Wunderland by Jennifer Epstein: Nightmare and Awakening
Only a dwindling group of eighty- and ninety-year-olds can remember Nazi Germany and most of them were children at the time. However, the memory still haunts succeeding generations of people around the world. How did the Holocaust happen and, more importantly, why?
Jennifer Cody Epstein explores this challenge in her novel Wunderland (Crown, 2019). “What I wanted to get at,” she explains, “was how that terrifying metamorphosis happened, what it looked and felt like to ordinary Germans over the relatively slow burn of the Nazi era. Because that was something I’d never really been able to wrap my head around: how ordinary, ostensibly good people in a progressive society allowed themselves to become complicit in something so unequivocally evil. Calculated, systematic slaughter on that scale simply defies the imagination on some level, and because of that we keep coming back to it, trying (and inevitably failing) to make some sort of emotional sense out of it. I also think we are often looking for reassurances that it couldn’t happen again, or to us, or that if it did we as individuals wouldn’t make the same kinds of catastrophic choices.”
Of course by no means all Germans were complicit, but 51 percent voted for the Nazis in the last free election. Wunderland is not about the war or the Holocaust but mainly about Germany in the 1930s, as the Nazi ideology took over the nation.
The other reason Epstein wanted to write about life in the Third Reich was “to try to get into the emotionality and dailyness of the run-up to the Final Solution; because when you think of it only in terms of those incomprehensible final chapters I think it’s actually much easier to distance yourself from them—even to fool yourself into a kind of dangerous complacency. But if you tighten the lens to the point where you are considering the multitude of individual, small and perhaps minor-seeming steps and decisions that cumulatively led to genocide, it suddenly doesn’t seem so removed.”
One of the main characters in Epstein’s book is Renate, a teenage girl who discovers she has Jewish ancestry only when she applies to join the BDM, the female branch of the Hitler Youth. From then on everything spirals downwards: exclusion from her “Aryan” school, and then an avalanche of legal disabilities and personal humiliations. Luckily she escapes to America before the worst can befall.
The other main character in Wunderland is Renate’s best friend, Ilse, who is accepted by the BDM and becomes an ardent Nazi. She is as much a victim as Renate, forced to spy on her friend and betray Renate’s brother, the man she loves. The alternative was torture by the Gestapo.
The book covers the lives of the two teenagers from 1933 to 1939 and follows up episodically through the 1940s, 1960s and 1980s. Ilse’s daughter, Ava, becomes the main protagonist in the post-war episodes. The story culminates in New York in 1989, with a form of reconciliation.
Despite the upbeat ending to her book, Epstein questions how well we have learned the lessons of history. “As an American currently witnessing a shocking resurgence of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment across both North America and Europe, it certainly seems as though the lessons of the Holocaust are less in the forefront of people’s minds than they were, say, twenty years ago. And in researching for the more current-day sections of Wunderland I did read some fairly interesting pieces about a kind of ‘guilt fatigue’ that is surfacing in more recent German generations who feel unfairly saddled with the crimes of their grandparents’ and even great-grandparents’ era. To be honest, I don’t find that all that surprising. What’s disturbing is that the fatigue can translate into a lack of empathy for the Holocaust victims and sometimes even overt resentment of them.”
Epstein’s choice of title, Wunderland, references Renate’s passion for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which she reads in translation. Nazi Germany was so terrible and at the same time so irrational and absurd that it seems to her like a bad dream, like Alice’s descent into the rabbit hole. It was a nightmare that still leaves us in a state of shock 75 years later.
About the contributor: Edward James is one of the UK review editors for the Historical Novels Review. He has published two historical novels, The Frozen Dream (Silverwood Books) and Freedom’s Pilgrim, A Tudor Odyssey (Endeavour Press) and is working on a third, Beyond the Big River.