Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1489
Gesine Cresspahl (gay-ZEE-neh KREHS-pahl), who was born in 1933 in the province of Mecklenburg, Germany. She immigrated to New York in 1961 and has worked in a bank there since 1964. She lives in a modest apartment with her daughter, Marie, with whom she conducts frank conversations about her own and her parents’ lives. Her thoughts are committed to a diary that extends from August, 1967, to August, 1968, and that mingles the present with the past. From 1939 to 1945, she underwent the normal education of a German child under the Nazis. After 1945, she spent more than three years in the Russian zone of postwar Germany, where she studied diligently after the Russians arrested her father. She learned to behave cautiously but nevertheless clashed with a malicious bureaucracy. From Halle University, in East Germany, she fled to West Germany, where Marie was born. The child’s father, Jakob, an East German railway official, was killed before they could be married, and Gesine, resolving to stay unmarried, emigrated. In New York, unhappy memories of her German past make her an impassioned opponent of the Vietnam War and of racial prejudice. For all her enlightened views, she spares no expense in sending Marie to a Catholic private school to avoid the squalor of public education. She finds consolation in the honest, old-fashioned truthfulness of The New York Times (which she calls “Auntie”). The paper is full of reports of the Vietnam War and of violence in American cities (including the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.). Such reports confirm Gesine’s dislike of violence, but she is growing attached to New York, influenced by Marie’s enthusiasm. She discusses her life and recent German history with a highly critical Marie. She is making good progress in her bank career. She rejects D. E.’s offers of marriage and earns the approbation of her unpleasant boss. She is learning Czech to add to her other languages, with a view to working in Prague.
Marie Cresspahl, the daughter of Gesine, born in July, 1957, in West Germany and brought to New York in 1961. At first, she hates the city, but now she would not live anywhere else and even dislikes speaking German or going to foreign restaurants. She wears a Vietnam War button in her conservative school and looks after a black girl from a nearby slum who is enrolled in the school as a token of integration. She finds the task onerous and takes part in a wild Halloween party to avoid having to invite the girl home. Enlightened principles prevail, so that she and Gesine do take the girl in for a short period. Marie’s teachers are disturbed by her vehement opposition to the Vietnam War, which leads her to address an inopportune and gravely naïve question on the matter to the president of Gesine’s bank. A polite child, she is highly critical of Gesine’s and Germany’s past.
Heinrich Cresspahl (HIN-rihkh), Gesine’s father, who was born in 1888. He was a cabinetmaker in Jerichow, Mecklenburg, and, for a time, the manager of a workshop in Richmond, near London. He met his future wife, Lisbeth, on a trip to Mecklenburg. They settled in Jerichow when Gesine was born in 1933, in a Germany celebrating Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He joined the Nazi Party although he disliked the regime and had, while in England, helped German refugees. His behavior at times appeared unorthodox: He consorted with a Jewish veterinarian and, after his wife’s death in 1938, took an extended tour of Denmark and England, where he had an illegitimate child. During the war, he spied for the British, reporting aircraft movements. He became mayor of Jerichow for a time during the British and Russian occupations. He fell foul of the Russian authorities, was arrested, and returned broken in health. He died in 1962. There is talk of naming a street in his honor.
Dietrich Erichson (D. E.)
Dietrich Erichson (D. E.) (DEE-trikh EH-rikh-zohn), who was born in 1928, the son of a baker in Mecklenburg, Germany. He is now a professor of physics and chemistry in the United States and does secret work for the U.S. Air Force. He arrived in the United States in 1960, after defying the East German authorities, and met Gesine in a refugee camp. A skilled technician and a mediocre lecturer, he lives with his mother in a former farmhouse in New Jersey, where Gesine and Marie visit him. He no longer regards his German past as reality. He wishes to marry Gesine and is liked by Marie. He finally gives up his courtship and is killed in a plane crash in the course of duty.
Lisbeth Papenbrock Cresspahl
Lisbeth Papenbrock Cresspahl (PAH-pehn-brok), Gesine’s mother. She was from a well-to-do Mecklenburg family with aristocratic pretensions. She followed Heinrich to England and was eager to please him. After their marriage, however, she found herself unable to settle down or to discuss her difficulties. She returned to Jerichow for the birth of her child, and Heinrich eventually joined her permanently. Uneasy in her conscience, she attempted suicide by drowning and even seemed willing to let Gesine drown in a barrel (her father rescued her, saying nothing). Lisbeth died in mysterious circumstances in a fire in 1938.
Hilde Papenbrock Paepke
Hilde Papenbrock Paepke (HIHL-deh PAH-pehn-brok PAYP-keh), Lisbeth’s sister. She married a shiftless lawyer who squandered her dowry. Her three children were Gesine’s favorite cousins, and Heinrich liked her. Although she was no friend to the Nazis, she died with her children while fleeing from the advancing Russians in 1945.
Louise Papenbrock, Lisbeth’s mother. Fanatically religious (she demanded more fervor in the pastor’s sermons), she ruled her family. When Lisbeth returned to Jerichow, she was ready to receive her, excluding Heinrich.
