Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali

Max is born on April 20, 1936, the same day as Adolf Hitler. He chooses that day as it will bring him the blessings of the Germanic gods.Max sees himself as the firstborn of the master Aryan race; he wants to be supple, lean, swift, hard and tough. He wants to hate rather than love. His mother, Frau Inge who is tall, blond and blue-eyed applied to be a Schwester (Sister) and underwent a series of detailed physical examinations. She had to prove she had no Jewish blood in her ancestry. His father was an SS officer who was paired with her.

Max is born in Steinhoring Home, on the outskirts of Munich. His birth, like those of the other babies in the Lebensborn program, is kept secret. Steinhoring was an asylum for mentally ill people but they were "relocated" - exterminated and the home was renovated. At birth Max too undergoes a detailed physical examination by SS-Oberfuhrer Gregor Ebner who, after taking numerous measurements, classifies him as being of the Nordic Aryan race. Max's mother is not allowed to hold him until he has passed the examination.

Max's mother, Frau Inge struggles after his birth as she encouraged not to use endearing terms and he is often taken away from her. Max notes that there is a sort of "magic cord" between him and his mother that allows him to sense what she is feeling. A week after his birth, Max is christened by Adolf Hitler in a ceremony attended by Reichsfuhrer-SS Himmler, Max Sollman (director of the Lebensborn program), the Fuhrer's personal doctor, Dr. Karl Brandt and his wife Anni Rehborn, Dr. Ebner, along with the mothers from Steinhoring and other Lebensborn homes. Max's mother receives an autographed photograph of them with Hitler and Max is given the new name of Konrad von Kebnersol, a mix of Dr. Ebner's and Herr Sollmann's names.

Life at Steinhoring is unsettling. Max becomes upset when he witnesses babies being removed from the home by Josefa during the nights. One night after being tenderly hugged by his mother, Max hears his mother being escorted from the home, screaming and crying. This event results in Max becoming sickly as the "magic cord" that existed between him and his mother is no longer there. He also discovers that some of the babies in the nursery have been taken to Ward 15 in the Steinhof Institute in Vienna where they undergo experimentation and are ultimately euthanized. These children, who suffer from minor defects such as harelip (cleft palate), asthma and deafness are called "rabbits". This terrifies Max to the point that he decides to banish all memories of his mother and to force himself to accept the wet nurse.

The process of adopting the babies begins, and while other babies from the nursery are adopted, Max is repeatedly not chosen. One night he is kidnapped from the nursery by a woman who has escaped from a prison camp. This woman, Magda, saw her newborn baby, Maciej shot. Max remains with her for five days as she slowly starves to death. He is rescued in terrible condition. In an attempt to rehabilitate him emotionally as part of an experiment, Max is left alone and not comforted. "Even when I yelled my head off -- my arms outstretched so they'd open the door, so they'd come and hold me, cuddle me, comfort me -- no one ever came. "

As Max grows into early childhood, Germany goes to war. Max becomes "the perfect sample product" of the Lebensborn program. The mothers who come to Steinhoring looking to adopt want to cuddle him but are not allowed to do so. When he is four years old, Max is taken to  Poznan Poland where he is used as a lure to help the Nazis steal Polish children. Working with the "Brown Sisters", Max entices other children his age to tell him about their families and where they live. During the nights the SS soldiers visit the children's homes and kidnap them. Eventually Max is sent out with a Polish concentration inmate, Bibiana. The two are very successful and Max begins to bond with her as she holds his hand, hugs him and plays games with him. But when Max tells her that his mother is Germany and his father is the Fuhrer, Bibiana revolts and she is killed. This deeply upsets Max who struggles to eat and begins rocking himself. But things only go from bad to worse for Max as he is exposed to more and more depraved situations.

