My Own Dear Brother: A Novel

  • By Holly Müller
  • Bloomsbury USA
  • 464 pp.
  • Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
  • October 31, 2016

A young girl takes on Nazi-occupied Austria while searching for an imprisoned friend.

Sometimes a tragedy is so great we have to break it down into pieces to understand it.

And sometimes one of those pieces seems so much more horrific, more graphic, more shameful than the others that it gets thrown into the spotlight while smaller tragedies, embedded as they are in the greater whole, are overlooked.

My Own Dear Brother, a novel about a young girl growing up in Nazi-occupied Austria, breaks apart the tragedy of the Holocaust to examine Aktion T4, Hitler’s program of forced euthanasia, as well as the difficulties experienced by citizens of occupied countries after World War II ended.

Ursula Hildesheim lives in a rural community where village status traditionally meant more than Nazi Party membership and where the war goes largely unnoticed beyond rationing and occasional glimpses of the Russian prisoners in the camp near the center of town.

At 13, Ursula is a shabby outsider, living on the outskirts of town and running wild — lying, stealing, and generally caring for no one but herself and her adored brother, Anton (although sharp-eyed readers might notice that Ursula’s mental view of her brother’s love — “brothers love sisters with hot fury, try to rule them, to keep them” — is not necessarily a healthy one).

One night, however, the local Nazi Party inspector knocks on Ursula’s mother’s door with word that Russian prisoners have escaped. Anton kills one of them, and Ursula’s world is forever upended.

As the Hitler Youth celebrate Anton for his bravery, Ursula’s widowed mother begins an affair with a married man, and Ursula feels both her brother and her mother being pulled away from the previously tight-knit family unit. Anton’s embarrassment with their mother’s behavior unleashes in him a casual cruelty and short temper that Ursula has never seen — or at least been willing to see — before.

When the Hildesheim children visit a nearby frozen stream with Schosi, a mentally challenged boy from the next farm over, Anton throws a kitten into a hole to watch it drown, to the horror of Schosi and Ursula: “She thought of Anton’s face as he’d turned from the hole, his eyes narrower than usual, a small hard smile on his lips…‘You’re not supposed to enjoy it,’” she tells him.

Ursula hopes that this episode is an exception, but Anton’s behavior becomes ever more extreme as she befriends Schosi. Eventually, jealous of their relationship, Anton alerts the local officials to the boy’s mental deficiencies, and Schosi is exiled to a hospital in Vienna where mentally ill and “socially abnormal” children are, under the guise of being treated, killed by poisoning or starvation.

Although the readers get glimpses of Schosi’s point of view before his removal, here the story splits and the reader begins to follow two narratives: the first, that of Ursula and her elderly neighbor, Herr Esterbauer, who search for Schosi; the second, that of Schosi and the horrors he endures at the hospital.

Müller’s strength as a storyteller shines as she details Schosi’s abuse in a gruesome yet not gratuitous manner. It’s difficult to read about how he is submitted to what we today might describe as waterboarding — “Breath left him in a violent stream of shock — the water was icy cold. His lungs were emptied and he opened his mouth. Cold water rushed in and he swallowed instinctively, only for more water to flood in.”

Moments of unexpected kindness, as when Schosi and a friend drape blankets over children who have been left in a cold room to freeze to death, make this story bearable as well as humanizing: These children, whom the Nazi regime sees as the dregs of society, have more compassion than their captors.

Although Ursula and Herr Esterbauer’s story is more exciting than Schosi’s, it is also more farfetched. It seems hard to believe that anyone would attempt to break into a Nazi-controlled hospital, yet this is the best strategy Ursula and the farmer can muster, and the long-term outcome seems to beggar imagination.

As part of this storyline, Müller also seems to be trying to portray an increasingly mature Ursula (one who doesn’t steal or disobey her elders and who thinks of others before herself), but scenes such as one where she kicks Herr Esterbauer to temporarily elude him and another during which she repeatedly refuses to return home despite his pleas make the reader wonder how much she has really grown.

Notwithstanding a difficult anticlimax, the novel’s ending satisfies. Ursula still feels uncertain about her future, but she feels an undercurrent of hope that did not exist before, perhaps because, during the war, she did not have much to wish for beyond survival.

In the end, My Own Dear Brother is a touching chronicle of some of the lesser-known casualties of war and of the resilience of human spirit despite those difficulties.

Mariko Hewer is a born-and-raised Washingtonian whose hobbies include reading, running, and writing. Her favorite food is saag paneer.

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