Edgar Feuchtwanger was a small boy when he watched his neighbor — Adolf Hitler — rise to power in Germany. On Thursday, the 88-year-old’s first memoir, co-written in French with journalist Bertil Scali, hit bookstore shelves in France.
“I always stop by this building, and I observe carefully,” Feuchtwanger writes in the book, “Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Child.”
“I imagine what Hitler’s life must be like. I wonder what he eats for breakfast in the morning. I see his shadow at the window. He hates us. He hates me, without even knowing that I exist.”
Long after his family fled Munich, Feuchtwanger still remembers every detail: Hitler’s second-floor apartment at Prinzregentenplatz 16, as well as the passersby who cheered the fuhrer. But he also recalls also his prewar friends; his nanny, Rosie; and his lively family dinners.
As the nephew of German writer Lion Feuchtwanger, a renowned playwright, novelist and anti-Nazi figure during the Weimar period, Edgar Feuchtwanger finds it “ ironic” that he and his family could live for so long directly across the street from Hitler’s residence.
His father, a publisher at the storied firm of Duncker & Humblot, passed on to him his love of books. Young Edgar grew up among world-famous writers and intellectuals such as Martin Buber, Thomas Mann and Carl Schmitt.
Until his 15th birthday, in September 1939, he stood at the center of Germany’s dictatorship, witnessing its increasingly belligerent anti-Semitism with the passage of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
“Hoping this evil and crazy regime would end, we stayed in Munich for another four years,” Feuchtwanger writes. “In March 1938, when I was 13, I saw Hitler leave his flat with a large retinue in six-wheeled, open-topped gray Mercedes reviewing vehicles, to follow his troops into Austria for the Anschluss, ” or union with Germany.
Feuchtwanger was 14 when the Gestapo arrested his father on Nov. 10, 1938, part of the coordinated pogrom known as Kristallnacht, which included the detentions of 30,000 Jews in Austria and Germany, the deaths of 91 and the widespread ransacking of Jewish-owned stores and synagogues. The elder man was then imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp, and 14-year-old Edgar’s sense of security crumbled.
When his father was released six weeks later, the family managed to obtain entry visas to Britain.
“I grasped, as I left, that my world, like Europe itself, had changed beyond recognition,” Feuchtwanger writes.
In 1939, the family moved to Winchester, England. Feuchtwanger has lived there ever since.
He returned many times to his old neighborhood after the end of the war — the first time with his mother, in 1957.
“When I was standing there, I remember thinking to myself, ‘How can these people still live here? What are they doing here?’ ” he told The Times of Israel by phone. “Of course, I was happy to see my prewar friends. But for the rest of them . . . I was very uncomfortable.”
Feuchtwanger admits that writing his memoirs was more challenging than he anticipated, not only because it brought back painful memories, but because of his long career as a historian.
He’d hesitated even at the suggestion of the memoir, which his German book agent had made a few years back.
“It’s a part of history that people have heard about for years now,” he recalled. ”Some libraries have been entirely dedicated to this subject. Before I started writing, I thought to myself, ‘Is there really anything more for me to say ?’
“I never thought I would actually get to write it. I didn’t plan it, nor did I think that it could be of any use. But when my family asked me to write it, I couldn’t say no,” he said.
To Scali, the most powerful element of the book is the inherent contradiction between “Edgar’s happy childhood memories and the increasing sense of menace he felt as Hitler rose to power. ”
When the pair first met in 1995, Scali was a 25-year-old reporter for the French national magazine VSD. After reading an article about Feuchtwanger’s German childhood — written by Feuchtwanger’s daughter in England’s Independent newspaper — he decided to write his own story about him.
“When I first read the article, I was convinced that Edgar would be on CNN the next day,” Scali said. “I never thought this story could be overlooked by the media. But surprisingly, it did. Until now.“
The men kept in touch for 17 years before Feuchtwanger finally agreed to write the book, selecting Scali, 43, as his co-author.
Scali says Feuchtwanger’s memoirs are written like a novel: “We used the present tense on purpose, so that it would read like his childhood journal,“ he said. “This way, the story is more colorful, more human.”
Scali told The Times of Israel that he has also co-directed a spin-off documentary that will air Jan. 24 on French TV channel Planète+, and that the book will soon be available in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. There are currently no plans for it to be published in English.
“People often ask me whether Edgar’s memories have been influenced by what his parents told him about Hitler, or by his work as a historian,“ he added. “I answer that it is certainly the case. But who cares? Our goal was definitely not to write a history book. What could be more powerful than history seen through the eyes of a young boy?”