Mayer pens story of intrigue and redemption in Weimar Germany

MIDDLEBURY — Yom Kippur — the holiest day on the Jewish calendar — is about atonement, “a day to seek God’s forgiveness for our transgressions,” says Dr. Jack Mayer, a beloved local pediatrician and budding author.
So it seems only fitting that Mayer should become so inspired by a Yom Kippur sermon back in 1992 that he would spend the next 24 years faithfully penning a compelling story of redemption, centering on a villain in one of the darkest periods in human history: The birth of the Third Reich in Germany.
“Before the Court of Heaven,” Mayer’s second book, blends true historical events with some fictional characters and narratives to weave his captivating tale that takes place during the post-World War I Weimar democracy of Germany. It was a time during which Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party gradually gained support, spreading a message of fear, demagoguery and nationalism, while engaging in the persecution of the Jewish population.
The 1992 sermon in question was one delivered at Middlebury College by Rabbi Fritz Rothschild, one of the luminaries of the reconstruction movement in Judaism. Rothschild, now deceased, spoke about Ernst Werner Techow, a young fascist assassin who in 1922 took part in the killing of German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, who was Jewish.
Techow, who was himself killed by the Soviet Red Army in 1945, was expelled from the Nazi party in 1931. He was rumored to have renounced his devotion to fascist ideals during World War II, though that “conversion” was never proven. Mayer would like to think that Techow could have changed his ways, and “Before the Court of Heaven” offers a fictional account of how that might have transpired.
“It was a remarkable story, and it stuck with me,” Mayer said. “My hope is that by animating this history, the reader will appreciate the capacity inherent in humans for unspeakable horror and remarkable goodness — our devils and our better angels. We, too, have choices to make.”
Readers are taken on a journey through Germany, North Africa and France. Mayer provides Techow with other characters with whom to joust on the political landscape of the era. They include a love interest, Lisa; Puck, a fellow prison inmate; and Ernst’s brothers, Leo and Hans Gerd.
The book is divided into two sections. The first section contains true historical facts and events, setting the stage for the second section, “Crucibles,” in which fictional characters follow a path charted by Mayer.
“I feel confident this story of individuals is also a reflection of the larger history,” Mayer said. “A historical novelist’s charge is to find those particularities that illuminate the truth.”
Writing the book was no easy feat for a full-time physician (he has since pared back).
Mayer temporarily suspended work on “Before the Court of Heaven” in order to complete his first book, “Life in a Jar,” a non-fiction account of a Polish Catholic social worker, Irena Sendler, who rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.
“I’m proud to say I’m the world’s slowest writer,” Mayer joked.
But the extra time helped Mayer do his painstaking research, which included review of the transcripts of Techow’s arrest, interrogation and murder trial in Leipzig, Germany, in 1922. Techow was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail for the assassination, of which he served only eight.
Mayer was fascinated with the opportunity for redemption that Techow was presented upon his release in 1930. And the author was immensely taken with a letter of forgiveness that Mathilde Rathenau, the victim’s mother, sent to Techow’s mother following his arrest. That letter, read at Techow’s trial, reads:
“In grief unspeakable, I give you my hand. You, of all women, the most pitiable. Say to your son that in the name and spirit of him who was murdered, I forgive, even as God may forgive, if before an earthly judge he makes a full and frank confession of his guilt, and before a heavenly one repent.”
It is that concept of a heavenly tribunal that Mayer based the title of his book.
Mayer enlisted the help of Middlebury resident Marita Schine in translating the German transcripts into English.
“It felt remarkable to feel like we were handling history, like it was within our fingers,” Mayer said of the transcripts.
Scrutiny of  the Techow case also led Mayer to the broader story of the Weimar political period in Germany (1919-1933), an increasingly turbulent time that Mayer’s own parents experienced and ultimately fled — as did many other Jews. Some of his relatives who were not fortunate enough to escape perished in the ensuing conflagration of Nazi Germany, which included the Holocaust.
Weimar Germany, according to Mayer, was marked by revolution, assassinations, political chicanery and conflicts between the left and right — an intriguing backdrop for a book.
“This whole world opened to me,” Mayer said. “So much of this history I couldn’t have made up.”
It is a period in history that remains confounding to many.
“How could this civilized country with a democratic constitution with the rule of law and free elections produce Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party?” Mayer said. “A plurality of Germans voted for the Nazi Party in 1933. What happened is a cautionary tale.”
Indeed, this election season has elicited some echoes of Weimar Germany, in Mayer’s opinion. He is referring specifically to presidential campaign rhetoric about building a wall along the United States’ southern border and denying entry to people of Muslim faith.
“It’s the fear of immigrants, it’s bigotry, it’s ‘America first,’ it’s extreme nationalism and xenophobia,” Mayer said.
So it is no coincidence that Mayer invokes George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Published by Long Trail Press, “Before the Court of Heaven” was released three weeks ago to very positive reviews. It has already won nine awards for fiction writing, including the 2016 IndieReader Discovery Award (first place) and the 2015 Nautilus Book Award (Silver medal). It was a finalist for the Grand Prize (Eric Hoffer Award).
The book is available on-line and at independent book stores, including Middlebury’s Vermont Book Shop. More details and available at jackmayer.net.
Mayer will discuss his new book, and the subject of Weimar Germany and the rise of the Third Reich, on Thursday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. at the Ilsley Library in Middlebury. The event is being co-sponsored by the Vermont Book Shop and the Vermont Humanities Council. Mayer will sign copies of “Before the Court of Heaven.”
He also has talks scheduled in Manchester, Waterbury, Rutland and Burlington.
“It’s a lovely closing of the circle that my first talk about the book will be at the Ilsley Library,” Mayer said, noting the Ilsley was where he and Schine poured over the Techow transcripts.
Mayer hopes readers will appreciate the book and find in it both a visceral understanding of pre-World War II history, as well as a catalyst for exploring the meaning of redemption.
“I think if people have a sense of this history, it is an immunization against recurrence,” Mayer said.
“Forgiveness and compassion are probably the best gifts we can give, not only to ourselves, but also to our fellow human beings.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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