For many years Hubert Kueter taught German at Colby. Most people knew he was from Germany. Sometimes he spoke about Breslau, his hometown during the last stage of the Second World War. With the Russian army advancing, Hitler had declared Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) a fortress city to be defended to the last person. Occasionally Kueter talked about scrambling for bits of food as Russian shells rained on his city, which was full of starving civilians.
Colleagues and students did not know that many years he fought another fight of a different though no less dangerous nature: Kueter’s mother was Jewish. She asked him not ever to say that he was half-Jewish, and he kept his silence until recently, until after she passed away at age 95.
The situation of Kueter and his mother became more precarious when his father, a violist, passed away when Hubert was 4. Just at this time, the infamous Nuremberg Laws (1935) decreed that marriages like that of Kueter’s parents were forbidden and that no Jew could have German citizenship. The Nazi state therefore no longer considered Kueter’s mother and her extended family as Germans, and all the discriminating legislation against Jews applied to them. And there was no shortage of that: Nazi Germany passed no fewer than 2,000 anti-Jewish laws, ranging from humiliating but banal regulations, such as the prohibition to sit down on certain public benches, to laws excluding Jews from entire professions and from state benefits. Kueter, as a mixed-race child, a mischling in Nazi parlance, lived in a less clearly defined legal space, but had the Nazi regime outlasted his youth, he might sooner or later have been deported and killed. Unlike many relatives, however, Kueter and his mother survived, and he tells their story with humor, wit, and elegance in My Tainted Blood.
One hopeful aspect was immediately visible to his mother when she contemplated the difficulties of surviving in Nazi Germany: Hubert was blond. He had blond hair—something that not a single top-ranking Nazi had, notwithstanding their rhetoric about the superiority of the alleged Nordic, blond, and blue-eyed race. Being blond probably mattered very much. Kueter was able to attend school with non-Jews, and his mother was never ordered on one of the deportation trains to Auschwitz, which was not far from Breslau.
Kueter tells the tale of his childhood in Nazi Germany with such lightness and wit that it is easy to forget how dangerous the situation was. Not even his blond hair would have protected them if his behavior had antagonized some die-hard Nazi schoolmate or neighbor. There was enough opportunity to get in trouble; on one occasion, young Kueter stole a giant Christmas goose from the balcony of a Nazi family nearby, but he covered his tracks well, and the smell of the roasting goose provided a protective screen for his evasive answers to his relatives’ questions about the origins of the goose.
Surviving the Nazis and the war is not the entire story. Kueter recounts a fantastic escape from Soviet-occupied Breslau to Bavaria with the help of a Russian officer eager to defect to the Americans and a treasure he discovered buried in the garden of an SS general. The account is riveting and hard to put down. While telling his story, Kueter never hides his passion for culinary delights (for many years he ran Johann Sebastian B, a restaurant in Oakland, Maine, that served German specialties, including a quite passable Linzertorte). He revels in his schemes to procure food for his mother and himself and to outwit Nazis before and after the end of the war. This book provides a fascinating tale of resilience, survival, and, despite all, joie de vivre.