Edgar Feuchtwanger was born in Munich, Germany, in 1924 to parents who, like many of the Weimar Republic’s approximately 600,000 Jews at that time, were educated, urbane and affluent.
His father, Ludwig, who had strayed from a far more traditional Jewish upbringing, was an esteemed editor at a highly reputable publishing company, Duncker & Humblot. His mother, the former Erna Rheinstrom, was a cultured and philanthropic woman who gladly would interrupt a Mozart minuet she was playing on the family’s piano to feed the poor and homeless who came ringing for bread and sausages.
Edgar’s relatives were successful, too. His Uncle Lion was the most well-known German novelist at the time, having made a splash with his 1925 historical novel “Jew Süss,” which was about Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, a German Jewish banker and the court Jew for the Duke of Wurttemberg in the 1730s. And Edgar’s cousins not only had a palatial city house but also a country villa “the size of a castle,” Feuchtwanger recounts in his memoir, “Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood,” which he co-wrote with French journalist Bertil Scali.
The book originally was published in French in 2013 before being released last year in English.
As the title suggests, the charmed, privileged life Feuchtwanger and his parents led started to unravel in 1933 with the appointment of Hitler as chancellor and the country’s slide into institutionalized anti-Semitism and crimes against humanity.
The Cambridge-educated Feuchtwanger, now 94 and a retired professor of history at England’s University of Southampton, will speak about his youth and book at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. The talk will be moderated by Dr. Nathan Szajnberg, formerly Freud Professor of Psychoanalysis at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author, most recently, of the novel “JerusaLand: An Insignificant Death.”
“The world was turned upside down by [Hitler],” said Feuchtwanger, recounting his early years in a phone interview from his home in Winchester, a small, historic city 60 miles southwest of London. As if he and his family had been torpedo-attacked, he added that it felt as if the Nazis had “hit us midship.”
That was certainly the prevailing feeling by 1938, immediately following Kristallnacht, when Edgar’s father, one of his uncles and tens of thousands of other German Jewish men were arrested and deported to Dachau and other camps. Though his father and uncle were eventually released, Feuchtwanger writes, his father was never really the same.
Of seeing his father for the first time post-Dachau, Feuchtwanger writes, “I hardly recognized him. A shriveled little man with a shaven head and thin body, his eyes sunken in dark sockets, his gray face patched with purplish-blue bruises. He stood hunched on the doorstep, swimming in his clothes that were now too big for him … Papa didn’t want to tell us anything about it. He went off to bed.”
The Nazification of Germany affected the Feuchtwangers on multiple levels — not only because they, like all other Jews, were subjected to humiliations and barbarities that Hitler and his henchmen imposed on them. It was also an up-close-and-personal experience for them, because Hitler lived directly across the street from them, beginning in 1929.
Before the anti-Jewish laws set in during the mid-1930s, Feuchtwanger writes, he and his classmates were endlessly fascinated by the comings and goings and sightings of der führer: What was Hitler doing behind his closed curtains? What was his relationship with the women who came and went from his residence? How was it that Hitler nicked himself while shaving?
Feuchtwanger said that he was able to indulge in these fantasies because, “in spite all of the things going on, I had a very protected childhood.” He went to birthday parties, spent the summers at idyllic chalets and villas and personally delivered books to his father’s famous friends, including German novelist Thomas Mann.
In fact, he writes, until he was 9 or 10, he would draw beautiful pictures of the swastika, which won him the praise and admiration of his pro-Hitler grade-school teacher.
Eighty years later, Feuchtwanger reflected, he was luckier than most. He and his family got out in the nick of time — to England, in 1939, with most other relatives and close friends finding refuge in the United Kingdom, the United States, pre-state Israel, Cuba and South America. (Only one of his father’s sisters, Bella, who left Germany for Prague, where she thought she would be safe, was rounded up by the Nazis. She later died at Theresienstadt.)
His and his family’s luck, he said, could be attributed, in part, to the Nazis’ sloppiness, a quality generally not attributed to them. By the mid 1930s, his Uncle Lion had written a scathing fictionalized critique of the Nazis, “Success,” which was a smashing hit. In fact, it sold more copies in Germany than Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” which infuriated the Nazis. The book was publicly burned, and Lion Feuchtwanger was strongly advised to stay abroad. He eventually settled in the United States.
Had the Nazis been more systematic and organized, put two and two together and recognized that his uncle’s close relatives “were living right under the nose of Hitler,” Feuchtwanger opined, who knows what their fate would have been?
Moderator Szajnberg said that he found “Hitler, My Neighbor” a “remarkable” and “unusual” work in which Feuchtwanger successfully recreates for the reader both the innocence and complexity of childhood. “He lived under a terrible dark shadow,” Szajnberg noted, but emerged from that time with an essential goodness intact.
But a good life does not necessarily mean one devoid of scars.
Adrian Feuchtwanger, who handles many of his father’s day-to-day affairs, noted, “Even to this day, during the current round of book tours, my father points out that it was ‘distasteful’ to him to write about the Third Reich during his career as an academic historian … He claims to have now overcome that distaste, though, as you would expect, one can detect tensions and resentments resulting from what he endured during the Third Reich.”