Henna House by Nomi Eve

Standard

This was a fascinating book about Yemenite Jews and their unique culture and recent history; but could have been so much better had the last few chapters not been so rushed.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic kingdom was set up in the area which we would later know as North Yemen, and a decree passed which enabled the state to remove orphans from Jewish families and place them with Muslim families.   In order to escape this fate, children were often betrothed at an early age and married as soon as they reached puberty, but, in this book, the family of main character Adela were unable to find a husband for her.  In the meantime, she grew close to her aunt and cousin, henna artists in a culture which prized henna, especially for brides, in a manner similar to that of Hindu and Sikh culture.

The first five-sixths or so of the book was filled with wonderful, rich descriptions of the lives and customs of Yemenite Jews, but then it suddenly started galloping along.  Over a decade, including the Second World War, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel and the airlift of Jews from Yemen to Israel, passed within 25 pages.

Prior to that, we’d seen Adela and her family move to Aden, British South Yemen, with the journey and their new life there described as vividly as her childhood in the Kingdom of Yemen.  But then suddenly everything was in a rush – marriage, betrayal, divorce, emigration, remarriage, trying to integrate into Israeli society, learning of relatives’ fate in Europe … all within a few pages.  It had been so good up until then, and I can’t think why the author rushed the rest of it so much.

It was an interesting subject for a book, and it could have been very good if only the pace of the story had remained the same and it had been a third or so as long again.  It was excellent for about 260 pages out of 300!

 

 

Advertisement

Passport to Freedom – Drama

Standard

There seem to be quite a few things around at the moment about people escaping the Nazis.  This is one of them: a new TV mini-series about Aracy de Carvalho, a courageous Brazilian woman who was the Chief of the Passport Section at her country’s consulate in Hamburg, and issued visas to desperate Jewish people even when the Brazilian government’s policy was not to do so.  In 1982, she was honoured with a Righteous Amongst the Nations award by Yad Vashem for her brave work.  The series also features a sub-plot about a Jewish cabaret singer with a Nazi lover, which I could have done without: it’s totally fictitious and seems rather tasteless.  But the main plot has been very well portrayed so far, with the second episode showing a powerful depiction of Kristallnacht.

There’s a strange juxtaposition between the glamour of the clubs, the diplomats’ lives and the lives of well-to-do assimilated Jews on the one hand, and the destruction of property, beatings in the street, abandonment of Polish-born Jews in freezing conditions on the border and arrests of people for no good reason on the other hand, and it all comes across very well.   There’s also going to be romance for Aracy, with diplomat and future author  João Guimarães Rosa.   This series is something a bit different, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it.

 

The School That Escaped the Nazis by Deborah Cadbury

Standard

Parts of this book are very harrowing, because they contain first-hand accounts of children’s experiences in concentration camps, in ghettoes, and in hiding from the Nazis.   But it also brings across the wonderful humanity of people who tried to help either bring children to safety before war broke out or to rebuild their shattered lives after the Holocaust, chief amongst them Anna Essinger, the owner/headmistress of the school in question.

I’d been expecting a dramatic escape narrative along the lines of The Sound of Music or The Chalet School in Exile, but it was actually quite easy for the 66 pupils (mostly Jewish), teachers and other staff to get from Germany to Britain in 1933, pretending to be going on a school trip to the Netherlands.   Emigration from the Third Reich became virtually impossible later on, but it wasn’t at that point.  “Tante Anna” set up a school on the Summerhill model, with a lot of emphasis on outdoor pursuits and the arts, initially in Kent and then later being evacuated to Shropshire.   The school took on additional pupils, most of them children arriving on the Kindertransport in 1938/39 and then children who’d survived the Holocaust once the war was over.

Much of the book consists of former pupils’ accounts of their experiences during the Holocaust, and it’s difficult to read but also important to read.   And the rest largely consists of, as well as school life, accounts of Anna’s work to raise money to set the school up and keep it going.  That came mainly from Jewish and Quaker philanthropists – the author, as a Cadbury, took a lot of interest in the wonderful contribution made by the Quaker community in rescuing Jewish children.  It also details her involvement in welcoming Kindertransport children, being responsible for their reception at holiday camp buildings and helping to try to find them foster families.   Others gave a great deal of their time and effort too: those mentioned particularly include Elaine Blond, co-director of the Refugee Children’s Movement and Old Girl of my school, Norman Bentwich and the Marchioness of Reading.   People in the Netherlands, too, did so much to help.   Then there are the accounts of how the school tried to help child survivors back to some sort of normality, similarly to what happened with The Windermere Children.

