Quite a few of the queries I’m sending out to literary agents ask for a one sentence pitch for the book.
Which of these do you like the best? Do you have a better idea?
1. Can young love and a passionate commitment to high ideals survive the forces of fascism, populism and propaganda in Red Vienna on the eve of World War II?
2. In Red Vienna, idealistic young lovers Gisi and Max watch their dream city fall to the forces of fascism as the second world war looms
3. In Red Vienna, young idealists Gisi and Max fall in love at the 1929 International Socialist Youth Congress and set to work creating a more caring world, but can they hold onto their vision when their beloved utopia is destroyed by racism, nationalism and civil war?
4. With shocking parallels to recent events in the United States and Europe, this book – based on a true story – tells of an idealistic young couple confronting the forces of rising fascism and civil war in Vienna on the eve of World War II.
As those of you who follow this blog know, Two Suitcases, my book project, grew to three volumes some time ago. There was just too much material. My plan was to break the characters’ journey into their years in Vienna, their years in Paris, and their years in the south of France.
Though it’s five years since I began the project, and much of that time I was working on the project with a sense of great urgency – I even dreamed that my mother was telling me “work faster!” once – I stopped for two years when Mama Ganache needed me. And then there was the move to France which caused further delay. In retrospect, though, I think the gaps improved the book. Sorry, Mom.
Recently, as I was researching and writing about the period leading to the 1934 February Uprising (or Austrian Civil War), the parallels to what’s happening in the United States now became unmistakable. I posted an excerpt last year about how Austria became a Fascist dictatorship when Englebert Dollfuss dissolved the parliament and adopted martial law.
I continued writing until I reached 1936, all the while following the news of Trump’s America. Then that sense of urgency returned, and it pushed me to change my plans. The first volume, Red Vienna, would end after the February Uprising. The period when the characters are forced underground in Vienna, 1934-38, would be the second volume, and their period in France, 1938-1940, will be the third.
At that point, I went back and revised and rewrote the first book, which is now called Red Vienna, to prepare it for publication. I’m pleased to say that I’ve begun the process of seeking representation for it.
My real reason for this blog, though, is that I read this morning that Michael Caputo, one of Trump’s toadies, was warning people of armed uprisings, and that sense of urgency returned. I’ve posted an excerpt from Red Vienna below. It was hard to choose a piece because the events happen over a period of years, but this one is a pretty pointed parallel. It takes place immediately after the uprising.
February 18, 1934
At four in the morning on February 18, Max Baum, stinking, hungry, and thirsty, furtively unlocked the door to his family’s apartment, slipped in, and immediately locked it behind him. He had climbed out of the sewer at Karl-Marx-Hof just two hours earlier, and managed to make his way home flattened against the walls of buildings, deep in the shadows, through the darkest alleys and streets of the city.
Leaving his mud-caked boots in the hall, he skirted past his sleeping father and went into the kitchen where he threw some bits of coal onto the embers in the stove, and drank down every drop of the boiled water left in the pot. Then he refilled the pot and set it on top of the stove again.
He shivered as he took off his clothes and put on his threadbare bathrobe. It would have been a good thing if he could have thrown those clothes away, but that was out of the question. Instead, he pulled the big galvanized tub out from under the sink and began to fill it, pot by pot, with water heated on the stove. As he waited for the water to heat up, he ate whatever he could find: some dry bread and most of a can of pickled herring. An hour later, when the tub was full enough, he stepped in, sighing deeply as the steaming water surrounded him and slowly warmed him. He washed himself thoroughly and then lay back and relaxed until the water was almost cold. Later, dry from the heat of the fire and wearing his nightshirt, he added another pot of boiling water to the washtub and dropped his filthy clothes into it.
It was after six in the morning when he lay down on the settee. He slept for the next twelve hours, barely stirring when his father came into the room and pulled a blanket over him.
* * *
After covering his son, Peppe left quietly to go to his cafe, where he found Dolf and Fredl sitting in a booth in the back room.
“Quick, sit,” said Dolf.
“It’s safe?” asked Peppe.
“I haven’t seen anything to make me think it’s not. But who knows anymore?” said Fredl. “They’re picking up more of us every day. We’re taking a big risk being here, but being at home could be an even bigger risk. Who knows anything anymore.”
“Max is back,” Peppe told them.
“Thank god!” said Dolf. “Did he tell you where he was?”
“He’s still sleeping.”
“At least he’s home. The news is all very bad.”
“Yes, Dollfuss is telling the world the housing complexes were built as fortresses to store weapons for an armed takeover, and that they stopped it from happening just in time,” Fredl said.
