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 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 Hester believes his life story could make for an important contemporary historical document–kitchen-table history.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. With the moral power of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, Kirshenbaum’s searing novel bears powerful 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 One Place, 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 the half-brother of a Hitler Youth participant and hers as a daughter of Jewish immigrants but also in personality, 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 the divine seems to have turned his face away from mankind. Heinrich Falk’s surname 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 in 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 detail impact their relationship? Q. At what point is Hester’s opinion of her parents and their 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? How does 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 pages later, she is listing the reason why she hates the city. What do her travel notes indicate about her 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 she would 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 trust in him. Q. Wearing the hideous pink trainers HF insisted on buying for her, Hester experiences a crippling 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 particularly unnerving for Hester? Q. Why is Hester repulsed by the role of “exalted victim” offered to her by the philo-Semites? Q. How does Hester process the knowledge that HF suffered the war’s day-to-day privations but she 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 Hester’s disapproval of monuments?

Q. Hester Among the Ruins could also be read as a kind of tongue-in-cheek travelogue. What did you learn about German history and landscape with Hester as your guide? What is the effect of viewing her postcards? Q. Hester and HF are very protective of their respective perceptions of the past. In light of this, do you agree with the book’s closing quotation, which asserts “history remains fixed in time and space”?

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