Adèle

The number of coincidences, through people I’ve met, books I’ve read, the information that has come to me unbidden—or only bidden in thought— as I’ve been doing the research for Two Suitcases was already extraordinary when we met Monique Lagard a few days ago, courtesy of Montalbanais friends, Ian and Janet Milligan. 

In 1993-1994, Monique and her lycée students made a short film about Adèle Kurzweil, a young Austrian refugee who came to Montauban at the same time as my parents, in 1940. Surely Adèle’s parents knew mine. They were active Austrian Social Democrats. Adèle’s mother worked for Ernst Papanek at Montmorency, outside of Paris, between 1938 and 1940, at the same time that my mother did. Her father was interned with mine. And the film project began with the discovery of three suitcases (not two) filled with the family’s memorabilia.

Now that I am writing about this, vague memories of hearing my parents talking about Adèle and her family are returning. 

Thank you so much, Ian and Janet. Thank you so much, Monique.

The film, which is only thirteen minutes long, is subtitled in English.

Click here to see it.

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.


Arrived: Cordes-sur-Ciel

Who would have guessed that the line to rent a car at the Bordeaux airport would take 2 1/2 hours? Or that not one of the three agents would adjust their customary style to – at the very least – shorten the conversations they usually enjoy with each customer? Imagine how exciting the story of our journey from California would have been. Arnaud at Avis was particularly skilled at drawing out his clients’ stories, but I kept looking over my shoulder at the dozens of families with small children behind us: a sea of impatient grimaces, hungry whines, and tapping feet. I’m not sure it made any difference.

It took us close to three hours to get onto the road.

Outside, it was 38C, record-breaking heat, but the thoughtful GPS took us along the back roads, so we enjoyed the ride –

– even the muddy track through the cornfields that saved us a good two minutes over the more conventional route.

Eventually we arrived at the office of M. duMartin, the notaire (real estate lawyer), in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where the couple from whom we bought the house and our real estate agent were waiting.

I will be eternally grateful that Tom is fluent in French! M. duMartin, jowls and chins indistinguishable, thick steel-colored hair brushed back and plastered to his head, melted into his ornate chair behind the expanse of his ancient desk, and read aloud document after document after document. Do we understand that there can be no changes to the outside of the house, not even to the paint on the blue voleurs (shutters)? And here, this is very important, you see where the back of the house goes under the one on the street above? The well is in your house, but a shaft goes up into the house above…

Periodically a young assistant in short shorts, long legs, and assorted tattoos brought more documents, or copies for us all the sign. M. DuMartin’s wife, gray hair in braids circling her head, appeared behind him from time to time, ghostlike.

It was stiflingly hot in the room. I struggled to follow, using all the skills I’ve acquired from years of hearing loss: catching enough words to get the gist, applying what I know from similar situations, and watching everyone else’s responses very carefully. Still. French legalese!

We signed the papers at last and went to the house with the agent and the sellers for a few lessons in house’s quirks.

And now we are here!

We woke to a gentle breeze coming through the wide open window.

Such a view! Come see us!

A shift in the wind

It’s five weeks until Tom’s and my exploratory trip to France following the final sale of Mama Ganache, and less than four months until our projected move to France.
This immense choice to change countries, and languages, and neighbors is largely driven by my current project, Two Suitcases, a series of historical fiction pieces based on my parents’ three escapes from Vienna, Paris, and the south of France. In order to do research in all three settings, we planned to move to Luçon, a city of 10,000 on the Atlantic coast, very near to Centre Tripura and dear friends.
IMG_0153
As these things go, the moment I fell totally in love with Luçon, having explored it in great detail via leboincoin, the French Craigslist, Google Maps, and a series of wonderful five-minute broadcasts by Sud Vendée TV, the direction of our adventure seems to be changing.
It occurred to me to consider moving directly to the region of southern France where my parents were in hiding, rather than settling in Luçon immediately. Do the the research out of chronological order. Ease into our new life in a furnished apartment in a small city  more like San Luis Obispo or Ithaca, walkable, culturally and historically rich, with no need for a car.
Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 4.36.22 PM.png
Our trip to France in May will now include a few days in Montauban , a city of 58,000, four hours southeast of Luçon. If the right furnished apartment in center of the city shows up, perhaps we’ll end up there for our first year of footlooseness.
An hour north of Toulouse, Montauban was my parents’ destination when they left Paris as part of the great exodus of June 1940. Under the combined auspices of the Austrian Social Democratic party and the French Resistance, they spent the next two years in hiding outside a small village about an hour from Montauban. As I was growing up, both of them – but especially my mother – spoke of retiring to Montauban.
So we will see where the shifting winds blow us. Stay tuned.