“And they’re putting out that we were in league with the Soviets,” finished Dolf. “The headline on the Fatherland Front paper says ‘Armed Insurrection Averted.’
Fredl said, “They claim only two hundred died, but I’ve heard it’s in the thousands.”
“And they’re hanging more as we speak,” said Peppe.
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.
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!
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.
Here’s a look into the process of writing Two Suitcases:
This is one of several timelines I’m using to structure the book. This one was meant to have historical events at the bottom, events and pictures from my parents’ and their friends’ lives in the middle, and trends at the top, but it’s pretty mixed already. It was a good plan anyhow.
A small herd of pipe cleaner animals has invaded my chapter chart.
My favorite pictures of my parents and the first of the pipe cleaner friends.
These are pages from my aunt’s passport, issued in German-occupied Vienna in 1938.
And here are a couple of less distressing shots:
A blue lady sunbathing.
And one dancing.
And, as promised, a snippet of what I’m working on now. This is yesterday’s work, in more or less first draft.
April 22, 1929
The University of Vienna, Ringstrasse
Ida hurries out of her first afternoon class, Dr. Charlotte Buhler on Child Development. After experimenting with sitting on three different benches, she settles on the second, and, with her book bag on her lap, she looks first to the right, and then to the left, and then to the right again. It’s her intention to keep an eye on the door she expects Erich to emerge from momentarily, while simultaneously watching the route he is likely to take to the Konditorei where they’d first met, in case she misses him coming out.
She doesn’t have to wait long. Erich’s mop of wild hair is obvious above the group pouring out of the Mathematics building. He’s walking with someone and gesturing animatedly. What next? Should she stand up and go to him? Or hope that he notices her there on the bench? The courtyard is crowded and noisy now.
Ida decides she shouldn’t chance sitting, so she stands up and makes her way toward Erich across the current of chatting students, glad of her own height. Should she call out? She’ll miss him if she doesn’t. She raises her arm and is about to wave, about to call out his name, when he turns, spots her, and grins. He says something to his companion and makes his way, cross-current, to where she is.
“Hello!” he says, genuinely glad to see her. “I was hoping we’d run into each other again!”
“And I you!” she says. He’s very handsome despite the pockmarks all over his face. She hadn’t noticed them before, but it’s not such an uncommon sight. Lots of children get smallpox and most of them die. He is lucky to have survived, she thinks. Money and good doctors, that’s always a help.
“Join me for Jause, will you? I’m going to Sluka.”
“I’d love to,” says Ida, and she lets herself be drawn into the outward flow of the crowd with Erich at her side. Sluka! Not the little bakery where they met! What have I done? What kind of fool must I be to have accepted?
Konditorei Sluka is one of the best bakeries in the city. It is elegant, luxurious, and outrageously expensive, a place inhabited by tourists and the wealthy, even the very wealthy. The Empress Elisabeth was a regular customer! Ida knows where it is, of course, but she has never been inside – though she has looked into the window longingly many times. Frantically, she searches her mind for a reason to back out now, to decline Erich’s offer, walk away and never see him again. They are too different; they’ll never get past their class differences. She is poor. He is rich.
Before she can decide on an excuse, he turns to her and asks how she likes her coffee. With whipped cream? One teaspoon of sugar or two?
By the time they reach the Konditorei, Erich and Ida have discussed their mutual enjoyment of good coffee, pastry, and the cinema, as well as establishing the comforting fact that they are both Jews.
Once in the bakery, however, her problems begin. Ida has no money. She could allow Erich pay for a small cup of coffee, but it’s much too soon in their acquaintance to let him buy her pastry.
Ida turns and looks around the Konditorei. High windows draped in sheer curtains fill the dining area with light. Glistening chandeliers in several sizes hang from the lofty ceiling. The walls are deep yellow with gold trim and pale green panels framed in rich brown. Elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen sit at highly polished round tables cutting their pastries with forks and knives. The chairs have graceful bent wood backs and legs so delicate Ida wonders how people dare to sit on them.
She takes a deep breath.
The pastry case in front of them radiates golden light. Ornately decorated pastries and cakes satisfy every visceral sense: moist cream fillings, bright fruit slices shimmering in fruity glazes atop voluminous cakes, crispy puff pastry layers surrounding vanilla scented creams, soft nut tortes offering only a fleetingly crunchy resistance to the bite while rewarding one’s every nutty desire, unctuously melt-in-the mouth coffee butter creams topped with crunch.