Telling the Tale of Inge


Inge: A Girl’s Journey Through Nazi Europe
By Inge Joseph Bleier and David E. Gumpert
264 pages. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. $24.

About six years ago, I wrote a book on child survivors of the Holocaust. With notepad and tape recorder, I sat in their homes and interviewed them, observing their ease as they spoke. In most cases, their tone was detached despite the harrowing subject matter. Often, the detachment was unintentional, but it unquestionably helped to convey their difficult stories. Still, my sense was the that survivors undoubtedly wished someone else could tell on their behalf.

In Inge: A Girl’s Journey Through Nazi Europe, such a wish came true. The story is told by Inge Joseph Bleier, who lived it, and her nephew David E. Gumpert, who, like most children of the post-Holocaust generation, was affected by the Shoah’s aftermath.

Some background. After Kristallnacht, Inge Joseph went to Belgium, via the Kindertransport, arriving in Brussels in January 1939. All the while, she wrote faithfully to her sister in America and to her mother, who remained behind in Germany. The book is based on a fairly short manuscript that Inge had written before her death in 1983. Ten years later, Gumpert acquired the manuscript from his cousin, Inge’s adoptive daughter, Julie, and was so energized by having learned more about his aunt that he was determined to “learn more about her experiences and fill in gaps in her manuscripts…. most of all, about her feelings through all of it.” More than a decade after that, the book was born.

Gumpert, himself an accomplished writer and editor, is undoubtedly thrilled with the result, a well-crafted, readable, honest, heartbreaking portrait of what his aunt endured during her childhood. But this is no simple tale of triumph. This is a story of survival: what happens to a child—who describes herself as a loner—as she is stripped of her family and tries to survive a deadly hostile environment, and how well or poorly she manages to build a life after the war. The book also shies away from hero worship: it includes the admission that both Inge and her father were addicted to medication, and explores Inge’s post-war depression, her disappointment with her life in every arena from career to family. Gumpert has created a vivid human history that will be invaluable for his family.

That said, I have a concern. The book is being presented as a memoir, which implies a first-person account. The published volume, not including the Afterword, is 264 pages. While the story is clearly Inge’s, the manuscript that Julie presented to Gumpert was only 66 pages. Even though the book jacket clearly reveals these facts, that’s nearly 200 pages of elaborations, explanations, and, troublingly, inferences that are drawn from other sources. No one but Inge knows the words that Inge spoke, or even more so, what she was feeling. Feelings can be extrapolated from the epistolary and the experiential, but never authenticated. Gumpert himself admits in the Afterword that he has come to terms with the frustrating fact that “there are nearly endless questions and only partial answers.”

Partial answers are a problem for a memoir. Because Holocaust denial surfaces from time to time to challenge timelines, events, and individual stories, it may be dangerous to label something with so many potential factual holes as a memoir. While the letters exchanged between Inge and her sister Lilo do constitute a primary and authentic source for insight into feelings and experiences, many people quoted in the narrative are now deceased. Even if Inge herself provided the transcripts of what these people said, at best it’s her recollection, at worst, Gumpert’s reconstruction. The Acknowledgments section indicates that Gumpert did exhaustive research, meeting as many people who had known Inge as possible, even acquiring access to those people’s memoirs. (A study guide, available online, also tackles some of the difficulties Gumpert experienced while trying to complete his aunt’s story.)

I have no doubt that this work is as authentic a portrait of Inge as anyone could realistically hope to assemble. In that sense, Gumpert’s role seems similar to that of a paleontologist—called in to analyze the fossilized fragments of a life that remain visible, to identify the components and to use scientific conjecture to conjure the total picture for the lay audience. If there is a future edition of this book, I think it would be interesting, and less of a potential misunderstanding, to use color or other text emphases to indicate elements that are lifted directly from the original manuscript. (The Polychrome edition of the Passover Haggadah does something similar, to very powerful effect.) Alternately, the use of footnotes or chapter introductions might illuminate the intensive nature of the research process that Gumpert endured on his search for a more complete portrait of his aunt as a young girl.

What Inge: A Girl’s Journey Through Nazi Europe does best is convey its story of a flawed, damaged heroine, and it reminds us that every survivor represents not one, but multiple stories. Many stories do not have happy endings, even when the protagonist survives. Survivors rarely see themselves as heroes simply because they’re flawed: they feel guilt every day at having endured. But the act of living as a flawed person, even after the immediate danger subsides, is also a heroic one. Inge’s heroism was creating her manuscript, after many years of festering feelings; the framework for this book was born from survivor guilt.

There is always much sadness in reading Holocaust memoirs, and this one is no exception. We read of a girl who falls in love and suffers heartbreak; of a girl without family who thinks she has little to live for even before the terror of the Holocaust sets in; of a girl who thinks she’s responsible for the fates of other children. We wonder, as Inge does in the narrative, what the victims might have said about their experience, what they might have accomplished, had they lived. In reading Inge, we also think about the absence of stories, the ones that can never be told, their authors long ago silenced. And even if this book is a hodgepodge or an amalgam of memories, that we have the book at all makes the words bound within all the more precious.