Pavel's Letters

Monika Maron

translated from the German by Brigitte Goldstein
Harvill Press 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
Born in Berlin in 1940, Monika Maron never met her mother's parents. Despite having lived in Germany for over thirty years, they were deported to Poland in 1938 and then separated from one another in 1942, when Pavel, a Baptist convert from Judaism, was forced into the Belchatow ghetto. Josefa, a convert from Catholicism, died of illness and Pavel was killed in the Kulmhof camp. In Pavel's Letters (Pawels Briefe) Monika uncovers their story, using letters and other documents, visiting the Polish towns where they were born and exiled, and interpreting the unreliable and often unwilling witness of her mother Hella.

Monika's discovery of her grandparents is intertwined with the broader story of her family, in particular that of Hella, who became part of the East German nomenklatura and remained loyal to communism even after her daughter's defection and the reunification of Germany. There are also fascinating, if brief, views of different points of German history — of life and politics in Berlin's working class suburb Neuk├Âlln in the Weimar period, self-criticism and spies in the GDR, and more.

The Holocaust looms over the story of her grandparents, but Monika's portrait avoids making their deaths the centre of their lives. She also conveys something of the way Nazi race laws separated families, came between friends and lovers, and stripped people of parts of their identity.

Monika is particularly skeptical about her own early memories: "I have almost always regarded child first-person narrators with a certain degree of aversion. I completely distrust autobiographical childhood remembrances, my own included". And Pavel's Letters is pleasantly unpretentious. It is a powerfully moving family memoir with much of the feel of a novel.

July 2004

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%T Pavel's Letters
%A Maron, Monika
%M German
%F Goldstein, Brigitte
%I Harvill Press
%D 2002 [1999]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 186046629X
%P 142pp