And After the Fire: A Novel

by Lauren Belfer

Hardcover, 2016




Harper (2016), Edition: First Edition, 464 pages


"A new powerful and passionate novel--inspired by historical events--about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives. In the ruins of Germany in 1945, at the end of World War II, American soldier Henry Sachs takes a souvenir, an old music manuscript, from a seemingly deserted mansion and mistakenly kills the girl who tries to stop him. In America in 2010, Henry's niece, Susanna Kessler, struggles to rebuild her life after she experiences a devastating act of violence on the streets of New York City. When Henry dies soon after, she uncovers the long-hidden music manuscript. She becomes determined to discover what it is and to return it to its rightful owner, a journey that will challenge her preconceptions about herself and her family's history--and also offer her an opportunity to finally make peace with the past. In Berlin, Germany, in 1796, amid the city's glittering salons where aristocrats and commoners, Christians and Jews, mingle freely despite simmering anti-Semitism, Sara Itzig Levy, a renowned musician, conceals the manuscript of an anti-Jewish cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, an unsettling gift to her from Bach's son, her teacher. This work and its disturbing message will haunt Sara and her family for generations to come. Interweaving the stories of Susanna and Sara, and their families, And After the Fire traverses over two hundred years of history, from the eighteenth century through the Holocaust and into today, seamlessly melding past and present, real and imagined."--… (more)


½ (42 ratings; 4)

User reviews

LibraryThing member hubblegal
This historical novel moves back and forth between the 1700’s to 1940’s to the present day. In Germany after WWII has ended, an American soldier, Henry Sachs, steals a music manuscript resulting in the death of a young girl. The manuscript is a lost cantata by none other than Johann Sebastian
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Bach. The lyrics contain violent Anti-Semitic words. The book traces the path of this controversial cantata through the days when it was first given to Sara Itzig Levy by her music teacher, Bach’s son, through its present day finding by Henry Sach’s niece, Susanna Kessler.

Quite a few of the characters in this book are real people, though not the characters in the present-day section. The story of the Anti-Semitic cantata by Bach is a very believable one, since Bach often used the words of Martin Luther in his music lyrics and there has been controversy over the years as to his Anti-Semitic leanings. The story is a fascinating one and touches on many German, French and American lives and the impact of Anti-Semitism on them.

The book raises the question of what was to be done with this long-missing piece of music, written by such a renown composer that all the world should hear, and yet containing such hateful lyrics of a people who had already been through far too much. Should it be destroyed or can it be used for a better purpose? The author concludes her book in a truly masterful and satisfying manner as to the fate of the Bach cantata.

The book is well written and rings true. There were parts that I felt were drawn out a bit too long and in which I felt a bit disconnected. But overall it’s a very good story about a very controversial issue. Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher through Edelweiss in return for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member lostinalibrary
While cleaning out her recently deceased uncle’s home, Susanna Kessler discovers an old manuscript that appears to be a previously unknown cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. A letter with it explains that her uncle, a soldier during WWII, had discovered the document in an abandoned mansion in
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Germany. She takes the document to Daniel Erhardt, an expert on Bach, who at first is sure that it is a fraud.

However, eventually, he is convinced that it is real. But now he and Susanna are faced with a moral dilemma - the music, although undeniably beautiful, is accompanied by words taken from a virulently anti-Semitic sermon by Martin Luther. Daniel, raised Lutheran and Susanna, who is Jewish, must decide what to do with the document which is likely worth millions. Given the power of music to create strong passions, do they release this previously unknown piece by one of the greatest composers in history even though its release could have severe consequences or do they hide it away?

Alternating with their present day dilemma is the history of the cantata from its gifting by Bach’s son to his favourite pupil, Sarah, a young Jewish girl on the eve of her marriage. It is a burden she is not sure she wants or understands but eventually she and her new husband decide that she was given the cantata, not as an insult but so that she can dispose of it as she chooses. They decide that to release it would be dangerous. However, they cannot bring themselves to destroy it so instead they will keep it hidden. In its subsequent passage through several generations faced with the same dilemma, each must make their own choice.

