Sep 27, 2015

Dutch Days Book Review: The Death's Head Chess Club by John Donoghue

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Review by Suze

It's 1962 and there's an important chess tournament in Amsterdam. In the first round Emil Clément has to play against Wilhelm Schweninger. Wilhelm Schweninger is a German who worked for the Ministry of Propaganda during the Second World War. Emil Clément is a survivor of Auschwitz. The Frenchman's life was saved because of playing chess. The two have a mutual history and are linked by Paul Meissner who is also in Amsterdam at the time of the tournament. He thinks they have unfinished business together and he tries to convince Emil to listen to him. Meissner is the person who has made sure Emil's life was spared and they have a story to tell. He's now a priest who tries to do good. The three men keep meeting each other and slowly their history is being revealed. 

Emil's name in Auschwitz is The Watchmaker. Because of his repair work he earns himself a couple of privileges which he always shares with a friend. When Meissner introduces chess to improve the morals of the officers in the camp he doesn't know yet that among the Jewish prisoners there's an unbeatable player. To prove that Jews are inferior some of the Germans want him to play chess against their German champions. The stakes are getting higher and higher and Emil is just a pawn in the game, someone who doesn't have a say and who has to play to save his own life and the lives of others. 

The Death's Head Chess Club is a story about a Jewish man who was deported to Auschwitz and went through something too terrible for words. Even though Emile manages to keep his life he loses everything else. He loses his family and everything he holds dear. In 1962 he's still a very broken man. I found it unbelievably hard to read about the horrors in the camp, so it took me some time to finish this book as I could only manage a couple of chapters at a time. Of course this isn't the first WWII book I've read, but every time I read about Auschwitz it shocks me to the core. There's a lot of information about the camp itself and about the nauseating things that were being done to the prisoners, especially the Jews. I think there's a good explanation of the hierarchy of the camp which made the story more understandable and which also made it come to life.

I doubted if I would review this book for a very long time. I think John Donoghue has written a very good story and he's definitely a great writer. I had issues with the character of Meissner, who worked in Auschwitz at the end of the war. He's supposed to feel terrible because of the things that happened there and he tries to atone for what he was a part of. I kept feeling conflicted about his character, especially because Emile seems to see him as a friend towards the end of the story. For me that was too quick and also maybe a bridge too far. Because I felt so conflicted and because I didn't like certain aspects, for me this book is also a success. It made me think and it keeps making me think. I try to form an unbiased opinion, but what is the correct way to look at things in this situation? The moral questions that are arising and inner discussions I keep having with myself are turning a really good story into something great. This novel made me contemplate cruelty, the horrors of war, forgiveness, being the better person and plenty of other things. If you're prepared to feel conflicted and to read a good story that will tear you apart inside, then you should pick up this book. 


  1. Sounds very interesting. I'm glad you reviewed it.

  2. Thanks for the review. I would not have considered it before but I will now. What a great twist to the many stories from WWII.

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