As a traveling bookstore owner/driver, the books I read come to me in a variety of ways. There are those recommended by readers. Often I jot down titles and if I don’t have a copy in the bookstore, order it through interlibrary loan. Sometimes I read a book review that is so compelling I try to order the title through the library, but if it is too new and the library doesn’t have it available yet, then I find another independent bookstore to buy it from. And sometimes on longer traveling bookstore adventures, I just pull a book off the shelf that looks interesting and read that. That’s what happened this weekend while at the Yaak music festival. As I sank into the first chapter, it almost felt too coincidental that I randomly selected that particular book at this particular time.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada is a novel based on a slice of German history from World War II. In the early 1940s, Elise and Otto Hampel, a working class, middle-aged couple, began committing acts of civil disobedience against the Nazi regime. They wrote postcards that they then left in public places for others to find. The postcards had short messages denouncing Hitler and urging people to take action. The Hampels were eventually arrested, tried and executed. In 1945, Hans Fallada was given the Gestapo files on Otto and Elsie Hampel as part of a Soviet post-war decision to create an antifascist cultural movement. Fallada, a talented German author who had struggled in Germany during the war, was asked to write something based on the lives of the Hampels. He wrote this novel.
It is a compelling story. Reading it during the summer of 2021 gives perspective to what many of us experience now in areas of the country that have become polarized. It raises questions about what we each do during troubled times. The Hampels wrote over two hundred postcards. Most individuals who found one of those cards quickly turned it over to the Gestapo out of fear. Fallada does well describing how fear was established and used by the political regime at that time. This resonated with me as so many individuals I talk with about going to public meetings, speaking out, canvassing tell me they can’t because they are afraid. The Hampels’ resistance came from their determination to not let fear stop them from being true to their beliefs, to act even against overwhelming odds. Fallada captures the Hampels’ moral integrity, their effort to remain decent, their need to do something they hoped would make a difference.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
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