Man of the Century

Just in time for its author’s hundredth birthday, the remarkably sympathetic fiction of Hans Keilson—doctor in the Dutch resistance, psychologist of trauma, and erstwhile novelist—is finally available in English.
The Uses of Leni Riefenstahl, The World’s Best Fake ID, Schubert, Novels Buried in the Garden, Violins and Trumpets, Ella Fitzgerald, Clichéd Exiles, Trauma as Narrative
by Damion Searls
Photograph of Hans Keilson in the 1920s. Courtesy of the Keilson family.

Man of the Century

Damion Searls
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I first saw his name, and only because of a mistake, in the bargain bin outside a Yugoslavian specialty bookstore in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 2007. This makes Germans laugh, though the cultural reasons why would take a long time to explain. Maybe it’s a bit like saying you saw Anne Frank’s name for the first time at a Spanish-language bookstore in Miami. Ingeborg Bachmann’s perfect autobiographical story “Youth in an Austrian Town” mentions a movie, Romance in a Minor Key, and I misremembered the title, thinking that this book, Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson, was it. That was enough to make me pick up the book, I realized my mistake but bought the book anyway, and some three years later I had translated it into English and Hans Keilson, a former doctor in the Dutch Resistance and lifelong friend to children and all-around hero of the twentieth century, signed it for me in his house in Holland on the day before his hundredth birthday.

Hans Keilson’s life offers a useful warning about the ups and downs of literary fame, among other, more important lessons. His novel The Death of the Adversary was a best seller in the U.S. in 1962 and one of Time magazine’s top ten books of the year, in the staggering company of Faulkner’s last novel, Philip Roth’s first, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Borges’s Labyrinths and Ficciones, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Richard Hughes’s The Fox in the Attic, and J.F. Powers’s Morte d’Urban, plus one other dark horse (Frank Swinnerton’s Death of a Highbrow, his forty-ninth book). A Nobel Prize winner and three perennial Nobel candidates; four books and a fifth author now in the Library of America and two more books among the NYRB Classics; the year’s Pulitzer and National Book Award winners—and Keilson’s novel, which in 2007 and 2008 it was impossible to find even a description of on Amazon, on Wikipedia, on used-book sites, at the Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford libraries, or anywhere else I checked. Some terrible digitization of the Time archives made it impossible to find its review on Google. I was probably the only writer in America interested in Hans Keilson.

His name was known within academic psychology, thanks to his 1979 dissertation, Sequential Traumatization, the standard work in the field. (The full title is even more off-putting to nonspecialists: Sequential Traumatization in Children: A Descriptive-Clinical and Quantitative-Statistical Follow-Up Investigation of the Fate of Jewish War Orphans in the Netherlands. He jokes that he “sat working on the monograph for eleven years, thus the long title”; he met with 204 of the barely 2,000 Dutch Jewish children who survived the war.) Every five or ten years, something would appear in the German-language newspapers about what a worthy fellow this Hans Keilson is; his novels would be summarized, whether or not it sounded like the reporter had read them; and today, the article would conclude, he turns seventy-five years old—then eighty, then ten years later, at the end of a nearly identical article, ninety. Keilson held out for literary immortality, though, and he might just have made it: a new young editor at his old publisher Fischer published a fat Collected Works box set in 2005; in America, FSG has just republished Death of the Adversary and brought out Comedy in a Minor Key, a mere sixty-three years after its publication in German. (When Keilson heard the news, he said to his friends: “I’m not dead yet!”) In 2008 Keilson won the WELT-Literaturpreis, after such eminences as Imre Kertész, Amos Oz, Yasmina Reza, and Jeffrey Eugenides (in 2009 it went to Philip Roth). Keilson is in good health and says that he wants to live to at least 101, because Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl lived to 101 and he wants to beat her. Take that, long-lived Nazi filmmaker!


Hans Alexander Keilson was born in 1909, in what is now eastern Germany, and finished medical school just in time to be kicked out for being Jewish. So he became, as he likes to say with a certain irony even today, “a state-certified swimming and gymnastics instructor.”[1] His autobiographical first novel, Life Goes On, was accepted for publication just before his twenty-third birthday and was published in 1933, the last novel that Fischer Verlag, the storied German publisher, was allowed to publish by a Jewish writer before the new laws. By 1934, the novel was banned. None of these setbacks convinced him to leave the country, but the Catholic woman Keilson was not allowed to marry, Gertrud Manz, was, as Keilson says, “much cleverer than I was.” She convinced him to flee, and they emigrated to the Netherlands in 1936. Not far enough.

