Berlin, 1933, Hitler’s rise to power. So starts the scene in Australian Author Anna Funder’s first novel, All That I Am. Though fictional, it is based on the lives and movements of real people of the time, centred around the poet and playwright Ernst Toller and his political cohort, the members of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, the main (though illegal) counterpart to the Nazi party in 1931-1945. Ernst tells his tale to Clara, dictating an addendum to his autobiography I Was A German, mainly in the form of anecdotes about Dora, amanuensis and lover through those war years.
The other half of the tale comes from the aging Ruth Becker, Dora’s cousin and interested bystander in the events surrounding Toller. From the vantage point of sunny Bondi in Sydney, 70 years later, Ruth receives the manuscript of Toller’s Dora chapters and reminisces on the past. In so doing, Anna Funder creates a reasonable account of how life would have been for the politically active literary elite, who became exiles and refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. These exiles banded together in England, Switzerland, and other parts of Europe, trying to maintain connections across the borders to ensure that their ideologies were protected and promoted to the local people and also back “home” in Germany.
It was a time of great, though quiet, efforts as these political refugees were forced to maintain a low profile in their adopted countries or else be sent back to Germany – and more often than not, into concentration camps. (This is before Hitler declared Jews to be the enemy, and was simply imprisoning anyone who disagreed with him).
The novel is detailed, entrancing, and – for one who does not read a lot of history books – eye-opening. By setting this as a novel, Anna Funder has been able to portray the emotional atmosphere of the times in a vivid manner, not sparing us from the joys and the unutterable sorrows that the refugees are experiencing.
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