While there is nothing funny about the Holocaust, the title of Hans Keilson’s long-lost novella, “Comedy in a Minor Key,” seems appropriate, although as comedies go, this is certainly a dark one.
“Comedy in a Minor Key” is a provocative and psychological glimpse into the actions that ordinary people are forced to take under extraordinary circumstances. Despite the book’s abbreviated page count, it is brimming with astute insights and just the right amount of levity.
During World War II, a Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, agree to hide a Jew, known only to them as Nico, a former perfume salesman. They treat him as if he were just any other boarder, sharing meals and getting to know him as a friend. The only difference is they must be secretive about his presence, lest they put themselves, and Nico, in danger.
Over the course of a year, Wim and Marie become quite attached to Nico’s presence in their home. For Nico’s part, he does not open up much to his caregivers, possibly for self-preservation purposes.
When he becomes ill and eventually succumbs to pneumonia while in their care, the couple is faced with an unusual, and precarious, situation: how to dispose of his body while keeping themselves under the radar.
Wim and the doctor who had treated Nico attempt to disguise him as a homeless man and, under shadow of night, leave his body in a public place to be found by a passer-by. It is only the next day that they realize, to their horror, that they left behind a very obvious clue as to where he had been hidden. In an ironic twist of fate, Wim and Marie are forced to go into hiding, just as Nico had while he was alive.
Although Wim and Marie try to keep Nico’s presence, and his death, a secret, most of the surrounding neighbors also hide Jews, a fact that most people barely keep concealed from each other. In fact, a little competitiveness crops up now and again, as illustrated in this conversation between Marie and Wim’s sister, when Marie asks her if she would have made the same decision to hide someone:
“One? I’d take two or four! Just not three together, that’s bad in arguments and so on. It’s always two against one. By the way, you don’t have anyone else waiting in the wings, do you? I need to take in another three soon.”
While reading the book, the reader is struck by how normal everything seems to be in the lives of Wim, Marie and Nico, three unlikely roommates. They share meals together and go about their daily lives, while Nico keeps to himself in a spare bedroom. Wim and Marie are not portrayed as extraordinary, selfless heroes, nor are they passionate war protesters; they are simple folks who were presented with, and accepted, an opportunity to help out a fellow human being. Wim’s rationale was simply: “It’s the only way we can fight back, the only way we can do anything at all to show that it isn’t all right. Civil disobedience.”
Arguably, Marie was less than selfless, envisioning walking out in public, arm in arm, after liberation.
How the neighbors and everyone on the street would look when he suddenly walked out of their house and strolled up and down the street with them. It would give them a little sense of satisfaction. And then you’d feel that you, you personally, even if only just a little bit, had won the war.
The author, Hans Keilson, was born in 1909 in Germany to Jewish parents. He managed to escape to the Netherlands during the Holocaust, and there he remained until his death at the age of 101 in 2011. His parents weren’t as fortunate, dying in Auschwitz.
Trained as a doctor, Keilson was unable to practice in Germany due to the Nuremberg laws. He was a child psychologist, treating many children for war-related psychological trauma. He worked for the Dutch resistance and was a founder of the organization L’Ezrat Ha-Yeled (Children’s Aid) that helped care for Jewish orphans of the Holocaust.
Keilson penned “Comedy in a Minor Key” in 1947, in part based on his own experiences while in hiding in the Netherlands; until it was translated from the German by Damion Searls in 2011, modern-day English-speaking readers had likely never even heard of Keilson, let alone had the opportunity to read his works. Searls also translated another earlier Keilson novel, “Life Goes On.” Keilson’s first novel, “The Death of the Adversary,” written while he was in hiding, was released to American audiences in the 1960s to wide acclaim. Nonetheless, Keilson, and that book, had been largely forgotten until recent years. Perhaps Searls’ recent translations of two Keilson’s titles will reverse that fortune.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.