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Hans Keilson dies at 101; author fled Nazis, recently drew great acclaim

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Hans Keilson was a newly minted physician in the mid-1930s when the persecution began. As a Jew in Hitler's Germany, he was stripped of the right to practice medicine. A writer, he soon lost that identity too: His autobiographical first novel was pulped soon after it was released because of a Nazi ban on Jewish writers.

He fled to the Netherlands, where he wrote the beginnings of two more novels and buried the pages in his garden. After the war's end, in 1945, he dug them up and finished them. "Comedy in a Minor Key," a darkly humorous story set in Nazi-occupied Holland, was published in Germany in 1947, the same year as Anne Frank's diary. The second, more philosophical work, "The Death of the Adversary," earned enthusiastic reviews when it was published in America in 1962.

That was the last that American audiences heard of Keilson — until last year. After five decades of literary obscurity, he landed on bestseller lists when both books were published again. It was a miracle of literary reclamation all the more remarkable because the long-forgotten author had lived long enough to witness his rediscovery.

Keilson died Tuesday at a hospital in the Dutch village of Hilversum, about 18 miles southeast of Amsterdam, according to a spokesman for his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He was 101 and was believed to have died of causes related to his age.

Last summer, Farrar, Straus published the first English translation of "Comedy in a Minor Key" and reissued "The Death of the Adversary." The reaction was effusive. The Observer of London called Keilson "the greatest novelist you have never heard of." In the New York Times, novelist Francine Prose proclaimed his works "masterpieces" and Keilson "a genius."

The centenarian was wary at first, calling the Prose review "a bit extreme" before acknowledging his long-ago achievement. "Maybe I did manage to produce something which goes beyond the everyday," he told the Observer.

His late-in-life success came about by accident. In 2007, translator Damion Searls was rummaging in the sale bin of an Austrian bookstore when he spotted a copy of "Comedy" and bought it, knowing nothing of its history. He was stunned by Keilson's taut writing and unique perspective on the Holocaust and was determined to introduce it to an English-reading audience. Searls' eloquent translation propelled Keilson into the spotlight.

Born on Dec. 12, 1909, in Brandenburg, Germany, Keilson was the son of a textile merchant who had earned an Iron Cross for his service in World War I. He studied pharmacology in Berlin and qualified as a doctor in 1934 as Hitler came to power. His first novel, "Life Goes On," had been published in 1933. It was the last novel by a Jewish writer that the distinguished German company S. Fischer Verlag was allowed to publish.

Prevented from practicing medicine, Keilson became a swimming and gymnastics teacher in Jewish private schools. He had met Gertrud Manz, the woman he wanted to marry, but she was Catholic and Jews were not allowed to take Gentile wives. They fled to the Netherlands in 1936. He lived in a separate house and took a false name to avoid detection by Nazi sympathizers. When their daughter was born in 1941, Manz pretended that the child's father was a German soldier.

He is survived by his second wife, Marita Keilson-Lauritz, whom he married in 1969 after Manz died; two daughters; and three grandchildren.

In 1943, Keilson went into hiding but was unable to persuade his parents to do the same. They were deported and died at Auschwitz, leaving their son with a lifelong burden of guilt.

The Dutch couple who took Keilson into their home inspired the "Comedy in a Minor Key" characters Wim and Marie, who agree to hide a Jewish perfume salesman named Nico. When the story begins, Nico is already dead from natural causes, leaving Wim and Marie in a predicament: How do they dispose of his body without being caught and punished for protecting a Jew? And how do they reconcile the risk they took with the fact that, as one of the characters says, "he died on them"?

Keilson's exposition of the practicalities and existential dilemmas produced what Los Angeles Times critic David Ulin described as "a book of such profound and understated beauty that it almost seems to function as a parable."

In "The Death of the Adversary," Keilson presents a more darkly nuanced perspective on the Holocaust, offering a first-person account of a man obsessed with a genocidal demagogue who is clearly a stand-in for Hitler. The historical particulars are only allusions: Keilson calls the dictator "B," and the word "Nazi" is never used.

Critics said the story's power arises from Keilson's ability to show how the victim and the victimizer contribute to the profound human tragedy that unfolded under Hitler. Time magazine named it one of the top 10 books of 1962, alongside works by far better-known authors, including William Faulkner, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges.

"Adversary" was Keilson's last novel but not the end of his writing career. He spent the last years of the war in the resistance movement helping to arrange shelter for Jewish refugee children and using his medical knowledge to ease the pain of being separated from their families. After the war he became a psychiatrist and drew on his experiences to write "Sequential Traumatization of Children" (1979), a pioneering study of 204 Jewish children in the Netherlands who survived the war. He made the Netherlands his permanent home.

Keilson had every right to harbor bitterness, given all that had been taken from him during the war. Yet when Searls, the translator, visited him last year, he found a "lively, funny, positive person," bent with age but still walking on his own at 100.

Like most people who met the author and knew his story, Searls marveled at Keilson's resilience. "That's just the miracle of his character," the translator said in an interview Thursday.

Or, as Keilson told Searls in a different context, "Not everything can end at Auschwitz." For Keilson, life went on.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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