Albert Papenbrock, Lisbeth’s father, a shrewd businessman with aristocratic claims he could not sustain. He refused to help his son Horst with his Nazi stormtroopers and unexpectedly welcomed Heinrich as a son-in-law.
Horst Papenbrock, Lisbeth’s brother, born in 1900. After his brother Robert, a violent man, vanished in 1914, he had hopes of inheriting his father’s estate. He was a loyal member of the local Nazi Party and was secretly engaged to another member. According to rumor, he had a hand in local atrocities. He tried unsuccessfully to display authority as manager of his father’s granary. His father sent him to Brazil to look for his brother and to get him out of mischief. He was quieter on his return. He died at Stalingrad.
Robert Papenbrock, Lisbeth’s brother and Albert’s son and heir. He left home abruptly but returned in 1935 to become a Gestapo official. During the war, as a “special leader” he was responsible for atrocities in the Ukraine. He turned up in the Cresspahl house after the war, left when ordered to, and escaped to West Germany.
Jakob Abs (YAH-kohp ahps), Marie’s father, a refugee, with his mother, in the Cresspahls’ house in 1945. He later became a railway dispatcher. After Heinrich’s arrest, his mother looked after Gesine, helped by Jakob, whose strength combined with gentleness were remarkable in the postwar corruption and brutality. Returning from a visit to Gesine in Dusseldorf, he was killed, before Marie was born, under mysterious circumstances while crossing a marshaling yard in East Germany.
Mrs. Ferwalter (FEHR-vahl-tehr), a stockily built Ruthenian Jewish countrywoman, born in 1922. She was an inmate in the Mauthausen concentration camp and now lives in New York. She is the first to befriend Gesine in New York and admires her European manners. She is unable to sleep soundly and wears, Gesine imagines, a permanently disgusted expression.
Anita Grantlik (GRANT-likh), called Anita the Red, a refugee from Eastern Europe of Polish-German origins. She was Gesine’s schoolmate. She had been raped by a Russian soldier at the age of eleven, was condemned to fieldwork, and was abandoned by her father, a policeman. She succeeded in becoming a Russian interpreter and in earning a new Swedish bicycle. She fled to the West and still corresponds with Gesine.
Karsch, a figure from the past of Gesine and D. E., now working for the United Nations and writing a book on the American Mafia. On a visit to New York from Milan, he is kidnapped but is rescued through Gesine and D. E.’s efforts.
Annie Killainen Fleury
Annie Killainen Fleury (FLEW-ree), a friend to Gesine who lives in Vermont with her husband, a translator for the French. She abruptly leaves him, taking their three children to live for a time in Gesine’s apartment, explaining that she has quarreled with him over the Vietnam issue.
Uwe Johnson, who makes a brief appearance addressing the Jewish American Congress in New York on the topic of postwar Germany, with Gesine in the audience. His reception is unfriendly.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493
Gesine Cresspahl, the narrator and the central figure, remains the most elusive character, evidently because she herself wishes to be. Johnson even breaks in occasionally to complain to her about her self-willed behavior. She is driven by secret drives and obsessions with which she brooks no interference. The reader, however, is challenged to put all the pieces together and is allowed to examine all the evidence, including facts and thoughts to which even Gesine’s daughter is not privy. Thus, there is something of the crime mystery and the spy thriller, brought to a high level of psychological sophistication, in Johnson’s treatment of Gesine.
Gesine’s extremely precocious daughter, charming in her process of Americanization, serves the literary device of confidante, drawing out her alter ego. Marie believes that “if a person comes to New York he must also come to his senses.” She is more than a little reminiscent of the wise, doomed children found in the works of William Shakespeare. Yet Marie shows the psychological development of a real child in her growing trust of Erichson and in her relationships with other children, particularly a black classmate, Francine, who is also aware beyond her years.
Lisbeth Cresspahl is a mysterious figure. She has a mythical quality, partly because Gesine must strain to remember her, for all the scrupulous detail of her evocation: “When she removed the rings from the stove, she sometimes forgot she was still holding them with the hook, so lost was her gaze in the fire.... She was gone so suddenly; she was never mentioned. Seen no more.”
Heinrich Cresspahl is the most solidly created figure, rooted in his occupation and cool, pragmatic approach to life. He can deal only with the external manifestations of his wife’s behavior. When there is something on which he can get a grip, he acts swiftly and firmly, once saving his daughter’s life and later coping with his wife’s death.
The novel is lightened by a whole gallery of minor characters from New York City. Among them, The New York Times stands out as “she” develops over time from a prim, self-confident, didactic “Aunt” to “a shrewish, crafty old woman with a guilty conscience.”
Johnson has long been known as a writer who makes his readers work. Anniversaries shows Johnson’s bold ambition to create characters without reference to ready-made models. Johnson’s characters are originals; each requires an entirely new (and at first glance, obscure) frame of reference to be understood. In Anniversaries, particular concessions to the reader’s powers of imagination are made by enriching these new frames of reference with more detail than before. Thus, while new and unique, Johnson’s characters acquire some of the solidity found in the more familiar world of Thomas Mann. By naming his local German clan (Lisbeth’s family) the Papenbrocks, Johnson is beaming both a nod and a smile to the family depicted in Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks (1900).