THE winner of the 2014 European Book Prize, Hannah’s Dress might easily have been titled Pascale’s Address, as French writer and journalist Pascale Hugues observes a century of German history through the prism of the Berlin street where she has lived for 25 years.
Deciding where to live was a matter of ‘chance harmonic convergence’, and the street Hugues choose is by no means notable for historical or dramatic upheavals; instead, it is a ‘quiet street in a nice neighbourhood’, a formerly petit bourgeoise suburb of modest affluence.
The theme underpinning her investigation, however, is that history is best understood not by reference to dates or momentous events, but by bringing to light the experiences of those ordinary people who lived the kind of anonymous lives the history books rarely record.
The book opens with the building of the street in 1904 (the street goes unnamed throughout — ‘so insignificant,’ Hugues tells us, ‘that it’s not even worth mentioning’), at a time when imperial Germany was striving to match the great capitals of Europe.
The idealistic architects were intent on constructing an street ‘immune to the ravages of time’, with plushly appointed residences that reflected the aspirations of newly prosperous Berliners fleeing the inner city’s Mietskaserne, tenement flats ‘rife with tuberculosis, alcoholism and incest’.
Time and history, of course, have taken their toll: the effects of two world wars and a Cold War are visible in the missing gaps where buildings used to stand, the bullet-holes and shrapnel marks that still disfigure the walls. Nor is the toll only physical; watching her children playing in the park one day, Hugues is shocked when an elderly woman suddenly volunteers the information that she was raped by Russian soldiers in 1945.
That old woman is only one of a teeming cast of fascinating characters who emerge from Hugues’ research into the street’s diaspora, many of them Jews who fled Nazi Germany.
The book’s title refers to the evening gown, still hanging in the Long Island closet of Hannah Kroner, who first wore the dress to an onboard dance as the SS Rotterdam steamed away from Europe in 1939. Near Haifa, Hugues meets with Miriam Blumenreich, whose family was initially shunned when they arrived in Israel as the Jeckes, ‘the stiff German Jews always buttoned up in their suits’.
In Berkeley, California, she interviews John Ron, formerly Hans-Hugo Rothkugel, a bed-ridden octogenarian whose flight from Germany found him seeking sanctuary in Israel, England and finally America. We take tea and strawberry biscuits with Lilli Ernsthaft, the doyenne of the neighbourhood, a survivor of the Holocaust who defiantly returned to the street and lived there for 79 years.
Through her cast of characters is woven the history of Germany over the last century: its imperial glory, the humiliation of the first world war, the hyper-inflation of Weimar, the rise and fall of the Nazis, the Holocaust, the post-second world war economic miracle, the Cold War, and the eventual reunification of East and West [Germany].
There are times when Hugues errs on the whimsical side, such as when she conflates watching a fireworks display with the effect of Berlin’s carpet-bombing during the second world war, and she’s a little too eager to claim her street saved David Bowie’s life, given that the Thin White Duke only lived there for a fortnight as a temporary guest of Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese.
For the most part, however, Hannah’s Dress is an endlessly fascinating unpicking and reweaving of history, a meticulously researched and hugely affecting academic work with all the epic sweep and emotional heft of the most engrossing of novels.
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