Victor Ripp, an author and retired professor of comparative literature now living in Princeton, has a new book just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, “Hell’s Traces — One Murder, Two Families, Thirty-Five Holocaust Memorials.” When I finished reading “Hell’s Traces” a few weeks ago I put it down and issued a stern warning to myself: “Do not ever compare anyone at any time to Adolf Hitler.”
The murder referred to in the book’s title was that of Alexandre Ripp, the author’s cousin who at the age of three was snatched up by the Nazis in German-occupied Paris in 1942. Alexandre’s father had gone into hiding on the assumption that the Nazis were only rounding up able-bodied men. Alexandre, his mother, and grandmother remained in their apartment. Then French soldiers — under orders from their German commanders — came knocking at their door on July 16, 1942. After detention in a holding camp in Drancy, Alexandre was taken by bus on September 2 at 6 a.m. to a railroad terminal outside Paris. By then probably separated from both his mother and grandmother, Alexandre was herded onto a train known as Convoy 27. On September 4 the train arrived at its final destination, Auschwitz. According to documents that were part of the Nazis’ meticulous records, the fate of Alexandre and the 1,015 other Jews on the crowded train was quickly sealed: “Gassed immediately.”
That was Alexandre’s all-too-brief life story. His first cousin, Victor Ripp, born within a year of Alexandre, was fortunate enough to be part of a family that managed to find its way out of France in early 1941 and into a new life in America. As reported in the April issue of U.S. 1’s sister paper, the Princeton Echo, Victor Ripp, his older brother, and parents made their way to the U.S. on the Portuguese ocean liner, the Serpa Pinto. The family ended up on the upper west side of Manhattan (not so chic then), where his father ran a variety of small businesses and his mother, who had never had to work outside the home in the old country, took a job at a chocolate factory.
Victor Ripp enrolled at the Bronx High School of Science, where he played basketball on a team that competed in the shadows of the school’s academic achievements. At Cornell he majored in comparative literature and then earned his Ph.D. in Slavic languages at Columbia, taught at Cornell and University of Virginia, and moved to New Jersey in 1982, when his wife, Nancy Kanach, began work at Princeton University. She is now the dean of international programs.
Ripp has written three other nonfiction books — “Turgenev’s Russia,” “Pizza in Pushkin Square,” and “Moscow to Main Street” — and also published fiction in the Antioch Review and Ontario Review. He has also taught in Princeton’s academic writing program. And along the way he never forgot his lost cousin.
The genesis for Ripp’s new book, which he will discuss at Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, on Tuesday, April 25, at 6 p.m., was a visit he made in 2013 to Berlin’s Jewish Museum to see an exhibit called Berlin Transit, about the influx of Russian Jews into Berlin in the 1920s. “The Kahans, my family on my mother’s side,” Ripp writes in his book, “had been a wealthy and philanthropically active emigre family in that city, which made them a good exemplar of the exhibit’s theme. Two rooms were devoted to the Kahans.”
The exhibit and the rest of the museum caused Ripp to come to a personal observation:
“The Kahan family in Berlin, several generations’ worth, numbered some 30 people, and without exception they escaped the Final Solution. When Hitler came to power, most moved to Palestine; others went westward, eventually to the United States. They had found their way through the first corridor, but my cousin Alexandre had been forced into the second. His mother, both grandmothers, three granduncles, a grandaunt, and three of his cousins also died in the Holocaust. And while the Kahans got a commemorative exhibit, the Ripps who were killed by the Nazis didn’t even have a grave.”
How Victor Ripp and his cousin ended up in such different places is a puzzle that probably never will be solved. Ripp speculates that the Kahan side of the family may have had a distance from its German surroundings that his cousin Alexandre’s family did not. The Kahans “were in the life of Germany but not of the life. And that turned out to be just the right perspective from which to see how events were unfolding. They had a feel for the society in which they lived” — a feel that the cousin’s family “fatally lacked.”
It was not an easy environment to decipher. Ripp himself was confused when he walked into the midst of one of the Holocaust memorials in a Bavarian quarter of Berlin. Quoting from his book:
“As I turned a corner, I noticed a two-by-three-foot sign affixed to a lamppost at a height of 15 feet or so. I almost missed it, it was so unobtrusive. On one side there was a pictogram of a chalked hopscotch game. On the reverse side, a line of text. Arischen und nichtarischen Kindern wird das Spielen miteinander untersagt (Aryan and non-Aryan children are forbidden from playing together). On the next street, another sign, this one with a pictogram of swimming trunks. On the reverse side again some text: Jews can no longer use Berlin pools. On the alert now, I noticed the signs more frequently. A pictogram of a chessboard and the sentence Jews are not permitted in the National Chess Association. A pictogram of a piece of music notation and the sentence Jews are expelled from all choral groups.
“This was, I too slowly realized, the memorial I had come to see. If it was odd to find a memorial dispersed throughout a neighborhood instead of standing in one spot, the arrangement nevertheless made sense. The intervals between the signs mirrored the step-by-step corruption of a nation’s soul that culminated in the view that murdering Jews was acceptable.”
Ripp met up with the designers of this memorial. Their goal was to show the gradual tightening of the Nazi noose on its target. As Ripp quoted them in the book: “We wanted to make visible the conditions which led in an insidiously logical way to the destruction of the Jewish inhabitants.”
In the book Ripp raises a troubling question. “Yes, the Nazis had gone about their nasty business with a cold logic, tightening the vise by degrees. But what, I wondered, about the other term in the equation? Not the victimizers but the victims. Darkness fell gradually — was it so hard to see that the clock was ticking and that it soon would be too late?”
Around the world today you will hear of proposals to not allow women to wear burkas in public places, or attempts made to limit immigrants from particular countries and to register those who do come in, of peaceful protesters written off as paid demonstrators. While it’s always prudent to remember the past, I still cling to my original warning: Only a great fool would make any comparison to Adolf Hitler.