Two Suitcases: an excerpt


Powidltascherl

Alsergrund
December 31, 1934

Trude’s grandfather died on the last day of 1934. A fever took him, or perhaps it was pneumonia. He wouldn’t let Helene or Trude go for the doctor. “My time has come,” he told them that morning when, for a short time, he had the strength and clarity to speak. “Don’t spend good money dragging things out. Just sit with me.”

Trude brought another cool washcloth from where it was hanging on the sill of the slightly open window, and put it on his burning forehead. He hadn’t eaten for three days, and stopped taking liquids the night before.

Helene sat at the table writing notes to their relatives inviting them to come to say good-by. He might have another few days, she wrote. He’s a strong man.

In the early afternoon, two of Herr Berger’s friends from the coffee house stopped in. Trude went over earlier to tell them why her grandfather hadn’t been around for the last few days. A short time later a cousin from the next district brought a pot of soup.

“He’s not eating, Grete,” Helene told her.

“It’s for you and Trude, Helene. You’ll go on living, no?”

“It’s very kind of you to think of us, Tante Grete,” said Trude.

Grete grunted and pulled her sweater around herself more tightly. “Why on earth is that window open? Are you both crazy? You’re letting him die!”

“Papa wants it open,” Helene said.

“And you think he’s in the right frame of mind to give advice?” Grete walked over to the window and closed it firmly.

“Grete!” came a voice from under the blankets on the settee. “Leave that window alone!

“Ach, Josef!’ cried Grete. “You’re still with us? Good! I have some messages for you to give to our family on the other side.” She opened the window just a little.

“There is no other side, Grete, but tell me anyway.” Herr Berger sounded infinitely weary. He closed his eyes and didn’t open them again until Grete was gone.

The sun was low in the sky when he woke once more.

“Close the window, Helene,” he said.

Alsergrund
January 12, 1935

“And five hundred grams of flour,” Trude said to the grocer’s wife. She looked at the small glass bottle of milk, the six eggs, the hundred grams of walnuts, and the hundred grams of butter already on the counter, and added up how much it would cost. “No,” she said. “Make that four hundred grams of flour. We have a little at home.”

“What are you making?” asked the grocer’s wife.

“Powidltascherl. The family is coming. You heard that my grandfather died? It was his favorite.”

“Oh, yes! So suddenly!”

“It was fast. He was fine, he caught a cold, and then he was gone. He was seventy-three, you know.”

“A good age. He had a long life. How many people are coming to you?”

“Well, the family from Tyrol, and maybe his cousins from Bavaria. And everyone from here. Maybe twelve or fifteen in all?”

“Then you’ll need more ingredients than this for the powidltascherl! Do you have the powidl?”

“I have two jars. It should be enough.”

“But you won’t have enough dough for that much powidl.” She was already weighing out more flour. “Here, I’m giving you more eggs, too. You have enough sugar? Let me give you some anyway.” The counter was filling with goods.

“No, no, Frau Steinmann! I can’t afford this much and I can’t add to our bill! It’s already late!”

“Trude! You aren’t paying for any of this! I’m giving it to you so you can remember Josef properly.”

“Oh, Frau Steinmann, you mustn’t. What will I tell my mother when I bring home so much food?”

“You tell her it’s my gift! We went to school together, your mother and I. Your family has come here for too many years to count. Take it! Open your bag and let me put these things in.”

Trude opened her bag. Frau Steinmann was right. One recipe would never feed so many people. “You’re very kind. Some day I’ll figure out a way to return the favor,” she said as she went back out into the cold.

Two hours later, the apartment was so packed with family and friends that people could barely move.

“Excuse me, Tante Anna,” Trude said as she pushed her way to the table with another plate of powidltascherl. She’d been able to make four recipes with the two jars of powidl and the ingredients Frau Steinmann gave her. Before returning to the kitchen, she popped another of the crispy plum turnovers into her mouth. It was her third. She stood still for a minute to savor the sweet and remember her grandfather. The taste of the powidl brought tears to her eyes. She ate the tascherl very slowly.

Behind her, she heard one of the cousins from Bavaria talking to Grete.

“All the Jews in our village are gone,” he was saying. “Every one.” Trude stayed where she was, perfectly still, listening. The cousin continued, “Could be they’re in hiding somewhere.”

“What are they hiding from?” asked Anna. “The police? Their neighbors?”

“Both. It’s very bad for the Jews all over Germany now. They can’t work, the children can’t go to school, what should they do? I imagine they went to the larger cities where maybe they can get work doing the things nobody else wants to do.” He reached over to the table and took two more powidltascherl. “If you ask me, that’s what they should be doing. That’s what they should have been doing all along. Making themselves useful without taking our jobs.”

