By Ingeborg Bachmann
With Letters from Jack Hamesh
Edited and with an Afterword by Hans Höller
Translated by Mike Mitchell
Seagull Books, 2018
This short book is best viewed as a package, so let me begin by enumerating its contents.
There is, to start with, a diary (or some extracts from a diary) kept by Ingeborg Bachmann and covering the period from about September 1944 to June 1945. In these pages she mentions her friendship, probable romance, with a British soldier named Jack Hamesh. She is able to discuss literature, politics and the like with him. Like her, he is Austrian. Unlike her, he is Jewish. In 1938 he had escaped from Vienna to London via Kindertransport, later enlisting in the British Army.
As well as the diary, the book contains several letters from Jack to Ingeborg, with these letters dating from Easter 1946 to July 1947, so a few years after the diary entries and their first meetings. The letters are intimate and candid about Jack’s feelings – it is clear that he loved her – and they clearly meant much to Bachmann: else why would she have kept them? His last letters are written from Tel Aviv, where had gone to live after the war, knowing that Ingeborg could not follow him. Vienna was over for Jack, his life there had ended in March 1938. The city was a deceitful dream. In one letter to Ingeborg he writes:
Remain my dear friend whom I need so badly and love very, very much and cannot forget.
Following the letters, there is an Afterword by Hans Höller, though in truth it is rather more than that. For Höller provides an overarching narrative that allows the reader – even one largely unacquainted with Ingeborg Bachmann’s work – to place the diary and letters within the context of her life, and Jack’s too, to some extent. One key sentence stands out and is worth quoting in full:
In her description [in the diary], the end of the 14 June  meeting is like a dream picture of a new coming together after the catastrophe, like a picture Chagall never painted: after a Jew, driven out of Austria in 1938, has kissed her hand, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a Carinthian Nazi family climbs up into an apple tree that night and cries, thinking she never wants to wash her hand again.
Indeed, what was Ingeborg to do with her burden, her share of guilt and shame? Her family had embraced Nazi ideology (as did much of the Austrian populace) and although she rebelled against it (but how strongly?), Austria’s compromised history was hers too. She muses about the impossibility of betraying one’s own family yet could not fully accept them (their beliefs and deeds) either. Alone, she had to forge her own path.
We know of Ingeborg Bachmann’s close friendship with Paul Celan through their letters, dramatized in Ruth Beckermann’s film The Dreamed Ones, but it seems as though her relationship with Jack Hamesh, a Viennese Jew who emigrated to Palestine, was if anything even more intense.
Then we come to the last, the final item. There is a further note by Hans Höller, written after the publication of the first German edition, where he gives some information that had come to light regarding the life of Jack Hamesh. He lived in Israel until 1987, the year of his death, and his name there was Jakob Chamisch. Tellingly, we learn that among his effects was a signed photo of Ingeborg Bachmann dated 23 June 1946.
As I said: the book is a package. There are fragile items, surviving only as fragments (the diary is incomplete, we don’t have Ingeborg’s letters to Jack), but from them we can piece together an important friendship in the lives of two young people, both floundering in the violence of their shared history, each striving in their own way to make sense of themselves and their fractious times.
The publisher’s description of War Diary can be read here.