Max Sollmann
Max watches the SS soldiers have sex with the German prostitutes and rape the Polish women. He hides in the back of a truck and watches the SS soldiers kidnap Polish children from their homes. Soon he is recruited to take part in the hunt for blond, blue-eyed Polish children whom the SS can kidnap. After leading a group of children safely back to their mothers, Max cruelly reports them to the soldiers. At a party in his honour the German prostitutes expose themselves to him and Max gets dangerously drunk on the left over liquor. At age six he is sent to Kalish, the SS Gaukinder Home which is the central district home of the Polish Lebensborn. There he sneaks out during the night to view both the boys and girls as they undergo the Nazi selection process by the doctors at the school. He also witnesses the murder of a boy he befriends. But when a Polish Jewish boy, Lucjan who is renamed Lukas by Dr. Ebner, arrives at the Lebensborn school, Max is about to discover everything he's been taught about people, life and the Third Reich is very different from reality.

Discussion

Max is a disturbingly explicit account of the Nazi's successful program to breed racially pure "Aryan" children for the Third Reich.  All  the horrific details of the Lebensborn program are revealed in this novel through the use of omniscient first person narration of a child. The narration begins when Max is an unborn baby about to be born in 1936 through the war until the fall of Berlin in 1945. Max comes into the world, a die-hard Nazi, determined to fulfill his mission in life as a model Aryan. He's even willing to offer his life at birth should he not meet the Aryan standards. Fortunately for him, he passes and is allowed to be reunited with his mother. Soon Max experiences repeated traumas along with intense Nazi indoctrination that begin to shape him into a cold, calculating child. Can there be any kernel of love and compassion inside such a child? This is the question Cohen-Scali sets out to explore in her novel.

Baptism of Lebensborn child
Max's trauma begins immediately after birth and continues throughout his life. He is measured and examined for defects and soon his mother is removed from his life. This is "scary" for Max who simply wants to lie next to his mother and nurse. When babies with defects are removed from the nursery for experimentation, Max has nightmares and fears he will also be taken away and experimented on. When he is kidnapped from the Steinhoring nursery just before his first birthday in 1937 and is rescued five days later in serious condition, Max receives no comfort and is placed in quarantine - "I had to stay alone all day, locked in a room at the back of the building, so my crying wasn't heard." When Bibiana, is executed for rebelling against the kidnapping of Polish children, Max gets a "tummy ache" that won't go away. He stays alone and begins rocking himself. He experiences anger over Bibiana's rebellion and even dresses in the rags he used when with Bibiana because they retain some of her smell. After helping a few Polish children escape, Max experiences anger that these children have mothers who love them. Instead of helping them, Max decides that one of the boys "must become German" and turns them in. When Max's friend Wolfgang is murdered in cold blood in front of him for not saluting a German officer, he is unable to sleep, has nightmares and begins wetting the bed. Max is six years old at this time. Without comfort, he uses the distraction of watching young girls being stripped and examined for the program at Kalish. In Berlin he witnessed more shootings, rapes and the murder of his friend.

All of these events, each shocking in its own right, show Max as a victim who struggles to protect himself by denying what's happening and by attempting to take some kind of control over his life. Despite his fear, and believing he is the vanguard of an Aryan nation destined to take over the world, Max views himself as a leader for his peers whom he refers to as his "buddies". He wants to be seen as "made of Krupp's steel." As a result, he views any action that enhances the Aryan nation as acceptable in spite of his fear or even natural revulsion. When babies are removed from the nursery for experimentation, Max comes to believe this is acceptable for the success of the Third Reich. "I understand now that my buddies' sacrifice was essential in guaranteeing that the Reich's medical science is the finest in the world. Markus, Edith, Klaus, and all the "rabbits" from the other Homes can be proud because they will be contributing to great discoveries: vaccines against tuberculosis and typhus (diseases spread by Jews and Gypsies), medications to heal the wounds of our soldiers at the front...I know now that we make up a chain, every link of which, even the smallest is vital. The weak die so the strong can become invincible." When the bond between Max and is mother is broken, at first Max is upset but he comes to view this as making him stronger. "...no more magic cord! It no longer exists. I've cut the umbilical cord once and for all. My memory of Mother is fading...I can't remember her smell anymore, or the feeling of pressing against the soft pillow of her breasts. Soon I'll have forgotten she existed. Besides, I'm going to erase the word mother from my vocabulary." When Max becomes the linchpin in the kidnapping of elite Polish children in order to Germanize them for the Third Reich, he believes this is necessary, "Such a brilliant idea! A bit like a blood transfusion. New blood for Germany, while weakening the enemy."

