The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers
This book is a new translation, by Margaret Bettauer Dembo, with the original story being published in the 1940s.
The truth about the author and her attempts to get the book published are almost worthy of a novel themselves. Anna Seghers was a German Jew who was married to a Hungarian Communist. She fled Germany for Paris in the 1930s, where she wrote this novel. When the Germans entered France she fled again, first to Marseilles and then to Mexico. Of the four copies of her novel, one was lost in an air raid, one seized by the Gestapo, one lost by a friend, and luckily the one she sent to an American publisher survived. When published in 1942, the book was a bestseller in America, where it was even made into a film in 1944.
The unique feature of The Seventh Cross is that is paints a picture of Germany before the Second World War. It tells the story of seven men who escape from a concentration camp in the early 1930s. They are political prisoners, mostly Communists, rounded up when the Nazi party was clearing away all opposition. The camp commander gives himself and his men a week to round up the seven escapees.
We follow George Heisler as he tries to outrun the hunt. He is isolated, surviving only on his wits, while all around the Brownshirts and the SS are rounding up anyone whom he knew before he landed in prison. We follow his friends and relations, and we witness the perils he feels about depending on anyone. As George heads back towards places he lived and worked before his imprisonment, people he knew there are faced with a dilemma. Do they help their old friend and run the risk of being arrested themselves, or do they keep quiet and tow the line? Those who still resist look around for anyone who can help, in a world now populated by poker faces. The level is distrust is superbly captured by the novel.
There is a small scene which encapsulates the pervading suspicion of the time. George is a hunted man, there is a price on his head. A former workmate, out drinking with a man he is no longer sure he can trust, thinks the man at the bar was George. The drinking companion says he could make a lot of money handing George over.
“They used to be friends, these two; then came the years during which they no longer talked about anything meaningful with each other for fear of giving themselves away, in case the other had changed. Now it turned out that they were both still the same; neither had changed. They left the automat, friends again.”
I thought the story was excellent, just the right level of tension and a wonderful portrayal of George, who can trust no-one but himself but in order to escape is forced to place his trust in a handful of people. Each one could betray him at any moment.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Virago RRP $34.99