In 1933, when the Nazis took power in Germany, Heinrich Bo ll was 15 and still four years away from his high school diploma. He seems to have been a solitary, withdrawn child, sharply observant of the world around him and crazy about books, as a boy is likely to be if he is destined to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. As he recalls his four "Nazi school years" in this tiny, pungent memoir, Bo ll spent much of his time in what he calls the "school of the streets."
Half a century later, he still recalls vividly the curriculum of that school through which he would stroll with his hands in his pockets and his eyes wide open: "street pedlars, markets, churches, museums . . . prostitutes (in Cologne there was hardly a street without them) -- dogs and cats, nuns and priests, monks -- and the Rhine, that great gray river, alive and lively, beside which I could sit for hours at a time." He also went to school, he says, but "less than half the time." This was partly a matter of personal inclination but also a reaction to the Hitler Youth shirts that began appearing in the classrooms in 1933, along with a few Storm Trooper uniforms in the higher grades.
Not that Nazis were an overwhelming presence in Bo ll's Catholic school. A few years after his graduation, he recalls, "The Nazis closed down the school for good -- which speaks for the school." Meanwhile, they made a shabby spectacle. When a book-burning was held, the school had trouble finding "decadent" titles to put on the "little heap," and Bo ll's recollection is hardly traumatic: "Since that book-burning I know that books don't burn well. Someone must have forgotten to pour gasoline on them." He learned more about Nazis elsewhere: "Perhaps it is not in school but on our way to school that we learn lessons for life. It was obvious that along those streets, people were being beaten up, dragged out of their front doors."
Bo ll's family was poor, Catholic, pacifist and intensely if not loudly anti-Nazi. Looking back now, he finds in his home "a mixture of petty-bourgeois vestiges, Bohemian traits, and proletarian pride, not truly belonging to any class, yet arrogant rather than humble . . . And of course, of course, in spite of everything, Catholic, Catholic, The reviewer writes about music and books for The Washington Post. Catholic." The "everything" that provoked that triple affirmation of faith included, above all, the Vatican's concordat with Hitler -- a pact with the Devil whose implications must have been clear and appalling in the homeland of Faust.
The family's basic tactic was passive, not open, resistance -- modeled, perhaps, on the father's successful stratagem in World War I. An unwilling soldier, en route to the Battle of Verdun, "he had caused himself to be carried off the train in Trier with a simulated attack of appendicitis -- and it worked: although he had to undergo an operation, he was never sent to the front." The need to have some such trick ready again was clear to the Bo ll family. "That's war" was his mother's curt, perceptive comment when the news of Hitler's appointment was announced; her nickname for him was "turnip head" and his followers were "not even rabble."
They knew it couldn't last, and the question was how to get through it. Somehow, they managed, living almost from day to day, going to the movies as often as possible because it was dark there and even the Nazis had to be quiet. A key question is the one in the book's title: "What's to become of the boy?" and the family's perceptive conclusion was that his career should be "something to do with books." A friend "suggested the career of a librarian," Bo ll recalls, "but he had forgotten about the book-burnings, and wasn't the profession of librarian an endangered one?"
The war years fall outside the scope of this memoir, but Bo ll discloses in passing that he did find a job in a non-Nazi bookstore and for a time he managed to get by with "the flexible and useful occupational category of 'student,' " but that is perhaps for another book. The dust jacket informs us that Bo ll was eventually drafted into the Wehrmacht, served on the Russian and French fronts and was wounded four times before he ended up in an American POW camp.
The book at hand makes lively enough reading because Bo ll is an excellent writer and Leila Vennewitz a fine translator. But one puts it down after an hour, more or less, with the feeling of having read a charming, wayward essay, not a book. The pages are small and few; the print is large. There are constant hints of anecdotes untold (why untold?), and characters backstage who are never brought into the spotlight. For all its charm, "What's to Become of the Boy?" seems outrageously overpriced. If Heinrich Bo ll manages to sell his entire autobiography (he is approaching his 70th year) at a price of $3 a year, it will be out of the reach of most readers.