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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.