The German Refugee

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Short Story by Bernard Malamud, 1963

"The German Refugee" concludes Bernard Malamud's second collection of short stories, Idiots First (1963). The setting is New York City in the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. The principal character, Oskar Gassner, a Jew, has immigrated to the United States from Germany. He saw what was happening to Jews, especially after Kristallnacht, and knew that he had to get out of that "accursed country." On a trip to the United States a year earlier he had tried to find a job, which would enable him to immigrate more easily. He was promised one, not as a journalist, which was his profession, but as a lecturer, and that decided him finally.

Leaving his Gentile wife, the daughter of a virulent anti-Semitic mother, behind in Stettin, Oskar comes to New York and tries to perfect his English so that he can deliver his lectures to an American audience. He hires a young student, Martin Goldberg, to tutor him. The story is Martin's first-person account of trying to help Oskar and of the friendship that grows between them as Oskar struggles with his pronunciation and the vagaries of American English.

It is not an easy time for Oskar or for the others like him whom Martin also tutors, thus eking out a small living during his senior year in college. The men he tutors live in uptown Broadway, the area where many refugees settled at the time. Three other German refugees are among Martin's clients, one a former film star, another a brilliant economist, and the third a man who had taught medieval history at Heidelberg—all accomplished persons, all driven out of Hitler's Germany. But it is Martin's relationship with Oskar that is the main focus of the story.

The summer is hot, and Oskar's disordered, shabby hotel room is stifling. But the two persevere, despite Oskar's recurrent bouts of despair and depression. He has frequent nightmares of Nazis inflicting tortures on him, sometimes forcing him to look upon corpses of people they have slain. At one point he dreams of visiting his wife in Germany, where he is directed to a cemetery. On her tombstone he reads another person's name, although her blood seeps out of the shallow grave.

Oskar does not talk much about his wife or Germans, whom he has come to despise as pigs masquerading as peacocks who have destroyed his career and uprooted his life after half a century. He also believes that in her heart his wife is a Jew hater. But on one occasion Martin glimpses a note from Mrs. Gassner that says in part, "Ich bin dir siebenundzwanzig Jahre true gewesen" (I have been true to you for 27 years). On another occasion, after they have been friends for a while, Oskar admits to Martin that he had attempted suicide a week after he arrived in New York, but he claims that it was a mistake.

Despite his efforts to help Oskar master English so that he can write and deliver a lecture on Walt Whitman in Germany, Martin begins to feel that it is hopeless. In a last, desperate attempt to assist him, Martin gives Oskar some notes he has taken on Leaves of Grass, and this proves to be the breakthrough Oskar needs. He overcomes his writer's block, or paralysis of the will as he calls it, and completes the lecture, which he delivers in September with good success. Its theme, ironically, is the feeling for Brudermensch, his humanity, that Germans found in Whitman, although Oskar admits that such feeling does not grow long on German soil and is soon destroyed.

By this time the Germans have invaded Poland, and World War II has begun. But Oskar has changed, has come back to life—only to lose everything. Two days after hearing the lecture, Martin climbs up to Oskar's hotel room and finds a crowd there. Oskar lies dead, having gassed himself. A week later, going through Oskar's belongings as his sole heir, Martin finds the explanation for the suicide in a letter from his anti-Semitic mother-in-law. His wife had converted to Judaism and had been seized by the Brownshirts along with other Jews in their apartment building, taken to a Polish border town, and shot in the head. She was then toppled into an open ditch with naked Jewish men and their wives and children, some Poles, and a few Gypsies and thus buried.

Malamud's story is a powerful account of the effects of the Holocaust even upon those who managed to escape the direct onslaught of the Nazis. Not only is Oskar affected fatally, but Martin, his friend and tutor, is also terribly influenced by the events. Malamud, however, wisely refrains from a full description of these effects and lets the story end with the account of how both Gassners perished and with the effect of their deaths upon the reader.

—Jay L. Halio

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The German Refugee

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