Manja : The Story of Five Children, Paperback Book

Manja : The Story of Five Children Paperback

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The story could be set in any times and in many places.Five children are conceived on the same night, born within days of each other at the same hospital. Their backgrounds are very different, but there are links between their families and they form friendships. It is only with the passage of time that they realise what their parents have always known; that the world will look at them and treat them differently.This particular story resonates, speaks so profoundly; and that comes from its setting and from its author.Those five children were born in Germany in 1920. The war was over, there were hopes for a new Germany, but the stringent conditions of Treaty of Versailles that had been signed the previous year would be a heavy burden. The country struggled, but in time a charismatic leader emerged, at the head of a new party offering a path to national pride and a brighter future. His name was Adolf Hitler.This book, published in 1938, follows the lives of those five children until 1933, when they are twelve years-old. By then the Nazi party was in power, Hitler was Germany’s Chancellor, and the Reichstag Fire Decree had become law, stripping many German citizens of their civil liberties.Many, fearing for their own futures, fearing that their government would go even further, sought exile abroad.Anna Gmeyner, Austrian-Jewish by birth, was one of those exiles, and she wrote this book in London. She knew of course that she was writing of a terrible time, but she could not know – though she might suspect – how very, very terrible things would become, for the families of those five children, and for so many other families in Germany and across Europe.Her book offers a clear, vivid and detailed view of the lives of five disparate families. Each scene is painted clearly and starkly, and, though the narrative those scenes must carry is complex, the author’s clear-sightedness and the skills she deployed to bring each scene to life, meant that I always understood what was significant.And, though this is always a very human story, social changes are so clearly illuminated. The earlier chapters show the consequences of the War and the Peace, on those who fought and lost, and on those who lived through it. The latter chapters show how that leads to the rise of the Nazi party, and to the appalling shift in society that followed.Manja, who gives this story its title, is the only girl of the five children, the daughter of a Polish immigrant whose life was thrown off course when her lover killed himself, and who would always struggle with what she had to do to survive and to be a mother to her children.The four boys have very different backgrounds. Heini is a son of a doctor, who has fine ideals and will always stand by his principles; Franz is the son of a man who will become a Nazi; Karl is the son of a Marxist factory worker; and Harry is the son of a rich industrialist who believes his philanthropy may protect him from his part Jewish heritage. It won’t.It would be fair to say that their four families represent different sides of society, but the reality of each character and situation, and the naturalness of the links between the different families are such that it never feels didactic..... Heini’s father, was the doctor, who cared for both Manja’s and Harry’s mothers after they gave birth; Franz’s father was employed – and dismissed – by Harry’s father; and he endowed Heini’s father’s hospital. And then there were families who lived in the same building; there were children who met at school ....It feels real, and it feels right that these families stand for so many others.The children meet each Wednesday and Saturday – at the wall – which is all that remains of a house that once stood above a river. It is there that Manja shows the boys the constellation of Cassiopeia – five stars that they see as symbolic of the ties of friendship between them. As they grow they will come to understand the differences between their families and the tension that brings, but none of that will stop them from being friends.As the story advances though the changes wrought by the Nazi party have dreadful repercussions for so many. It is terrifyingly, heart-breakingly real.Manja is vulnerable, the result of her sex, her race, her family situation. I feared for her as I saw the chain of events that led to an and that was both inevitable and tragic.That, and the whole story was profoundly moving; and the knowledge of what was still to come when this story ended made it still more so.The author’s first hand experience of Germany during the time she writes about makes her story so vivid, and that she left the country before she began to write leaves me in no doubt that it is honest and authentic.She told her story so well, using all the skills she must have learned as a dramatist to bring her five families and that Germany that they lived in to life, and in engaging and involving her readers.I hope – and I have to believe – that she did what she set out to do.And I am grateful that her book has a place in the Persephone Books list.