Two Suitcases – in process

PD62488014_4-Membe_2493417b

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.

 

 

 

Two Suitcases – an update and an excerpt

I haven’t had much time to write lately. What with watching Éva, charming but nonetheless 19 months old, up to five days a week; sorting and emptying this enormous house and getting it ready for the market; hosting a slew of wonderful guests, some paid, some not; and best of all, having our whole, hilarious family here for over a week, entailing regular meals for between 15 and 23 guests (impossible without the help of my sister-in-law,  Joanne Currie), quiet moments are scarce.

AND YET, the ancestors haven’t let up on me. Material floods in. My parents’ papers from Vienna, Paris, and Verfeil. Above, their identification papers from Tarn-et-Garonne, in France. Below, a history of the Social Democratic Party in Brigittenau, the neighborhood in Vienna where much of what I’m currently writing takes place:

red Briggittenau book

 

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.

Here’s a draft of the section I managed to write during all the uproar of the last couple weeks.

July 12, 1929

Vienna

Trude looks into the old mirror on the inside door of the armoire and straightens her red tie for the fifth time. Her new blue shirt looks good but the tie isn’t hanging quite right. She wants everything to be perfect. Finally the tie is right. She takes Mitzi, the pipe cleaner antelope her grandmother made, from her shelf in the armoire and slips her into her pocket. Mitzi always comes along to important events. Moments later, Trude is hurrying down the stairs to catch the streetcar to the Heldenplatz for the opening ceremony of the Second International Socialist Youth Congress. 

The sight that meets her as she steps out of the car is stunning. As always she is early – but the huge plaza in front of the Hofburg Palace is already filling with many thousands of young people. Troops of children, from seven years up, their leaders, and throngs of young adults are pouring from every direction, following and clustering around red flags in a variety of shapes and sizes. 

All the same beautiful deep red, the flags symbolize International Socialism. At the entrances to the courtyard and on the steps of the palace, tall, narrow flags flutter from very high poles. Similar narrow flags are scattered across the plaza, but most of the thousands and thousands of flags – everyone is carrying one – are simple rectangles of red. Each group carries at least one to which they’ve added a symbol to identify themselves, but the great majority are just red. It is so inspiring! As Trude winds her way through the sea of color and eager young faces, she’s filled with the excited energy of the crowd. 

“Hi!” she calls out, waving her arm at Karl and Erwin when she spots them on the steps to the Federal Chancellery, where their group is gathering. The brothers got up at four in the morning in order to stake a claim on this fine spot. “How great! We have a perfect view!” Trude says. She climbs up a few more steps to survey the plaza. 

Never before has such a group gathered.

“You won’t be able to stay up there,” Karl tells her. “Those steps are reserved for functionaries more important than our little group of event coordinators.”

“It’s remarkable!” says Erwin, his eyes never leaving the gathering attendees. “It’s like an enormous symphony orchestra!”

Fritz and Ida arrive next. 

“We were just at the station,” says Fritz. “What a welcome we gave! A good-sized brass band was there and they were playing loud, but we young people were even louder. As the train pulled in, we formed a long, broad wall along the tracks, and waved and chanted ‘Friendship, Friendship!’ You should have seen the eyes of our comrades on the train!”  

Next come Hugo and Gert, she, in the new spring coat she made for herself out of offcuts from the dressmaker’s shop where she works. 

“It’s beautiful!” says Trudy, seeing the coat for the first time. “You’re so creative with so little!” 

“That is truly a compliment,” Gert replies. “Your mother is the queen of creative reuse! And you’re no slouch yourself.” 

