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Charles Lewinsky

Melnitz (Melnitz)

Nagel & Kimche, February 2006, 776 pp.
ISBN 3-312-00372-5

This panoramic and highly readable novel chronicles the lives of the Meijer family between 1871 and 1945, a wide but not unmanageable time-span. The family is Jewish, the setting mainly Switzerland, and here, in the town of Endigen, at the end of the Franco-Prussian war, a young army deserter called Janki Meijer arrives, keen to start a new life as a tailor. After being rejected by Mimi, a daughter of the distant branch of the Meijer family who have taken him in, he marries her adoptive sister Chanele, by whom he has three children.

From then on, we watch the generations mix and multiply. Hinda, one of Janki’s daughters, meets and marries Zalman Kamionker, a tailor and ardent trade unionist, who has spent several years in the United States. Ruben, their son, becomes a Rabbi in Germany, and as the book ends we learn his fate – in a Nazi concentration camp. Rachel, his sister, marries a former actor and refugee from Hitler’s regime, while Arthur, a doctor, and Janki and Chanele’s youngest son, marries late in life a German-Jewish widow whom he is consequently able to save.

And here we come to the distinctive essence and purpose of this book, which is to show how Jews fared in a country other than Germany. The answer is disillusioning. When raffish young François Meijer converts to Christianity to further his business interests he is told: ‘A baptised Jew is still a Jew’. And the authorities reluctantly finalising Arthur’s wife’s emigration papers suggest to her husband that Switzerland already has too many refugees from Germany – many more will lead to a rise in anti-Semitism.

But it ill behoves the peoples of other countries to point the finger. The most mysterious and haunting character in the book is the dead and disagreeable Uncle Melnitz, who interrupts the narrative from time to time with unpleasant visits to members of the family, reminding them of the irrevocable destiny of their race. So, remembering the fate of Ruben and his wife and children, along with so many others, can it be denied that this grim and forbidding ghost was justified in declaring: ‘You have been lucky, here in Switzerland’.

Perhaps, but nowhere is happiness unconditional – the shadows cast are long. The rosy peaked landscape of neutral Switzerland receives thoughtful treatment in this courageous and compelling novel.

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