Review by

Manja is one of five children conceived in Germany in the spring of 1920. Her mother, Lea, has a one-night-stand with troubled David Goldstaub, haunted by his own and his family's past, who kills himself shortly afterwards. Lea later marries shopkeeper Leo, though he disgusts her, to avoid the stigma of being an unmarried mother.Manja's best friend is Karl (named after Karl Marx), born in the same hospital as herself. Karl's parents are poor but happy Anna and Eduard Muller. Eduard, a Communist, is later arrested when the Nazis come to power. There is a special bond between Manja and Karl that begins in hospital. Baby Manja seems likely to die, until Anna Muller offers to nurse her, and Dr Heidemann (father of one of the other five children, Heini) tries out a new medication on baby Manja, so desperate is he to save her life.The children's parents and lives are intricately connected with each other, and the children play together near the ruins of a burnt down house. A cherry tree grows close by, near a wall at which the children arrange to meet.For the parents, life is tough, as the economic deprivations of post-war Germany provide the breeding ground for the rising horror of Nazism, which attracts the bully Anton Meissner (father of Franz, whom his mother tried to abort when she realised she was pregnant - being poor, and dreading the arrival of a third daughter).The other child is Harry, son of businessman Max Hartung and his emotionally distant wife Hilde, whose presence is more like that of a ghost than a living person.The changing political climate, and the stark differences between the social and political status of their parents, begins to erode the friendships between the children, as they negotiate the difficult territory between childhood and adulthood. Gmeyner shows how, gradually but relentlessly, the lives of these children - and their parents - are damaged forever by an inhuman political system. [Dec 2005]

Review by

Manja is the story of five children written from their conception to their twelfth year. Gmeyner writes about friendship, school , secret hideouts and wonderful games. What makes this novel different from the typical childhood saga is that the time is the early 1930's and the setting is fascist Germany.The story begins at conception. If children are born innocent, their life paths are set by their parents. Heini is the loved child of parents who adore each other. Dr. Ernst and Hanna Heidemann raise their son in an atmosphere of idealism and service. Franz's father is a brutal, not too bright clerk who blames his constant job losses on outside forces like Jews and Communists. He enjoys beating his wife and Franz is conceived because of spousal rape. Franz's home is a shrine to Nazi principles. Little Harry's parents are a half-Jewish industrialist and a stunningly beautiful mentally weak mother. The night he is conceived his father makes love to a shell of a woman . She is the Aryan trophy wife who does not hate her husband, but cannot love him. Harry is a disappointment to his father; he looks Jewish and is a runt, unlike his blond younger brother. Karl's father is a card-carrying Communist who loses his job because he actively fights worker injustice and his mother is a laundress who nurtures anyone who needs care. Like his parents, if Karl sees something he thinks is unjust in the schoolyard he opposes it; he is usually in trouble. Finally, there is Manja. She, unlike the boys, does not reflect her home background. Conceived as a result of a single encounter between a young Jewish woman and a Jewish musican who commits suicide immediately afterwards, she is raised in a single parent home. When her mother's desperate marriage ends, the woman becomes a cleaner and takes men to her bed in order to make ends meet because of uncontrollable inflation. She becomes a drunk and Manja, by the age of twelve, is running the house.These children could be stereotypes and symbols for 1930's Germany: the Nazi, the Communist, the Idealist; the Corrupt Industrialist, the Jew. But Gmeyner does something wonderful. Despite what is going on in the home and the streets, she gives these children a childhood where they escape into each others' company and can ignore the rising hate. They have a secret place, a walled area by the river where they meet twice a week, play fantasy games, have picnics, argue about their parents' beliefs without really understanding what they are. These children are innocent and still see things in black and white. They are friends who love each other and if two are Jewish it does not matter.It is when the adult world smashes into their world that they have to give up their innocence. It begins to happen in school. Franz and Harry join the Hitler Youth. Franz loves the parades and games, while Harry who does not look three-quarters Aryan becomes the butt of jokes and is miserable. Franz is drawn into a circle of popular bullies and starts to act like them. Heini is suspended for writing an essay criticizing war and the need for Germany to revenge the Treaty of Versailles. Karl is beaten up because of his father's trade-union activism and the teachers look the other way. Manja is segregated to the Jewish bench and when she defends another Jewish girl against a blatant lie she is punished.Adult behavior spoils the childen's world, but not their bond. Franz wants to run away with Manja to save her from what he is told is coming. But in a careless moment he causes the crisis with a lie he does not understand and the world of childhood ends abruptly. Written in 1939, this is a powerful book. The four boys, jolted into adulthood too soon, are very real. Only Manja herself is unreal, too good and too mature for her twelve years. This, however, is not really a flaw. She is the ideal who is sacrificed in a society gone mad. She will, however, be a part of these children as long as they are allowed to live. In the novel, Manja likens these friendships to the constellation Cassiopeia. "One, two, three, four, five!" her voice climbed up a scale of triumph."My star is the one in the middle. Heini, Karl, Manja, Harry, Franz. It's recorded in heaven." The constellation becomes their symbol. Even if it disappears from sight, it is there and always will be.

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