The Jew Car by Franz Fuhmann


Gott mit uns

Born the son of pharmacist in Czechoslovakia, Franz Fühmann (1922-1984) would grow to become a prolific German writer of children’s stories, essays, poems, and film scripts.  Autobiographical in nature, The Jew Car represents his attempt to compile, chronicle, and present readers with an insightful exploration of his radically shifting world views, particularly those that were formed in his earliest days of existence as a highly impressionable youth at the time of the Nazi party’s rise to power.

The collection opens with the title piece, in which Fühmann is introduced as an ardent young Catholic schoolboy.  He’s never met a Jew, but he’s heard plenty of rumors about them.

A Jew Car she, she spluttered, had appeared in the mountains, driving in the evenings along the lonely country roads to snatch little girls and slaughter them and bake magic bread from their blood; it was a yellow car, all yellow, she said, her mouth and eyes screwed up with horror: a yellow car, all yellow, with four Jews inside, four swarthy, murderous Jews with long knives, and all the knives were bloody, and blood was dripping from the running board, people had seen it clear as day, and they’d slaughtered four girls so far, two from Witkowitz and two from Bohmisch-Krumma; they’d hung them by the feet and cut off their heads and drained the blood into vats, and we were piled on top of one another in a shrieking, quaking lump of fright, and Gudrun’s shrill owl’s voice was louder than our fear, avidly swearing, though no one doubted her story, that all of this was really true, she’d seen the Jew car herself.

Not only do kids say the darndest things, they also believe them.  Like tiny little sponges thirsty for liquid, they absorb everything they come into contact with and squeeze their own twist on it all back into the world.  The most interesting aspect of Fühmann’s stories is the striking ways in which his belief system is continually built and rebuilt as he is subject to the attitudes and convictions of those surrounding him.  He starts as a child guided by religion, but as the collection skips ahead through time, it’s clear that his Fühmann’s father has a huge influence on what will become his impassioned belief in Nazism.  Against his parents’ wishes however, this will lead to his enrolling in the Wehrmacht. It’s the middle pieces of the collection deal with this time spent as a member of the German Defense Force.  The shine of this Nationalism will eventually wear off however, leaving Fühmann to once again transform himself.

Ultimately captured by the Russian army, as a prisoner of war Fühmann will morph yet again, this time into a passionate Socialist.  Kill them with kindness they often say, but here, in the closing pieces of the collection, it’s more a case of convert them with it.

As the The Jew Car concludes, Fühmann seems steadfast in his belief in Socialism, but much later in life, as his battles with East German politicians over the artistic freedoms of writers would intensify, he would eventually grow disillusioned to these concepts and ideas as well.

Centered around documenting these ever changing beliefs, The Jew Car succeeds by relying on a specific type of self-analysis, one akin to what Karl Ove Knausgaard attempts to tackle in his series of autobiographical novels, but in a different, perhaps more intense way, thanks in no small part to the time period and the subject matter.  It’s not often that a fierce belief in fascism is described with such delicate intensely, nor is it the norm to see such a level of honesty permeate a work about the life of a dedicated soldier in 1940s Germany. Fühmann’s collection is a beautifully strange offering that calls into question the power of his own recollections as it documents a history the world is all too familiar with from a unique and captivating vantage point.

The_Jew_Car_225 ★★★★☆
The Jew Car: Fourteen Days From Two Decades
By Franz Fühmann
Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
Seagull Books
(1962) 2013
256 Pages
ISBN 9780857420862

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.