Opa Nobody

Against the Current, No. 135, July/August 2008

Chloe Tribich

Opa Nobody
By Sonya Huber
University of Nebraska Press, 2008, 280 pages,
$24.95 hardcover.

IN OPA NOBODY, Sonya Huber — an activist struggling to reconcile her politics with the demands of human relationships and the realities of contemporary U.S. life — undertakes an ambitious task: the political nonfiction novel.

Opa is a German nickname for “grandfather.” Part memoir, part political history, part biography and part fiction, Opa Nobody looks for answers to the life of Huber’s opa,  a man remembered by his progeny for neglecting his family in favor of his political organizing, for answers. Thoroughly researched and deeply felt, this book accomplishes much of what it attempts. Ultimately, though, it is limited by the impossibility of its literary form.

Frustrated by the enormous difficulties of radical activism in a time of low social struggle, of sexism within radical organizations in which she works, and of the disappointments of romantic relationships, Huber sets out to uncover the full story of her opa, who died before her birth. His political work in wartime Germany holds the promise of deeper meaning for Huber who hopes to find “a mentor…a friend who understood the challenges of trying to make a new world while keeping a home and family together.”

Scenes depicting milestones of Huber’s own political trajectory are woven into her grandfather’s story. She documents her political transformation from a college activist taken by anarchism to a socialist struggling to balance long-term political work with parental responsibility.

Huber’s unbending political commitments are nothing short of remarkable. At times this commitment takes a physical toll — she was once hospitalized for a simple infection that turned nearly fatal because of her unwillingness to take time to see a doctor. But Huber’s relationship with her work is intensely complex, and she is not a martyr. On the contrary, she is unusually adept at describing the sense of pure joy she derives from her work. She is also painfully aware of the contradictions in the life she has chosen to lead. This book is largely an attempt to resolve them.

A Socialist Inheritance

Huber’s opa was Heina Buschman, a socialist leader who dedicated himself to politics as a schoolboy and who continued to organize even after the left had been crushed by National Socialism. Cultivated in politics by his own parents — Heina’s father was a tubercular mineworker who raised his sons to sit through all-night meetings and sell SPD (Socialist Party) newspapers, and his mother was a firebrand who ran as an opposition candidate for local office — Heina took quickly to this work.

Huber evokes the feverish climate of Germany following World War I as the incipient socialist revolution is crushed, imagining that the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg by the SPD government was what prompted Heina to question the integrity of his father’s party and join the independent socialist youth. These scenes — intimate depictions of the volatility and political possibilities of inter-war Germany — comprise some of the book’s more gripping moments.

This is an intricately and lovingly researched work. Huber sifts through a great deal of personal and historical material in the United States and Germany, pushing her own relatives to remember scenes from photographs and recall forgotten conversations. She unearths Heina’s personal folders from dusty shelves, arranging news clippings in chronological order to chart internal party battles and strategic disagreements among the left.

Not all of Huber’s family members maintained socialist politics throughout the war. Huber’s great uncle Jupp began adolescence selling SPD papers alongside his brother but eventually joined the Waffen-SS. Huber is never able to identify the precise circumstances of this decision. But here more than at any other point, she reflects on the always-present tensions between the historical and fictional elements of her book.

I have invented Jupp, invented Jurgen, [both names for Sonya’s grandfather’s brother] and invented a divided consciousness. I imagine that part of Jupp innocently wanted to do good or to understand what “good” still meant. This might be incredible naiveté on my part, the only way I can connect to this fiction, this version of Jupp, partially to explore how the notion of individual virtue and purity can paradoxically allow a person to function within and support an evil system.

Rather than expand on these thoughts or leave them as they are, Huber proceeds to create the character of a deeply conflicted Nazi who joins the SS to protect his family. She imagines that Jupp tries to ameliorate his guilt by secretly distributing warm socks to Jews waiting to be shipped to the Riga Ghetto.

This attempt to blend fiction with political history doesn’t work. Rather than give the reader the benefits of both Huber’s imagination and historical fact, we are left with passages such as this one, describing the reactions of her grandfather and his brother to their father’s WWI conscription:

“Heina might have clipped a map of the western front from the newspaper and tacked it on the wall near his bed. I imagine dark-eyes elfish Jupp, ten years old, standing beneath the map and asking, “Where is pa now?” as if Heina could look into the map like a crystal ball.”

Had Huber situated these sections squarely in the realm of fiction, she would have obviated the need for disclaimers — such as “Heina might have…” or “I imagine…” — that put insurmountable distance between the reader and subject. She also would have avoided the triteness that results from fiction constrained by fact.

Another option would have been to situate the story squarely in the realm of personal memoir and relate Heina’s story solely through Huber’s own experience of uncovering the archival materials. As it stands, Opa Nobody sets itself up to accomplish more than any one book can.

Still, this is worthwhile and useful work. There’s plenty to learn from its accessible and accurate portrayal of a leftist German family before and during World War II. Its evocation of the sense of revolutionary possibility and political tumult is especially effective — I wish I had read this alongside of the conventional European history textbooks in high school.

Ultimately Opa Nobody stands firm in the sincerity of its mission. It reminds us that now more than ever, we need political histories that feed both our politics and our hearts.  

ATC 135, July-August 2008