This is the first English translation of a German memoir originally published in 1966 as “Das Zerbrochene Haus” and subtitled “Growing Up Under Hitler”. In the Afterword the author (who died in 1999) reflects that it was a book which was developed backwards, in a way. As a journalist in 1964 he was invited to attend the Auschwitz trials. This forms the closing section of the book and is the most powerful and it was his attendance which caused Kruger to look back on his life. In the 1960s he was stunned by how perpetrators of unthinkable crimes at the concentration camp had assimilated into society before having to answer for their actions at the trials. I think if this book had been written more recently this central moment would have been the starting point but back in 1966 Kruger chose to employ a chronological approach which leads from his childhood outside Berlin, in Eichkamp, in an apolitical family where his environment would have made the rise of Adolf Hitler seem even more extraordinary. Alongside this are the family dramas, the suicide of his oldest sister in 1939 and his own dallying with resistance and its repercussions.
There is a sense of detachment throughout which may feasibly be from the translation but I would imagine it is from the original text which does affect the flow and holds the reader at arm’s length. There is little of Kruger’s own participation in the hostilities, it jumps to the end of his war, and indeed, this is acknowledged by the author in the Afterword which was written in 1975 and reflects back on the work, but this absence of this part of his life does seem a little odd.
In parts, it is magnificent, especially the second half of the book where Kruger feels to be on more certain ground, the actual growing up under Hitler sections in Eichkamp can feel a little tentative but there admittedly would have been so much that the town’s inhabitants would have been unsure about at the time. It is not quite the masterpiece I had hoped but the author provides many moments that will linger long in my memory.
The English translation of “The Broken House” is by Shaun Whiteside. The book is published on 17th June 2021. The hardback is published by Bodley Head, the e-book by Vintage Digital. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.