Monday, June 18, 2012

Some Girls, Some Hats And Hitler - Trudi Kanter

I've started putting some of my books on Library Thing - specifically Virago books, and mostly in the hope that it'll stop me buying duplicates and missing bargains which I fear might be duplicates. The good thing about doing this is that I keep finding great looking books I've yet to read. The bad thing is that I've somehow lost 'Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler', it can't have gone far - I had it yesterday, but although my flat isn't large it has many piles of books in which one slim volume can hide. It could be a while before it turns up again so although I don't like to write about a book when it isn't to hand I'm going to just this once (before I forget to much about it).

I love me a book with a pretty cover - which is what I first noticed about this one. It's so pretty that I overcame my prejudices about potentially tear jerking memoires involving Nazi's (which is not to make light of the terrible things that happened to people).  'Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler' is however something a bit different, Trudi was a succesful business woman and designer running her own thriving millinery studio. Her first marriage broke down, but seemingly amicably, and she fell in love with the equally successful Walter (handsome and cultured with plenty of money and a gift for invention). There relationship is passionate and possessive, both have a jealous streak and Trudi does not trust other women with her Walter. There days together in the Vienna of the thirties are a round of cloths and food and fun. Coffee and pastries at Demel's, shopping, dinners with friends, and beautiful flats full of luxurious trappings - Walter and Trudi are popular and happy, they're Jewish but not very devout (Trudi talks a lot about various pork dishes she eats, perhaps to make this very point?) and there in lies the problem.

On a buying trip to Paris in early March 1938 Trudi realises the extent of the danger she and Walter are in, everyone begs her to stay in France but when she calls Walter to try and persuade him to join her he won't budge. It leaves her with little choice but to return to try and persuade him in person. She gets back to Vienna just ahead of the Germans, the Anschluss closes the borders and the couple are trapped. Things change overnight, Trudi genuinely seems to have no enemies, her employees, the building doorman, her neighbours all protect her. Walter isn't so lucky, someone has a grudge and wants him out of the way. His flat is appropriated, his car stolen by garage mechanics, his life quickly dismantled. Trudi turns all her considerable energies to finding a way out of Austria for the pair of them. It's a tense process full of unbearable delays but finally she has them on a train to Czechoslovakia. 

This is where I really warmed to the couple, Trudi as she describes some of the awful things that happened around her is clear sighted enough to understand how mob rule works, she also remembers all the small acts of kindness that get her out. Her carefully balanced account makes an anecdote about a customer all the more powerful, the girl is a Viennese courtesan (high class enough to afford Trudi's hats) famed for her lovely breasts, she survives the camps only because she's turned into a whore. (I can't quote because I've lost the book, but it's a stark insight into the reality of a situation).

In Czechoslovakia the couple try and warn Walter's family to flee, they in turn are warmly pressed to stay; the family feel safe, treat the couple with open handed generosity, none of them survive. From there they finally get to London where for the first time they meet with hostility where friendship might have been hoped for. Walter's uncle will give only the most limited help and no hospitality, but it doesn't stop Trudi - she's now determined to get her parents to England as well, something she manages despite the odds, but happily even in England she has influential ex clients and the couple haven't lost their ability to make friends. 

In a cruel twist Walter and his father in law end up interred as enemy aliens (a really shameful part of our war effort) so Trudi sets about getting them out. For all the difficulties the family meets they are the lucky ones. They come out alive, together, and even manage to salvage some of their belongings. Trudi is an amazing woman, nothing is to much for her if it will help Walter and her parents, she simply never gives up. It's not a perfect book, there are sometimes small anomalies that make you suspect she's skirting around things that she might not care to dwell on - but that's the autobiographers prerogative. It's a story that's worth telling though, and certainly worth reading.    

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