Novel by Gert Hofmann, 1986
In the 1986 novel Veilchenfeld, published several years after the critical success of Die Denunziation, Gert Hofmann's interpretation of the Holocaust theme took a new turn. For the first time within his work, a Jewish character was not just obliquely referred to in the narrative but placed centrally on the stage of events, even lending his name to the title of the novel. Without lapsing into a sentimental philo-Semitic mood that had sometimes become tempting for West German authors who were writing about Jews, Hofmann managed to reproduce with startling sharpness the mechanisms of ostracism and harassment that marked the period 1936-38, even before the pogrom of Kristallnacht and the concentration camps.
The novel begins and ends with the news of the death of Bernhard Israel Veichenfeld. Upon his dismissal from the university in Leipzig, Veilchenfeld, an elderly professor of philosophy, moves to live in a small town in Saxony at the beginning of 1936. After his existence as a Jew in this community becomes unbearable, he puts an end to his life in September 1938. Within this time frame the narrative reveals how Veilchenfeld is gradually deprived of all of his civil and human rights and subjected to various forms of physical and mental abuse. Numerous members of the small town community—his neighbors, his housekeeper, Nazi youth, low-level bureaucrats in the police and other city offices—become culprits in the persecution and humiliation of the old man. Barely anyone speaks to him, and he is afraid to go out during the day, when he might meet people. When he goes out at night, however, he is attacked by Nazi hooligans, and when he attempts to complain about the assault, he is beaten up by the police as well. His apartment is vandalized, while his neighbors silently witness the whole ordeal. After Veilchenfeld has finally decided to move to Switzerland and has waited patiently for days for permission to leave, the police tear up his passport. Veilchenfeld's suicide at the end of the novel implies that there are no solutions left to those "others" who are ostracized by the majority within their home country, especially if they want to retain some measure of dignity and control over their lives. Yet at the same time this individual act of self-destruction serves as a highly symbolic prefiguration of the anonymous mass extermination of Jews that is to start not long after Veilchenfeld's death.
Several features of Hofmann's novel place it among the masterpieces of West German literature on the Holocaust. The work is animated by a highly original narrative voice. The story of Veilchenfeld, who speaks directly only a few lines in the novel, is retold by a young boy named Hans. From his naive but privileged perspective as an alert, curious, and unprejudiced child, Hans combines his immediate observations with his parents' and other adults' accounts of their experiences and thoughts. Thus, the boy tells a story that is very candid in its tone and yet confusing and disjointed because it weaves together diverse pieces of information and various fragmentary, often mutually contradictory, explanations. There is also a striking discrepancy between the dramatic nature of described events, which the reader understands well, and the cool detachment of the child, who obviously comprehends very little or misinterprets what he sees. It is, paradoxically, in these discrepancies and contradictions of the narrative that the reader finds an authentic sense of the atmosphere of lies, fear, and silent complicity reigning in the small German town during the prewar Nazi period. The child who quotes the adults' prejudices about Jews, their lies, and their anti-Semitic language inadvertently pronounces severe indictments on his parents and the townspeople.
Another memorable aspect of the novel is the ambivalence with which the narrator portrays his father. The father, who is a physician and World War I veteran, seems to be a good friend of the persecuted professor. He continues to have him as a patient and to visit him, even after he receives a note from the authorities saying that he should stop because Veilchenfeld suffers from an incurable "hereditary disease." Yet despite his braveness and his dismissal of racism, the father does not see any chance for the professor's survival in Germany and sees suicide as Veilchenfeld's only way out of the situation.
It is noteworthy that Hofmann's Veilchenfeld is considered one of the best Holocaust novels in postwar German literature even though it never mentions the word "Jew." The omission of the word does not mean that the author prefers to avoid a direct confrontation with the Holocaust theme but that he has set himself a more ambitious goal. The narrator unmistakably identifies Veilchenfeld as a Jew as he repeats the stereotypic anti-Semitic slurs of the townspeople and explains all of his troubles by the fact that he looks different ("has a large nose"), thinks differently, and, overall, is not "one of us." Yet at the same time, by not using the word "Jew," Hofmann seeks to restitute the sense of personhood of the various Nazi victims by forcing the contemporary reader to respect their humanity regardless of their ethnic or religious background.