Reviewed by Nina Longfield
Set in an isolated mine shaft in the cold, bleak North German Black Forest during the last winter of the Second World War, fifty-some inhabitants dwell. Their sole assignment is to answer the letters of the dead. This is the secret mission of the Gestapo to appease the spirits seeking responses to their final correspondences. Each person within the compound was pulled from deportation and execution, saved by their knowledge of foreign languages. Like for like. Each letter must be answered using the same language of the now dead writer. It seems an absurd, futile mission to the inhabitants of the compound who pass their time developing word games, fetching water, making love, and imagining Goebbels. The compound is also on the night walker’s trail, where those running from persecution can spend a day to rest before moving on through the night to their next safe haven.
Thaisa Frank’s novel Heidegger’s Glasses is a suspenseful, philosophic rumination with historic details. This is a unique look into the final days of a horrific time period. The story is saturated with chaos, fear and survival, yet possibilities exist. Even if those possibilities only lead to the acknowledgment of one’s own mortality. Through the eyes and actions of each character, the reader sees a glimpse of the world this novel inhabits. A world in turmoil with people starving. This is a world on the verge of collapse, and the leaders know it.
Elie Schacten is the novel’s mysterious heroine and it is through her experiences that the reader sees into this secret world. Elie is a woman split between countries, loyalties and her very identity. She often refers to herself as two women. Her public self known to those at the compound is an agent of the Gestapo. She oversees the scribes in their duties of writing letters. She also scavenges for food and other necessities for the inhabitants of the compound through her services of favors; she delivers children to the safety of Switzerland for the payment of extra loaves of bread. Gerhardt Lodenstein is a Nazi party member and military overseer of the compound. He also loves Elie and shares Elie’s desire to help those who no longer live with hope.
Their world of tolerable safety begins to unravel with a delivery of a letter from Martin Heidegger to his former associate and friend Asher Englehardt. Asher is a prisoner in Auschwitz. The compound scribes are to answer the letter and Elie is to deliver it with strict instructions that Heidegger cannot know where the response came from. Every turn of the page leads the reader deeper into the mysteries that hold the compound together, yet the seams are beginning to fray.
Intrigue, compassion, suspense and love all prevail in Thaisa Frank’s debut novel. Heidegger’s Glasses is a story from WWII told from a fresh perspective reawakening us to both the horrors and the humanity of a tragic episode in our collective past. Frank masters the suspension of belief well as she introduces infamous secondary characters such as Martin Heidegger and Joseph Goebbels into her tale. Her writing is beautiful, uncomplicated, and at times almost brutal in its directness. Frank’s novel is imbued with the philosophy of Heidegger causing one to ponder the purpose of being and experience when hope and life itself are precious commodities. Heidegger’s Glasses is a resonate story that just may stay with the reader long after the final page has turned.
Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.
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