When Otto Koch, a German Jew, suffers an appendicitis attack, he’s rushed to a hospital in the Third Reich reserved for non-Jews. As the anaesthesia starts to take effect, the last words he hears are his surgeon greeting his staff with “Heil Hitler.”
In his memoir, entitled Otto & Daria: A Wartime Journey Through No Man’s Land, Koch vividly re-creates his life in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. He brilliantly captures the tension in the air as the Nazis insidiously gain control. His parents protect him from the encroaching danger and at first he leads an idyllic life, isolated from the terror that is to come.
Otto continues his life chronicle, studying at the University of Cambridge in England, when he meets the mysterious Daria Hambourg, a woman at first shy but more than adept at expressing herself through her writing. She’s from a distinguished English family, but with a distinctively bohemian bent. She’s also a Socialist with no qualms about expressing her views.
Otto and Daria begin corresponding by letter. Her writing style, both elegant and eloquent with a melodramatic flair, seems to beguile and fascinate Otto. When he teases her about marriage, she replies in kind. But is she flirting with him, or merely being mischievous? Otto obviously enjoys flirting, not only with Daria but with many other women.
When the Second World War breaks out, Otto, still residing in England, volunteers to enlist in the British army despite his pacifist feelings. But he’s quickly interned as an enemy alien because of his German background. He’s then shipped to an internment camp in Canada where he’s deemed to be less of a security risk.
In both countries, Otto reveals the absurdity of war – his designation and deportation as an enemy even though he’s fleeing Nazi oppression. He also shows the absurdity of wartime regulations. In England the police, displaying true British civility, politely arrest him. And when regulations won’t allow him to mail a postcard, the police mail it for him. Otto also tells of two prisoners who escape the internment camp, but when they want to return, the guards turn them away because they don’t have the proper identification papers.
Otto & Daria: A Wartime Journey Through No Man’s Land provides an apt commentary on social issues and the unfolding status of women. Otto’s experiences also reflect current attitudes about refugees, sometimes perceived as harbouring spies rather than being victims of war.
To obscure his ethnic background, Otto changes his name to Eric, and it’s under this name that he penned Otto & Daria. It’s not really a love story; rather, it’s a memoir of a remarkable friendship that develops between two strangers caught up in momentous events during a terrifying time in our not so distant past.
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