The Death of the Adversary

Hans Keil­son; Ivo Jarosy, trans.
  • Review
By – September 22, 2011
Hans Keil­son was born in Berlin in 1909, and fled to the Nether­lands after the Nurem­berg Laws were insti­tut­ed in 1935, which pre­vent­ed him as a Jew from prac­tic­ing med­i­cine. Dur­ing World War II, Keil­son joined the Dutch resis­tance, and fol­low­ing the war, was a prac­tic­ing psy­cho­an­a­lyst who pio­neered in the treat­ment of war trau­ma on chil­dren.

Both of Keilson’s nov­els con­cern the war years. The Death of the Adver­sary deals with his protagonist’s denial of the con­se­quences of Hitler’s rise to pow­er, and Com­e­dy in a Minor Key is about a Dutch cou­ple hid­ing a Jew­ish mer­chant in their home dur­ing the Ger­man occu­pa­tion of the Nether­lands.

The Death of the Adver­sary, writ­ten while Keil­son was in hid­ing dur­ing the war, is one of the best accounts of what it must have been like for a Jew grow­ing up in Ger­many as Hitler and the Nazis com­menced their ascent to pow­er. Yet, nowhere in this riv­et­ing and often philo­soph­i­cal nov­el, does Keil­son men­tion the word Jew or Jew­ish, Hitler or Nazi. Rather, the nov­el cen­ters on the evo­lu­tion of Keilson’s unnamed nar­ra­tor who, at first, refus­es to believe his father’s warn­ing about B” (Hitler) and his dan­ger to the Jews, as well as eschew­ing the warn­ing of his marked” (Jew­ish) friends. As the nov­el unfolds in a series of con­fronta­tions with young Nazis, the unnamed nar­ra­tor moves from self-denial about the dan­ger of Hitler to an acute recog­ni­tion of what the Nazis will even­tu­al­ly have in store for the Jews. In the process, the sto­ry is filled with the narrator’s expe­ri­ence with peo­ple who hate Jews, and cul­mi­nates in a har­row­ing con­fronta­tion with Hitler youth types who boast about how they des­e­crat­ed a Jew­ish ceme­tery.

Less com­pelling than Death of an Adver­sary, Com­e­dy in a Minor Key is a pen­e­trat­ing study of a Dutch couple’s moti­va­tion behind hid­ing a Jew, Nico, dur­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion. This dark­ly com­ic novel­la also describes the feel­ings and emo­tions of Nico toward the cou­ple who have shel­tered him from the Nazis. The book was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the Nether­lands in 1947, and has been trans­lat­ed for the first time.

Addi­tion­al books fea­tured in this review:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions