‘The German Money’: Family Secrets

There should be a statue of limitations on complaining about our parents and what they did or didn’t do to us or for us. By age 30, after we’ve gotten our noses bloody a few times and wallowed in as much pleasure as our bodies and bank accounts can stand, we may have learned just enough to realize that either our parents knew more than we’re willing to admit, or that they were truly hopeless and more to be pitied than to be censured. And that should be it. Time to grant them absolution and move on.

Then, there are the cases like Paul’s. His father bore the scars of being orphaned early in his life; his mother was a Holocaust survivor who came to America, married and left her past in Europe. He realizes that they were not the stereotypical Jewish families: “We were anything but lively and outspoken, not a perpetual carnival of conversation at all. Dad could be social and glib, but not with us, never with us. And serious subjects just weren’t on our map.”

With his sister and brother, Paul grew up in a home ruled by mysteries, subject to his mother’s sometimes implacable silences and inexplicable anger. Small wonder he fled the urban jungle of New York City for the wilds of Michigan to escape his past as well. He had hoped he could abandon his Jewish heritage, his fiance, Valerie, and bury himself in his dead-end job as a university librarian.

But Paul is drawn back to New York City after his mother dies of a heart attack, and he learns that, of his three siblings, he alone would inherit “the German money,” the compensation his mother collected and never spent. The amount, nearly a million dollars, creates a split in the family, and Paul — beset with a form of survivor’s guilt — becomes consumed with learning why he was chosen.

But unlike Nick Hoffman, the college professor turned detective in Lev Raphael’s witty and acerbic mystery series, Paul is no investigator. His quest to divine the secret of the German money moves in fits and starts, in between coping with his sister’s claims on his inheritance, his father’s Alzheimer’s and his attempts to rekindle his relationship with Valerie, who, it turns out, has some secrets of her own.

Raphael has written short stories and novels dealing with Jewish, Holocaust and crime, and “The German Money” can be seen as a distillation of all of them. He lets the story unfold slowly, giving the reader time to become acquainted with the characters before reaching deep into the emotional undertow and bring to the surface the tensions that bind and divide a family.

Paul’s journey into his past doesn’t reveal everything, and Raphael resists tidying all the loose ends, giving “The German Money” a necessary messiness that reminds us that ties of blood and kinship are not keys into the realm of perfect knowledge. Sometimes, we simply have to go on as best we can, and let the secrets be.