The Seventh Cross (tr. Margo Bettauer Dembo, 2018. Original: Das siebte Kreuz, 1942) starts and ends at the same point – but, in the span of its 400 pages, our comprehension of what this point means changes considerably. As the story starts, seven trees have been felled to be made as crucifixes, only to end up burned later. We are in a German concentration camp for political dissidents in the late 1930s, and prisoners feel warmed by the crucifixes’ flames. It is an strong depiction of violence – but, oddly enough, one that is permeated by a glimmer of hope: the heat of the flames burning a small slice of what the camp represents.
The story centres on the escape of seven prisoners from the Nazi camp and the narrative follows their pursuit – and, more closely, the path taken by the seventh man, Georg Heisler, our main character. He is a man always on the run, adrift in a dangerous situation, as one by one of his fellow escapees are gradually captured, subjected to interrogation and torture, and eventually murdered.
The title of the book comes from the fact that, fearing that the escape might threaten his career, the concentration camp commandant has ordered that the fugitives must be overtaken within seven days. Not only that, but seven crosses must be made from trees nearby, one for each escapee, to be used when they are returned to the camp – as a warning to the rest of the prisoners and as a signal to the commander’s superiors that he has the situation under control.
The central plot (Heisler’s escape and his pursuit) is told in a fragmented way: the narrative is constantly interrupted by leaps in time and space, we follow Georg’s haunted stream of consciousness, and then it alternates between the different perspectives of each of the characters.
We meet Heisler’s ex-wife, Elli; Elli’s father; the camp commander, Fahrenberg; Heisler’s fellow escapees; the people he meets on his escape, like the Jewish doctor who treats his wounded hand; a bunch of fervent Nazis and members of the Hitler Youth; a young man whose coat Heisler steals; Franz, Heisler’s former friend; Wallau, Georg’s mentor and fellow escapee; members of the anti-fascist resistance network; and many others.
Each of the characters represents a social class or a different political current in Germany at the time, so that you take a panoramic view of life under the Third Reich. We start by focusing on Georg, but the scope of the story gradually widens, so as to be less about the man and more about the society in which he is inserted.
Each character is affected differently by Georg’s escape, and the way people choose to cope with the violent system in which they are trapped mirrors the way they react to Georg: many seek to take advantage, many keep silent, some are brutal, some live in constant fear, and a minority finds the courage to do what is morally right, even when it is illegal.
Highlight of the novel for me is the fact that you not only explored Georg’s haunted spirit and his constant fear of being captured, but also added to it a delicate, almost imperceptible layer, where you explore the dilemmas faced by ordinary people who are forced to make crucial moral choices with no easy answers. As Georg oscillates between reality and nightmare, life and death, so do the people he meets in his way: they oscillate between right and wrong, between loyalty and betrayal, courage and fear.
Georg’s acquaintances are under surveillance, and he is unsure of the people he can trust. As in Karin Boye’s Kallocain (1940), the totalitarian regime seeps into the most intimate relationships, and transforms long-time friends “into a network of living traps.” Friends and lovers fear each other and, because of that fear, they miss every opportunity, however small, for shared moments of true connection and mutual help.
Another great strength of your novel is your retrained, matter-of-fact writing style when conveying the Nazi quotidian brutality and the way it seeps into the smallest, most ordinary aspects of life. The restraint only makes everything more brutal, and you have a way of infusing it with a symbolic texture and a slightly absurd, nightmarish quality – as if we were going through the flow of a series of haunted consciences.
Like Heisler, we are impelled forward by his inner voice, which guides him (and us) to keep going: “something soft and pure and clear came to the fore from inside him, an inviolable voice that couldn’t be drowned out, and he knew that he was ready to die then and there, not as he had always lived, but as he had always wanted to, bravely and calmly.”
It’s Georg’s inner voice, but it is also Wallau’s, Elli’s, ours –so that the camp commander realizes “that he was not chasing a single man whose characteristics he knew, whose strength was eventually exhaustible, but a faceless, inexhaustible and priceless power“.
It is everyman’s voice, everyman’s moral conscience, an inviolable core, as made explicit by Wallau’s interrogation scene: even in the most brutal moments, when he is being tortured, he remains silent to the interrogators’ questions, which are followed by a third-person narration that may be coming from Wallau’s core, or may be coming from some faraway point – as if he were looking to his own torture and murder from the outside, bearing witness to his own death. Who is the narrator in this scene? Is it a voice inside Wallau, something he is saying to himself as a prayer, to resist torture? A form of disassociation? Or is it a no man’s land, a no-man’s voice, a no man’s conscience, something that transcends him and looks at everything from above? Is it the voice that witness death, or the voice that survives it, living to tell the story afterwards?
The novel has a strong symbolic character, permeated by elements of the Christian iconography: the crucifixion of the fugitives (as an allusion to the crucifixion of Christ); the night Georg spent hidden in the Mainz Cathedral, where the statues seem to come to life; the number seven not only in the title of the book, but in its structure (divided in seven chapters) and its content (which covers the time span of a week) – as if, in a way, your book were also a story about the creation of a world.
Fear and impotence permeate the romance, but also small acts of resistance, resilience, and moral strength. When I am reminded of the fact that you wrote this novel during your escape to Mexico, in the darkest heart of fascist Germany and at a time of extreme existential danger for you and your family, I cannot help but feel amazed at the fact that, from all this, you were able to offer us something other than hopelessness, despair, or cynicism: you offered us an unassailable core, a glimmer, and the warmth of flames.
“We all felt how profoundly and how terribly outside forces can reach into a human being, to his innermost self. But we also sensed that in that innermost core there was something that was unassailable and inviolable.” – Anna Seghers, The Seventh Cross
About the book
- NYRB Classics, 2018, tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo, 402 p. Goodreads
- Virago Modern Classics, 2018, tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo, 400 p. Goodreads
- Original: Das siebte Kreuz, 1942
- My rating: 5 stars
- The book was made into a film in 1944, starring Spencer Tracy and Jessica Tandy, and directed by Fred Zinnemann (IMDb).