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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 351

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Writing 15 years after the end of World War II, the narrator Pilenz tells the story of his high school days and the following years, especially involving his friend Mahlke. Set in Danzig after it was annexed by Nazi Germany, the novel uses the characters to explore the tensions that the people experienced in their complex relationship to the war.

Pilenzs is writing in part to expiate his guilt over his treatment of Mahlke. As a youth, he taunted him, mocking his friend's insecurities to bolster his own popularity. Years after they leave school, his insincere and limited efforts to help his needy friend almost certainly contribute to his death. As an adult, Pilenz (who is Catholic) works as a secretary in church-related social services.

Mahlke, an awkward and naive boy, goes to great lengths to cover up his perceived inadequacies but only succeeds in drawing attention to them. Pilentz points especially to his huge Adam's apple. Mahlke's misguided worship for the Nazis, encouraged by their school headmaster, precipitates a series of disastrous events. Obsessed with the symbolic surface of Germanic patriotic heroism, the Iron Cross, Mahlke first steals one then joins the war effort so he can earn his own. Continued conflict with the headmaster leads to Mahlke's final undoing. Unable to survive without Pilenz's help, he disappears and—the reader concludes—dies alone.

Headmaster Klose at the Catholic school the boys attend is harsh and even cruel. He promotes the ideology of militaristic patriotism by bringing decorated soldiers to speak at the school, stimulating Mahlke's envy. A Nazi, but a civilian, Klose represents the collaborators who contributed to advancing Germany's interests. His expulsion of the boy sets in motion Mahlke's disastrous course of action.

Father Gusewski, the priest at the boys' church, is kindly but ineffectual. His spiritual guidance may offer consolation but, though well intentioned, does not help Mahlke.

Tulla Pokriefke is a girl who is friends with the boys and kind to Mahkle. She boldly takes part in their dangerous games on a sunken boat. Winter and Hotten are two other boys in the boy's pack of friends.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472


Pilenz (pih-LEHNTS), at once the narrator of and a participant in the story. Pilenz often seems to be trying to justify his actions through his narrative. He was an altar boy in his youth, but as he ages he leaves behind his faith, although he continues to be involved with the Roman Catholic church. As a child, he was capable of great cruelty to Mahlke, although he sometimes seemed to admire him as well; Pilenz gave him the nickname “The Great Mahlke.” Pilenz went beyond mere childhood pranks to help bring about Mahlke’s ultimate undoing. He therefore is in an unusual position: Although he is aware of Mahlke’s role as “mouse,” he does not act altruistically to help him; rather, he chooses to join the “eternal cat” in persecuting Mahlke.

Joachim Mahlke

Joachim Mahlke (yoh-AH-khihm MAHL-keh), who grew up as an only child living with his mother and aunt. Mahlke is an awkward and frail boy who develops an enormous Adam’s apple as an adolescent. Portrayed as the eternal victim, Mahlke nevertheless seeks continually to align himself with those forces most likely to destroy him, including the German army, the National Socialist headmaster of his militaristic school, and his cruel and persecuting schoolmates. His Adam’s apple, the symbol of his victim status as “mouse,” is something of an obsession for Mahlke, as is the Virgin Mary, who becomes an outlet for his adolescent affections.

Waldemar Klohse

Waldemar Klohse (VAHL-deh-mahr KLOH-zeh), the headmaster of the Conradium, an elite school for boys in Danzig. A member of the National Socialist party, Klohse enforces a strict school environment in which athletic activity and party loyalty are heavily emphasized. He is most clearly Mahlke’s nemesis and is one of the most obvious embodiments of the “eternal cat.”

Father Gusewski

Father Gusewski (gew-ZEHVS-kee), the priest at St. Mary’s chapel, a former gymnasium converted to a small Roman Catholic church that is attended by both Mahlke and Pilenz. He is a practical man and generally is kind to the boys, although he ultimately fails to assist Mahlke when he most needs his help.

Tulla Pokriefke

Tulla Pokriefke (TEW-lah poh-KREEF-keh), a skinny girl who spends a summer with the boys on the minesweeper. An unabashed admirer of Mahlke, she encourages him to compete with the other boys in demonstrations of manliness. She is never embarrassed by the boys’ nakedness, and they tolerate her presence. As the boys grow up, she becomes the object of their experimental desires.


Winter, a member of the gang of boys that includes Mahlke, Pilenz, and Hotten Sonntag. When he becomes very nervous, he tends to break down in tears.

Hotten Sonntag

Hotten Sonntag (HOT-tehn), another member of the gang of boys that includes Mahlke, Pilenz, and Winter. His sisters are the object of many adolescent fantasies.