And After the Fire by author Lauren Belfour is a powerful and beautifully written novel about how the moral questions of history including those surrounding works of art are never fully left in the past but continue to have an impact on the present. The story is told across generations, centuries, and continents and is peopled by both fictional and non-fictional characters including, along with Wilhelm Bach, Beethoven, and interestingly Sarah herself who was the real great aunt of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, both composers and both having roles in the novel. The cantata is fictional. In the end though, this is a compelling tale about two strong, intelligent women living centuries apart, who, when faced with the same important moral question, must make their own decision about how to deal with an important but dangerous work of art.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
And After the Fire
When this book began, I was immediately drawn into it as it described an incident at the end of WWII. However, when it began to alternate between the lives of Sara Levy, a brilliant musician, in the late 1700’s and Susanna Kessler, in 2010, it veered off into many different
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directions. In 1945, two friends and soldiers, Pete and Henry, were spending their last day in Germany driving around. Although they had fought in the war in Germany, they had never really seen any part of the country. They didn’t believe they would ever return, so they decided to “sightsee” in Weimar, where they were stationed, before the Russians arrived to take over the following day. While driving around in their jeep, they came upon a beautiful neighborhood and noticed a home they believed was unoccupied. Although one of them objected a bit, they both entered the home and began to look around. Henry Sachs believed the owners were dead and decided to take a souvenir, although, he had never stolen anything before. Most of the soldiers had taken memorabilia and sent it home to their families, their crimes going undiscovered. Suddenly, both young men were surprised by a disturbed woman who appeared frail and frightened. She threatened them and uttered Jewish slurs. Unable to calm down, she proceeded to fire her weapon and wounded one of them. The other, Henry Sachs, shot and killed her. Although it was self-defense, Henry carried the memory of the murder with him for the rest of his life, but the theft of an object called an “autograph”, from the piano bench in that house, which might be a missing piece of Bach’s music, would torment him as well. He would never reveal what he had taken to anyone. Why was the cantata hidden in plain sight? Why would someone have wanted to hide it? Why was it never published? The search for those answers is the central theme of the book; in that effort, it goes on to reveal the lives of two women, from two different centuries, one real, one fictional. It also highlights the rich and famous of the time from Johann Sebastian Bach and his heirs, to Moses Mendelssohn and his heirs, with many mentions of other famous composers of that era.
The lives of Susanna Kessler, who lived in New York in the present day, and Sara Levy who was part of the past, in the late 18th century in Berlin, were alternately revealed, as the history of, and their possible connection to, the papers Henry had kept hidden was explored. In an effort to trace the piece of music found in that Weimar home, as to its actual origin and composer and as to how it found its way into the piano bench in Weimar, in the first place, is the focus of this book. As the history of that home and the families who lived in that upper class neighborhood were revealed, similarities between the lives of the two women were exposed. However, I found much of their comparisons and connections unnatural, as if they were inserted simply to create relevance in order to advance the plot. It often seemed forced and disconnected. Sara’s knowledge and love of music seemed marvelously genuine while Susanna’s emotional reaction and love for it seemed to appear out of nowhere. Sara’s great love for her husband, a man whose memory she honored, was in sharp contrast to Susanna’s husband, a man she struggled to forget, a man who had left her after she had experienced a brutal rape. It seemed it was he, who was too traumatized by the attack to remain with her. Both of the women’s families had endured religious controversy in a number of ways. They were affected by the anti-Semitism rampant around them in the time periods in which they lived. Some were influenced by an outright rejection of religion and/or the conversion to another. Both interacted with the wealthy and the prominent. One was a philanthropist and one worked for philanthropists. Both women were strong willed and both were childless. Both also were intelligent and highly respected. Although their lives and worlds existed in wholly different times and on different social planes, their lifestyles and personalities were similar.
After Susanna’s Uncle Henry ended his life, she had to go to his home to clean out his things. It was she who discovered a letter revealing the location of the papers that her uncle had stolen from the Weimar home. She was forced to face many difficult decisions after their discovery. As she proceeded to deal with the possibly authentic and previously unknown work by John Sebastian Bach, the events that connected her to Sara Levy become apparent. However, although the book is well researched with regard to its history, coincidences in Susanna’s life seemed to conveniently occur. It seems she just happened to walk by a Lutheran Church and notice that they were having a Lutheran speaker on Bach at the same time as she wondered about her uncle’s “gift”. Then she just happened to recover from her trauma enough to develop a relationship with the Bach expert as they began to research the origins of the cantata her uncle had taken. She seemed unrealistically naïve when it came to the value of the property she was in possession of and her desire to possibly destroy or sell it seemed also to be sometimes very short sighted. Could so well educated a woman truly be that naïve as to the value of the documents she possessed. Was it possible to return them to their rightful owners? There seemed to be a contradiction in her behavior.
The idea that there was a missing Bach Cantata that was totally anti-Semitic that somehow wound up in the hands of Jews who had hidden it and protected it from the world until Susanna became aware of it and exposed it, seemed fraught with challenges. How did the score of such a piece remain hidden for 65 years having been passed on to several owners? Why had no one explored the contents of the piano bench in the home it was found? Wasn’t the idea that it had remained in that piano bench, and then in a drawer, untouched by any family a bit of an incongruity?
Had this story about the possibility of the discovery of a missing anti-Semitic Bach score been kept simple and been presented as a discussion of the history of the music and of the anti-Semitism that was probably experienced by the Mendelssohn’s from the likes of the Bach’s, in Germany, it would have been far more interesting to me. However, Susanna, who suddenly morphed into somewhat of a musical scholar and then as a love object of several men, seemed like the stuff of fairy tales. The tangential information around her life seemed to be nothing but unnecessary window dressing. It would have been more credible to me had she simply been working with experts or colleagues in order to discover the origin of the missing piece of music. In addition, to what end did the author insert current day liberal objectives which lent nothing to the historic importance of the story, other than in one instance in which the need to preserve the papers in a controlled and healthy environment was stressed?
The more important and prominent historic theme about how the Jewish members of society in Germany were treated, and the hints that grew up about how the increasing development of confrontational behavior signaled the coming of greater anti-Semitism, could have been more fully developed. It foreshadowed that as economic problems grew, Jews would be once again blamed and resented. They became more of a target and that might possibly have been the reason why the previously unknown piece by Bach was hidden. It was vehemently anti-Semitic.
The author took a book which to my mind would have been a fine literary experience and diminished it by including unnecessary sex and language, as in the use of the crude term “laid” when referring to someone’s need for sex. She obviously did a lot of research, but that research paled for me when the tangents took over, when Susanna took on the self-important attitude of a scholar on the subject of lost musical pieces, although she had no knowledge whatsoever of music, when she suddenly didn’t trust anyone else to care for the “autograph”, when she began to entertain the romantic advances of the men involved. There seemed to be an excess of extraneous dialogue. In addition, I often felt as if each chapter fell off the cliff unexpectedly when another suddenly began in a new time zone. There didn’t seem to be a cohesive continuity. However, the resolution of what to do with the lost cantata was, I suspect, the only satisfying conclusion.
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LibraryThing member Alphawoman
Fascinating look into the world of scholars who study Bach. Two stories, which seems to be new blueprint to write a book, that tell a story from two time periods where one defines the outcome of the other.