Keilson assimilated, learned Dutch, started publishing in Dutch as well as German under various pseudonyms (Benjamin Cooper, Alexander Kailand), built up a pediatric medical practice, and avoided the fate of the stereotypical exile which he would describe so bitingly in an interview from 1999: “Sitting around in cafés licking their wounds or, at best, dreaming up absurd political plans. People like that inevitably came to bad ends. You had to keep your distance.” He lived in a different house on the same street as Gertrud Manz, out of well-founded caution; their daughter was born in 1941. By then, the Germans had conquered Holland and Keilson was in hiding in Enschede, near the German border. The yellow star was introduced in 1942, and other laws designed to limit mobility and harass enemies of the state were passed, including a decree that everyone had to live in the province where their passport was issued. Keilson returned to Delft in mid-1943 and went into hiding, at the house of Leo and Suus Rientsma, the Dutch couple to whom he would dedicate Comedy in a Minor Key. He would only rarely see Gertrud and their daughter until the end of the war.

His hosts kept an eye on him for a month, “to see what kind of person I was—whether I was a nervous type, or could stay calm,” he told me—and when he passed muster they asked him if he would be willing to work for a Resistance group called Vrije Groepen Amsterdam. They gave him the world’s best fake ID, which passed everywhere: insiders in the Amsterdam police force had checked it. As native-Dutch Dr. van den Linden, Keilson spent the rest of the war traveling throughout the country to houses where Jewish children were in hiding, away from their parents, and who had psychological problems or difficulties with their foster parents. He gave them counseling and support, then went back to Delft, where he himself was in hiding. He had brought his parents from Germany to Holland in 1938, but they did not go into hiding and were arrested and deported. Both died in Auschwitz. Keilson’s grieving for them has never ended—in our interview, sixty-five years later, he briefly mentioned his parents and then said, “It’s a terrible story” and fell silent. There are heartrending scenes between the protagonist and his father in all of Keilson’s works of fiction.

He started writing Death of the Adversary while in hiding—possibly Comedy in a Minor Key as well—and buried the manuscripts in the garden for safekeeping until after 1945. Gertrud and Hans were finally allowed to marry; she left the Catholic Church to protest the pope’s complicity and refused to move back to Germany; Keilson lives in Holland to this day. He told me that he visited Germany many times, but to build a life there, and a practice—that he could not do. Keilson worked as a psychiatrist with L’Ezrat Ha-Yeled (“To Help the Child”), the first organization for the care and treatment of Jewish orphans who had survived the Holocaust, from the beginning until 1970. Eventually, in 1979, Keilson received the doctorate he was not allowed to get in 1934, forty-five years before.


Comedy in a Minor Key was published in 1947, the same year as Anne Frank’s diary, by an Amsterdam press for German-language writers in exile. It was not published in Germany until 1988 and not in English anywhere until 2010, but it manages the seemingly impossible feat of showing the Nazi era and the Holocaust in a new light, even now, after so many other books and movies and histories. It is as tightly structured as a thriller, or, Keilson would say, a joke: An ordinary Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, have taken in Nico, a Jewish perfume salesman. (“Yes, well, we’ll all need a little prettying up after the war,” runs one of the book’s dark jokes.) Nico dies, of natural causes. So now what do they do with the body, in order not to get posthumously caught?

Nico’s story doesn’t end in the concentration camps, which are mentioned only once in the book, in passing. (As Keilson said to me, with a terrible double meaning: “Not everything can end at Auschwitz.”) As a result, the story of day-to-day life under the occupation is not overshadowed by an unspeakable ending and we get to see what it was really like: Nico’s life in hiding, and Wim and Marie’s life with a stranger in their house. Keilson insisted over and over again in our interview that although the characters were fictional, this was a true story: It really happened. His hosts Leo and Suus had told him about the real incident, but told it as a joke: “Hey, what would we do if that happened to you?” and they all had a good laugh.

There are shudderingly deep passages in the novel describing Nico’s inner terrors, and visions of “the veil” of “love, beauty, dignity” that we cover up life with, “the way people veil a body in fabric and clothing so that the blaze of its nakedness does not blind too deeply the eyes that see it… behind which, as under ashes, the double-tongued fire of creation smolders.” At the same time, Comedy in a Minor Key is not an interior, private book; it is ultimately not about Nico, who has died before the book opens. Keilson’s remarkable sympathy brings Wim and Marie to life in all their domesticity and ordinariness: proper Wim being talked into taking Nico in, even though the words patriotic duty never meant anything to him before; Marie scrubbing pots and pans without the proper cleaning supplies, which you can’t get during the war. They care about Nico, and resent him, too, and have to worry about which side the milkman is on, and the whole story feels unforgettably real.

