Gabriele Tergit, ‘Effingers’

Sandra Lipner is working on a historical research project into German-Jewish identity, family histories, and the Holocaust. As a History teacher originally from Germany, she was asked to talk to her students about her family’s history during the Nazi period. Hidden under decades of silence, she found Jewish roots, a history of assimilation, intermarriage and conversions, a grandfather in the Wehrmacht and a great-grandfather who steered the family and his business successfully through the First World War. Her work on the family’s experiences during the Second World War is due to be published by the city archive of Freiburg, and Sandra is preparing to dive even more deeply into these topics in the new year. 

These views are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wiener Holocaust Library.

Gabriele Tergit’s novel Effingers (Frankfurt: Schöffling & Co, 2019) is the story of two Jewish families connected by marriage, the traditional Effingers from rural south Germany and the cosmopolitan Goldschmidts from Berlin. Devout patriarch Mathias Effinger is a respected watchmaker in the fictitious town of Kragsheim, whose daily routine is structured around his prayers, his work, family time and meeting his Jewish and non-Jewish neighbours in one of the many local pubs. His unselfconscious religiosity provides the perfect foil for the individualism and fast pace of life in the capital, and across the 885 pages of her book, Tergit shows how the increasing secularisation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries eventually also reaches provincial Kragsheim. Despite their rejection of religion, Mathias’ children internalise his creed of hard work and success, and the book follows their efforts to get ahead in the world with the help of their familial networks. 

‘Effingers’ is the name of the car company founded by Mathias’ third son Paul, one of the main protagonists, whose nostalgia for the past is at odds with his personal ambitions and ardent belief in progress. Paul realises his dream of founding a factory in Berlin and grows it into one of the world’s leading car businesses, successfully navigating the challenges of hyperinflation and the Great Depression until he loses everything in the course of a Nazi plot against him in 1933.

Tergit places her characters with the skill and foresight of a chess-player so that they present a range of perspectives on important historical questions which she portrays as current affairs. Paul’s younger sister Helene, for example, marries a shopkeeper from a neighbouring town, and together the couple founds the first and only department store in the area, making them a target for local Nazi antisemitic agitation in the 1930s. Their older brother Karl, married to the Goldschmidt heiress Annette, becomes Paul’s business partner and adds flair and flamboyance to his enterprise. Karl, Annette, and their oldest son James embody the extravagant hedonism of Berlin during the Weimar years, attracting covetous stares and accusations of decadence and depravity not only from competitors and budding Nazis but also from members of their own family. The strongest criticism comes from their ascetic daughter Marianne, a wonderfully opinionated bluestocking and social progressive, who works tirelessly to improve the lives of Berlin’s working-class families until she loses her ministerial position in the 1930s because of her Jewish roots and becomes a passionate Zionist. The oldest Effinger son Ben adds an international dimension to the story, seeking wealth and success in Britain in the 1870s.

While the Effingers’ story is mostly one of upward social mobility, the Goldschmidt heirs experience the destructive power of 20thcentury history throughout the novel. Attempting to maintain the family’s status quo of the Gründerjahre, years of economic and cultural upturn in the context of German unification in 1871, they are hit by world events such as the Great War, the Russian Revolution, hyperinflation, the currency reform of 1924, and ultimately Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933. 

Tergit uses a lot of autobiographical material in this family saga, and the closing chapters of the book show many parallels with her life. After the SA attacked her apartment in 1933, Tergit fled Germany via Prague, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv and settled in London from 1938. Faced with a similar level of threat, her protagonists follow in her footsteps, some escaping to Czechoslovakia and some to British-Mandate Palestine. Paul, staunchly patriotic and unable to imagine what lies ahead, refuses to leave Germany until it is too late. Even though the Holocaust forms no more than an endnote to the book, its shadow is palpable throughout.

Tergit writes as both novelist and historian. Her protagonists are complex and so incredibly human that the book reads like a family biography written by a close friend, rather than a piece of fiction based on the author’s imagination. Tergit did write from experience: she was born in 1894 as Elise Hirschmann in Berlin and grew up in the world she describes. Her grandparents were practising Jews from southern Germany, and her upbringing gave her an intimate knowledge of Mathias Effinger’s world. According to her biographer Nicole Henneberg, the three houses featured in the book resemble her and her husband’s childhood homes. Only the fact that her protagonists’ politics, professions, and personalities are so expertly nuanced as to contrast with each other in a panoply of responses to historical currents and affairs suggests that the book is a work of fiction. Tergit’s attention to detail as a writer is astounding and allows her readers to immerse themselves in a world that no longer exists. By chronicling the lives of the two interlinked families across three generations and 70 years, and by including detailed descriptions of furniture, dress, and food, Tergit creates a panorama of a milieu that ceased to exist with the Holocaust. As a result, Effingers will be of interest to everyone who enjoys good fiction, cultural historians and readers with German-Jewish roots.

Effingers was first published in 1951. Finding a publisher for the novel in post-war Germany was hard, selling the book turned out to be even harder. Only 30 bookshops agreed to take it on, and the first edition sold a meager 2000 copies, yet Tergit remained convinced that this was an important book. While working on the novel, she wrote to a colleague: “It is my wish that every German Jew says, ‘Yes, that’s how we were, that’s how we lived from 1878 to 1939’, and that they give it to their children so that they may know what it was like.”

The new edition of the book published in 2019 has made Tergit’s wish for a larger audience come true. Effingers received highly favourable reviews in all major German papers. The Süddeutsche Zeitung’s literary critic Jens Bisky commented,‘There is no other novel that rescues so successfully in literary form the world of Jewish Berliners and the Berlin that has perished’, and in Die Zeit Juliane Liebert compared Effingers to the poetry of the psalms: both make the reader’s heart leap, she claimed, whether one is religious or not. A Dutch translation is now underway and the film rights to the book are optioned; my hope is that 2020 will finally see the publication of this masterpiece in English.

Suggested further reading:

Modernity and German-Jewish Identity in Gabriele Tergit’s ‘Effingers’, an article by Professor emerita Elizabeth Boa. Published in the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook of 2018. 

The Wiener Holocaust Library holds a number of books and documents about Jewish life in the late Imperial and Weimar periods, some of which are listed below: 

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Jews; Interwar; Identity; World War One; World War Two; Judaism; Jewish history