Dr. B.

Daniel Birn­baum; Deb­o­rah Bragan-Turner

  • Review
By – September 26, 2022

Dr. B., Daniel Birnbaum’s fic­tion­al­iza­tion of his family’s escape and repa­tri­a­tion dur­ing World War II, takes place in 1939 Stock­holm — a city not usu­al­ly rec­og­nized as a site where Ger­man Jew­ish exiles sought refuge. A well-known cura­tor of mod­ern art, Birn­baum invokes mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Stock­holm itself: a city,” in the words of the nar­ra­tor, in which Europe’s future might be decid­ed.” As Birn­baum writes in an essay for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, Dr. a sto­ry full of shad­ows, reflec­tions, and ambi­gu­i­ties.” The city of Stock­holm, ren­dered in umbras and whis­pers, emerges as per­haps the rich­est char­ac­ter in the novel.

Under Birnbaum’s deft hand, Stock­holm becomes a fraught zone for Jews seek­ing an escape route” from Nazi ter­ror. It also looms as a city uncan­ni­ly haunt­ed by Jew­ish mem­o­ry. This is espe­cial­ly the case for Immanuel Birn­baum, the Dr. B.” of the title. He is the narrator’s bio­log­i­cal grand­fa­ther, a Ger­many-based jour­nal­ist who is open­ly crit­i­cal of Hitler.” In order to evade the Nazis and earn a liv­ing, Immanuel con­verts to Lutheranism with his fam­i­ly. They even­tu­al­ly find safe pas­sage to neu­tral Swe­den, a haven for Jews choos­ing eth­nic invis­i­bil­i­ty over the mur­der­ous anti­semitism of their homelands.

We lat­er learn that Immanuel’s father (the author’s great-grand­fa­ther) was a renowned can­tor and com­pos­er of Jew­ish litur­gi­cal music in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Kon­is­berg. A prod­uct of the Jew­ish Enlight­en­ment, Immanuel’s father fierce­ly opposed the enthu­si­as­tic piety of Hasidism, a mode of Judaism that chal­lenged his own tra­di­tion­al­ist sys­tem of Jew­ish belief and prac­tice. As grand­son and great-grand­son of such larg­er-than-life rel­a­tives, Birn­baum is tan­gled up in a com­plex geneal­o­gy that reflects famil­iar aspects of mod­ern Jew­ish history.

The core plot of Dr. B. involves a true, if rel­a­tive­ly obscure, sto­ry of espi­onage and attempt­ed sab­o­tage by for­eign actors in Swe­den dur­ing World War II. Threats to his fam­i­ly force Immanuel to become a go-between in an incen­di­ary plot to stop the flow of Swedish iron — the key to main­tain­ing the Nazis’ war machine and their so-called Achilles heel.”

In the end, Immanuel’s frag­ile wife Lucia sur­vives an inter­ro­ga­tion by the Swedish police, but Immanuel him­self is caught, tried for espi­onage, and sen­tenced to prison for a brief peri­od. In the final pages of Dr. B., an impris­oned Immanuel hears his father’s soul­ful can­to­r­i­al music ring­ing in the local church bells through his prison cell’s win­dows. The repressed melodies of Jew­ish music return, sooth­ing Immanuel’s trou­bled, dis­placed soul. His father’s music filled him,” the nar­ra­tor writes, and he fol­lowed the jolt­ing dance in his head.”

In an after­word, Birn­baum speaks of his grand­fa­ther as the cen­ter of a labyrinth of aston­ish­ing inter­con­nec­tions and exposed to fierce­ly hos­tile pow­ers.” In the end, Dr. B. reveals that, for the cohort of Jew­ish refugees in a sup­pos­ed­ly neu­tral” Stock­holm, the affect­ing sounds of Jew­ish soul music pro­vide a kind of salve, a mode of sal­va­tion. In this sense, Dr. B. rep­re­sents both a lov­ing ges­ture of gen­er­a­tional reded­i­ca­tion and a rich ren­der­ing of the pow­er of Jew­ish memory.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions