Bronstein's Children (Bronsteins Kinder)
BRONSTEIN'S CHILDREN (Bronsteins Kinder)
Novel by Jurek Becker, 1986
In his 1976 novel Der Boxer ("The Boxer"), Jurek Becker introduces a father and son, both Holocaust survivors, who are reunited in East Berlin. The novel portrays their struggles to rebuild their lives together and depicts the ultimate failure of their relationship due to factors—including the Holocaust—that neither of them understands.
In 1986 Becker published another novel about a father and his children. Some of the characters in these two novels and many of their difficulties are similar, but the latter novel, Bronsteins Kinder (translated in 1988 as Bronstein's Children), is set in the 1970s and focuses more on the still lingering effects of the Holocaust. Indeed, while the text does refer to contemporary events in East Berlin (where it is set), the context which shapes the text and the members of the Bronstein family is the Holocaust. Even though the story takes place almost 30 years after the war, the characters cannot overcome the grip of their past, and the ways in which they deal with this past form the thematic core of the text.
The father, Arno Bronstein, and his daughter, Elle, are Holocaust survivors. The son, Hans, was born after the war. Arno and Hans live together, while Elle is confined to an institution. Hans Bronstein, who is just about to begin his university studies, is the first-person narrator of Bronstein's Children. For much of Hans' childhood, his family's past and their Jewishness has played only a marginal role. When he arrives at his family's forest cottage to set the scene for an illicit rendezvous with his girlfriend, Martha, however, he discovers his father and two of his father's friends in the house along with a fourth man whom they are holding captive. He learns that the three captors, all elderly concentration camp survivors, have tracked down a former camp guard and are holding and interrogating him.
The text alternates between two strands. One relates the discovery of the guard's captivity and Hans's attempts to decide how to react to this discovery. The other follows Hans in the subsequent year as he continues to work through the experience and the events stemming from it. After encountering the tortured and bruised body of the guard, Hans begins to gain new insight into the deep, yet easily-hidden scars the Holocaust has left on his father. With the additional information he gains through discussions and arguments with his father, Elle, Martha, and others, Hans is forced for the first time to take an active role in tracing his own identity as a Jew and a German.
While Jewish characters in Becker's earlier novels, such as Jakob the Liar and Der Boxer were all direct victims of Nazi persecution during the Holocaust, with Hans we meet a character who is Jewish but is not a Holocaust survivor. While survivors in those earlier texts could be grouped together based on their common suffering and the common historical bond, Bronstein's Children asks whether succeeding generations can also be included in such a group, since they were not directly involved in the Holocaust. Ever since the publication of Jakob the Liar, when Becker was forced to comment on his own Jewishness, Becker had been opposed to such categorization. And, of course, the notion of categorization was of great importance in Germany after World War II not only for Jews but also for non-Jews in Germany who were confronted with questions of collective guilt for the Holocaust.
In Bronstein's Children , various characters in Hans's life attempt to categorize him, often presenting him with only two options: you are either with us or you are against us. Hans rejects such simple, objective, and often polarized options, and chooses instead to search for more flexible, subjective possibilities marked by multiplicity.
Around the time that the novel was published, prominent historian Jürgen Habermas wrote a series of essays that included criticism of those who would limit the possibilities for historical interpretation. Hans's resistance to the prescribed roles he is offered echoes Habermas's criticism. In his own awkward way, Hans seeks to position himself critically within the ambivalences of the historical traditions and discourses in which he is situated. His story begins a process in which he may work toward the kind of nuanced and pluralistic notion of identity that Habermas advocates—a sense of identity based not on symbols or denial but instead on a critical confrontation with and examination of the past. Becker's novel is, then, a call for a more nuanced examination of the way both Jewish and non-Jewish Germans deal with and live with their history, and especially with the Holocaust.