The German Refugee by Bernard Malamud
In The German Refugee by Bernard Malamud we have the theme of language, letting go, expression, fear, love, insecurity, conflict and depression. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by a twenty year old man called Martin Goldberg and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Malamud may be exploring the theme of language. Oskar has difficulty learning English. For an educated man he lacks confidence. It is as though WWII and what is happening in Germany is something that Oskar is unable to let go of, despite the fact he is relatively secure in New York. This may be important as Malamud may be suggesting that Oskar’s inability to let go of Germany and his wife is due to the fact that he loves both. Though it is noticeable that he unable to express his love for his wife and there is some confusion with regard to Oskar’s opinion on German people in general. He detests them and seems unable to differentiate between his wife and German people.
It is also clear to the reader that Oskar is afraid. Not only because of what is happening in Germany but because his way of expressing himself (German language) has been taken away from him. This too may be important as Malamud may be highlighting the plight of thousands of refugees who made their way to America during WWII. They too lost the ability to express themselves. However Oskar does succeed in writing his notes for his lecture and delivering it in English. Which may suggest to some readers that if the story had ended there. It might be considered to be a happy ending. However Malamud teases the reader and surprises them with the ending of the story in whereby a depressed Oskar kills himself. With Oskar appearing to be unable to let go of the insecurity he feels and the realisation that he loves his wife after all. Despite not wanting her to travel to America with him.
One interesting thing about the story is the fact that Oskar has no friends apart from Martin and even then Martin finds it difficult to be Oskar’s friend due to Oskar’s mood swings. Which are understandable but nevertheless must be hard to understand and Martin is not equipped at twenty years old to understand completely what has happened to Oskar. Something that is clear to the reader when we learn of Martin’s shock with regard to Oskar’s suicide. He is totally taken aback and had thought that Oskar was happy. If anything life is a complete struggle for Oskar. He has three hundred dollars to his name and that has to last him until spring. A difficult task for anyone to try and do. Though it is a good way of highlighting how deep Oskar’s struggle is. A reader may find they can identify with Oskar’s financial plight quicker than they may identify with him being a refugee.
At no stage does the reader, like Martin, think that Oskar will die. In fact after the lecture one might think that Oskar has overcome his difficulties and is on a prosperous and secure path. However the letter from his mother-in-law changes everything and as such Oskar on reading about his wife’s death. Kills himself. Which is shocking considering the circumstances that Oskar found himself in. He was making steady progress only for news from Germany to throw him into a deep depression. A depression that Oskar would not come out off. Which may be the point that Malamud is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that despite outward appearances one can never really read the emotions of another human being. Especially the emotions of a man who has had such a life like Oskar’s. For Oskar life was one long conflict. In many ways mirroring WWII. If Oskar had not loved his wife he would not have killed himself. It is as though he has lost all hope in living. Something that may be the trigger for Oskar’s suicide. A bright man who was pleasant to others ends up on the other side of the world only to die because of the atrocities that are happening in Europe. Oskar may have been a refugee but he was never safe from what was happening in Europe.