Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ingeborg Bachmann’s “War Diary”

Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) was an Austrian-born poet, essayist, novelist and radio dramatist. Not as well known as other members of her circle, Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass, she is still considered an important member of the post-World War II literary generation that helped Europe find its way out the physical and psychological devastation of the war wrought by Nazi Germany.

Jack Hamesh (1920-1967) was a soldier in the British Army. He had been an older member of the Kindertransport – the evacuation of thousands of Jewish children to Great Britain after the Nazi violence of Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”) in Germany in 1938. After World War II, he settled in Palestine, eventually finding employment as a dock worker and later in harbor administration.

No one connected the two until the publication of Bachmann’s War Diary in 2010 (in German; 2011 in English). The summer of 1945 during which they met Bachmann would always refer to as “the loveliest summer of my life.”

At the end of the war, Bachmann and her family fled to a home in a rural village. Her father, a schoolmaster, was a soldier in the German army and had been captured by the Americans. Their place of refuge was occupied by the British Army. Jack Hamesh was part of the occupying forces.

They discovered love – a love of literature. Bachmann has hated the Nazis, and part of her “resistance” was to read forbidden books – Thomas Mann, Rainer Marie Rilke, Karl Marx and others.

Hamesh had lived in Vienna before he was sent to safety in Britain. His parents had died before the war; his uncle used influence to get him included in the Kindertransport. As a soldier in 1945, what had been left of his family had perished in the Holocaust. He had read many of the same books as Bachmann. And so a friendship began.

Bachmann as a teenager
War Diary, a small work (108 pages, including notes, afterword and translator’s statement) is divided into two parts. The first part in Bachmann’s of the period right after the war. The second is Hamesh’s letters, written after his unit was moved to Italy, his discharge and emigration to Palestine. (Her letters, often referred to in Hamesh’s, no longer exist). He wrote for almost two years, the last posted from Tel Aviv in July 1947, and their tone suggests he was at least a little in love with her. Bachmann was more interested in figuring out how to get into university.

And yet she kept his letters until her death, part of the record of that “loveliest summer.”

To read the diary and the letters today is to see two people sharing their love of literature and a sense of loneliness and displacement. The worlds both of them knew, on different sides of war, were destroyed. She at least had family left; Hamesh had nothing except himself. But they shared their mutual love of books and reading, even if it was only for a few short months.

War Diary also serves as a reminder that our parents and grandparents were young once, with hopes and dreams interrupted by war. It’s a small work, but a moving one.

Top photograph: Ingeborg Bachmann in the 1950s.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Thank you for the introduction, Glynn. I'll look for this.