The Death’s Head Chess Club

John Donoghue
  • Review
By – June 1, 2015

Auschwitz is the main set­ting of The Death’s Head Chess Club. In a time and place where no rules of civ­i­liza­tion apply, where any under­stand­ing of past actions and deeds makes no sense, and where there is no frame of human ref­er­ence, there is a chess cham­pi­onship to be played out. And only Ger­man supe­ri­or­i­ty and intel­li­gence can pre­vail in this game of log­ic, skill, and cun­ning. Is any oth­er out­come remote­ly possible?

This engross­ing sto­ry cen­ters on a Jew and two Ger­mans. The action alter­nates between World War II and an inter­na­tion­al chess tour­na­ment in 1962 Amsterdam.

Emil Clement and his fam­i­ly have been trans­port­ed from Paris to Auschwitz. Known as The Watch­mak­er,” he is sent to the slave labor fac­to­ry work­shops at the Monowitz sub­di­vi­sion. His hor­ri­fy­ing exis­tence is altered when he is recruit­ed to play chess by a pris­on­er guard. Chess brings him his only hope of sal­va­tion, as he con­tin­ues to win match after match.

Paul Meiss­ner, an SS offi­cer, was wound­ed on the Russ­ian front and sent to Monowitz to boost both effi­cien­cy and staff morale in a cul­tur­al man­ner. He ini­ti­ates a chess club for the offi­cers at the idyl­lic Solahutte SS Coun­try Club nearby.

The third char­ac­ter, Willi Schwengi­er, a Ger­man chess cham­pi­on, works for Goebbels’s Pro­pa­gan­da Min­istry in Berlin.

These three men find each oth­er two decades lat­er in Ams­ter­dam. Meiss­ner is now a Catholic bish­op, Emil an Israeli, and Schwengi­er is set to play against Emil in a hate-filled chess match. They form a trio of tor­tured char­ac­ters. Togeth­er they relive the past and piece togeth­er their sto­ries. It is a com­plex and often inex­plic­a­ble nar­ra­tive. Slow­ly the char­ac­ters evolve and talk of moral­i­ty, for­give­ness, friend­ship, and com­ing to terms with your­self while seek­ing peace. Meiss­ner yearns for repen­tance for his soul. 

Cir­cum­stances advance Emil from pris­on­er chess games to per­ilous match­es fac­ing SS offi­cers. Much hinges on his win­ning for him­self as well as the diverse cast of char­ac­ters he encoun­ters, becomes entan­gled with, and is ulti­mate­ly behold­en to. Emil plays chess in a wise but divine and mys­ti­cal way while find­ing a new lev­el of faith and hope.

Donoghue has duly researched and recre­at­ed Auschwitz. Hor­rors are giv­en their full due as he recounts the day-to-day dread of expend­able pris­on­ers, the ran­dom­ness of who dies or lives, selec­tions and gassings, black mar­ket logis­tics, the camp under­world hier­ar­chy and absur­di­ties, and the peck­ing order of the Nazi com­mand. The blood-chill­ing meth­ods and sys­tems for run­ning the ever-effi­cient labor and death Ger­man war machine are recounted. 

Yet this is a sto­ry much like chess, with an open­ing move, a mid­dle game, and an end game, as it explores the themes of sur­vival, guilt, friend­ship, and healing.

Each chap­ter head­ing car­ries the name of a chess term that is ful­ly explained in a glos­sary. Lim­it­ed famil­iar­i­ty with the game is in no way a dis­trac­tion or detri­men­tal to iden­ti­fy­ing with this book, but could enhance the reader’s enjoy­ment of the applied strate­gies of chess in the novel.

Relat­ed Content:

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions