It tells the fictionalized true story of a woman who gave up her fellow Jews to the Nazis. Critics have condemned the novel Stella by Takis Würger, published this week in Germany, as "Holocaust kitsch."
"We have a new literature debate," wrote Hannah Lühmann of the Die Welt newspaper when reflecting on the bombshell publication of Stella, a novel by journalist, author and war correspondent Takis Würger.
Published by the prestigious Hanser Verlag on January 11, Stella fictionalizes the true story of Jewess Stella Kübler (née Goldschlag), who as a so-called "catcher" betrayed other Jews gone underground to the Gestapo.
'Nazi story for dummies?'
Würger's second novel was inspired by the award-winning journalist's fascination for the subject. But while it's too early to judge the success of this study of a character who is already a book subject — for example, Peter Wyden's Stella: One Woman's True Tale of Evil, Betrayal, and Survival in Hitler's Germany — the vehement response to the novel by German critics has been striking.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung reviewer wrote on January 11 that Stella is "an outrage, an insult and a real offense." Moreover, the work was described as "the symbol of an industry that seems to have lost any ethical or aesthetic scale if it wants to sell such a book as a valuable contribution to the memory of the Shoah."
The critic further accused the author of having written the novel "without any awareness of the problem of literature, literacy and history."
A reviewer for Die Zeit was equally scathing. "An abomination in children's book style: Takis Würger writes in Stella about a Jewish woman who becomes an accomplice in the Nazi era. It's a novel full of narrative clichés." Public radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk described it as "Holocaust kitsch" and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked: "Why this Nazi story for dummies?"
Stella Kübler faced trial in in 1957 for having delivered as many as 44 Jewish people to the Gestapo, with most deported to concentration camps. She did not have to serve her 10-year sentence due to time already spent in a Russian prison
Publishers weigh in
Florian Kessler, cultural journalist and editor at Hanser Verlag, deflected the criticism on social media. In a detailed Facebook post, he responded, among other things, to the allegation by the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the novel would instrumentalize the Holocaust.
"One can only answer: this discussion … rightly pervades the literature since '45," he wrote of a debate that has raged around so-called Holocaust literature in the postwar period.
Kessler noted that Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader, which became a hit Hollywood film, was also accused in the 1990s of mixing clichés and Holocaust instrumentalization. Shortly thereafter, he read the book at school in class.
"We also talked about such allegations against it, and through the book's ambivalences and problems, we had very important and formative discussions about the Nazi period in my entire school years," he wrote.
Let the public decide
Hannah Lühman of Die Welt was also surprised by the ferocity of the critical slating. But while she defended the novel as a whole, she added that many questions of course remain regarding, for example, "the choice of historical material; this extreme story of a Jewish woman who has betrayed hundreds of Jews to the Gestapo; what fantasies it may satisfy among non-Jewish Germans reading it."
But she refused, according to Lühmann in his Facebook post, "to join in this scandal."
It remains to be seen how the reading public will respond to Stella. Interest has been high in Germany, with the book launch and author reading in Hamburg on Monday sold out weeks in advance.
And the novel has already garnered international attention: So far, nine foreign licenses have been sold, with the book set to be published in English, French, Spanish and Chinese, among others.