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Stefan Chwin: Hanemann (Death in Danzig)

The Polish title of this book is Hanemann. Other languages (there are several) have more or less stuck to that title (Romanian and Spanish have opted for Dr Hanemann) but English and German have changed the title to make it look as though it is a thriller, which it definitely is not. There is a reason for calling it Hanemann. That is the name of the main character. This is not a complicated Polish name but a straightforward German name, not least because Dr Hanemann, the main character of this book, is German.

The English title has one advantage. It tells us that the book is set in Danzig, as it then was. There have been quite a few books set in Danzig/Gdánsk. Here is a list of some of them. The most famous is Günter GrassDie Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), which also deals with war-time Danzig.

We first meet Dr Hanemann when he is doing a dissection. He is a professor of anatomy and gives classes on the subject. Often, the police call him in to do a forensic examination for police purposes. In this case, the class is all there, waiting for the sheet covering the body to be removed. When it is removed, Dr Hanemann blanches and then quickly leaves. We soon learn that the body is of Louise Berger. Louise was his lover. They had been planning to go away but it seems that she had been on a ferry that sank and she drowned.

Apart from this introduction, the book essentially starts as the Russians are approaching the city at the end of World War II and the Germans are fleeing. A transport ship has come to pick them up but cannot enter the port because of the Russian shelling so the civilian refugees have to take a tug. Dr Hanemann went down to the port with his neighbours, the Schulz family. Chwin gives us a graphic and detailed description of the shelling, the buildings burning, the total chaos in the port and the mass panic of the fleeing Germans. As the various people board the tug, there is an explosion and Dr Hanemann is knocked down. While not injured, he does not board the tug. He is later taken back to his flat by a German officer with a view to his departure the following day. He does not depart.

We follow three younger people trying to flee. One of them will later tell the narrator that he is sure he saw Hanemann staring down from his window, The three, including Stella, Louise Berger’s sister, do escape.

The rest of the book is what happens after the Poles take over what will now be called Gdánsk. Hanemann, we learn has stayed. He is not the only German to do so, though most of them struggle to make a living. However, interestingly enough, many of the Poles who lived in Danzig speak some German and want to continue speaking German, so Hanemann teaches German. Why he abandons his career in medicine and, indeed, why he decides to stay when he had the opportunity to leave is not clear. Abandoning medicine may have been because of the Louise Berger incident. When later challenged by the Polish authorities as to why he stayed, he claims that his only relative in Germany – his sister – was killed in 1945 ad so there was no reason to go back. We are not convinced that this is the real reason and nor are the Polish authorities.

On his return to his flat after the German soldier brought him back, he is soon confronted by two Poles. Many ethnic Poles migrated from Eastern Poland/Ukraine/Lithuania/Belarus, in part because some of these regions were swallowed up by the Soviet Union. Our narrator, at this point, is a young boy called Piotr, who is presumably based on our author, whose family, like Piotr’s family, arrived in Gdánsk at this time. We learn that it is Piotr’s father who saves Hanemann from the physical attack by the Poles, who are intent on looting what they can. Piotr’s parents move into a neighbouring flat and Hanemann and the family remain friendly.

Gdánsk is not in good shape at this time. A lot of damage had been done by the Russians. The Germans had left mines everywhere and there were frequent deaths because of them. However, Piotr’s parents soon make a new life for themselves there.

Hanemann, like other Germans, seems to live in the past, reminiscing about Danzig, looking at old books and talking to other Germans about the past. He speaks fluent Polish (and other languages) and, apart from the occasional eager attentions of the Polish authorities, manages to get by. The authorities think he may be a spy and this view is re-enforced when he receives a letter from his former assistant, Martin Retz, who sends him a letter not by the conventional postal system but by giving it to a Danish sailor who happens to be stopping off in Gdánsk. The letter merely recounts the horrors of the escape from Danzig and what Retz is doing now but, as Hanemann destroys it, the Polish authorities think there is more to it.

We follow the relationship between Hanemann and Piotr’s family – Hanemann helps educate Piotr – as well as Hanemann’s relationship with Dr J, a Polish intellectual. The two argue about the relative merits of German and Polish culture. Hanemann makes particular reference to Heinrich von Kleist‘s suicide pact both to Piotr and Dr J and, Piotr, in particular, is very impressed. Dr J, however, retorts, that there is a similar case in Poland involving a Polish writer and painter which is just as important in world literature. Dr J never names the Polish writer/painter but it is clearly Stanisław Witkiewicz. Dr J says showing sympathy for him shows a sympathy for the new Poland.

Other events including learning more about the ferry accident in which Louise died, the arrival of a maid for Piotr’s family, Hanka, known as the Ukrainian, who is probably not Ukrainian, and the arrival of Adam, a deaf boy found in the woods. Hanemann is involved in all of these incidents.

The key issue here is not just the arrival of the new Poland and the passing of the old German Reich but the nature of Hanemann. He remains somewhat mysterious to us, even if Piotr and his family more or less take to him. Why did he stay? Why did he abandon medicine? Why, even when offered another chance to leave, does he decline? What is his mysterious past? Is he even happy? Inside he felt an emptiness – not the void that causes fear, but the benevolent emptiness we feel when nothing separates us from the things of the world. He will remain enigmatic throughout the book, living half in the past, half in the present. It is this enigmatic man and his puzzling nature that makes the book.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Wydawnictwo Marabut
First English translation 2005 by Secker & Warburg
Translated by Philip Boehm