Book Review: Reunion by Fred Uhlman

Reunion by Fred Uhlman is such a little book, and depending on the edition, over ninety pages long. It is a story about friendship between two young boys, Konrad and Hans, growing up in Germany of the 1930, where a political landscape was changing drastically. Hans was born into an assimilated Jewish family.

Although the friendship between these two young men constitutes the basis for this story, the themes covered are unbelievably diverse and plentiful which include: the rise of anti-Semitism and its social acceptance; different attitudes towards the other’: hatred and indifference; the perception of ‘the other’; the question of responsibility for the actions of the members of the group that one is deemed to belong to; the importance of learning about the past and, at the same time, what kind of history is passed on; the importance of not imposing one’s ideas, religious beliefs or one’s identity on others; the authority versus cultural norms; our relationship with the suffering of ‘the other’; the meaning of ‘home’, ‘ country’, ‘belonging’ and  mixed background; the plurality of identities and its importance not only at the individual level, but also at the level of community; the importance of storytelling in order to humanise or re-humanise ‘the other’. I will explore some of these topics below.

One of the main themes in Reunion is the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany during the 1930s. A seemingly ‘cultured’ society ignores the rise of racism and discrimination. Violent acts, although initially low in numbers, are normalised by the members of society. There is a mention of beating of a Jewish man and then the narrator reflects on this sort of normalisation as follows:

“But life in general went on as usual. (…) People talked about where they were going for their summer holidays. There seemed to be nothing to worry about. (…) We thought the most urgent was to learn how to make the best use of life, (…) discovering what purpose, if any, life had and what the human condition would be in this frightening and immeasurable cosmos. These were questions of real and eternal significance, far more important than the existence of such ephemeral and ridiculous figures as Hitler and Mussolini.”

Uhlman, F. Reunion, 2015, Penguin Random House, pp. 24-25

Largely, there was not much interest in politics. Political changes did not really play any significant role in conversations about human condition as stated in the quotation above. Hans’s father assumed that Hitler was only a temporary illness. In his view, it was impossible that in the country of Beethoven, Shiller and Kant, people would fall for this sort of narrative.

Another occurring topic refers to the reflections on the meaning of ‘my country’, ‘my home. This is exemplified in the narrator posing questions on what it means to belong and how long one has to live within any given community, country ‘to truly belong’ when one’s status is questioned because of one’s background.  Hans’s mother rational attitude towards her own homeland, Germany, is shown in the following words: “it did not enter her mind that any sane human being could question her right to live in this country”. As we know from the history, this view had not been shared by most of her countrymen.

Through the characters of Konrad’s parents, Uhlman shows two different attitudes towards ‘the other’. Konrad’s parents had all the privileges imaginable, expressed an interest in the arts and culture, but this did not prevent them from succumbing to the disease of hatred and racism. Konrad’s mother was openly anti-Semitic. There is also the attitude of indifference reflected in Konrad’s father – he did not oppose his wife’s views for sake of his love for her.

One of the questions posed in Reunion relates to the empathy – what makes a person to look at the surrounding reality from the point of view of ‘the other’? Education, upbringing, social fabric that one exists in or maybe one’s understanding of the authority? Undoubtedly, all these factors condition one’s thinking and one’s value system.

The perception of ‘the other’ is one of the most important subjects in the book as Hans expresses it after he finds out about the death of the neighbour’s children:

“I have read of one million drowned people by the Yellow River, a million soldiers died in Verdun. But they were abstractions – numbers, statistics, information. One would not suffer for a million. But the children I knew – this was altogether different”. 

Uhlman, F., Reunion, 2015, Penguin Random House, p. 27

Why is it so difficult to connect with others, suffering of ‘the other’?  Why one story of suffering remains in our awareness and the other one does not? Is it because one story is being told? There is the emphasis on the relation between the suffering of others: people in statistics versus people in stories.  Storytelling should serve as the way to humanise or re-humanise “the numbers”.

This story of friendship between Hans and Konrad also depicts the importance of questioning, doubting status quo and the narrative of the elders, especially when we hear the narrative with the distinction between “us” and “them” where “them” refers to the fellow members of the same community.

This leads to the importance of learning the history, the diversity of thought, not imposing ideas of religion, identity on others including your loved ones which is well-reflected in this tale along with the consequences of having only one view of the reality. Privileging the achievement of one nation, social group, community is likely to make us ignorant and closed-minded. The uniqueness of own culture should not be confused with its superiority.

The messages that come through the pages of this book relate to learning how to look at the history from different point of view in order to avoid tribalism, the importance of plural identities, the importance of doubting the narrative presented by the media, politicians and sometimes by the academia as well.

When speaking of the importance of knowing the history, another question is posed by Uhlman. Namely, what kind of history is being taught? The narrator represents it in a teacher’s speech about Romans and Greeks which was underpinned by the racist ideology, the history was told as “one people more important than the other”. The boys who knew the hi(story) of ‘the other’, they knew that ‘the other’ did also good things, they did not fall in for any slogans and false ideology. Nevertheless, teacher’s speech was enough to change atmosphere in the school. Racist remarks suddenly became acceptable and normalised. The ones who were against did not voice their objections or they voiced them gently so that they were not affected.  This created the space for the justification of stereotypes, generalisations where racism and discrimination seem to be an optional adds-on.

In the exchange between Konrad and Hans, where Hans questions the presence of God, Konrad says: “We should accept it and be humbly submissive”. Hans rejects this sort of authority fiercely; he was not convinced just because the elders claim so. He was curious about the world and he questioned the reality.  Konrad, on the other, was submissive and was taught how to think by his closed ones. However, the change was possible as long as one was able to learn to think independently. Konrad wrote in the letter to Hans: “you have taught me to think and to doubt”. We find out about the significance of these words at the very end of the book, in the last sentence.

As mentioned at the beginning, Reunion portrays the lesson of friendship. One can find friendship not only with a mirror of oneself but also with someone with a different worldview, with different national, ethnic or religious background. Despite their differences, Hans and Konrad shared a common interest in books and that exchange of the ideas led to finding a kindred soul for them. This is also related to empathy and putting emphasis on what we share, what we have in common, and not on our differences.

This is an interesting, very multifaceted and well-constructed book. In some sense, it is a celebration of human spirit and the importance of a diverse thought during the darkest times. At the same time, it is a bleak portrayal of the society and it shows how quickly it can slide backwards when the society normalise discrimination and racism.

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