Trude smiles and turns a little to model her grey skirt, recently an old coat, swinging it outward gently to let the red trim show.

“Thanks! I’ll never be as good a seamstress as my mother, though,” she says. “I can’t compete. That’s why I worked so hard to get into Gymnasium.”

“That’s not true. You’re so smart! You’d be bored being an apprentice like me.”

“I don’t think I’d mind if I could work for someone else in a big shop like you do. But I would have to work at home for my mother! I wouldn’t be able to stand it!”

“I understand perfectly!” Gert laughs. 

The group is talking animatedly as the musicians seat themselves on the large balcony above the palace entrance. Then Ida looks up in surprise. 

“Erich!” she cries out. “You came!” 

“Would it be alright if I join you?” asks Erich. 

“You aren’t part of our group,” says Hugo. “You really shouldn’t…”

“Why not?” Ida’s voice cuts sharply over Hugo’s. “Everyone, let me introduce my friend from the University, Erich Stein. Erich, these are my friends in the events coordination group I told you about. Hugo Preis, the rude one there,” she glares at Hugo, then goes on, “and Gert Heber, his girlfriend, Karl and Erwin Weiss, my brother Fritz of course you know, and this is Fritz’s girlfriend, Trude.”

Erich subdues his inclination to flinch at her boldness, and nods and smiles at each one of Ida’s friends. “Glad to meet you,” he says. Only Trude notices his discomfort with the way Ida spoke over Hugo; she feels the same way herself.

The orchestra begins with Richard Strauss’s “Festival Procession.” By the time they finish and the chorus joins in for the “Wake Up” from Wagner’s Meistersinger, every heart in the massive plaza is joined to every other. 

The hope of a new world is gathered.

Otto Felix Kanitz, founder of the Red Falcon scouts and head of the progressive Kinderfreunde school at the castle, Schönbrunn, greets the Future of Socialism, standing in the plaza before him. Karl Seitz, the mayor, welcomes them all to Red Vienna, living proof that a City of the People, For the People, is possible. The Dutchman Koos Vorrink, speaking for the International Youth Movement, announces that internationalism, the Internationale, the greatest conception of what humanity can be, is alive and flourishing. The orchestra is drowned out by the enormous cheer that rises from the crowd as the red flag of International Socialism is carried up onto the dais.

In the afternoon, guided tours of Vienna are offered, and most of the young people spread out over the city in small groups, visiting the social housing complexes as well as St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Opera House, and other sights. The event coordination group splits up to prepare for the twenty-five concerts, celebrations, and performances that will be offered all over the city that evening.

Ida is the leader of the group preparing for Josef Luitpold Stern’s poetry reading in the large meeting room at Karl-Marx-Hof  that evening. She intends to get there at 6, but how can she refuse when a group of her friends says they were going to a café for a drink and a bite to eat? 

“Hey, redhead, you come too,” one of them calls to Erich as he links arms with Ida and pulls her along. 

Erich is very entertaining on a couple of beers – Ida already knows that. An hour passes in laughter as comical imitations of the morning’s speakers mix with deep appreciation of the Youth Congress so far. The sheer numbers! The power of the language: “a City of the People, for the People.” And how tightly organized the congress is!

Oh my! Ida realizes that she should have left for Karl-Marx-Hof ten minutes ago. 

“I’ll find something for you to do, Erich,” she says over her shoulder as she hurries down the street. “But you really should have decided to come when I first invited you. We would have found a good job for you.”  He catches up with her. For a few moments, their long strides match.

“I’m usually good at making myself useful wherever I am. What still needs to be done before the bard declaims?” he asks.

“Just tag along and I’ll see when we get there.”

They board the tram together.

Trude arrives at Karl-Marx-Hof and heads straight to the large meeting room. The room is unlocked, and but no one is there. She looks at her watch: half an hour early. All the way over, she worried she would be late. Well, she is not.

The high-ceilinged room is lovely in the late summer afternoon. The windows are open wide, letting in a pleasant, fresh breeze. Summer sun fills the space and bounces off the glistening wood floor. At the front, the podium is already on the dais. Banners hang on all the walls. Hundreds of folding chairs are neatly stacked on wheeled carts lined up along the back wall. 

