In autumn in 1930s Germany, the apples are about to be harvested, in town shifts are starting. But at Westhofen concentration camp, a group of seven prisoners have escaped and, when he hears of it, Franz believes his friend George will be among them. In the camp, Fahrenberg the commandant orders seven trees to be turned into crosses, ready to receive the escapees when they are recaptured – which he promises will happen within seven days… From the moment Anna Seghers’ The Seventh Cross takes the reader into George’s point of view, the tension does not let up for a moment. The sirens and the dogs howl and George is alone, a concentration camp escapee in Nazi Germany in the days just before the Second World War. So powerful is Segher’s language and storytelling that the fear that wraps around George’s heart has yours in its grasp too and when he is scared out of his wits, you will be as well. He is injured, he needs a doctor. He must contact friends, like his girl Leni or his ex-wife Elli or old comrade Franz. He needs to be in familiar places with people who may help him but of course those are the places that are being watched.
His hometown, along with all the people who had ever had any connection to his life, the community that supports and surrounds every person – his blood relatives, lovers, teachers, bosses and friends – had been turned into a network of living traps.
The SS guards, George’s friends, the villagers and townspeople, his co-conspirators and their helpers on the outside, Elli’s father, the people George encounters on the way, his fellow prisoners, as George moves on, we see a small part of the story from their point of view, each different thread a picture of life under the Nazi regime. Whether they are a main character or a face in the crowd, the writing draws us into their world, even if only for a few moments. At first, George is shocked at how little has changed during his time in the camp and that people can maintain their everyday concerns while he was being tortured and beaten. A familiar pub they used to meet and plan strikes in is now filled with uniformed SA. His former union and Party colleagues are laying low and making what adjustments they can, to the extent that even people who are on the same ‘side’ remain in ignorance of it and can’t act together to help him.
Any human being faced with the possibility of a calamity instantly thinks of his emergency reserves, the bedrock of his life. For one person this can be an idea, for another his faith; a third may think solely of his family. Some don’t have anything.
Although George’s likely fate looms heavy over every interaction, every glance his way and every chance he takes, the same is true for everyone he encounters and that the story touches on. What will become of the quiet country lads who have joined the army as a relief from the years of unemployment? Or the schoolboys out camping ‘for the experience,’ or the neat and tidy villages themselves? And although The Seventh Cross was written in 1939 while Seghers herself was in exile, what is to come hangs over every character, however briefly encountered:
They didn’t want to have any children in the Third Reich because eventually those children would be put into brown shirts and drilled to become soldiers.
The Gestapo talk to Elli’s father, he notices them following him. Whether it is his Catholic faith or his love for his daughter, or his concern for her and George’s child, he is prepared to put up with quite a bit for George, despite never approving of their short marriage. In such hearts are the seeds of disobedience if not outright resistance. But would that survive for long? Throughout The Seventh Cross, the question reoccurs: ‘What would you do?’ Take someone in, turn a blind eye or report what you are meant to report to the authorities. And what if you don’t but someone else does? Will that omission be uncovered?
There’s just one thing I can’t understand – that people would tell them so much. And why? Because they think the Gestapo already know everything.
As should be well known by now, I loved Anna Segher’s Transit and so was happy to learn of this Virago Modern Classics edition. This is the first time the book has been published in the UK and it comes with a new translation by Margot Bettauer Dembo. As with Transit, I think The Seventh Cross perfectly evokes the time it was written in, while speaking to us of our concerns: what do good people do in a time of evil? We think we will take the big actions, like assassinating Hitler or fighting with the Resistance. But in reality, any action an ordinary person takes will probably be small, easily discovered and its effect only visible to a handful of people. George is unlikely to make it into any history books. But his escape takes on great significance to one group, the prisoners back at the camp:
…even if a tiny escapade is successful against the omnipotence of the enemy, then it’s been a total success. This feeling turned to shock, and soon into despair, as they brought back one after another of the escaped prisoners relatively quickly and, as it seemed to us, with a ridiculous lack of effort…
And we said it out loud then for the first time, that if we were all exterminated and cut down in such great numbers, we would perish without leaving anyone who could follow in our footsteps. Something that had almost never happened before in history… this is what was about to happen to us now; there was to be a no man’s land between the generations through which none of the old experiences could be passed down. If you’re fighting and are killed, another takes up the banner and he fights and is killed too, and the next one takes up the flag and dies too. That’s the natural sequence of events, for you don’t get anything for nothing. But what if there’s no one there who wants to take up the flag because no one knows its meaning?
The Seventh Cross is my final read for German Literature Month 2019. What works first published in German have you read this November?
Author photo from Virago