Read­ing Claudius: A Mem­oir in Two Parts

  • Review
By – May 20, 2015

This com­pelling mem­oir opens in Chica­go, 1954. Car­o­line and her broth­er have no idea that they are Jew­ish. They attend church with their par­ents and cel­e­brate Christ­mas joy­ous­ly. One day in school, Car­o­line finds her­self pas­sion­ate­ly defend­ing the Israelis, and rais­ing her hand when the class is asked, Is any­one Jew­ish?” Although she has act­ed mere­ly on instinct and her dis­like of dis­crim­i­na­tion, Car­o­line soon becomes deter­mined to uncov­er more about her ances­try. Part I of the mem­oir takes the read­er to Prague, where Caroline’s moth­er, Liese, is a stu­dent in 1933.

Life in Prague is care­free for Liese and her friends. Liese is enrolled in med­ical school and lives an intellectual’s café life at night. She is par­tic­u­lar­ly tak­en with Erich Heller and his broth­er Paul; one is an intel­lec­tu­al, the oth­er a med­ical stu­dent. Although cryp­tic notes arrive from her par­ents in Ger­many — Today was a good day,” or not so good this week” — the hor­rors that Hitler is begin­ning to per­pe­trate on Ger­many are unre­al to this group of light­heart­ed young people.

How­ev­er, once their own safe­ty becomes endan­gered, the friends are wise enough to fight to escape. Erich ends up in Oxford, ful­fill­ing his dreams. Paul, not so lucky, spends six years in Buchen­wald. His let­ters to Liese and his broth­er com­prise the cen­ter­piece of the book. Part II of the mem­oir details the sto­ry of the char­ac­ters in Amer­i­ca. Paul finds Liese, whom he has always loved, and mar­ries her. The cou­ple have two chil­dren, Car­o­line and Tom.

The details of Paul and Liese’s wartime expe­ri­ences and her­itage emerges in the last part of the mem­oir. Car­o­line strug­gles to under­stand her par­ents in rela­tion to the his­tor­i­cal events and tragedies that shaped them. As part of this attempt, she sets out to read their ear­ly inspi­ra­tions, includ­ing Claudius, an obscure Ger­man poet and philoso­pher impor­tant to both Heller boys. It becomes clear that Eric was able to aban­don his Judaism by fol­low­ing Claudius’ exam­ple of non­in­volve­ment. How­ev­er, the ques­tion as to why Paul and Liese hid the truth from Car­o­line is left unanswered.

The strength the char­ac­ters found to recon­struct their lives — as well as to sim­ply sur­vive — is remark­able. Read­ing Claudius is a must for all read­ers. It sheds light on the times before Hitler destroyed a world, and it demon­strates how some of his vic­tims rebuilt their lives on the ash­es he left behind.

Suri Boiangiu recent­ly semi-retired from the posi­tion of assis­tant prin­ci­pal at an all-girls high school. She has either been an admin­is­tra­tor or taught Eng­lish at Yeshiv­ah of Flat­bush and Magen David High School. She loves read­ing mod­ern fic­tion, or any fic­tion, and Ama­zon knows her by her first name.

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