The Hor­mone Factory

Sask­ia Gold­schmidt; Hes­ter Vel­mans, trans.
  • Review
By – January 19, 2015

Grace­ful­ly writ­ten, engag­ing, evoca­tive, vex­ing at times, Sask­ia Goldschmidt’s The Hor­mone Fac­to­ry begins in the grips of impend­ing clar­i­ty of death’s paral­y­sis. It is the sto­ry of two Jew­ish twin broth­ers, a bril­liant Jew­ish sci­en­tist, and the fac­to­ry girls viewed through the lens of the pas­sion­ate, often immoral and very human twin, Mordechai (“Motke”) de Paauw.

Based on the true sto­ry of the birth and suc­cess of the Dutch phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny, Organon, Gold­schmit­dt breathes life into the founders and tells us a com­pelling and dis­turb­ing tale set in the back­drop of Hol­land dur­ing the rise and fall of the Third Reich. In the midst of Hitler’s march across Europe, Gold­schmidt plops us direct­ly into the under­belly of cap­i­tal­ism at a time when work­ers were exploit­ed and empires were built. 

Goldschmidt’s pic­turesque use of lan­guage is both elo­quent and poignant. More than once her well-craft­ed sen­tences and para­graphs were reread for the pure plea­sure of the writ­ing. Tight­ly writ­ten, this nov­el is simultane­ously pro­found and accessible. 

Our protagonist’s adult life spans the reign of Nazi Ger­many. Gold­schmidt explores the Jew­ish post-Holo­caust judg­ment of those who man­aged to sur­vive — those that fled and those who did what they had to do. It is the sto­ry of ambi­tion and avarice that knew no bounds. It is a sto­ry of friend­ship and betray­al. It is the sto­ry of pow­er and intimidation. 

Begin­ning with Motke’s end-of-life flash­back, replete with pride, humor, greed, sex, hor­ror, regrets, and ratio­nal­iza­tion, we watch with voyeuris­tic enthu­si­asm and dis­gust the reck­on­ing of his life. Trapped in a hos­pi­tal bed, attend­ed to by Mitzi, his lat­est wife — who it seems rev­els in her dom­i­nat­ing pres­ence over this once pow­er­ful man who con­sumed a num­ber of women in his wake — we hear his story. 

Motke is the dom­i­nant twin. He has prow­ess, aggres­sion, chutz­pa, suc­cess, vision, but lacks a moral com­pass. His broth­er Aaron is weak, depressed, self-debas­ing, com­pla­cent, and worst of all com­plic­it — he knows, but is unwill­ing or more like­ly unable to chal­lenge Motke’s deplorable behav­ior. Aaron serves as the con­science Motke ignores. Both men are trag­ic. Motke sur­vives, suc­ceeds, and pro­cre­ates in a glar­ing Dar­win­ian way. Aaron does not. 

The broth­ers’ con­trast (the prover­bial good and evil twin) is unre­al­is­tic at times, requir­ing a sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. Gold­schmidt, how­ev­er, keeps us turn­ing the pages. 

These two broth­ers, Motke and Aaron, inher­it a meat­pack­ing com­pa­ny. With the help of Levine, a pre­scient sci­en­tist, Motke trans­forms the slaugh­ter­house into the pharma­ceutical com­pa­ny Farmi­con. The part­ner­ship of Levine and Motke mass pro­duce insulin and lat­er testos­terone. The dichoto­my aris­es from vir­tu­ous out­come, per­haps even acci­den­tal out­come of the estab­lish­ment of Farmi­con. The phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals improve the lives of the mass­es and the fac­to­ry pro­vides jobs and income to the com­mu­ni­ty and refugees from Ger­many. Yet Motke’s pow­er is absolute and abused. Tak­ing advan­tage of eco­nom­ic condi­tions, his posi­tion, and his delu­sions that he is a sought after prize, Motke both exper­i­ments on and sex­u­al­ly molests the women work­ing in his factory. 

As he looks back, he is haunt­ed by the women he oppressed. In Motke’s words, Far more often it’s mem­o­ries of the women that come and dis­turb my peace of mind — always the women. They were both my great­est joy and my life’s most ter­ri­ble curse.” 

He is tor­ment­ed by the con­se­quences of his actions toward Riv­ka (his first wife), Aaron, and, ulti­mate­ly and most vehe­ment­ly, the next gen­er­a­tion. His busi­ness acu­men and suc­cess is incon­tro­vert­ible; con­verse­ly his inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships fail miserably. 

In the end, it comes down to Tikkun Olam. Do the med­ical advances out­weigh the wretched treat­ment of the fac­to­ry girls, his fam­i­ly, and his friends? Does the out­come tip judgment’s scales? Tikkun Olam. Is the world a bet­ter place? Can Motke even make that argument? 

The sto­ry begins and ends in paral­y­sis of the death rat­tle. Motke’s urge to right the wrongs or more impor­tant­ly pre­vent the next genera­tion from per­pet­u­at­ing his mistakes. 

This com­pelling tale is worth every page.

Relat­ed content:

Cathy Sussman’s pas­sion is books. She grad­u­at­ed magna cum laude with a B.A. in Eng­lish from the Col­lege of St. Thomas in St. Paul Min­neso­ta. She lives in Min­neapo­lis with her hus­band, chil­dren, dog and cat. For her day job, she spe­cial­izes in rein­sur­ance and is a prin­ci­pal at Dubras­ki & Associates.

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