Come Not To Us
by Brett Ramseyer

"He could barely breathe around it and it made his eyes water. He could not ask about what she hid then or what she hid now."

Peter Sonderling is an accountant whose twenty-year marriage to Doreen is failing. Consumed with despair, he is on the verge of committing suicide not far from his family cottage when an old man’s voice shouts to him from the darkness. This is Peter’s saving grace and, though still alive, he is for the moment angry at the interruption of his well-laid plans. In his rage, Peter hurls his gun and contemplates harming the old man who abruptly vanishes into the night, leaving Peter to wonder if the old man ever existed.

He comes to terms with his actions the following day, realizing his dire mistake in leaving a loaded gun in the woods. In his search, Peter spots a threatening sign with the names “Otto and Anna” imploring trespassers to “Come Not To Us” and turn away. Before he has a chance to act, Peter is caught by the old man whose paralytic stare of searing eyes is “one of the most powerful” Peter has ever seen. The old man is Otto Hitzig, a ninety-six-year-old German living in seclusion in the Michigan woods. Surprisingly, Otto invites Peter in, and inside the “mouth of Otto’s home,” the old man confronts Peter’s failed suicide. In their discourse, hints of World War II surface that pique Peter’s interest and which he unwittingly explores with Otto later on in the novel.

While visiting his mother, Claudia, Peter is asked to sort through his late father, Isaac’s, boxes of papers locked away in a room in her house. As Peter sorts through these yellowing papers, he stumbles across mysterious documents referencing doctors in Nazi Germany. With Otto’s help, Peter translates the German to learn about terrible medical experiments conducted at Dachau, the infamous concentration camp in southern Germany. Through this, he uncovers concealed secrets about his Jewish ancestry and confronts his immigrant mother for the truth, a truth kept buried for forty years.

Ramseyer’s fictional account keys into the horrific ramifications and scars of Nazi Germany lingering long after the end of World War II. It conjures up a dark period of history on a smaller and more particular scale, forcing its principle characters to address the black stain that deeply affects descendants. Ramseyer joins in a line of authors giving rise to Holocaust-themed novels of late—notable ones like Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See—and these are critical as Holocaust survivors and their stories increasingly diminish.

Here, no one is completely innocent. Ramseyer’s characters are riddled with faults and secrets, which makes them wholly human. The story is seen largely from Peter’s perspective, and Ramseyer relies on a now familiar narrative thread of interweaving flashbacks of the past with the present to explore his central character’s inner turmoil. At its start, Peter is a man already searching for answers. Torn by the recent loss of his father and a crumbling marriage, the familial secrets he discovers only add insult to injury, and he must reconcile this somehow. Otto fulfills a kind of fatherly role to Peter as he grapples with these secrets, helping him to seek closure. However, it is unclear if Peter entirely reconciles this truth as this is left much to interpretation beyond the novel’s end. Most of the action built around Peter is convoluted and plays into Ramseyer’s exploration of evil and good, noting the ripple effects and consequences actions have across decades and generations. Other parts of the novel involving Doreen are sparse and less developed, but it is possible to gather enough information from Peter’s memories to know that their marriage was failing from the start. Otto makes for an intriguing character, and the reader is left desiring to know more about him in order to discover what isn’t fully explored. His thick German dialogue is somewhat distracting as one reads, but the tense colloquies between him and Peter are the most dramatic and compelling moments of the novel. One is reminded of the terrifying interactions between (in albeit a different kind of relationship altogether) Todd Bowden and Arthur Denker in Stephen King’s Apt Pupil.

This novel sheds another light on one of the most significant and tragic periods of history, acutely examining its aftermath. If anything, Ramseyer succeeds in giving us a kind of a morality tale with his observation of good and evil and of finding value in our existence. Sometimes we are left with more questions than answers, and one comes to realize that when dealing with something like Nazi Germany, there are truly no simple answers.

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