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Hester Among the Ruins -- Discussion Guide

Hester Among the Ruins -- Discussion Guide

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History meets reality when biographer Hester Rosenfeld–very American and marginally Jewish–goes to Munich to research the life of Heinrich Falk and becomes his mistress. Born in Berlin in 1943, raised in the ruins of defeat by a generation of “murderers and cowards,” Professor Falk is neither infamous nor famous–he is simply the German Everyman. Hester believes his life story could make for an important contemporary historical document–kitchen-table history. But as she uncovers more of his family history and its possible connection to Nazism, she finds herself reexamining her own feelings about her German immigrant parents and her complicated attraction to Heinrich. As the lovers’ intimacy grows, each suspects the other of hiding something about the past.
History meets reality when biographer Hester Rosenfeld–very American and marginally Jewish–goes to Munich to research the life of Heinrich Falk and becomes his mistress. Born in Berlin in 1943, raised in the ruins of defeat by a generation of “murderers and cowards,” Professor Falk is neither infamous nor famous–he is simply the German Everyman. Hester believes his life story could make for an important contemporary historical document–kitchen-table history. But as she uncovers more of his family history and its possible connection to Nazism, she finds herself reexamining her own feelings about her German immigrant parents and her complicated attraction to Heinrich. As the lovers’ intimacy grows, each suspects the other of hiding something about the past.

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Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Aug 05, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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12/03/2014

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Reading Group Guide
Hester Among the Ruins
By Binnie Kirshenbaum
About the book:
History meets reality when biographer Hester Rosenfeld
 –
very American and marginally Jewish
 –
goes to Munich to research the life of Heinrich Falk and becomes his mistress. Born in Berlin in1943, raised i
n the ruins of defeat by a generation of “murderers and cowards,” Professor Falk
is neither infamous nor famous
 –
he is simply the German Everyman. Hester believes his lifestory could make for an important contemporary historical document
 –
kitchen-table history. Butas she uncovers more of his family history and its possible connection to Nazism, she findsherself reexamining her own feelings about her German immigrant parents and her complicated
attraction to Heinrich. As the lovers’ intimacy grows, each sus
pects the other of hidingsomething about the past.
With the moral power of Bernhard Schlink’s
 
The Reader 
, Kirshenbaum’s searing novel bearspowerful witness to history’s unforgettable legacy and its continuing impact.
 
About the author:Binnie Kirshenbaum
is the author of three novels,
On Mermaid Avenue
,
 A Disturbance in OnePlace
, and
Pure Poetry 
, and a story collection,
History on a Personal Note
. She teaches at
Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts and lives in New York City.
 
Discussion Questions:
 
Q.
Hester and HF are opposites of one another in so many ways, not only in his status as thehalf-brother of a Hitler Youth participant and hers as a daughter of Jewish immigrants but also inpersonality, age, and attitudes toward romance. What attracts them to each other, in spite of these gulfs? Is their ancestry necessarily a gulf?
Q.
 
In Jewish theology, the term “Hester Panim” is sometimes applied to events in which thedivine seems to have turned his face away from mankind. Heinrich Falk’s surnam
e means
“falcon,” a bird of prey, in English. How might these two facts add irony to Hester and HF’s
names?
 
Q.
 
Discuss your own family’s immigration story. Are there any “old country” objects, such as Mr.Rosenfeld’s herrings, which took on a new meaning i
n America?
Q.
What are the metaphoric and literal ruins among which Hester travels?
Q.
 
HF speaks Hester’s language but not vice versa. How does this seemingly minor de
tailimpact their relationship?
Q.
 
 At what point is Hester’s opinion of her parents and t
heir life in New Rochelle transformed?When does her shame melt into compassion?
Q.
 
Compare HF’s perception of his mother to Hester’s. Might these two German mothers have
found much common ground had they ever met?
Q.
In what way does
Hester Among the Ruins
offer a new approach to Holocaust issues? Howdoes it differ from other literature (novels or nonfiction) on the same subject?
Q.
At first, Hester describes Munich architecture as resembling a confection. But fifty pageslater, she is listing the reason why she hates the city. What do her travel notes indicate abouther Americanism?
Q.
 
Hester’s voice ranges from that of a careful academician to the uncensored tone of a giddy
undergraduate. How would you define the identity of this narrator? How do you suppose shewould define herself? Does she emerge from her German sojourn with an altered sense of self?
Q.
 
Hester is determined to find evidence of war crimes in HF’s family, but tolerates the
hypocritical infidelities to which he openly admits. Debate the rationality of her inconsistent trustin him.
Q.
Wearing the hideous pink trainers HF insisted on buying for her, Hester experiences acrippling acrophobic panic attack. Do you attribute her anxiety to more than just a fear of heights?
Q.
 
Why is the revelation of HF’s grandchildren par 
ticularly unnerving for Hester?
Q.
 
Why is Hester repulsed by the role of “exalted victim” offer 
ed to her by the philo-Semites?
Q.
 
How does Hester process the knowledge that HF suffered the war’s day
-to-day privations butshe and her parents did not?
Q.
HF tells Hester that her surname must have been purchased by her ancestors because
appealing monikers such as “field of roses” were only bestowed on Jews for a fee. What do you
know about the origins of your own surname?
Q.
Do you agree with Hes
ter’s disapproval of monuments?
 

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