Crush­ing the Red Flowers

  • Review
By – November 11, 2019

In Crush­ing the Red Flow­ers, Jen­nifer Voigt Kaplan fic­tion­al­izes the his­tor­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion of Ger­man guilt and Jew­ish vic­tim­hood with­in the unspeak­able hor­rors of the Holo­caust. Emil Rosen is a Ger­man Jew­ish boy liv­ing with his fam­i­ly in Han­nover on the eve of Kristall­nacht, the mas­sive 1938 state-orga­nized pogrom which shat­tered any remain­ing illu­sion that the Nazi solu­tion to the Jew­ish prob­lem” would be only mass expul­sion. Friedrich Weber is his neigh­bor, a mem­ber of the Nazi Jungvolk, a com­pul­so­ry move­ment for boys not yet old enough for Hitler Youth. As Emil and Friedrich’s lives inter­twine, Kaplan allows ques­tions about col­lu­sion with evil, or the choice to resist it, devel­op organ­i­cal­ly in the nar­ra­tive. The result is a grip­ping sto­ry which avoids sim­ple expla­na­tions in favor of implic­it sug­ges­tion. Emil and his fam­i­ly try to sur­vive through strat­a­gems of both avoid­ance and con­fronta­tion with an ugly real­i­ty, while Friedrich strug­gles to be more than a boy who threw rocks” at the direc­tion of sadis­tic leaders.

Emil and Friedrich are not arche­types; they are ful­ly devel­oped as indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters, each trapped in cir­cum­stances over which they have no con­trol. Although this fact is true for all chil­dren and young adults, Kaplan suc­ceeds in illu­mi­nat­ing both what is ordi­nary and what is incon­ceiv­able about their lives. Emil is sweet, affec­tion­ate, and imma­ture for his age. His con­scious­ness has not caught up with the ter­rors sur­round­ing him, which he seems to intu­it more than under­stand. Ear­ly in the nov­el, he enters his apart­ment, wor­ried that a Nazi-sup­port­ing neigh­bor, Mrs. Schmidt, will harm him with an evil spell.” In an allu­sion to Ger­man cul­ture, she has become for Emil a kind of Grimm’s fairy tale witch, whose pow­er he hopes to avoid by look­ing at the family’s mezuzah. Friedrich, on the oth­er hand, has a fam­i­ly divid­ed by con­flicts which he only dim­ly grasps. His forced par­tic­i­pa­tion in the ser­vice hours” of his youth group are a tor­ture for him, leav­ing him feel­ing hol­low inside, jagged out­side.” Although Emil is more imme­di­ate­ly threat­ened by the Nazi regime, Friedrich suf­fers through his inabil­i­ty to make a clear choice.

One of the accom­plish­ments of Kaplan’s nov­el is the dual nar­ra­tive ten­sion that builds as the char­ac­ters suf­fer unre­lent­ing assaults on both body and mind. The read­er fol­lows the chaot­ic turn of events as they promise to resolve the fate of indi­vid­u­als and shed light on the unan­swer­able ques­tions at the book’s core. Why do some indi­vid­u­als col­lude with or tol­er­ate evil, while oth­ers refuse to do either? Do legit­i­mate respons­es to hatred include weigh­ing the pos­si­ble costs to one’s own safe­ty in order to help oth­ers, even those as demo­nized as Jews in Nazi Ger­many? The ambi­gu­i­ties which Kaplan explores in Crush­ing the Red Flow­ers refuse res­o­lu­tion. It is a tes­ta­ment to her skill as an author that her work acknowl­edges this truth and embraces the para­dox of her char­ac­ters’ dilemmas.

The book­in­cludes a reflec­tive Author’s Note” and a list of addi­tion­al resources which help read­ers learn more about the time period.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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