Sadly, the school closed in 1948, as Anna’s health was failing and she didn’t feel able to hand the school over to anyone else, but it made a huge difference to hundreds of traumatised children, some of whom had lost their entire families.   The book’s a fascinating juxtaposition of the worst of humanity and the best of humanity.

When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler

Standard

This is a truly wonderful Holocaust book for children.   It starts with three 9-year-old best friends in Vienna, in 1936, having a perfect day (including Sachertorte) together; and follows their lives until two of them die in their mid-teens and the survivor is interviewed in the present day.  Two are Jewish, one isn’t.   It moves between the three, as their once conjoined lives diverge.   One is able to escape to Britain, with the help of a kind British couple whom they’d met briefly at the Prater, and they and their family make a new and happy life for themselves.   One is sent to a ghetto, to Terezin, and then to Auschwitz.  The third is the son of a man who becomes an SS officer at Dachau and later at Auschwitz: the child is drawn into the Hitler Youth movement and becomes a Nazi himself.  It’s rare to find a book which addresses all three of those eventualities – escaping to a safe country, being sent to a death camp, and someone who was once a kind and decent person being drawn into the Nazi web.

It’s slightly confusing in that one character’s chapters are told in the first person present, one in the first person past and one in the third person past, but I suppose that that’s to differentiate between the three different stories.

Liz Kessler’s own father and grandparents were able to escape Nazi Germany, thanks to a British couple whom they’d met by chance, and settle in Southport.   That’s partly why she wanted to tell this story; and I’m glad that the book covers the subject of refugees coming to Britain, as well as the tragic fate of so many who were unable to leave Nazi Germany and the countries which it occupied.   There are a myriad of books about people leaving various parts of the Continent for Britain, the USA, Australia or elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but strangely few about those who were able to escape the Nazis.

Apart from the Judith Kerr trilogy, and to some extent The Chalet School in Exile, there never seemed to be any books about this when I was a kid.  Obviously there’s The Diary of Anne Frank, but that doesn’t deal with refugees coming to Britain. Maisie Mosco’s Scattered Seed *does*, but that isn’t aimed at children.

And no-one ever even told me that the Manchester area had had two hostels, funded by local people, for those who’d come here as refugees from the Nazis, one in Broughton Park and one in Withington, both suburbs which I know well.   Nor did anyone ever tell me that my secondary school, along with several other schools in the area, had made a number of places available for free for refugee children – one of whom, now an elderly lady, was recently interviewed on the school’s social media pages.  I’m so proud that the school did that, but why did no-one tell the pupils of the 1980s and 1990s about it?

And I know people whose parents or grandparents came here on the Kindertransport, but, again, it just wasn’t talked about when I was a kid.

Maybe we were still at the stage where it was too painful to talk about either the war or the Holocaust: maybe it was too soon.   There seems to be a new concentration camp novel for adults out every week these days, and if anything it’s got to the stage of overkill; but it’s important that books like this one are available for children.  They weren’t, in my day.

I think that the book’s meant for children aged about 11-13, but it reads to me more like a book for children aged 8-10.   As with any book for younger children on a sensitive topic, there’s the issue of how to show dangerous views without the children accepting them.   This is a problem which comes up a lot in terms of children’s books: the characters have to express these views, but a child reading a book without the guidance of a parent or teacher has to understand that the views are categorically wrong.  I think that this book does a good job of making that clear, but it’s always a grey area.

There’s a lot of information to process, about restrictions on the lives of Jews, about life in the ghetto, about the Kindertransport, about the struggles to obtain an exit visa, about life and death in the camps, and also about the fact that Roma and other groups were also murdered.   But there’s isn’t an information overload, and I don’t think that it’d be too much for children to take in.

This is currently available on a 99p Kindle offer, and I highly recommend it.

