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 and One Pallet

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The current state of the pallet.

We’re experimenting with what to take and what to leave behind, and piling up various configurations of it on the driveway. Pretty soon we’ll have a good enough idea of how and what will fit and the pile will move indoors.

Since my project is called Two Suitcases, I took the idea of moving to France with two suitcases pretty seriously. Well, with two suitcases apiece. Eventually it came to me that, though it would offer me to opportunity to partially replicate my parents’ arrival in the same part of the world in 1940, it was a thoroughly romantic – and therefore impractical – notion. We shifted our thinking to shipping one pallet of boxes.

Right now the boxes making the cut contain: the library I’ve collected to use as background material for Two Suitcases, a few boxes of my papers and other books, some of Tom’s papers and books, framed photos of the family, art, kitchen things, winter clothes, and some items to make our new home feel like our old one. Carpets, my computer, Tom’s keyboard, and more art will be shipped separately.

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Most of my days are filled with sorting and packing. This box has our favorite mugs at the bottom, some delicate pieces of art and glass in the middle, and at the top, some of the birds that lived in our houseplants or flew around the ceilings in our home here.

At its center, packed very carefully, is the crystal bell my father bought my mother with his first paycheck in 1943, less than a year after they arrived in Philadelphia. He always said he bought it to remind her of what is important.

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A thoroughly romantic notion.

 

 

 

 

 

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.