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High culture, low morals collide in Holocaust tale

Times Staff Writer

IT requires a certain audacity bordering on reckless for a debut novelist to take the Holocaust as his subject.

Measured opinion tends to regard the Shoah as a topic best left to eyewitnesses and humanely judicious historians. This most complex and tragic of crimes is, in other words, precisely the kind of subject Ludwig Wittgenstein had in mind when he warned: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Moreover, 52 is rather late in life to take up narrative fiction.

On the other hand, Eugene Drucker is no ordinary first novelist and “The Savior” is hardly your average first novel. It is, in fact, a tightly plotted and deeply affecting story of a particular historical catastrophe and a meditation on the simultaneous indispensability and limitations of art as a transformative human experience.

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Classical music aficionados will recognize Drucker as a founding member of the Emerson String Quartet, one of the nation’s finest chamber ensembles and a distinguished solo violinist, specializing in Bach and Bartok. In an author’s note, the writer reveals that events involving one of the novel’s crucial characters are “based on the life of my father, the violinist Ernst Drucker, who graduated from the Hochschule in Cologne in 1933 and eventually became concertmaster of the Jewish Kulturbund Orchestra in Frankfurt and later in Berlin. He emigrated to the United States with the rest of his family in September 1938.” Here in the U.S., the older Drucker played second violin in the famous Busch Quartet and occupied a top chair in the Metropolitan Opera’s pit.

These facts are relevant not merely as authorial credentials, but also because they help explain the centrality of music to Drucker’s story and the often ravishing descriptions of performance, which he places in the mind of his otherwise unsympathetic protagonist, a violinist named Gottfried Keller.

The story is set in the waning days of World War II. Keller, deferred from military service because of a weak heart, has nonetheless been required to work for the Wehrmacht, entertaining wounded soldiers. He despises his audiences, most of whose members prefer kitschy waltzes and popular tunes to the Bach and Hindemith Keller relishes. Others are more disturbing. In one ward, a man shrouded in bandages inquires, “Have you come to heal us?

Can you make us whole again?”

Keller responds, “Music has been known to have a therapeutic effect

I’m going to play the Chaconne by Bach for you. There is great power in this music -- a spiritual power that

"

“But is there magical power in it?”

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“Magical?” Keller repeated.

“You know what I mean. Can it bring back the dead?”

Leaving his apartment one morning, Keller is scooped up by the Waffen-SS and taken to a concentration camp outside the city. Initially he fears that his diary, which we later discover contains accounts of now severed relationships with a Jewish colleague -- based on Drucker’s father -- and a former lover, also Jewish. Instead, the violinist learns that he has been loaned to the camp commandant, a sadist whose bookshelves are crowded with Goethe and Schiller. Bored with simply working and murdering the camp’s Jewish inmates, the commandant has decided there’s no interest to be had from tormenting people who have given up all hope. He has devised a perverse experiment, selecting 30 of “the weakest inmates in the camp” and giving them better food, clothing, allowing them to bathe “twice a week” and giving them slightly more freedom.

Now, to see whether they can be fully restored to hope, he has conscripted Keller to play a series of concerts for them, to see if they can be fully revived by the greatness of music.

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Keller is too lost in fear and complicity to oppose “the experiment,” but he is reluctant for the sake of his art. The commandant responds: “You must admit it’s a tremendous challenge. To kill them is easy, of course. But to bring them back to life

That’s something I could not do alone. So I yield to your talent. Think of it, the power of life and death over your audience. Not in the usual sense of the phrase: I mean power of life and death in both directions. To bring death or to grant a new life. That’s what I’m offering, even thought you’ll claim you want nothing to do with the first half.”

Keller, befriended by Rudi, an SS officer besotted by Bach’s “St. Mathew Passion,” begins his concerts and, in the process, relives the gradual descent that he -- like so many Germans of his generation -- made into accommodation and complicity with the Nazi’s industrialized pogrom. In Keller’s case, it involved not simply the betrayal of his friend and more talented musical colleague, but also of the woman he loved, a pianist from a Jewish family.

By the time the true perversity of the commandant’s experiment is revealed, Keller can do nothing but flee, convicted not only by his actions, but also by his memories and by his rationalizations of those recollections’ real import.

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In the hands of the horrifyingly sadistic camp commandant, the greatness of Goethe and Bach become instruments of torture. For Keller and the culture-loving Rudi, their direct and remote cooperation in evil reduces a passionate love of music as an expression of high culture to, at best, a mitigating fact concerning their personas. Each, in his own fashion, is little better than a natural-born accomplice, who happens to have good taste in the way other people have blue eyes or curly hair.

The mystery at the center of Drucker’s disturbingly provocative novel is an old one: How is it that weakness, expediency, cupidity, self-deception and cowardice congeal to harden the human heart? And how is it that hearts so armored can bathe themselves in the experience of our best music and art, religion and philosophy and remain utterly unmoved by their transforming truth?

--

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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