 

 

Who Do You Think You Are (Matt Lucas) – BBC 1

Standard

 

  This was a fascinating episode.  How incredible for Matt Lucas to find out that his grandmother’s first cousin had been Anne Frank’s family’s lodger, and was actually mentioned in her diary.   Anne had remarked that this man was rather irritating and hung around even when the family had dropped heavy hints that they wanted some privacy.   That’s very Anne!   I once read an article which said that lessons about the Holocaust should focus on accounts of the horrors of the concentration camps, rather than a teenage girl’s witterings about how annoying adults were and whether or not she fancied Peter van Daan; but, as I said in an online discussion at the time, the point of reading Anne’s diary is to be reminded that she was just an ordinary girl, not some kind of “other”.  An ordinary girl who had the misfortune to be born into a group of people whom another, evil, group of people classified as “other”, but who was just like any other ordinary girl from any other sort of background.

Tragically, Matt learnt that his grandmother’s two aunts and most of her cousins had been murdered in the concentration camps.   She’d been able to escape to Britain from Berlin, where her family lived before most of them moved to Amsterdam in the sadly mistaken belief that the Netherlands would be a safe place, and it was poignant to see Ukrainian flags flying over many of the public buildings in Berlin during his visit there.   We know that Vladimir Putin’s family suffered terribly during the Siege of Leningrad, and yet he’s putting millions of Ukrainians through the same sort of hell.

This really was very moving.  There’ve been other episodes in which celebs have found out that members of their family died during the Holocaust, and they’ve all been moving; but for Matt to find out that he had a family connection to Anne Frank, whose story, as he said, is the one Holocaust story that everyone knows, was really something.

 

The King of Warsaw – All 4

Standard

This is something different.  It’s in Polish with English subtitles, so requires a lot of concentration, but it’s interesting.  It’s a crime drama set in Warsaw in 1937, and the protagonist is Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer and member of an organised crime gang, whose aim is to become head of the gang – and therefore be the “King of Warsaw”.   It’s set against a background of clashes, some violent, some just psychological, between right-wing groups and left-wing groups, Catholics and Jews, and secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews.   Meanwhile, a young lad from the ultra-Orthodox community aims to join a gang after the murder of his father.   And Jakub’s wife wants to emigrate to what was then British Mandate Palestine, but Jakub feels that Warsaw is his city and can’t bear the thought of leaving it.

The first episode was really just setting the scene, but it looks promising.  Warsaw was such a mixture of cultures and factions at the time.  And it’s the same issue as with Peaky Blinders – members of a community which is marginalised, but not isolated and set apart by religion, may well be drawn to organised crime.  And at what point do you feel that you’re actually a stranger in your own city, as well as being a stranger from the Establishment?   Without going too far into the unpleasant scenes before the Cup Final, feeling estranged from the Establishment usually leads to a stronger sense of regional identity, and that seems to be what’s happened with Jakub Szapiro – but his wife can see that they’d be safer away from Warsaw, rather than trying to rule it.

A promising start.

The Crimean Circle by David Kushner

Standard

This, as the title suggests, is set during the Crimean War.   It isn’t by a British author, and so it’s not the usual fare: there is nary a mention of Florence Nightingale, our characters watch the Charge of the Light Brigade and wonder what on earth’s going on (although, it has to be said, most of the British Army did as well, and they’re involved in the defence of Sebastopol, not in besieging it (I can’t get used to “Sevastopil”, sorry).

Crimea (I’m a British historian, OK, I can’t get used to “Krym”) is obviously much in the news at the moment.  People in the UK will, until 2014, have known it largely from the war of the 1850s.  It was a war in which Britain should never have got involved, but which was strangely popular here, and made a big impact on our culture – Florence Nightingale’s work, obviously, the Cardwell Army Reforms and the Tennyson poem, but also the use of the words “balaclava” and “cardigan”, and all those little urban roads with names like Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace.

None of that has got anything to do with this book: I’m just being Anglocentric.  Ahem.  The book is by an American author and is subtitled “A Russian Jewish Tale of the Crimean War”, which is certainly a different take on it.   Incidentally, our hero, Iosif Hirschcovich Cymerman/Zimmerman comes from Kremenets, in what’s now Ukraine, and would probably have been thought of then as Russian Poland, but, to be fair, most people would say “Russian” to mean “the Russian Empire”.