However, Max's view of the world is changed by his interactions with Lukas, a Polish Jew who physically is the Aryan ideal. This is a complete puzzle to Max who has been indoctrinated into the belief that all Jews look a certain way. Lukas tells Max that his mother was a beautiful, intelligent Polish woman who was educated and spoke French and German fluently. He was saved from the Jewish ghetto when his parents sent him away to be hidden by a non-Jewish Polish woman. Lukas's life was saved, his father and brother perished in the Jewish ghetto and his mother was sent to Treblinka. Lukas's story confuses Max, who begins to question what he's been told. "Perhaps Lukas's family didn't deserve it? Perhaps an exception should have been made for them? Perhaps there are good Jews? How do you know? At this point in my thinking, I admit that I'm lost..."

Max 's doubt is increased during biology class which is devoted to learning how to identify Jews based on physical characteristics. Lukas who is Jewish has none of the "identifying" characteristics. "But on the other hand, something wasn't quite right. If you wrote Lukas's statistics into the chart the teacher had given us at the beginning of the class, his would be identical to the Aryan measurements. Moreover, Lukas had the green racial fitness certificate. I wanted to tell the teacher everything, that Lukas was Jewish and Aryan -- so he could explain the contradiction to me, once and for all." "I'm surprised how, Polish or German, Aryan or not, we aren't that different. For the most part, my buddies here are just like the ones I had in Kalish. They have the same faults, especially the six-year-olds. It's hard for them to get up at 6:00 on the dot to go running...Hard to get dressed in a rush...Hard not to fall asleep in class."   At the Napola Max is forced to another realization; "I'm surprised how, Polish or German, Aryan or not, we aren't that different. For the most part, my buddies here are just like the ones I had in Kalish. They have the same faults, especially the six-year-olds. It's hard for them to get up at 6:00 on the dot to go running...Hard to get dressed in a rush...Hard not to fall asleep in class."

Max believes his contact with Lukas is "de-Aryanizing" him. And yet when Lukas is sent to a munitions factory Max experiences distress both over his absence and the fact that Germany is losing the war, leading him to begin cutting himself. When Lukas returns he is depressed, chain smokes and won't eat. Max cares for Lukas and learns the source of Lukas's turmoil when he tells him about the "Final Solution". "The events of the past few months have shown me that they don't tell us everything at the Napola. Information is filtered, altered. The things Lukas told me before he left for his training, things I refused to believe, have been proven to be true." All of this only deepens the conflict within Max and he begins to understand that he has been a part of something terrible.He decides to keep his bargain with Lukas and to tell his story in the orphanage in Bavaria.

Max is a very different historical novel, written from a unique perspective. Well worth the time if the reader is not familiar with the Lebensborn program. The character Max is fictional, however Lukas is based on Salomon Perel, who was able to pass himself off as Aryan and who survived the war. Max Sollmann, Gregor Ebner, and Johanna Sander were all real life people. The Author's Note at the back details more about these people and the Lebensborn program, as well as providing readers with follow-up material.
Prospective readers should know that this book contains explicit sexual content. Because of the graphic violence and sexual content this novel it is recommended only for older teens and adults.

The Jewish Virtual Library and information on the Lebensborn Program.

Book Details:

Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali (translation from the French by Penny Hueston)
New York: Roaring Book Press 2017
421 pp. 

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