Life & Culture

Review: Remote Sympathy

Anne Garvey admires a fictional but authentic account of life in Buchenwald


E1CWAK Roll call at Buchenwald concentration camp, ca. 1938-1941. Two prisoners in the foreground are supporting a comrade, as

Remote Sympathy
By Catherine Chidgey
Europa Editions, £16.99
Reviewed by Anne Garvey

Sympathy? That’s a few hundred years out of date, at least,’’ laughs Doctor Schiedlausky, Camp Medical Director, when he encounters the “Sympathetic Vitaliser”, a machine designed to cure cancer. The irony of Catherine Chidgey’s acutely authentic novel’s title infuses the text. No place on earth could have less sympathy than the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. Incongruously built in idyllic, woody mountains around Weimar, historic home of Goethe and Schiller, its ravaged prisoners and their minders live out a perilous existence under its brutal regime. It is a mixed camp, with many political prisoners. And early on in the book, five Austrian Catholic priests are crucified in the “punishment bunker”.

Greta Hahn’s husband Dietrich has become Buchenwald’s Chief Administrator and they move to a spacious house nearby. Greta trips through her days in her sunny new home surrounded by friendly neighbours, attended by Josef, a willing young servant recruited from the camp.

It is 1942, yet Greta has no suspicions. Occasionally, an agonised shriek startles her but is easily attributed to unseen peacocks in the distance (the camp implausibly has a zoo). Even when she finds out her nervous servant is a Jehovah’s Witness denied his freedom because he refused to abandon his beliefs, she dismisses his murmur about torture.

Sometimes, according to Dietrich Hahn, prisoners are released — “it’s good for morale.” Everything is riddled with lies. Camp wives other than Greta, it is said, live in bizarre luxury – one bathes in Madeira wine and plays with a solid gold chess set. Greta’s new friend Emmi tells her it’s an “Aladdin’s Cave — anything you want, you can have, made by the finest craftsmen.”

Out on a walk, Greta and her five-year-old son see a man shot and roughly removed on a stretcher. A guard blithely explains that the victim had stolen a carrot. But any reaction by Greta to the reality is obscured by her increasing pain from a worsening illness.

Dr Lenard Weber, inventor of the “Sympathetic Vitaliser”, is the most reliable among Chidgey’s grouping of different narrators. He is violently arrested one afternoon; Dietrich Hahn wants him to treat his wife, whose illness appears terminal. Weber reconstructs the machine and, under the watchful eye of her husband, begins to treat Greta, all the time knowing the machine is probably a failure.

A contrasting voice is that of Hahn himself in his horrific, self-justifying testimony to American interrogators in 1954.

Another narrative strand is provided by Greta’s imaginary diary and, finally, by the intermittent accounts of Weimar citizens.

This is a long, complex book. The writing is beautifully wrought and the research a result of years of study. The true sympathetic vitaliser here is the novelist. She illustrates the senseless cruelty of the regime and portrays its characters convincingly, not as monsters but deluded, indulged and frightened victims of their own stupidity.

Chidgey’s insight into German culture helps amplify the terror that holds ordinary people in a web of grotesque lies, while many of its victims maintain their essential humanity to the end — and more: Weber and other prisoners take and hide incriminating photographs. “One day,” one says, “these will be their undoing.”

And indeed, Doctor Weber survives; Commandant Hahn hangs.

Anne Garvey is a co-editor of Cambridge Critique

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