The Death's Head Chess Club by John Donoghue
A Novel

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John Donoghue weaves a nonlinear masterpiece, carrying the reader back and forth from Auschwitz to the 1962 Amsterdam chess tournament. He proffers a terrifying moral landscape...Yet the friendship that develops between the SS officer and the Jewish chess champion speaks to the power of forgiveness, tolerance, and compassion.
-NY Journal of Books

Synopsis

A novel of the improbable friendship that arises between a Nazi officer and a Jewish chessplayer in Auschwitz

SS Obersturmfuhrer Paul Meissner arrives in Auschwitz from the Russian front wounded and fit only for administrative duty. His most pressing task is to improve camp morale and he establishes a chess club, and allows officers and enlisted men to gamble on the games. Soon Meissner learns that chess is also played among the prisoners, and there are rumors of an unbeatable Jew known as "the Watchmaker." Meissner's superiors begin to demand that he demonstrate German superiority by pitting this undefeated Jew against the best Nazi players. Meissner finds Emil Clément, the Watchmaker, and a curious relationship arises between them. As more and more games are played, the stakes rise, and the two men find their fates deeply entwined.
Twenty years later, the two meet again in Amsterdam—Meissner has become a bishop, and Emil is playing in an international chess tournament. Having lost his family in the horrors of the death camps, Emil wants nothing to do with the ex-Nazi officer despite their history, but Meissner is persistent. "What I hope," he tells Emil, "is that I can help you to understand that the power of forgiveness will bring healing." As both men search for a modicum of peace, they recall a gripping tale of survival and trust.
A suspenseful meditation on understanding and guilt, John Donoghue's The Death's Head Chess Club is a bold debut and a rich portrait of a surprising friendship.

 

About John Donoghue

See more books from this Author
John Donoghue served as a commissioned officer in both the Royal Navy and British Army before a successful career as a consultant, advising on some of the country's highest security sites. In search of new adventure, John then joined the police where he is currently a serving officer.
 
Published May 12, 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 401 pages
Genres: History, Literature & Fiction, War. Fiction
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Critic reviews for The Death's Head Chess Club
All: 3 | Positive: 1 | Negative: 2

Kirkus

Above average
on Feb 17 2015

Donoghue, a Briton, is readable and well-intentioned, but plausibility frays in the number of bad guys converted to goodness and, unfortunately, in the notion that the bitterness Clément has harbored for almost two decades can be eased in several days of recollection and dying-man homilies.

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NY Journal of Books

Good
Reviewed by Charles S. Weinblatt on May 11 2015

John Donoghue weaves a nonlinear masterpiece, carrying the reader back and forth from Auschwitz to the 1962 Amsterdam chess tournament. He proffers a terrifying moral landscape...Yet the friendship that develops between the SS officer and the Jewish chess champion speaks to the power of forgiveness, tolerance, and compassion.

Read Full Review of The Death's Head Chess Club: ... | See more reviews from NY Journal of Books

Financial Times

Below average
Reviewed by Carl Wilkinson on Apr 17 2015

But can, and should, a novel like this, however well researched (and copiously footnoted), neatly co-opt the Holocaust in this way? The result is uneven and the answer far from clear.

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Reader Rating for The Death's Head Chess Club
77%

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