Novel "Comedy in a Minor Key" a Gripping Wartime Story

This is a guest post by Neal Gendler, a Minneapolis writer and editor.  This article originally ran as “Hiding Nico” in the January 20, 2012 print version of the newspaper.  
For many Jews, comedy — even in the constant unease of a minor key — won’t mean laughing aloud while reading Hans Keilson’s charming novella (Comedy in a Minor KeyFarrar, Straus and Giroux, $13) about a young Dutch couple hiding a Jew during the war.
The subject is too close and too serious. But it’s impossible not to enjoy, or at least admire, twists that a reviewer shouldn’t give away.
The story, which the publisher calls “a dark comedy of wartime manners,” seems simple enough: Wim and Marie agree to do their “patriotic duty” and hide a Jew, a man of indeterminate middle age whose swarthiness would be a dead giveaway — in both meanings. They conceal and treat him well, but after a year they have an opposite problem: he dies of pneumonia and they have to dispose of his body.
The spouses call the man Nico and hide him in an upstairs room, from which he comes down to eat and talk. Keilson’s masterful use of understatement and spare prose reveal the tensions of living with an ever-present, ever-endangering stranger — and of being that stranger.
Nico is totally dependent on Wim and Marie for food, shelter and secrecy. They are totally dependent on him to not let his presence be known, making mutual hostages of those doing the ultimate mitzva and the person for whom they’re doing it. In the Nazi world, the sentence for being a Jew and the sentence for hiding one are the same: death.
About 140,000 Jews — 110,000 Dutch and the rest refugees — were in the country when the Germans invaded in May 1940. Shoah author Lucy Davidowicz says 75 percent of Dutch Jews were killed.
Keilson slowly pulls back the curtain on a real phenomenon: thousands of Jews — 24,000, says Shoah expert Yehuda Bauer — were hidden amid the gentile population, many of them children spirited from orphanages by devoted, daring youth at the risk, and sometimes loss, of their lives.
The obverse, of course, were Dutch collaborators. Bauer says they included much of the bureaucracy and police. Dutch men joined the SS.
Because one couldn’t be sure who was trustworthy, those hiding people had to avoid telling others, behave as if nothing had changed and think through even tiny details of everyday living. For example, Marie sends out Wim’s laundry, but she can’t include Nico’s because the cleaner would notice. The couple agonizes over how to hide Nico from their cleaning woman; suddenly dropping her could arouse suspicion. Once, Nico is downstairs when the fish seller arrives.
After Nico dies while being saved, Wim and Marie have to get rid of a body that wasn’t supposed to exist.
All this is handled cleverly, with style and wit that would be funny but for the subject, and then the plot takes another sharp turn. The ending perhaps is a bit too neat, but hardly impossible.
Comedy was published in 1947 — and in English hardcover last year — proximate to a reality the author knew. German-born Keilson, a Jewish physician who fled to the Netherlands and hid in Delft, worked with the Dutch resistance to help hidden Jewish children.
He later became a psychotherapist and a pioneer in treating war trauma in children. He published his first novel in 1933 and died last year at age 101.
Although translated from German with great clarity by Damion Searls, Comedy jumps distractingly back and forth in time. The sixth paragraph of the book is repeated five pages later — perhaps accidentally or perhaps deliberately — to illustrate the relentlessness of near-nightly overflights of British bombers on their way to Germany.
Well worth reading, Comedy doesn’t use a lot of words. But they stick with you.