Sunday, December 18, 2005

Daniel Half Human: And The Good Nazi

Daniel Half Human: And The Good Nazi by David Chotjewitz translated from the German by Doris Orgel.

The Plot: It's 1933, Hamburg, Germany, and Daniel has a good life. He has parents who love him (even if they are strict), a good school, and a best friend, Armin, who shares his sense of fun and adventure. Like when they painted a swastika in the Communist section of town, and were arrested. Daniel, thirteen, admires the Nazis and the Hitler Youth, but his lawyer father doesn't believe that Hitler and his party will ever win an election.

But then Hitler does achieve power. And Daniel learns his family's secret: his mother is Jewish. Daniel is half-Jewish. To the Nazis, that makes Daniel half-human. Daniel wants to share this news with his best friend; but Armin has joined the Hitler Youth and is rapidly moving up the ranks. As DHH moves forward in time, in the days leading up to the start of World War II, Daniel and Armin are faced with increasingly difficult choices.

The Good: A wonderful portrait of the "why didn't people just leave Germany" time period. Because Daniel is initially unaware of his heritage, Daniel is seduced by the Hitler Youth and the Nazis, giving understanding to why and how Hitler obtained power.

Daniel, Armin, and the other characters are fully drawn. The book is interspersed with the adult Daniel returning to Hamburg as an US Army interpreter in 1945, so the reader knows, Daniel will live. But there are no guarantees for his father, his mother, his uncle, his cousin, and the reader continues the book with increasing fear: who lives? why? how?

Armin, despite joining the Hitler Youth, is sympathetically drawn, also. Chotjewitz goes beyond stock "good" and "bad" people, instead showing people with weaknesses and frailties. He also shows how we become the sum of our choices, good and bad, sometimes without realizing the impact of those decisions.

An example of the complex characters: Daniel's father comes across as cold, aloof, and prejudiced against the lower-class Armin. But as time goes by, the father's service during World War I is revealed and this explains the man he becomes. Also, the father is in denial about the how bad things will get in Germany; but no matter how bad it does get, he refuses to take the "easy" way out by divorcing his wife and abandoning his son.

The best thing about this book? I'm still thinking about the ending and what it means.

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