Oh god, thought Trude. She hoped Litzi and Theresa wouldn’t be coming. What would she say to them?

“We’re much better off without the Jews,” the cousin continued. “The bank is in local hands now, and although there is only one left, we have a doctor we can trust.”

“The Jewish doctor wasn’t trustworthy?” asked Anna.

“Doctors! There were two. To be honest, I never had a problem with them, Herr Frankel and Herr Goldmann, but you hear stories.”

Deciding she’d heard enough, Trude looked up, and there was Fritz, right across the room from her, standing hesitantly near the door. He looked thin and haggard. Trude watched him make his way to where her mother was accepting condolences and wait his turn to speak to her. He didn’t look around the room.

She glanced at the plate of powidltascherl. More than half were still there.

“Excuse me, Tante Anna,” she said again, this time making her way to where Fritz stood.

“Trude!” a voice called out. It was Theresa, the cousin she grew up with, the cousin she hadn’t seen in more than two years, the cousin whose wedding she missed because of the civil war, the one who never wrote back after Trude told her that Fritz and she were planning to travel together, and to marry someday.

“Theresa!” Trude exclaimed as they hugged. “How wonderful to see you!” and it was. All their differences fell away in that hug. The two young women forgot what was going on around them, so deep in conversation were they, catching up, apologizing, falling into their old familiar way of being together.

It was ten minutes before Trude remembered that she was in charge of the powidltascherl, and the two of them went into the kitchen to prepare another batch. It was half an hour before she remembered Fritz. He was gone by then.

March 1933 – an excerpt from Two Suitcases

Talk about history repeating itself. This is where I am in Two Suitcases now:

Café Rüdigerhof, Brigitennau, Vienna
March 7, 1933

Fritz closes the shop early to meet with the others at the coffee house. The news that Chancellor Dollfuss eliminated the parliament hit the press earlier that week, and today it was announced that the Wartime Economy Authority Law, an emergency law passed in 1917, would be used as a basis to rule.


Every day that week brought what seemed like earth-shattering news. First the National Council couldn’t agree on how to settle the railway workers’ strike. When an agreement was finally reached, irregularities were found in the vote, and Karl Renner, leader of the SDAP, resigned as Chairman of the Council.


Rudolf Ramek, a Christian Socialist, then became Chairman. He declared the previous vote invalid and asked for a new vote. Another uproar followed. Ramek then resigned, and Sepp Straffner of the Pan-Germans became Chairman, but he also stepped down immediately. The resignations of Renner, Ramek, and Straffner left the house without a speaker, so the session couldn’t be closed and the National Council was incapable of acting. The members left the chamber as a consequence.


Chancellor Dollfuss declared a constitutional crisis. The parliament had “eliminated itself,” a crisis not provided for in the constitution. He then set up an authoritarian government without a parliament. The establishment of wartime rule gave him complete authority.


“It’s what he always wanted! He wanted to be head of a fascist state from the beginning!” Gert is saying as Fritz comes into the coffee house.


“That’s not true. He wanted to make peace between the parties at first,” Fanny answers.


“What does it matter what his intentions were?” Karl asks. “We have a completely authoritarian government now. Democracy is dead.”


“It’s as bad as Italy,” says Hugo. “Dollfuss always admired Mussolini.”


“That’s why I said he always wanted to be a dictator,” Gert points out.


Fritz adds, “It’s a coup d’état, really. Renner, Ramek, and Straffner fell right into his hands.”


“At least he won’t let Austria merge with Germany,” says Erwin.


“Small comfort when one man now controls the power over all economic activities and over war and peace indefinitely,” Fritz says.


Fanny wonders, “Do we continue our new education program? Having Dollfuss as dictator doesn’t diminish the rising power of the Nazis and the dangers of demagoguery.”


“Dollfuss isn’t a Nazi. Or a demagogue. It’s possible the rule of a strong hand will calm things down a little,” Erwin says.


“One can hope,” says Gert, “but I think the Nazis are far too pleased with how fast their ideas are spreading to stop now.”


“I think they’ll be more dangerous than ever. And Dollfuss’s party, the Christian Socials, are barely less anti-Jewish than the Nazis anyway,” Karl says.


Erwin adds, “I wonder if it will soon become too dangerous for us to even hold meetings or give talks.”


“Especially in the beer halls. I already find them frightening,” Fanny says.


“We shouldn’t be driven by fear of what might be!” Fritz answers. “I say we go ahead with the talks as scheduled. I think it would be a big mistake to let ourselves be intimidated.”


“I agree!” “Yes.” “You’re right,” the others say.


“Alright. We’ll go ahead, but I think we all need to keep our eyes and ears open to gauge the response of the groups we address. Dictators use spies to keep the peace. It’s more important than ever that we aren’t seen as rabble-rousers,” says Hugo. “We’ll meet on Tuesday then, and listen to Karl practice his speech for the beer hall.”


