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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
by Sarah Cohen-Scali
Age Range: 14+
"I will be blessed by the Germanic gods and seen as the first born of the master race. The Aryan race that will henceforth rule the world".
Max is a powerful, shockingly evocative novel set in Nazi Germany. Max's mother is part of the Lebensborn programme (The Fountain of Life), to create the perfect baby with pure Aryan blood. Matched with a suitable partner baby Max arrives. He is the perfect prototype with the correct skull measurements, blond hair and blue eyes.
Max narrates the story beginning from inside his mother's womb taking the reader on a journey from his conception, birth on 19 April 1936, and the different stages of his life until the end of the war in 1946. Max tells us that his baptismal name is Korad von Kebnersol, (although his mother calls him Max), and he is truly considered a special child because he has been baptised by the Führer himself (BBFH as Max refers to it).
Max does not have time to form an attachment with his mother because once her job is done she is no longer part of his life. His early years are spent in the Steinhöring home near Munich which is run by Dr Gregor Ebner. From the moment he is born he is indoctrinated to follow 'the programme', to become the perfect Nazi. He is taught to endure pain and be brave at all costs, raised in an ideology driven by hatred and ruled by fear.
When Max meets Lukas, who is not what he seems, he must fight to untangle the truth from the lie. Is Lukas able to engender an element of doubt in Max's mind so that he begins to question his beliefs?
Deeply disturbing and challenging, Max by French writer Sarah Cohen-Scali, eloquently translated by Penny Hueston, bravely tackles a subject that has been little written about, which she acknowledges in the author's notes at the back of the book, and whose consequences are still being felt today by children of the Lebensborn programme, many of whom are locked in silent shame. It is believed that up to 100,000 children may have been stolen from Poland alone, but there were many more taken from the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, some of the Balkan states, Ukraine, Russia and Norway too.
Cohen-Scali says at the beginning of the book that she hopes the reader "will be able to feel indulgent towards Max's flaws and that you will love him, defend him and adopt this orphan of evil".
The unspeakable horrors of the Lebensborn programme is meticulously documented through the eyes of the protagonist 'Max' and Cohen-Scali certainly doesn't spare us any of the horrors related by a narrator who is completely immune because he knows no different. The eugenics plan was devised in 1935 and is laid bare, from the special 'breeding clinics' – where pure German SS Officers were matched with suitable German women, each of whom would have passed the racial purity test and their family lineage traced back at least three generations – to the fate of any 'imperfect child' who don't fit the criteria and, who are in Max's words, 'purified' (euthanased) or 'relocated' – sent to the infamous the children's clinic at the Steinhof Institute in Vienna as part of the 'Merciful Death' programme where research and experimentation is carried out to establish ways in which congenital abnormalities are eradicated.
The four-year-old Max tells us of the 'special mission' he is used for in Poznan, Poland: to select and kidnap Polish children with Aryan qualities in order to Germanise them at 'Kalish' (an SS Gaukinder Home that became the school for stolen children. The children Max helps to coerce into the lair of the terrible 'Brown Sisters', has terrible consequences in the selection process at the railway station where there are two trains – one destined for Kalish and the other to Auschwitz.
Despite feeling revulsion the reader can't help but feel sympathy for Max and what he has been made to be. By the time the war ended he was ten-years-old with a chance to have a different life, although any child subjected to such indoctrination would bear the scars for the rest of their life.
What is perhaps rather unpalatable is that Max Sollmann, director of the Steinhoring and SS-Oberführer Gregor Ebner, who are based on real-life characters, were tried in 1947/8 with their accomplices at the Nuremberg trials, but the Allied military tribunal did not uphold the "criminal nature" of the Lebensborn programme so they were released after the trial.
Max has received five French book awards which are richly deserved. It is a true masterpiece – a historical novel at its best; a story told comprehensively and eloquently, one that needs to be heard and giving a voice to all those children who suffered under this heinous Nazi scheme.