The center of the room is gloriously open.

As quietly as possible, almost on tiptoe, Trude crosses the huge room. She hangs her bag on the back of a folding chair, squints to look at the whole room, and then checks her watch again.

Humming the Skaters Waltz to herself very softly, Trude begins to glide around the perimeter of the room, sliding on the highly polished floor as if she were skating. After just a few bars, she realizes how much more smoothly she could glide if she weren’t wearing shoes, so she pauses, unbuckles her sandals, and slips them off. Looking at her watch one last time, she leaves her shoes under the windows, and begins the waltz again. Her thin stockings slide beautifully. 

This time she sings out the melody, dah, dah, dah, dah!  Soon she leaves the edge of the room and glides across the middle. Then she skates around happily, making figure eights and graceful curves, singing all the time, until she notices with a shock that someone is standing in the door watching her.

It is Erich, who arrived at Karl-Marx-Hof with Ida a few minutes ago. 

“Go ahead of me, Erich, and go and see if we need to turn on the lights in the large meeting room,” said Ida, who needed to stop in at the office first.

When Erich gets to the large meeting room, it is filled with light, and a fairy, some lithe little thing in a blue blouse, a pretty skirt, and stocking feet, is dancing around the room alone, accompanying herself with a slightly off-key version of Skater’s Waltz. 

He is instantly enchanted. Should he announce his presence? Surely she will see him on one of her turns. In the meantime, he takes in the sweetness of this young girl dancing by herself so beautifully. 

When she sees him, Trude is mortified. Her heart pounds and blood rushes to her face. A man saw her being so silly! 

Without retrieving her shoes, she heads toward the door to see who it is. When she realizes it’s Ida’s friend Erich, she’s even more upset. He must be at least Ida’s age – what, 20? – and he stood there watching her make a fool of herself. When did he come? How long was he watching her?  Suddenly she’s angry. How extraordinarily impolite of him! 

Breathing heavily, she stomps over to where Erich is leaning in the doorway. How dare he look so relaxed, so nonchalant? His long limbs remind her of a grasshopper. 

“Why are you here?” she asks bluntly. She is standing firmly in front of him, hands on her hips, looking up. He’s a head and a half taller than she. “Didn’t Ida tell you the poetry reading doesn’t start for another hour and a half?”

“Ida sent me up here to turn the lights on for that very event,” says Erich. “It seems it isn’t necessary.” He smiles at the fire in her eyes. 

Footsteps echo from down the hall. 

“Ah, here is the great leader herself,” he finishes, looking down the hall and calling out, “Ida, Trude is already here!”

“Trude! Well, there are three of us. Let’s set up the chairs,” says Ida, entering, brisk and businesslike, apparently not noticing Trude’s stocking feet. 

Trude gets to work, grabbing her sandals as discreetly as possible as she passes the windows, and scrambling to put them on while Erich and Ida are talking. 

Soon the rest of the group arrives, all of the three hundred chairs are set up and coffee is brewing in a samovar. 

The poetry is mythic, thrilling, larger than life. It speaks equally to the glory and the utter humility of humanity.  It extols peace and condemns militarism. The crowd cheers and swoons.

Erich wonders if he is the only one in the room who considers it bombastic and grandiose. But he is no fan of Wagner, either.

Two Suitcases: a wink from Eric

My desk is filled with photos my parents and their friends in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. None of the main characters in my historical fiction novel-in-progress, Two Suitcases, is alive.

I should have asked more questions.

IMG_7014I write from pictures, from old newspaper articles and newsreels, from family stories told many times or just once, from snatches of memory, from dreams. I read about the period and places where the story is set incessantly. Then I make up stories that could have happened.

 

IMG_7015

There are four main characters in Ida 1940'sthe story: my mother and father, Trude and Fritz, my father’s sister, Ida, and a friend of the family, Eric. Six more characters play secondary roles. None of these are entirely fictional, but what they do in the novel is certainly not what they did in life. It’s fiction.

Sometimes I wonder if they approve.

