It’s two years since I stopped writing the book I’d been weaving from strands of my parents’ story.
But I’m still working on it.
The project is called Two Suitcases after the two suitcases my parents took each time they escaped, first from Vienna, then Paris, and finally from southwest France, before settling in Philadelphia, where I was born.
Since life pitched me back into Mama Ganache in 2016, I haven’t written more than a few words of the book.
The project has a life of its own, however. The story often arrives when I’m in the middle of something else, teasing me with its possibilities. Perhaps it will be a trilogy: Vienna, Paris, the south of France. Or, there’s surely enough material for a series: maybe Vienna 1929-34, Vienna 1934-38, Paris 1938-40, The south of France 1940-42.
Now I’m setting long term plans aside and thinking, once I am settled in Cordes again, I’ll try to write vignettes, a series of short pieces revealing a bigger story.
Here’s an excerpt from some writing I did in 2015.
Inside, except for a few who stare glassy-eyed into the lighted station, the passengers in the railcar are reading quietly or asleep, some sprawled over two seats, more cramped into one seat with extra luggage under the feet. Trude and Fritz find their own seats and squeeze the two suitcases between others on the racks above. The car is cooling down quickly as it sits in the station, but Trude is wearing almost everything she owns and, snuggled against Fritz on the worn leather seat, she is comfortable enough. People are smoking cigarettes and someone is singing softly, perhaps to a child. She closes her eyes but cannot sleep, so she thinks of their geese, Babette, and especially of Ignatz, who has only a few weeks to live before he graces the Christmas table. At least she won’t be the one who has to pluck his feathers and roast him.
When she opens her eyes, the train is pulling out of the station, the city receding. Nazi flags are displayed in many windows. “What next?” Fritz asks quietly. Trude tries to smile encouragingly at him – she knows how fortunate they are to be on that train – but her whole being is weighed down by the news Henri shared in the car: the brutal camps in the north, the bombings, and the implementation of the Final Solution, the eradication of all Jews in Europe.
Swastikas in shop windows fly by as the train gathers speed.
Minutes later, the conductor comes through the car, punching holes in the tickets of the people who’ve just boarded. Trude’s emotions are so raw that she trembles with fear as he approaches, even though he isn’t asking to see papers or even speaking to the passengers. Her ticket and Fritz’s are punched without incident. She sighs deeply but cannot stop shaking.
Hendaye is nearly five hours away. She should sleep. Fritz is already snoring beside her. How can he sleep, she wonders, when things are so uncertain? The train might be stopped by the authorities anytime. Would their documents pass muster? She can’t set her fears aside – they are too real.
Moments after she drops into a light sleep, voices wake her. The nightmare begins: an officer in uniform is making his way down the aisle, checking passports.
The whole time I haven’t been writing, though, the story has been growing. Cooking. Filling out. Getting richer. Fermenting. Incubating. Gestating.
I haven’t stopped reading the literature of the time, both other writers’ takes on the times, of which it seems there are more daily, and the books my mother would have read at the time, like The Radetsky March. Currently, I’m reading Paul Hofmann’s social history, The Viennese – Splendor, Twilight, and Exile.
There is a great deal of tantalizing research to be done: for example, our house is Cordes is a twenty minute drive from the village of Verfeil-sur-Seye, where my parents were in hiding between 1940 and 1942. We’ve only visited once so far, but we’ve been told about a very lucid 102-year old who may remember the years when the refugees showed up in the village.
My quest for dual Austrian/American citizenship has been most fruitful in adding details to the story.
Since I began the application process, I’ve been sorting through the boxes of papers stored by my mother, moved from house to house, unopened for many years. I found the very useful folder of documents she and my father collected while applying to Austria for restitution in the 1960’s: birth certificates, school and employment records, old addresses in Vienna, and identification papers. There are visas, tickets, and bills of lading. My mother’s and aunt’s passports are there – Ida’s stamped with a big red J over the Third Reich symbol – though not my father’s. Such treasures.
The criteria for qualifying for dual citizenship includes proving that my father never was a citizen of any country but Austria, and that he never fought in the army of another country. That opened whole new vistas in the story.
As part of the process of proving that Fritz didn’t volunteer to fight in the French army, I researched the French internment camp, Meslay du Maine, where he was held from September 1939 to June 1940. Eye-opening!
In order to explain why he was never naturalized in the US, I had the transcription of the 1953 court hearing in which he was denied American citizenship translated into German.
Stories upon stories.
But perhaps the greatest gift is the video of an interview one of our daughters did with my mother in 1996 as part of a school assignment about the war years. How extraordinary to see my mother alive, in her own kitchen, recalling the very years I’ve been thinking about so much!
So, stay tuned. This baby is going to be born.