If Comedy in a Minor Key is Keilson’s Dutch still-life painting, a “minor” work with all the strengths and weaknesses that that implies, The Death of the Adversary is his history painting or allegory: an unquestionably “major” effort. It took him another dozen years to finish—it was first published in 1959—and it requires, as he says today, a certain “analytical approach” from the reader. It is the story of an unnamed narrator much like Keilson who watches from afar, and from up close, too, as “B.,” a demagogic dictator with a genocidal agenda against “our people,” comes to power and drives the nation and the world into destruction. There are close-up set pieces, such as the narrator forging stamps to trade to a school friend (discovering the inner temptation toward wrongdoing), or some thugs at the bar talking about how they desecrated a Jewish cemetery, all woven into a quasi-allegorical psychodrama of the meaning of enmity. The narrator does not hate “B.”—he is fascinated, and hypnotized no less than B.’s followers are. He recognizes that he and B. belong to each other, as two sides of the same dynamic; the victim and the Hitler-figure share a “bliss” and a bond in some ways tighter than the bonds of love. The narrator is locked in mutual struggle and fascination with the adversary, yet in the end, of course, is a victim after all.

It is a remarkable position to dare to take, and Keilson pulls it off purely through psychological insight and empathetic understanding. The book was, it is probably needless to say, rejected by Fischer Verlag, practically unread in Germany, and vilified in Israel, but Time called the English translation “perhaps the profoundest explanation to date” of Hitler’s rise to power and the Jewish reaction to it: “What distinguishes Keilson from other writers on the Nazi era is his uncanny understanding of the persecutor as well as the persecuted. He realizes that the terrorist is vulnerable as well as brutal.” In 2010, after a decade that has seen more than its share of terrorism and demonization, the book is as profound as ever and is, among other things, a model of what a truly insightful and instructive terrorism novel might look like. A glowing review of the 2009 Dutch retranslation writes that Keilson was “the first person to see that Hitler actually lost, because to hate is to kill yourself, and that’s what the Germans did.” Keilson explained: “They lost. The Curonian Spit, with Nidden, where Thomas Mann had his house—it is not in Germany any more. That beautiful German landscape, the Germans lost it. Hitler killed himself! Goebbels killed himself and his children! That’s who the Nazis were. And I wrote that story. The persecutor is himself the persecuted.”

Except for a short story called “The Dissonance Quartet”—commissioned in 1968 for a German anthology on fathers and sons, and including a beautiful description of summer vacations on the Curonian Spit, near Thomas Mann’s house—The Death of the Adversary was Keilson’s last work of fiction. When I asked him why, he said that he didn’t feel he had an audience. He turned instead to his academic work and has continued to publish poems and essays, but no fiction.

As one might expect, though, his academic work pursued his literary aims by other means. Sequential Traumatization has been translated into English, and most of it is impenetrable to the general public, but it is dotted with dozens of case histories of Dutch Jewish children and I wish someone would collect and publish the case studies separately: they are stories, a documentary anthology of Jewish children’s fates. Keilson himself says that they are his late literary work, and that his dissertation was his way of “finally saying Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, which he had been unable to say for so long.” He is as proud of his academic work as he is of his fiction, and it represented a new paradigm in psychology: instead of viewing a trauma as an acute, onetime event (trauma is Greek for “a wound”), he realized that a trauma can be “multiple related events that go together historically [or as a history], and that play out psychologically.” In other words, trauma is a narrative, a story. Keilson was the first to transfer the diagnosis of “posttraumatic stress” from cases like shell-shocked soldiers to cases like orphaned children.

Even The Death of the Adversary, Keilson says, is a “pedagogical and psychoanalytical” book, and the interchangeability of his two careers goes back to the beginning. In 1932, an American friend pursuing her studies at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute convinced him to go check it out, so he made an appointment and told the doctor his problems. When they told him he didn’t need psychoanalytic treatment, he was furious and went home to write the first lines of his first novel. In 1984, he wrote that when he arrived in Holland, in 1936, “I found my novel in the public library. Had it hurried ahead of me, or fetched me after it?” In a sense, it had done both.

