Walter Kempowski’s writing career began on a winter evening in 1950, nineteen years before he published his first novel. Then 21, he was serving time for espionage in an East German prison at Bautzen. For two years, he had passed the time by going from bunk to bunk and plying his fellow prisoners with questions about their lives. He met a glassblower from the Vogtland, a businessman who had worked in Persia, a bank president. He discovered Auschwitz survivors sleeping above former camp commandants, Americans alongside Finns and Brits, and a Frenchman who had been stationed at Dien Bien Phu. One evening, as Kempowski trudged through the yard for his nightly exercise, he found himself thinking how painful it was that the conversations going on throughout the prison at that moment should be lost, like the choir of voices swirling around the Tower of Babel. The guard on duty told Kempowski to pay attention. “Those are your comrades in the cells,” he said. “They’re telling you something.”
By the time of his death in 2007, Kempowski had earned an international reputation as Germany’s premier chronicler—a quirky old uncle spending time in his attic, surrounded by faded photographs and dusty junk. Anyone Kempowski came across could expect to be peppered with questions about their wartime memories, the subject of their dissertation, their first car. Some enthusiastic readers would drive to his rural home in Nartum, Lower Saxony, to recite their family stories into his tape recorder. These interviews would serve as the basis for many of his novels and documentary works, but they were more than just source material: Kempowski possessed an inexhaustible curiosity about the lives of others.
He also possessed an impish wit and took great pleasure in raking the muck. In interviews, he liked to take aim at his more successful contemporaries, at West Germany’s political class and, above all, at himself. Kempowski gave a frank interview to Die Weltwoche a few months before he died of intestinal cancer. When the interviewer remarked to him that he had lived “a German life,” Kempowski replied, with typical dryness, that his interlocutor was right to use the past tense.
That life had been a hard one. As a child in Rostock, a city on the Baltic Sea, Kempowski had resisted his duties for the local chapter of the Hitler Youth, playing the truant so brazenly that he was almost sent to a prison camp. (The troop leader happened to know his father, and so his name was struck from the list.) Kempowski’s father, a Wehrmacht soldier, was killed during the occupation of Rostock by the Soviet Union, sparking a lifelong hatred of the USSR and its East German satellite in his two sons. At the end of the war, the Kempowski brothers furnished the Allies with documents showing that Russian forces were stripping Rostock of more industrial equipment than had been sanctioned by the West. They were arrested by the Soviet authorities and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. The family’s shipping business was liquidated, their apartment given away, and their possessions taken and sold. For failing to report their activities, their elderly mother was sentenced to ten years of hard labor.
Kempowski’s eight years at Bautzen—his sentence was commuted in 1955—were the most important of his life. He told his biographer, Dirk Hempel, that the first several were spent struggling with the knowledge of what he had done to his mother. He tried to kill himself. He re-read the twelve books in the prison library and tramped through the darkness during exercise hour. As time passed and his despair began to wane, Kempowski decided to fashion a life for himself as best he could. He learned French and became director of the prison choir. He also cultivated a friendship with the chaplain that would endure for decades. Their long conversations about guilt and atonement led Kempowski to accept his sentence as punishment for the ruin he had brought on his family, as well as for what Germany had wrought during the war. Restitution could only be achieved by facing the horrors head-on: by listening to and recording answers. At his bunk, Kempowski began writing an epic poem about an outbreak of plague in a medieval town; when no one was looking, he would scribble verses onto bits of toilet paper pilfered from the latrines.