The point of the book is to highlight the issue of the forcible conscription into the Russian army of quotas from minority religious and ethnic groups, rather like the devshirme system in the Ottoman Empire.   This applied to Jews, Karaites, Old Believers, Roma people, various indigenous peoples and, after the 1830 Uprising, Catholic Poles.  With most groups, boys were conscripted at 18.  With Jews and Karaites, boys were conscripted at 12 in theory, and sometimes from as young as 8, and sent to cantonist schools.  It’s not something which is ever spoken about very much.  I think that the memory of the devshirme system still lingers in Greece, over 200 years after independence, but no-one talks about forcible conscription amongst minorities in the Russian Army.  There’s one vague reference to it early on in Maisie Mosco’s Almonds and Raisins, in which we’re told that Abraham Sandberg’s brother (who is never mentioned again) fell victim to it, but I can’t think of any other novel which even mentions it, and not even academic books say much about it.

So it’s an interesting and neglected topic: I just wish that a) the author had checked a few basic facts more carefully and b) the story had been a bit more realistic.  It’s a self-published novel, so it possibly wasn’t edited by a third party, but that doesn’t excuse some of the really silly errors which it contains.  And it’s not exactly very likely that our guy would have saved the Tsarevich’s life, been given a fortune by a count whose life he’d also saved, and then been invited to appear in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, is it?!

We’re told that Kremenets had been under Russian rule since 1756.  Oh, come on.  The Polish partitions took place in 1772, 1793 (the correct date for Volhynia … and I’m talking about the historic province, so it’s OK for me to say “Volhynia” rather than “Volyn”!) and 1795.  The significance of 1756 was the Diplomatic Revolution and the start of the Seven Years’ War.  You can check that sort of thing on Google or Wikipedia in a matter of seconds.  There was also a reference to Job’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt.  I do not claim to be an expert on the Bible, but Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt is surely fairly basic general knowledge.  And referring to Ekaterinburg as Sverdlovsk, the name it was only given 70 years after the book was set, really was very poor.

Oh, and I also wish that the author had used the normal system of transliterating from Yiddish, rather than that awful alternative system which I don’t think anyone outside American academia can follow – khay instead of che etc.  Even Google can’t follow it.  I tried Googling a sample word using the normal transliteration and the alternative version, and Google didn’t recognise the latter.  So there!!  There were some issues with the quality of English, as well.  Maybe that was just with the Kindle version, but other errors were with the actual text – such as “two centuries ago” rather than “two millennia ago” (placing Judah the Maccabee in the 17th century!).

All right, all right, enough moaning.  What about the actual story?  I seem to have had a lot more to say about the historical background and the historical errors than I have about the story itself.   There was a bit about Cymerman’s early life, but the rest of was about his life in the army, first in Kyiv and then en route to and at the scenes of the fighting.  A number of other people also played a significant role in the book, including a brutal Ukrainian sergeant, a Jew who’d converted to Orthodoxy but said that he was only pretending to make life in the army easier for himself, and a lot of young lads who’d been taken from an orphanage in order to fill the quota from their area.  Oh, and a dog.  The dog had quite a big role.

TBH, I didn’t find the actual book that interesting.  I appreciate that the point was to show how awful life is, but there’s really only so much you can read about digging latrines and burying bodies, which was what they spent most of their time doing.  And there was a lot about weapons and battle tactics, which I know that a lot of people enjoy reading about, and which will probably really appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell and Edward Marston, but which just wasn’t for me.

Books about the Romanovs are for me though, so I was quite chuffed when our pal Iosif rand his mates saved the Tsarevich’s life at Balaclava – the Tsarevich having apparently decided to make a surprise appearance at the battle, as you do.  But it wasn’t exactly very realistic, and I’d thought that the book was trying to give a realistic portrayal of these young men’s lives.  Also, the author showed the Tsarevich’s friends referring to him as “Alex”.  Excuse me?   I’m not sure that even his close friends would have used a diminutive of his name, but, if they had, it would have been “Sasha”.  Have you ever met a Russian known as “Alex”?!

