Regent Press (2010)
Reviewed by Richard R. Blake for Reader Views (09/10)
Born in the midst of history’s most shameful atrocities, Franz (Frank Mann) and J (Jay Radius) become victims of the Lebensborn program in Nazi Germany, a secret and appalling Nazi project designed to create a “Master Race.” Children born in the Lebensborn nurseries were sent to foster homes or remained in the Lebensborn houses to be nurtured and educated by the SS in hopes the children would grow up to lead a Nazi-Aryan nation.
Ultimately the Lebensborn program expanded to include the kidnapping of “racially good” children and extended to the occupied countries of Europe. The blonde hair and blue eyes of the children were among the favored. Some of these children were orphans; others were stolen from their parents’ arms. Thousands of these children were taken to the Lebensborn centers to be “Germanized.” Alther provides amazing insight into the deplorable and despicable condition in the Lebensborn houses in Germany in the final days of World War II.
After the war many of the Lebensborn children were tormented by the uncertainties about their origins. Thousands of Lebensborn files were destroyed by SS troops during the last days of World War II. This further added to difficulty in finding their real identities.
“Siegfried Follies” begins in 1945. Eight-year-old Franz, a blonde, blue-eyed Hitler youth, is among those living at the Lebensborn hospital, where he has been assigned to clean lavatories and run errands for the head nurse in charge of the center. While returning from one of his regular errands Franz witnesses a bundle containing a child being thrown from of a passing train. Franz smuggled the emaciated child into the children’s ward of the hospital and nourished him to health. They bonded together as brothers. The story covers the next 30 years of their lives. Together they escaped the state institution and found refuge in the cellar of an abandoned opera house. Together they wrote and produced a series of puppet shows of Wagnerian folk heroes. Franz worked to provide J with the opportunity to read and develop his intellectual skills.
A few years later, J, a Jew, left Franz to join an Israeli kibbutz in Israel. He also studied at Yeshiva University and finally migrated to the United States to eke out an existence as a Hebrew storyteller and puppeteer in New York. Plagued with loneliness, he turned to interior solitude. While seeking his family and personal identity J (Jay) descended into hopelessness, squalor, and degradation.
Franz changed his name to Frank Mann and found employment in marketing with a soap products company in the United States. He married and began a family. He was continually plagued by vivid memories of the past and a recurring nightmare of the war years and growing up with J.
In a remarkable set of circumstances Franz and J are reunited. The story then builds to a crescendo of events that lead to an unexpected climatic dramatic ending.
Alther has the potential for becoming a highly acclaimed writer. He writes with realism, is proficient in articulating intellectual subjects of culture, philosophy, the arts, music, and education. I found his writing style confusing, sometimes serious, and sometimes superficial. He has included far more graphic sexual scenes than I felt were warranted in light of his indicated target audience. Raised as a Lutheran German-American, Alther has been immersed in a lifelong search into the roots of Nazism, German and Jewish history, folklore, and languages.
“Siegfried Follies” is a novel which addresses a powerful haunting period in world history, a story that will be of special interest to avid readers of World War II literature and to those readers who are interested in the Holocaust. Alther writes with sensitivity on the subjects of seeking ancestral roots, family, community and the complex issue of self identity. This is memorable writing that will disturb the reader long after closing the cover on the final chapter.