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STATEMENT OF PLANS (from a grant application)

Like my previous novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, Fatherland will explore the nature and consequences of what James Baldwin termed “moral apathy,” that mix of selective attention and self-deception that enables ostensibly well-meaning people to remain ignorant of their own complicity with evil. Fatherland interweaves the stories of Otto Zeitz, an “Aryan” psychoanalyst, and his Jewish daughter, Hannah, during and just after the Third Reich.

In 1928, Sigmund Freud sends Zeitz to work at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, which, at that time, Freud still hoped would be the vanguard of the psychoanalytic movement. Zeitz is brilliant, ambitious and passionately convinced that psychoanalysis is a singular force for good, both internationally and, after 1933, especially within Nazi Germany.

He loathes Hitler, but remains certain, even into the early days of the war, that the Nazi Party is on the verge of collapse as a result of its disastrous economic policies and the Führer’s buffoonish self-contradictions, and so he is able to devote almost all of his mental energy to writing a book on dream interpretation that he thinks will surpass Freud’s. All of this changes in January 1943 when Zeitz treats a relative of both Hermann and Mathias Göring (the latter being the Nazi director of the reconstituted Psychoanalytic Institute) and becomes intimately acquainted with the true nature of the “Final Solution.”

Zeitz’s wife, Josine, who is Jewish, is as passionately idealistic as he is, but in a much more impulsive and narcissistic fashion. She leaves him in 1932, in the midst of an affair she is having with an actor, and refuses to return to him when the affair collapses in 1934, even though having an “Aryan” husband would make her a “privileged” Jew. Among the many complex reasons behind her refusal is her conviction that her husband’s failure to respond to the horror of Nazism makes him a moral monster. And it is for this same reason that she won’t allow their daughter, Hannah, to have anything to do with him.

In 1938, Josine’s brother, a communist who has emigrated to New York, gets her and Hannah the boat tickets and necessary paperwork to join him. On the pier, Josine suddenly decides that she won’t go. She loathes America and can’t bear to leave her current lover, a prominent politician whom she believes will protect her. So Hannah, only twelve years old, makes the journey on her own.

Hannah’s narrative commences in August 1945, when she is nineteen and has returned to Berlin as a volunteer translator for a refugee agency. She discovers almost immediately, from a former neighbor, that her mother died at Theresienstadt. Her father is much harder to track down because both his office and the building where he lived (and where Hannah also lived when her parents were together) were destroyed by Allied bombing. Eventually she discovers one of her father’s colleagues rescuing books from the ruins of the former Psychoanalytic (now Göring) Institute, and learns that her father suffered a “nervous breakdown” in 1943 and disappeared.

During much of Hannah's childhood, Josine tore up Zeitz’s letters to his daughter without telling her about them, but in New York, up until the US entry into the war, she received a steady stream of letters from him. As a result, she has come to think of her father as a deeply loving and brilliant intellectual, whom she desperately wants to emulate and please. Several references in these letters convince Hannah that her father has returned to the small village in the Bavarian Alps where he was born. And so, with the help of an American general, whom she meets at a reception, she sets out on a journey to find her father.

She has been on the road less than two days, however, when a soldier the general delegated to drive her to Munich attempts to rape her, and she ends up abandoned in the open countryside with none of her belongings and no money or identification. She decides to continue her journey, however, and travels mostly by night along small country roads, and sleeps in the woods. Eventually, she falls in with three young Auschwitz survivors, two women and a man, who, abhorring the idea of being in a camp of any kind (even a refugee camp) are walking home to France.

Over the ten days she travels with them, she learns a great deal about the horrors they endured, and she herself endures all the hardships of refugee life, including constant hunger and fear—to the point that, by the end of her journey, and despite having been sheltered from the worst of the Holocaust in the United States, she appears indistinguishable from any of the other refugees crossing Germany. Hannah turns out to have been right in her guess that her father had returned to his home village, but her initially joyful reunion with him ultimately becomes a moral reckoning that profoundly alters her understanding of her father, herself and humanity as a whole.