Book Review of “The Death’s Head Chess Club” by John Donoghue.
SS Obersturmführer (1st Lieutenant) Paul Meissner’s battle injury has taken him off the front lines, and put him in Auschwitz, assigned to bolster flagging morale in the camps. His superiors are skeptical about his chess club idea, especially if he’s allowing officers and enlisted men to play against each other. These doubts fade with the club’s popularity, boosted by the betting on the side. All seems to be going well until Meissner hears about a Jewish prisoner, the one they call the Watchmaker, who is apparently “unbeatable” at chess. What better way to prove the superiority of Aryan intelligence and raise the men’s spirits than to defeat this Jew. However, Meissner insists it be a fair game, the Jew must play to win, or beating won’t be satisfactory. So begins a relationship between Meissner and the Watchmaker (better known as Emil Clément), as complex as the game itself, the moves of which are only revealed years later, during the 1962 international chess tournament in Amsterdam.
One would think that we’ve seen enough novels about the holocaust, and yet every so often a story comes along that rises above the clichés, making it worthwhile. This is one of these books. Donoghue tells this story with such honesty, and with as little pity as possible, and does so by taking a slightly different angle. Donoghue starts the story by introducing us to Meissner and his new administrative duties in Auschwitz in 1944. As Meissner looks out on his new assignment, the narrative shifts to Clément, one of the new prisoners going back to his barrack. There Clément finds his bunkmate has traded a pilfered coat for some extra bread for them both. Already, we can see how this small interlude reveals so much.
From there, Donoghue then goes straight to 1962, and the Amsterdam chess tournament. Now Clément is the Israeli grand master. His best-selling account of his time in Auschwitz included the statement that he believes there is “no such thing as a good German.” However, in the first round of the tournament, the draw has him playing the German grand master, Wilhelm Schweninger. This sets up the novel for a constant back and forth between the two times, as we not only find out the story of the Auschwitz chess club, but also why nearly 20 years later, Paul Meissner is in Amsterdam to bring Clément and Schweninger together.
As mundane as this may sound, it is actually fascinating. In fact, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this book. Yes, there are passages that describe the horrors of the Holocaust in some gruesome detail, and yet, that isn’t the essence of this story. For me, I felt this was more of a journey of self-discovery that each of these three men embark upon by telling each other what happened to them. The complexity of their stories parallels a game of chess; the events slowly unfold, one-step at a time. Had anything happened, or anyone acted differently, it would have changed everything, and these three men would never have been able to come together so many years later. This is what takes this book out of the realm of your usual tragic/heroic Holocaust story and brings it almost into the realm of a mystery or adventure novel. Donoghue achieves all this with deceptively simple prose that is equally as compelling.
After all this, there was one thing that disturbed me here, and that was the footnotes that appeared mostly at the beginning of the book, to explain technical terms and give historical references. What bothered me wasn’t their inclusion, but that they appeared at the bottom of the pages, which somewhat broke up the text, and halted the flow. Because Donoghue also gives us some appendices with historical information at the end of the book, I think he probably should have made these into end-notes. Aside from this, I truly enjoyed reading this story, despite its very heavy subject matter. The writing is fluid and evocative, and the concept and characters are both interesting and sympathetic (yes, even some of the Nazis). For all this, I highly recommend this book with a strong four and a half stars out of five.
“The Death’s Head Chess Club” by John Donoghue, published by Atlantic Books London, released March 5, 2015 is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literacy), or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me the ARC of this book for review via Curious Book Fans (which is presently on hiatus). This review also appears on my Times of Israel Blog.