The Unsung Family Hero: The death and life of an anti-Nazi resistance fighter

March 17, 2020 by Geoffrey Zygier
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I’m in a chatty Garrison Keillor sort of mood today so I thought I might commence with a few words about Melbourne’s Hybrid Publishers…writes Geoffrey Zygier.

It’s not simply because husband and wife team Louis de Vries and Anna Rosner Blay are such pleasant people, but I also really admire their attitude to their work.

Hybrid publishes quality books on various subjects. Their largest area of specialisation is about things Jewish, particularly the Holocaust. I’ve had a chat with Louis about this. Both Anna and he feel a personal responsibility to keep this atrocity as a matter of public discourse. This has never been more important than now when there are too many haters only too eager to dump this issue into the refuse of history.

Hybrid’s latest Holocaust-related publication is The Unsung Family Hero by Paul Gardner, which is to be launched in Melbourne next month.

At this point it’s relevant to declare that I know Paul Gardner, having worked with him on Jewish communal matters. If I didn’t mention that, I’m sure he would, being the sort of man he is. Though Paul describes himself in his book as an “academic pedant”, I prefer the term Yekke, an Israeli word that refers to German Jews with high standards of precision, propriety and perfection. So I disclose our professional relationship, firstly because it’s only right that a reviewer does so, but perhaps more importantly because I think that only a Yekke could have written The Unsung Family Hero, as I’ll elaborate on later.

The subject of this book is the short yet eventful life of Gerhard Badrian, Paul Gardner’s relative on his mother’s side. The book’s full title is ominous and indeed its first chapter deals with Badrian’s death. The author then takes the reader back to Badrian’s birth and the narrative proper commences.

Badrian was born into a modest, quite conventional German Jewish family at the beginning of the last century, one of those few times and places when it was a relatively good time to be a Jew. As most readers will know, however, this was not destined to last.

As World War 1 raged, the then ten-year old Gerhard was relocated to a Jewish family in the neutral Netherlands where he stayed for the duration of hostilities. By the time he returned to a defeated and tumultuous Germany, young Gerhard Badrian had already set his sights on a career as a photographer, a profession in which he was to excel. But as he entered early adulthood, Germany was already rocking in political, social and economic turmoil. His fellow Germans soon turned to their perceived saviour, Adolf Hitler and in a very short time the Jewish experience in Germany turned from heaven to hell. The writing on the wall was obvious: a Swastika and the words “Juden raus”.

The familiar Jewish experience of dislocation played itself out once more. Badrian repacked his bags and again sought refuge. A short stint in Brazil didn’t work out, so once again he moved to The Netherlands where he was joined by other family members. But the Reich was on the march and as World War 11 moved into 1940, the Germans ignored Dutch neutrality; Nazi occupation began; and persecution of Jews quickly followed.

It was then that Gerhard Badrian made the momentous and courageous decision to create a new identity and join the Dutch Resistance. With practical professional skills, he initially worked with a group that produced new identities for persons at risk. Eventually his abilities grew, as did his determination, resourcefulness and courage. This led him to impersonate Gestapo personnel and personally save many of its prisoners from certain death. Living on the run with multiple identities for three long years, this ‘ordinary’ man did extraordinary things until a terrible betrayal led to his death in an SS ambush.

This narrative part of the book, derived from meticulous research and “rational reconstruction”, reads like a Le Carre thriller on speed. Paul Gardner structures this section of The Unsung Family Hero extremely well, telling a coherent and compelling story in 93 brief chapters that move at a cracking pace.

But there’s much more to The Unsung Family Hero, namely a six-chapter Epilogue of almost 100 pages where the Yekke in Gardner nudges the thriller writer out of the author’s seat. And this actually complements the preceding narrative, providing a quite different, yet similarly absorbing read.

What the Epilogue provides is nuance, insight and heft to Gardner’s tale. I for one have often finished a book or a movie and wanted to know more about its creator’s vision and craft. Here’s an example of the author’s elucidation: “The Unsung Family Hero contains a mixture of styles. The main characters are real people… [drawn from witnesses’ recollections or documented material]. Many other characters are fictional, introduced to tell the story in a narrative style.” And then Gardner lists the real people. As one of his readers I found this meaningful, honest and helpful.

There is much more in this vein. I loved chapter 2 of the Epilogue, The story behind the story where Gardner poses and then answers questions such as: “What prompted this book?”; “Why write this mixture of known and imagined material?”; “What is Gardner’s personal relationship to his book?” It’s like a primer for an aspiring author.

There is much, much more to be gleaned from the subsequent Epilogue chapters, particularly 5. Notes, which provides fascinating additional material on various chapters of the tale, which is extremely informative.

Enough said: as I’m sure you can tell, dear reader, I highly recommend that you read The Unsung Family Hero. It’s a powerful, absorbing story of a man of flesh and blood who was an authentic hero.  Gerhard Badrian wasn’t ‘merely’ a man who saved many lives. His actions are a forceful refutation of those who have spoken about Jews as lambs who went to the slaughter during World War 11. Paul Gardner has written a fine piece of work which is a valuable addition to the field of Holocaust literature. I look forward to the cinematic version, which I would think is inevitable.

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