Keilson said in our interview: “My career is as a doctor and I write, it’s very strange. I lost both identities. I don’t know if that’s an advantage or a disadvantage.” Of course it is an advantage—the analogy with Chekhov is a cliché for doctor-writers, but in Keilson’s case it seems justified, since both his fiction and his therapeutic work are based on his incredible empathy with others. It is also true that, unlike writers of the same generation, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose later work explored the relations between prewar and postwar civilization, Keilson has stayed with the earlier time and considered it with other means. He is not “modern.” Books like Comedy in a Minor Key and The Death of the Adversary aren’t written anymore. The authors he refers to in conversation and in writing are the classics: Goethe, Heine, the early Thomas Mann of “Tonio Kröger” and “Death in Venice,” the Hesse of Demian. He wrote an essay on Klaus Mann in 1950;[2] he mentions Alfred Döblin only in the context of running into him at their publisher’s house. Like psychoanalysis itself, Keilson’s fiction looks back. He has written: “Literature is human memory. Whoever writes, remembers; whoever reads, takes part in those experiences. It is possible to republish a book. After all, there are archival copies of books. Not of people.”


When I went to his house in Bussum, an upscale suburb of Amsterdam, to meet him on the day before his hundredth birthday, I was surprised to see him answer the door himself. His second wife, Marita, a much younger woman he married after Gertrud died in the 1960s (Marita was thirty-five and Keilson sixty-one; now Marita is seventy-four), was out running errands, so he greeted me himself, hung up my coat, took the Schumann record off the record player, and sat down for a two-hour talk. I shook his hand in the entryway and told him that now I had done what I needed to do—the rest was just extra.

He is a lively man and his mind is perfectly sharp; he quoted poetry from memory, and walks slowly but confidently. I told him he looked excellent for one hundred.

“Yes, many people tell me that.”

“Although, to tell you the truth,” I said, “I don’t know many hundred-year-olds, so maybe you’re just average.”

“I don’t know many either!” And we laughed. Then he added, more seriously, that most hundred-year-olds are shut off from the world, closed up inside themselves. “With me it’s rather different.” Maybe it’s from working with children his whole life, but Keilson has stayed young. Or maybe it’s the music—“I can’t give you anything but love, baby,” he suddenly said to me in English at one point, with a laugh. “That’s the only thing I have plenty of.” He has been a passionate amateur musician his whole life, playing classical violin and jazz trumpet (he told me that he owns a very nice violin and a Holton trumpet), and Schubert, Bach, and Mozart came up in conversation more than once. When he told me how happy he was to hear that his books were coming out in America, he described it in musical terms: “I was surprised that a chord resonated in you from the notes that I struck, one that other people didn’t hear. Do you understand what I mean? Schubert used harmonies that you don’t find in others; the chords sound different with him than with other composers. Do I have that quality too?… When I heard that both books would be published in English I said, Ah, someone heard both the chords.”

On his birthday, the following day, Keilson was made an officer of the House of Orange-Nassau, one of Holland’s highest civilian honors, and over a hundred people from Keilson’s life and the Dutch and German publishing and psychology worlds met at a restaurant in Naarden to celebrate. “Welllllll now. [Pause for laughter and applause.] Dinner is served, let’s eat!” ran the entirety of his modest speech, though others gave moving speeches after the meal. I introduced him, one hundred years old, to my son, one hundred and six days old, and I am convinced that their encounter bodes well for both of their futures.

At the end of our interview the day before, I had asked him to sign my copy of Komödie in Moll and nervously wondered if he would be willing to postdate it: I wanted it dated on his birthday, December 12, even though it was only the 11th. Would he do it? After all, I was asking him to lie; would he take a stand on principle, insist on accurate historical memory?

“Sure,” he said, “what difference does a day make at this point? My conscience can take it!”

When he signed it and I saw the date he had written, 12. 12. ’09, a chill ran up my spine. “It’s your second 12. 12. ’09! The first time, it was 1909, and this time it’s 2009.”

He laughed, and then added: “But this apostrophe…”

“Yes? It says a lot!”

“It says everything. There’s a lot of history in that little symbol.”

“That’s nice,” I said after a pause. “A nice phrase.”

“‘A big history in a little punctuation mark?’”

“Yes, I like that.”

“OK,” Keilson said, in his perennial good spirits. “Go ahead and use it.”

  1. My interview with Keilson, on December 11, 2009, was conducted in German; all translations in this essay from it and from other articles and books are mine, except for The Death of the Adversary, translated by Ivo Jarosy.
  2. In response, he received a grateful letter from Thomas Mann that he is extremely proud of. Unfortunately, he told me, he has stored it away so safely that he’ll never find it again. He only hopes his wife will be able to find it after he dies.
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