Having saved the Tsarevich’s life, Iosif just happened to meet up with Tolstoy.  And then we learned – there was a bit of a dual timeline, with one of Iosif’s descendants meeting up with a British aristocrat and telling her his family history, and it transpiring that her ancestor had given Iosif his watch after the Charge of the Light Brigade – that Iosif ended up living in Missouri, had a run in with Quantrill’s Raiders, and turned down an invitation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s show.

Sadly more realistically, Iosif’s fiancee Sima was raped by a soldier – and one of supposedly their own side, a Russian soldier.  As has happened in so many wars of the past and as is happening in Ukraine now, men rape women as some sort of particularly sick way of making war.  It’s quite rightly considered a war crime now, but that’s only happened quite recently.

Continuing with the story, Iosif was imprisoned for attacking Sima’s rapist, but he was later released, and he and Sima were married, and joined some of his comrades in a grand reception given by Alexander, now the Tsar, in St Petersburg, and received large sums of money both from the Tsar and from the family of a count whose life Iosif had also saved.   And there’s a sequel, which presumably covers the move to America.

The author is apparently a prize-winning journalist who’s also written non-fiction books.  I think this was his first foray into fiction, so maybe allowances should be made for that!   Full marks for the choice of topic, very average marks for the actual book!

 

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

Standard

I’d somehow never come across this lovely book before.  It’s rather like a Lower East Side equivalent of Little House on the Prairie, with the same simplistic language and a sense of a family home which is full of love and happiness despite poverty, but with a greater sense of community and a blessed absence of politics.

Like Laura, Sydney Taylor’s telling the story of a quintessential American experience, an essential part of the making of the United States of America, but it’s a very different one – the lives of first and second generation immigrants in New York City in the early 20th century.  We’ve got five young Jewish American sisters, and they’re American-born but their parents seem to have emigrated to New York from … we’re not told where, but somewhere in Eastern Europe, probably somewhere in the Russian Empire.  Quite possibly what’s now Ukraine.

In addition to what we see of the family’s home life in general, there’s a sub-plot about a family friend whose long lost love turns out to be the librarian at their beloved local library, and there’s an interesting storyline about the children having scarlet fever and how they have to put a notice on the door and then have the house fumigated once everyone’s recovered.  There’s also a wonderful description of the local market: I could read that over and over again.

And much of the book’s about festivals.  These are mostly Jewish religious festivals, but there’s also a chapter about the Fourth of July, and I loved that.  I know that some people take issue with the Fourth of July chapter in Little Town on the Prairie, and there’s now a rather unpleasant school of thought that celebrating any sort of national holiday makes you some sort of bigot.  It does absolutely nothing of the sort, and the All-of-a-Kind Family celebrating the Fourth of July is the way I grew up thinking about the USA, of (with apologies to Neil Diamond) freedom’s light burning warm, of people with a dream they’ve come to share … even if most of the people with that dream did find poverty on the Lower East Side rather than streets paved with gold.

I loved this.  I’m only sorry that I didn’t come across this series 40 years ago, when I was the right age for it!

The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich

Standard

This is the sequel to The Midwife of Venice. Our midwife pal Hannah is now working at the harem of Sultan Murad III, which is dominated by his mother, the Venetian-born Valide Sultan.  Meanwhile, her husband Isaac runs a silk business.  It includes a fascinating cast of characters – Hannah Levi, the Valide Sultan, a number of other real historical figures from the court of Murad III, a Venetian woman passing herself off as Isaac’s sister-in-law, and a girl from the Caucasian/Mountain Jewish community, but the actual plot is just too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

Historical notes!   You used to hear a bit about the Mountain Jews back in the mid-1990s, during the Chechen Wars, but you don’t any more.  Their ancestors moved from Persia to the Caucasus – mainly what’s now Azerbaijan, especially a city called Gyrmyzy Gasaba in Azeri and Krasnaya Sloboda in Russian, although the character here comes from a rural area, but also Chechnya, Dagestan, and all round there – in the 5th century AD.  What was the name of that football team which you used to hear a lot about at one time? Anzhi Makhachkala, that’s it!  In Dagestan.  Sorry, the Mountain Jews have got nothing to do with football, but apparently quite a few of them lived in Makhachkala at one time.  And I’ve now got off the point.

