Novel based on Jew 'catcher' Stella Kübler stirs controversy

It tells the fictionalized true story of a woman who gave up her fellow Jews to the Nazis. Critics have condemned the novel Stella by Takis Würger, published this week in Germany, as "Holocaust kitsch."

"We have a new literature debate," wrote Hannah Lühmann of the Die Welt newspaper when reflecting on the bombshell publication of Stella, a novel by journalist, author and war correspondent Takis Würger. 

Published by the prestigious Hanser Verlag on January 11, Stella fictionalizes the true story of Jewess Stella Kübler (née Goldschlag), who as a so-called "catcher" betrayed other Jews gone underground to the Gestapo.

'Nazi story for dummies?'

Würger's second novel was inspired by the award-winning journalist's fascination for the subject. But while it's too early to judge the success of this study of a character who is already a book subject — for example, Peter Wyden's Stella: One Woman's True Tale of Evil, Betrayal, and Survival in Hitler's Germany — the vehement response to the novel by German critics has been striking.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung reviewer wrote on January 11 that Stella is "an outrage, an insult and a real offense." Moreover, the work was described as "the symbol of an industry that seems to have lost any ethical or aesthetic scale if it wants to sell such a book as a valuable contribution to the memory of the Shoah."

The critic further accused the author of having written the novel "without any awareness of the problem of literature, literacy and history."

A reviewer for Die Zeit was equally scathing. "An abomination in children's book style: Takis Würger writes in Stella about a Jewish woman who becomes an accomplice in the Nazi era. It's a novel full of narrative clichés." Public radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk described it as "Holocaust kitsch" and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked: "Why this Nazi story for dummies?"

Stella Kübler faced trial in in 1957 for having delivered as many as 44 Jewish people to the Gestapo, with most deported to concentration camps. She did not have to serve her 10-year sentence due to time already spent in a Russian prison

Publishers weigh in

Florian Kessler, cultural journalist and editor at Hanser Verlag, deflected the criticism on social media. In a detailed Facebook post, he responded, among other things, to the allegation by the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the novel would instrumentalize the Holocaust.

"One can only answer: this discussion … rightly pervades the literature since '45," he wrote of a debate that has raged around so-called Holocaust literature in the postwar period. 

Kessler noted that Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader, which became a hit Hollywood film, was also accused in the 1990s of mixing clichés and Holocaust instrumentalization. Shortly thereafter, he read the book at school in class.

A good reason to smile: All German newspapers are taking about Takis Würger's book

"We also talked about such allegations against it, and through the book's ambivalences and problems, we had very important and formative discussions about the Nazi period in my entire school years," he wrote.

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Let the public decide

Hannah Lühman of Die Welt was also surprised by the ferocity of the critical slating. But while she defended the novel as a whole, she added that many questions of course remain regarding, for example, "the choice of historical material; this extreme story of a Jewish woman who has betrayed hundreds of Jews to the Gestapo; what fantasies it may satisfy among non-Jewish Germans reading it."

But she refused, according to Lühmann in his Facebook post, "to join in this scandal."

It remains to be seen how the reading public will respond to Stella. Interest has been high in Germany, with the book launch and author reading in Hamburg on Monday sold out weeks in advance.

And the novel has already garnered international attention: So far, nine foreign licenses have been sold, with the book set to be published in English, French, Spanish and Chinese, among others.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

The Holocaust Memorial

A huge field of stelae in the center of the German capital was designed by New York architect Peter Eisenmann. The almost 3,000 stone blocks commemorate the six million Jewish people from all over Europe who were murdered by the National Socialists.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

The "Stumbling Stones"

Designed by German artist Gunther Demnig, these brass plates are very small — only 10 by 10 centimeters (3.9 x 3.9 inches). The stumbling stones mark the homes and offices from which people were deported by the Nazis. More than 7,000 of them have been placed across Berlin, 70,000 across Europe, and in 2017 the first stones were also laid in outside Europe, in Buenos Aires.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

The Wannsee Conference House

Fifteen high-ranking Nazi officials met in this villa on the Wannsee Lake on January 20, 1942 to discuss the systematic murder of European Jews, which they termed the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question". Today the house is a memorial that informs visitors about the unimaginable dimension of the genocide that was decided here.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

Track 17 Memorial

White roses on track 17 at Grunewald station remember the more than 50,000 Berlin Jews who were sent to their deaths from here. 186 steel plates show the date, destination and number of deportees. The first train went to the Litzmannstadt ghetto (Lodz, Poland) on October 18, 1941; the last train to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on January 5, 1945.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind

Today, the Hackesche Höfe in Berlin Mitte are mentioned in every travel guide. They are a backyard labyrinth in which many Jewish people lived and worked — for example in the brush factory of the German entrepreneur Otto Weidt. During the Nazi era he employed many blind and deaf Jews and saved them from deportation and death. The workshop of the blind is now a museum.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

Fashion Center Hausvogteiplatz

The heart of Berlin's fashion metropolis once beat here. A memorial sign made of high mirrors recalls the Jewish fashion designers and stylists who made clothes for the whole of Europe at Hausvogteiplatz. The National Socialists expropriated the Jewish owners and handed over the fashion stores to Aryan employees. Berlin's fashion center was irretrievably destroyed during the Second World War.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

Memorial at Koppenplatz

Before the Holocaust, 173,000 Jews lived in Berlin; in 1945 there were only 9,000. The monument "Der verlassene Raum" (The Deserted Room) is located in the middle of the Koppenplatz residential area in Berlin's Mitte district. It is a reminder of the Jewish citizens who were taken from their homes without warning and never returned.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

The Jewish Museum

Architect Daniel Libeskind chose a dramatic design: viewed from above, the building looks like a broken Star of David. The Jewish Museum is one of the most visited museums in Berlin, offering an overview of the turbulent centuries of German Jewish history.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

Weissensee Jewish Cemetery

There are still eight remaining Jewish cemeteries in Berlin, the largest of them in the Weissensee district. With over 115,000 graves, it is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Many persecuted Jews hid in the complex premises during the Nazi era. On May 11, 1945, only three days after the end of the Second World War, the first postwar Jewish funeral service was held here.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

The New Synagogue

When the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse was first consecrated in 1866 it was considered the largest and most magnificent synagogue in Germany. The only one of Berlin's 13 synagogues to survive the Kristallnacht pogroms, it later burned down due to Allied bombs. It was reconstructed and opened again in 1995. Since then, the 50-meter-high golden dome once again dominates Berlin's cityscape.