Good story.
LibraryThing member Carl_Alves
And After the Fire to me was overwritten, overblown, and not particularly interesting. The problem with the story starts with the premise. It toggles between the present and past. In the past, there is a piece of music by Bach that is anti-Jewish. It is given by Bach’s son to a Jewish woman who
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passes it along to other family members. In the present, Susanna Kessler inherits the piece of music after her uncle commits suicide, and doesn’t know what to do with. There’s so much made about the fact that this cantata trashes Jews and Judaism, but from my perspective it wasn’t a big enough deal to carry a novel. The characters made as if this would be some Earth shattering revelation and I fail to see why. There were many Jewish detractors in Germany at the time, so this was hardly remarkable. In other words, who cares.

Not only did the premise not work, but the rest of the novel fell short as well. For one thing, about half of the novel could have been cut out, and the novel wouldn’t lose anything. There was so much fluff that did nothing to advance the plot or add to character development. I had no interest in the long expositions about the various classical music pieces, and if you’re not into classical music this novel probably won’t interest you. The author tried to make the main characters fractured so as to make them more compelling but they fell flat as well. This is a novel I would recommend skipping.

Carl Alves – author of Two For Eternity
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LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
Had Johann Sebastian Bach been born 250 years later, might he have become a Nazi?

That seems more than possible in Lauren Belfer's novel "And After the Fire" in which Susanna Kessler, following the death of her uncle, finds in his Buffalo home what appears to be an unknown Bach cantata, the words of
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which call for the violent persecution of Jews. The words are those of Martin Luther. The uncle, a veteran, had brought it home from Germany after World War II and kept it hidden ever since.

Susanna, herself a non-believing Jew who had lost members of her family in the Holocaust, turns to two young Bach experts to determine if this is indeed a Bach cantata. It is. Meanwhile both men, a Jew and a Lutheran, fall in love with her. A third Bach expert learns about the cantata and decides he knows best about what to do with it, if only he can bend Susanna to his will.

While moving this story along, Belfer traces the history of the cantata from the time one of Bach's sons, near the end of his life, gives it to his best music student, a young Jewish woman from an aristocratic family. It passes through other hands, including the family of composer Felix Mendelssohn, until the time Susanna's uncle finds it, more accurately steals it, in 1945. So skilled a writer is Belfer that both threads of the narrative prove equally interesting.

She never fully develops the love triangle aspect of her novel, nor the greedy ambitions of that third Bach expert. Her interest, for better or worse, seems to lie more with the cantata than with the characters.

I couldn't love this book as much as I did Belfer's first novel, "City of Light." This has much to do with the way the thrust of her story seems to blame Christians for the Holocaust in much the same way some Christians, including the Bach of this novel, have blamed Jews for the Crucifixion. Throughout the novel her most favored characters, both Christians and Jews, are those who no longer believe anything, as if this were the best way to achieve peace and understanding. Tell that to the millions of people persecuted by atheist regimes in places like China, North Korea, Cambodia and the former Soviet Union.
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LibraryThing member Smits
Good book. Historically interesting novel about Berlin, Jewish history there and mostly music, classical music, Bach.
LibraryThing member ssperson
Very enjoyable book. At first I was a little put off by the jumps between present day and past, but it came together beautifully. I'm always happy when Buffalo is even a partial setting for a book, and Belfer can be counted on for that. My only quibble was that the narrator pronounced "Hertel"
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wrong, but that can be forgiven. ;)
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Physical description

464 p.; 9 inches


0062428519 / 9780062428516
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