Daniel Halber Mensch (The Half Person)
Carlsen Verlag, 2000, 320 pp.
It is 1933, the Nazis have just come to power, and Daniel Kraushaar and his best friend Armin Hillman are as excited as many other German teenage boys of that time at the prospect of joining the Hitler Youth and playing their part in creating a new fatherland. Armin soon enlists, without the knowledge of his more cautious parents. But why doesn't Daniel? Because, as his parents are reluctantly obliged to explain to him, his mother is Jewish and therefore he is half a Jew. Armin stands by him, protecting him from abuse and before long starting a clandestine affair with Daniel's cousin Miriam. But his secret is discovered - by a high-ranking SS officer - and to save his skin he is forced to betray his friend, leading a gang of thugs to Daniel's house on the infamous Night of Broken Glass and beating up his father, Rheinhard, a lawyer, the two cousins having escaped.
Daniel and his parents leave Germany and reach America via Cuba. Miriam is captured in Holland and deported to the East, where she dies in a ghetto or, more probably, in a concentration camp. Daniel returns to Hamburg in 1945 with the American army. His job is to interrogate German soldiers about their true activities in Nazi Germany and here, in the course of his duties, he suddenly hears a familiar voice. It is Armin's. Daniel coolly walks over to inspect his old friend's documents, and, instead of shielding him, verifies his SS past. He is, after all, as Armin had pleaded before the war, only doing his job.
What makes this novel particularly interesting is the way in which politics come alive on a personal level. The baleful effects of the Nuremberg laws, theories of racial hygiene and so on, permeate the lives of the characters in this book as they did those of millions of people at the time. This 'cross-over' novel, for teenagers and adults, poses a host of ethical questions yet grips its readers to the end.