“The German Refugee,” one of the few first-person stories in the Malamud canon, illustrates the familiar theme of brotherhood. The narrator, Martin Goldberg, relates his attempts to teach English to a German refugee, Oskar Gassner, who is to give a lecture in English about American poet Walt Whitman’s relationship to certain German poets.
Two distinct stories emerge: Oskar’s anguish and his failure to learn English, as well as the irony of the narrator’s failure to understand why. While Martin teaches Oskar English, the German army begins its summer push of 1939. What the narrator fails to realize is his student’s deep involvement with his former country’s fate and that of his non-Jewish wife, whom he left there.
Malamud emphasizes the irony through the references to Whitman. Oskar ends up teaching the important lesson when he declares about the poet that “it wasn’t the love of death they [German poets] had got from Whitman . . . but it was most of all his feeling for Brudermensch, his humanity.” When Oskar successfully delivers his speech, the narrator feels only a sense of pride at what he taught the refugee, not the bonds of Brudermensch, that have developed between them. When Oskar commits suicide, the narrator never sees that he is partially responsible.