traveling on trams, sleeping in movies, trying to become invisible, slipping between the cracks.
Lasson tells the story in his matter-of-fact way, but as the war goes on and the situation deteriorates, it turns into a totally absorbing recreation of a time and place.
"Once the German troops had marched into Poland, further anti-Jewish measures followed in rapid succession. Jews were permitted to leave their homes only in daytime; their telephones were seized and they were not permitted to use public phones.
"They had to hand in their phonographs and typewriters. They were not allowed to keep dogs, cats or even singing birds; cameras and bicycles had to be surrendered. Electrical blankets and irons had to be handed in. Jewish schools were closed and private tuition was banned. Jews received no clothing coupons; after the outbreak of war they could no longer even buy a pair of socks. In the beginning they received food coupons, though considerably fewer than non-Jews, but later on meat, eggs, milk and other foodstuffs were deleted from the list."
The Final Solution begins. Jews disappear daily in the roundups, some betrayed by neighbors. Lasson's teenage sons join the underground, and his house is used as a haven for refugees, each of whom has to be explained to neighbors as a niece visiting from the country or something.
Finally his sons, in serious trouble with the Gestapo, try to escape into Switzerland. The laconic retelling of this saga is excruciating:
"At Immendingen there was a control point . . . They repeated the story about going to see their parents who had been evacuated. "Where are your parents?" the SS man wanted to know. 'In Beuron,' said Peter quickly. . . . 'I'm from Beuron,' the guard said. 'We have no evacuees. . . .'"
Probably a book about Jewish life in Berlin under the Nazis would find a publisher in any case these days. What makes this one special is the portrait that the author builds of a wonderful old man. It will be hard to see a photo of ruined Berlin, after this, without thinking of him.