In “Authors in Conversation: Ulla Lenze and Marshall Yarbrough, The Radio Operator (Der Empfänger),” author Ulla Lenze and translator Marshall Yarbrough discussed Lenze’s newest novel, “The Radio Operator.” This novel represents Lenze’s debut into American literature and depicts the life of German immigrants living in the U.S. right before the start of World War II. The novel is based in New York City in the 1930s and is based on the life of Lenze’s great-uncle, Josef Klein, a German immigrant who came to New York. He became part of the Duquesne spy ring in the late 1930s. He was recruited by Nazis using threats against his family in Germany. He complied with their demands, and used a shortwave radio to report information to Nazi Germany. He eventually found joy through his shortwave radio by connecting with others, including a love interest known as Lauren. Josef eventually confessed to the FBI about his connections to the Nazis and was detained at Ellis Island and eventually deported to Germany. Josef attempted to go back to the United States; however, the closest he got was South America. The novel begins with Klein returning to Germany after he was deported from the United States.
During the event, Lenze and Yarbrough discussed various important parts of the novel and how these parts impacted the story. Lenze and Yarbrough read various parts of the novel in German and highlighted the importance of these parts. Lenze also showed pictures of her great-uncle Josef Klein. She specifically showed a picture of his radio station, which is what the FBI found in his apartment, along with a photo taken by the FBI when they found out he was a spy.
Lenze’s mother was very generous and supported her in analyzing Josef Klein’s story. Lenze was able to find 180 letters from 1946 to 1955 between Klein and her grandfather and learned about relationships between these two brothers. Through these letters, she learned about her grandfather, who she previously knew very little about. This gave her insight into the relationship between Klein and her grandfather. She used very little content from these letters as, she explains, “novel language is not how people talk.” This made it difficult to incorporate the content from these letters into the novels. She highlights that she probably only used one sentence from the letters; however, they were influential in allowing her to understand Josef’s perspective.
Lenze did not perceive Klein as a stereotypical bad guy who betrays a country: he was sensitive and just wanted his peace and quiet. She wanted to explore the psychological aspect of this character. She wanted to create a story where someone who is a good person does the wrong thing.
One of the excerpts that Yarbrough read depicted the moment when Josef is recruited into the Nazi service. The excerpt highlights how Josef feels uncomfortable in the presence of others. He feels as if this is not where he should be.
Yarbrough explains that the biggest surprise for him was the scale of the German American Bund. In 1939, there was a Nazi Rally in Madison Square Garden and many people participated in this rally, which was surprising to Yarbrough. Lenze was also surprised that there was a Nazi network infiltrating the United States. She explained that the German press did not highlight this fact at all. Yarbrough also highlighted that punctuation causes pain to the translator and the copy editor, describing how translating from German to English was difficult but interesting.
The story of Josef ends with him moving to South America. He stayed in Buenos Aires for two years and desired to go back to the US. He acquired a visa; however, while traveling in Costa Rica, people noticed his papers were fake and put him in jail. He had influential friends who got him out of jail and he lived in Costa Rica for the rest of his life.
The story of Josef Klein is one that highlights how good people can sometimes do bad things.