As Bernat rosnar and Frederic C. Tubach become acquainted, they learn something about each other that challenges their growing friendship. Rosner lost his entire family in the Holocaust; Tubach is the son of a Nazi counterintelligence officer. They refuse to accept a safe and superficial relationship that is silent about the past. Instead, they decide to risk together the excruciating pain of remembering and in the process assess their successful careers in America: Rosner as a corporate lawyer who worked hard to make himself an insider, and Tubach as a professor of German who had felt so smothered and deceived by Nazism that he took on the role of outsider.

Tubach is the book's narrator because Rosner cannot bring himself to write down his past. As Rosner explains, "Each survivor has a different way of coping with the past. My way has been to pretend that all the horror of the past happened to someone else." While Rosner's story forms the major part of the book, Tubach's story provides an insightful counterpoint. When Rosner recalls the rampant anti-Semitism that was an accepted part of village life in Hungary, Tubach remembers that one of his first German reading primers was full of anti-Semitic stories.

As Tubach struggles to understand Rosner's past, he reexamines his own and makes some startling discoveries. For example, when he was 11 years old he developed tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium. Recalling a Nazi doctor scrutinizing his medical records, he is suddenly chilled by the realization that the Nazis had formulated a plan to exterminate people with the disease. The seemingly benign doctor was deciding if Rosner should die.