Two Suitcases – an update

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.

French identification papers for travel, 1940

Tickets for the Serpa Pinto, the ship Fritz and Trudy took from Lisbon to Philadelphia in 1942

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.


Two Suitcases – in process

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This is the first image that arrived on my desktop when I began the research for Two Suitcases. I googled “Socialist Youth Movement Vienna 1929” and this magical doorway into the world in which my parents met opened.

When I read about Edith Tudor-Hart, who took the photo (a show of her work is making the rounds called The Soviet Spy with a Conscience), she immediately joined my list of possible characters in my book. It’s a long list. There were so many extraordinary people around in Red Vienna that many of the people on that list haven’t shown up in the book yet. Edith jumped right in.

[I think I will change the names of the characters soon.]

Almost all the settings in the book come from pictures: family pictures and stories, or gifts Mother Internet sends me. I wrote the section on the Youth Congress from a newsreel. The torchlight march was inspired by hearing the songs the kids were singing.

I paste the material into the text above what I’m writing and take them out later. At first I didn’t save the pictures, so I hadn’t seen this one in months until I started collecting the pictures on Pinterest.

Here’s an excerpt in which the current version of Edith appears. My favorite line belongs to her:

“So, why do you think we have wars?”

“Because we are ruled by an elite group of sociopaths who own the banks that fund both sides of war for profit!”  says Edith, slamming her hand on the table.

Here’s the whole section:

July 13, 1929

It is Ernst Papenek’s talk on the benefits of International Socialism on the second morning of the Youth Congress that finally wins Erich over to the cause. At Fritz’s invitation, he sits with some of the young men from the Brigittenau group: Hugo, Karl, Erwin, and a fellow called Franz, and listens to Papanek for most of the morning. Not only does the speaker make Democratic Socialism seem reasonable, caring, expedient and attainable – all important values to Erich – but it turns out that Papanek, unlike Luitpold Stern, is not a pacifist. It isn’t that he promotes or even approves of militarism, but he does believe in facing up to the dark forces that oppose the dream of a unified socialist world. 

Afterwards, Trude, Fanny, and Gert join them at a cafe to share their experiences. Edith arrives from the tent camps where she has been taking photographs. “18,000 kids in 3000 tents! You must find the time to go over to see them,” she announces as she pushes her bulky camera bag under the chair and sits down. “Vienna is housing 22,000 young guests for these three days – and they’re all having a great time from what I see.” 

An enthusiastic discussion follows, but Erich is itching to bring up Papanek’s stand on fighting. At last he finds an entry point.

“The ideas I’m hearing are all tremendous, but I wonder if you aren’t being naive. Even Papanek believes that the children may not be safe in today’s world. We shouldn’t imagine that by not thinking about it, we can make the National Socialists and their hatred disappear. We may need to fight to protect the children.”

“Papanek wouldn’t say that! You misunderstand him!” Edith responds. She gets shrill about such issues easily. “He abhors war!”

“I think it’s you who misunderstand,” Erich answers. “He was quite clear. He doesn’t rule out the necessity of war under extreme conditions. Were you there this morning?”

“But the conditions leading up to war can be mitigated before it becomes necessary,” says Hugo.

“That hasn’t happened yet,” Erich says. “I doubt if it ever will.” He pauses and then asks the group, “So, why do you think we have wars?”

“Because we are ruled by an elite group of sociopaths who own the banks that fund both sides of war for profit!” says Edith, slamming her hand on the table.

“The current coalition government isn’t in control? I thought we were celebrating the success of Democratic Socialism here,” Erich says, one eyebrow raised.

“We are.” Edith lets out a breath so derisive it is almost a snort. “But socialism hasn’t overcome the forces of capitalistic militarism yet. War is far too profitable for the banks to easily give up financing it. They’re just waiting for the right moment to launch a new war.”

Ida says, “That’s why the work we’re doing here is so important. Young people have been raised to think war is inevitable and will always be part of our lives. The generation being raised in the socialist paradigm will know better.” 

“And will refuse to be sacrificed like pawns in a game of chess,” adds Gert.

“I don’t think it’s that easy,” says Erich. “Boys like to fight. You can’t overcome instinct. Ask Dr. Freud.”

“That’s exactly why this afternoon is dedicated to games and sport!” Fanny says, ending the discussion.  “Are any of you playing in the games?”

“We’re both on the all-Vienna football team,” Karl replies for himself and his brother. “We’re playing against the Czech team at 4:00. Are you girls coming to watch?”

“Of course!” come responses from all around.

Enjoying reading this? Click on the links above to learn more about the characters and see the material I’m using as resources.