In 1929, Adolf Hitler moved into an apartment across the street from the Feuchtwanger family in Munich, Germany. Then a boy, Edgar Feuchtwanger, his father Ludwig and mother Erna would catch glimpses of Hitler through the window.
“I would have been mincemeat had the Nazis known who I was and that I was living right under their noses,” Feuchtwanger, 95, told The Times of Israel in a recent interview from his home in Winchchester, England.
Feuchtwanger teamed up in 2013 with French journalist and writer Bertil Scali to publish his improbable story in a memoir titled “Hitler, mon voisin.” The book was translated to English in 2017 as “Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood 1929-1939,” and it is now out in paperback edition.
Feuchtwanger recalls wondering what Hitler was doing or thinking as he seized increasing power and stripped Jewish citizens like the Feuchtwangers of their rights after becoming chancellor in 1933.
Like most everyone, Feuchtwanger was locked down in his home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s a bit of a bore,” he said. “But we can survive this. Things have been worse.”
While some may be interested in simply knowing what it was like to be only one degree of separation from the most evil individual in history, others will find critical lessons in this memoir for the world in which we live today. The book is arguably more relevant now than it was when it was first published in the pre-Trump, pre-Brexit era.
In “Hitler, My Neighbor,” Feuchtwanger recalls in vivid detail, and from child a child’s perspective, what it was like to grow up in the cradle of Nazism as life became increasingly unbearable for German Jews.
“I imagine what it must be like being Hitler. I wonder what he eats for breakfast. I see his shadow pass behind a window frame. He hates me. He hates me. Without even knowing I exist,” Feuchtwanger wrote.
The Jewish boy would watch as the Führer left Prinzregentenplatz 16 to enter his enormous, sleek Mercedes together with his bodyguards. He also had a front row seat as world leaders such as British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini, and French prime minister Édouard Daladier arrived in the fall of 1938 to negotiate with — or rather capitulate to — Hitler in the run up World War II.
There was even one time when Hitler tipped his hat to the Jewish boy as he passed by on the sidewalk while he was out for a stroll with his nanny Rosie.
This all seems rather incredible given that Feuchtwanger was not only the son of a prominent Jewish publisher, but also the nephew of Hitler’s nemesis, famous writer Lion Feuchtwanger, who had openly criticized the Nazi party for years, and who was forced into exile in France in 1933. All his works were burned by the Nazis.
As the Jewish boy was forced to learn and internalize Nazi propaganda, and was increasingly ostracized by friends at school, at home his parents lived almost as though the Weimar Republic was still alive. They read the newspapers incessantly and were well aware of the political situation. His father lost his job. Yet they remained optimistic that things would change for the better.
“Edgar’s parents created a bubble to protect him and keep the beauty, the charm, the poetry as the world became smaller and smaller,” co-author Scali, 50, told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview from his home in Bordeaux, France.
Scali (whose paternal grandfather was a Sephardic Jew from Algeria who immigrated to Paris early in the 20th century and survived World War II with his family in hiding) thinks of the two apartment buildings on that Munich street in metaphorical terms. One was an edifice of brutality, and the other a palace of culture, art and intellectualism. It was as though they were in a standoff to see which would crumble first.
As we know, the brutality of Nazism won out initially. “But ultimately culture and sophistication won the war, because we have an old man [Feuchtwanger] having the last word,” Scali said.
Feuchtwanger, who went on to become a history professor, was very fortunate to live to tell his story. He and his parents managed to find refuge in the UK in early 1939, but it was only after his father was arrested and tortured at Dachau following Kristallnacht in November 1938 that the family took serious steps to try to leave Germany.
They had given passing thought to emigrating earlier, with Feuchtwanger’s father Ludwig even visiting two of his sisters in Palestine on a scouting mission. Ludwig viewed himself as German through and through since his family had resided in Germany since 1555. He said he didn’t like the climate in Palestine — both weather-wise and politically — so he passed on the opportunity to move to what would later become the Jewish state.
Ludwig vetoed the idea of joining another sister in Prague. “We were right not to immigrate there,” he told his son after Germany annexed Czechoslovakia. “We’re safer right under [Hitler’s] nose. His genius is so far-reaching he’s forgotten to look out of his window. If only he knew!”
At least with regard to Prague, Ludwig was right. Of all of the Feuchtwangers’s relatives and Jewish friends, Ludwig’s sister in Prague ended up murdered in the Holocaust.
“Nobody knows the future. There was the question of why some saw the danger and others did not. The various relatives on both sides of Edgar’s family took different approaches,” Scali said.
Notably, throughout “Hitler, My Neighbor,” and especially as Feuchtwanger becomes a teenager, it is he who seems to most acutely discern the growing danger to German Jews. However, as a minor, he is at the mercy of his parents’ decision making.
“We hear [Hitler] shrieking on the radio every evening. I sometimes come across him in the morning. As our world gradually shrinks, his expands. And I keep escaping inside my own head, reading, dreaming, traveling in my thoughts,” Feuchtwanger wrote.
Given the recent rise in populism and authoritarianism, and growing support for far-right parties and white supremacists in many countries since the initial publication of the book, Scali believes that its contents are more relevant than ever.
“I don’t believe the same story ever happens twice. Today’s leaders are not Nazis, but we certainly have learned that leaders who claim to have the fast track or simple formulas for solutions are dangerous,” Scali said.
When asked about rising anti-Semitism in France and throughout Europe, Scali, who is secular and from a Catholic background on his mother’s side, said that he has never personally encountered hateful acts toward Jews.
“Anti-Semitism is something very abstract for me, but I know it exists. I am, however, concerned about the rise of the extreme right in Europe,” Scali said.
“Is it the same as in the 1930s? I don’t think so, but you never know. Brutality is part of humanity,” he said.
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