In 1992 I attended a Yom Kippur service at Middlebury College. I am Jewish, but more secular than observant. As an adult I have made it my practice to at least attend some of the “high holy days” of the Jewish year, most particularly Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – the holiest of the holy days. As a child I had feared this day – it was the day that you prayed for God to “inscribe you in the book of Life” for the coming year. It was the day of reckoning when all my bad deeds from the previous year would be considered before a heavenly tribunal concluding with God’s judgment. If found wanting, I would die. Adding a physical dimension to my existential anxiety, I had to wear a suit, usually new wool pants in September, in New York City’s heat and humidity, that rubbed the insides of my thighs causing painful irritation. I bring some baggage to Yom Kippur services.
This particular service in 1992 was lead by Rabbi Fritz Rothschild, one of the founders and philosophers of the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism, a modern, progressive doctrine of Conservative Judaism. In his sermon, Rabbi Rothschild told the story of the t’shuvah – the turning from evil – of a young fascist assassin, Ernst Werner Techow, who participated in the 1922 murder of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, the highest-ranking Jew in the Weimar democracy.
On this holiest day in the Jewish year, Rabbi Rothschild told the story of a young man sympathetic with the early Nazis. His redemption was so moving and powerful that I began to research this history with thoughts of a book to flesh out the three themes that emerged – the rise of the Third Reich, unfathomable forgiveness, and the complexity of redemption. In the course of my research I obtained transcripts from the Library of Congress of Techow’s arrest, interrogation and trial. This was all in German and I needed translation help, so I sat in the library every week with Marita Schine, a German woman and a dear friend, translating these transcripts and trying to understand Ernst Werner Techow. His character grew in my mind, but his historical trail was thin and eventually ran dry. I subsequently learned that his redemption, the substance of Rabbi Rothschild’s sermon, was a fable. And so, this story became historical fiction. As I was writing, I kept these two epigraphs of the book before me:
“Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.” – Picasso
“What are our stories if not the mirrors we hold up to our fears?” – Wally Lamb (This One Thing I Know is True)