The Interpreter is a fictional biographical WWII thriller, alternating between 1939-40 and 1945, gleaned from family records, particularly the experiences of Kurt Berlin.
In 1939, 17-year-old Kurt’s parents send him away from Vienna for his own safety. On the Kindertransport he meets Elsa, raised Catholic but only recently informed of her Jewish heritage. They fall in love but are separated by circumstance. Hounded by the Nazis, Kurt’s father manages a narrow escape, and his mother has her jewellery melted down into rods used in corsets, barely escaping Vienna herself. The family is reunited in Brussels.
Recruited by U.S. Captain McClain as an interpreter in 1945, Kurt hears sickening testimony from SS Captain von Hauptmann, a rabid anti-Semitic thug and self-confessed murderer. Conversations between McClain and von Hauptmann become jovial and are dehumanising and distasteful. At times von Hauptmann relates the horrors he perpetrated as though to his biographer. When Kurt discovers the American aim is to recruit von Hauptmann into covert work in the coming cold war, he makes an official complaint but is simply ordered to redact the transcripts and eliminate everything concerning Jews. Meanwhile he tracks Elsa to a bombed-out convent, and to the only survivor, who tells him of von Hauptmann’s role in Elsa’s fate. His vehement hatred towards the Nazi redoubles.
This is a difficult book to read at times, because Sidransky’s prose is infused with such fear and desperation it is impossible not to react emotionally. Kurt Berlin specifically asked Sidransky not to write a biography because he did not consider his experiences exceptional, but readers are challenged to form their own opinions. The Interpreter is a tribute to the courage of the human spirit in adversity and to the lengths which we will go to in order to preserve our humanity.