Stephanie Jones: Book Review - Rachel’s Legacy by Julie Thomas

Publish Date
Thursday, 24 March 2016, 11:18AM
By Stephanie Jones

Nuremberg is best known for its role in the Allied-led military tribunals that sifted through the Nazi dregs too slow or disconnected to jump on the ratlines to South America, but it has a happier role in history as the birthplace and erstwhile home of Albrecht Dürer, a celebrated painter and printmaker of the German Renaissance. Dürer’s work is the great passion of artist and teacher Dr Jakob (Kobi) Voight, the dogged central character in Julie Thomas’ historical novel Rachel’s Legacy, the sequel to The Keeper of Secrets. Kobi’s idea of Dürer is first a figurative – and later literal – beacon to his sleuthing, as a bundle of letters passed on by his mother, Elizabeth, leads him into a family mystery traversing Berlin, Munich, Washington, DC and Vermont.

The simplicity of the letter-writer’s tale is devastating. A short cast of characters helpfully laid out by Thomas – two families, the Voights and the Horowitzs, and a handful of friends and associates – makes it easy to identify the writer and the branching of the family tree from the infant daughter she left with a German farming couple. In 1942 Berlin, calling herself “Ruby”, she records an apologia for her only child, whose cover with a Christian family will protect her and disguise her Jewish heritage.

The path of Thomas’ story is has been heavily trodden by other novelists, and Kobi’s journey has the ring of familiarity. He takes a paid sabbatical from his duties as an art history lecturer at the University of Melbourne to travel to Berlin and have the letters translated from Hebrew. Once there, he begins to track down what remains of the Horowitz family to which Ruby belonged.

Kobi, an Australian in every sense, has German ancestry on both sides and is not so many years removed from the hostility directed at his mother after she immigrated to Australia as a youngster in the 1950s. At the site of atrocity he plays that irresistible game: saviour or SS? Which would I have been?

On that note, it seems that historical fiction centred on World War II, and the Holocaust in particular, is only increasing in quantity and breadth. Kate Atkinson had her indefatigable heroine Ursula Todd break bread with Hitler in 2013’s Life After Life; in Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, published the same year, a young woman discovers that the grandfatherly German who is a beloved fixture in her small American town was once an SS officer.

The challenge for any author is to find something fresh to say, and Hannah Arendt’s assertion of “the banality of evil” hangs in the zeitgeist as both warning and explanation. Any writer with an interest in human nature’s underbelly must at some point be inclined to contemplate a genocide that, in plain sight, swallowed up some of Europe’s most educated, wealthy and accomplished families.

It was also history’s greatest art heist, and Thomas touches on the question of whether Jewish descendants who succeed in recovering their family’s Nazi-looted art should share it with museums or galleries or hide their treasures away lest the destroyers of culture come for them once more.

Thomas is an unfussy, matter-of-fact writer, favouring a compact, procedural-style narrative over lashings of imagery. An exception is Kobi’s visit to Dachau, his observations of the exposed toilet rows and a disinfecting room with fingernail scratches on the walls. It appears as a place out of time, so incongruous as to seem like an invention, were it not for the rigorous, unsparing works of historiography consulted by Thomas and her peers. Our writers will not let us forget.

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