Book review: Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem

Powerfully reclaimed — and imagined — reality


Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem by Hélène Cixous, Trans: Peggy Kamuf (Fordham University Press, £18.99)

Born In Algeria in 1937, the French Jewish philosopher and writer Hélène Cixous, whose innovative thinking feeds into her literary output, has a prodigious oeuvre, now enlarged by this memoir. 

It focuses on her quest for the lost past of her mother’s maternal German side of the family and in so doing blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir. Her stories resemble a drama replete with characters, living and dead, each speaking in their own voice, real and imagined. 

Her mother’s maternal family is deeply marked by the Holocaust but the numerous tales transmitted to Hélène by her mother, aunt and grandmother in Oran focus nostalgically on pre-Nazi life in Osnabrück. In a dynamic familiar to the children of Holocaust survivors and refugees, the matriarchy’s reluctance to discuss their bitter experiences results in fragmented narratives and silences — yet the trauma was viscerally transmitted to Hélène. 

After her adored mother died aged 103, Cixous resolved to “return” to Osnabrück although she was never there. For Cixous, visiting the town of her mother’s youth constituted an act of seeking her. When she discovered that, in 1934, there were 435 Jews in the town amid a total population of 98,000, and that it was now totally bereft of Jews, who were either murdered or had emigrated, she decided to rename it “Zerosnabrück”. Nonetheless, she wandered the streets searching for relatives, but found only ghosts. 

For Cixous, it is imperative to speak of what is unspoken, however unpalatable. From her excavations of the past, she exhumes secrets, resuscitates the dead and enables the silenced to speak. She also makes the point that not all the victims were virtuous  — there were wicked Jews among them. And she gives examples of the heartlessness of some of her own relatives. Her great-uncle boarded a train at Osnabrück Station to join his beloved daughter in Jerusalem but she cruelly rejected him whereupon he returned to Osnabrück, and deportation to a death camp. Another shocking episode describes a New York relative’s refusal to save a child.

Controversially,  Cixous questions why some Osnabrück Jews delayed their attempt to leave Germany as, had they joined relatives overseas or applied for advertised jobs in other lands, they would have been saved. 

If only it had been that simple. I know from my own family history that so many countries refused to accept German Jews. However, Cixous conjectures that some were afflicted by inertia or fear of losing their German identity or simply of an unpredictable future. 

Cixous’s literal and metaphorical memoir continues in Le Correspondance avec le Mur, published in 2017 but yet to be translated into English.

Dr Jennifer Langer is a poet, essayist and director of Exiled Writers Ink 

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