A Pact With the Devil
STELLA By Peter Wyden. Illustrated. 382 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $23.
IN 1935, Peter Wyden was banished from public school, along with other young Jews in Hitler’s Germany, and found himself in a newly created Jewish school in Berlin. There, he developed a fierce crush on a girl named Stella Goldschlag, with whom he sang in the school choir. Although Jewish, Stella seemed to him the living embodiment of Nazi genetic propaganda: tall, blond-haired, fair-skinned, beautiful, with classic “Aryan” features. Nothing ever came of the boy’s romantic hopes: even as a teen-ager, Stella was highly sophisticated and fully aware of her seductive powers, too precocious for timid young Peter Wyden. After 1937 they lost touch: Mr. Wyden and his family were fortunate to get visas for the United States, while Stella and her family were turned away. During the next 10 years, Mr. Wyden often wondered about what had happened to Stella, and to his other friends who were trapped in Berlin.
After the war, Mr. Wyden was horrified to discover that his beautiful classmate had become one of the Gestapo’s most notorious Jewish informants, helping to hunt down and capture other Jews who were living clandestinely in Berlin. Some 40 years later, Mr. Wyden set about reconstructing Stella’s story, tracking down former classmates and acquaintances, postwar trial records and even Stella herself, whom he found living quietly under a new name in what used to be West Germany. The result of this search is “Stella.”
Much Holocaust literature, as the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi observed, is sketched in black and white, although the reality, like everything else in life, was much more complex. A distinctive feature of the depravity of the Nazi extermination program was to make Jews do as much of the dirty work as possible, a policy that both promoted efficiency and divided the enemy. Most survivors were compelled to live in what Levi called “the gray zone,” forced into various compromises and selfish strategies for survival. Although Stella is an extreme example, Mr. Wyden does not focus exclusively on her story; he places it in context by also telling the stories of dozens of others who crossed Stella’s path. In doing so, he gives us a picture of the shadow world of the last Jews in Berlin, their various desperate and imaginative tactics, their anguished choices and chilling compromises. Many risked death or committed suicide rather than accept the pact with the Devil that Stella did, while others chose less lethal forms of collaboration, acting as doctors, secretaries, interpreters or concubines for the Gestapo.
THOUGH not absolving Stella of responsibility for her crimes, Mr. Wyden does make her a comprehensible human figure. She initially resisted collaboration despite beatings, torture and threats of death, but gave in eventually when the Gestapo captured her parents and threatened to send them to Auschwitz. She continued her work as a “catcher,” however, even after the Nazis broke their promise and deported her parents. By then she had decided that it was too late to turn back, corrupted, apparently, by her new power and privilege. Mr. Wyden is always careful to avoid facile judgments of Stella, reminding himself and the reader that neither knows what he would have done in Stella’s place.
This powerful and fascinating story is somewhat marred by sloppy writing and careless editing, especially in the first half of the book. The narrative is often choppy, with myriad characters coming and going in confusing sequence. Because the author’s first language is not English, he stumbles into a number of awkward phrases and infelicitous choices of words: “exfiltrated” is used for “rescued”; “entrained” and “detrained” are used for “got on and off a train.” At one point a character is “conscripted to help cut and impregnate wooden railroad ties.” Sometimes, the author tries to compensate for this problem by adopting an excessively colloquial tone, using slang terms like “turned him on,” “horny,” “the in-group” and “bush-league” that seem inappropriate to the tragic subject matter. Good editing could have kept these problems to a minimum. Nonetheless, the writing seems to gain in strength and confidence as the book develops; and these stumbling blocks recede as it reaches its remarkable denouement, the author’s chilling encounter with the infamous Stella.
– November 1, 1992
As published in The New York Times