I had the great fortune to be with both my parents when they died, and I was close to my aunt till the end, but until yesterday, I thought Eric died about eight years ago and no one knew to contact me.

In yesterday’s mail I found a beautiful handwritten note.

It says,

“Eric passed away October 3, a few weeks before his 102nd birthday. He was in good health and excellent spirits. He died peacefully at home. His heart stopped while he was reading the Wall Street Journal.”

The perfect ending.

I said good-bye to Eric in 2008 on my way home from India. I already lived in California then and came east very rarely. Eric was his usual gracious and elegant self. It was five years after my mother died, and he told me for the first time how he’d loved her. At 95, he was still walking long distances every day, but we talked about the likelihood that this would be our last meeting. He filled my rental car with treasures from his beautiful house and we stood in the driveway a long time saying good-bye.

Caught up in the hurly burly of home, I didn’t write a thank you note for some months. When I did, it came back stamped “unknown.” I mourned.

I should have asked more questions.

I missed seven good years of Eric’s life.

Still, over these last couple months, the character, Eric, has been pressuring me to give him a more and more important role in the story. He’s been developing more personality, more, in fact, than any of the others, save Ida, and that perhaps because she acts as a foil to him. His voice is clearest.

If that note isn’t a wink, I don’t know what is.

Thanks, Eric. It feels like you approve.

 

Hummingbirds (or, The End of the World)

From Tuesday to Friday each week, I watch a little girl called Éva, who is 17 months old. She is a delightful child, full of life, curiosity, and good humor.

This week Éva wasn’t feeling well, so we watched one of Mr. Rogers’ operas, “Windstorm in Bubbleland,”1475 over and over. Éva is born to opera: her father is the director of OperaSLO, and her mother is a great lover of opera.

I enjoyed Windstorm so much that I played it for Tom and later for a friend.

In the opera, Hildegarde Hummingbird, played by Lady Elaine, warns the people of Bubbleland that a great windstorm is coming, but no one will listen to her.

“Why won’t you believe me?” she asks, and the people of Bubbleland sing back,

“Because we don’t want to!”

The summary of Windstorm in Bubbleland on IMDB ends:

The wind attempts to utterly demolish Bubbleland. The fate of the world rests in the wings of an unsung feathered heroine.

IMG_7245This morning, the morning following the Paris attacks, the dawn of the apocalypse, I came across an old, handmade book hidden among some papers I was sorting for our coming move. It is a poem by Walter Gruen, written in December, 1939, while he was interned in Meslay du Maine, France, along with the artist who created the little book, Hugo Price, my father, and many other Austrian and German Socialists, intellectuals and artists.

The Song of Barbed Wire

Black and full of clouds

hardly any stars shine in the sky…

Will the night ever go away and the sky begin to lighten?

Barbed wire

separates us from love.

Longing consumes us.

When will freedom blossom?

Freedom, ah, you are so ardently awaited!

Every suffering

has its end.

The sun rises again…

March storms rage,

Longing becomes fulfilled!

Barbed wire

in all the lands

freedom is denied …

March storms will thunder

Freedom will return.

Moments after I shared the book with Tom, we discovered a hummingbird trapped in each of the three skylights in our bedroom. Three hummingbirds! Three rufous hummingbirds, the California version of Hildegarde, banging their heads against the glass.

We tried to free them, but it was time to go to the farmers’ market. After making sure the cats were elsewhere, we left the three hummingbirds to exhaust themselves until they fell, and hopefully to fly away when they recovered.

As I got into the car with my bags for the market, I moved a piece of paper from my seat. It was a flyer for a friend’s radio show:

my WIN card copy

Four hummingbirds!

A couple hours later, two of the three in the skylights were gone. The last one, like Hildegarde at the end of the opera, lay silent on the floor. As I picked the tiny body up, it woke, shook itself, and flew off. Like Hildegarde.

Traditionally a harbinger of the joy of life and of synchronicity, hummingbirds also symbolize courage, adaptability, determination and flexibility.

Four hummingbirds show up just when I’m feeling the end of the world is surely at hand. There must be a message here, don’t you think?