Back to 16th century Constantinople.  No-one’s 100% sure of the Valide Sultan’s origins, but the theory put forward in 1900, that she was Venetian-born Cecilia Venier-Baffo, is widely believed and is followed in this book..

The book starts with Leah, a young girl from a remote Mountain Jewish community, being taken prisoner and carried off to the Sultan’s harem.  At the same time, Isaac’s brother has been murdered in Venice by his mistress, a woman called Francesca.  Francesca, passing herself off as Isaac’s brother’s late wife Grazia, travels to Constantinople to demand that Isaac repay the money which his brother had lent him from Grazia’s dowry.  She also plans to kidnap Matteo, Hannah and Isaac’s adopted son, on the orders of a man who wears a false nose as a disguise (as you do) and has connections with Matteo’s birth family.

Hannah is asked to verify Leah’s virginity.  Leah had had a fiance in the Caucasus, and they hadn’t waited for the wedding, but Hannah lies in order to protect Leah from being sold as a slave.  Hannah and Leah then drug the Sultan so that he thinks he’s consummated his relationship with Leah, even though he hasn’t.  The Valide Sultan wants to break the hold that the Sultan’s wife Safiye has on him, as Safiye has only given him one son so he needs to get it together with some of the other woman in the harem, so she’s pleased with Leah.  However, it then transpires that Leah is expecting a baby by her fiance, which obviously can’t be the Sultan’s as the dates won’t match.  Hannah and two other women smuggle Leah out of the harem, and pretend that she’s chucked herself out of the window.  Everyone apparently buys this, although it later turns out that the Valide Sultan hasn’t been fooled.

Meanwhile, a rabbi informs Hannah, Isaac and Cesca-masquerading-as-Grazia that, under the Boaz-Ruth law in the Bible, Isaac is obliged to marry his brother’s widow.  His marriage to Hannah is to be decreed invalid as they have no natural children.  However, if he can raise the money to pay the loan, Grazia can declare that this marriage is invalid and he can then go back to being married to Hannah.  I did say that it was far-fetched!

Leah dies in childbirth.  Hannah takes the baby.  The Valide Sultan reveals that she knew about Leah’s escape, and gives Hannah a load of money for helping to break Safiye’s hold on the Sultan.  Hannah and Isaac use this money to pay off the fake Grazia, who is then exposed anyway.  And it then turns out that Hannah is finally expecting a baby of her own.

The depictions of Constantinople, Venice and the Mountain Jewish communities are absolutely fascinating, but the storyline is just beyond bonkers!   But it’s certainly never boring.

 

The Lost Cafe Schindler by Meriel Schindler

Standard

  This is a different sort of family Holocaust memoir, partly because it’s got recipes at the back, and partly because it’s about Innsbruck.  Not Warsaw, Lodz, Vilnius, Kyiv, Minsk, Vienna, Amsterdam, Thessaloniki, Berlin, Prague or a little shtetl somewhere, but Innsbruck.  And I was going to say that this is the first time I’ve come across a Holocaust book about Tyrol, but, of course, the first ever slightly Holocaust-related book I read was The Chalet School in Exile.  And, for nearly 40 years, I have tied myself in knots over Austria – land of the Chalet School (which has played and continues to play a big part in my life), The Sound of Music (which I’ve seen 85 billion times), Sachertorte (which I like to have on my birthday, and at various other times during rhe year), strudel, coffee houses, lakes, mountains, waltzes, white horses, grand palaces … and, in the not too distant past, Nazis.  I’ve got photos dotted about the house of myself in Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.  Hey, I scoffed a huge piece of apple strudel from an Austrian stall at the Christmas market in Manchester last weekend.  But I still tie myself in knots over it all.

Most people probably know that, until recently, The Sound of Music had never been shown on state Austrian TV, because of Austria’s issues with itself.  And just to wander a bit off topic, Tony Warren, the late, great, creator of Coronation Street, addressed this issue in The Lights of Manchester, in which a character gets spooked during a romantic weekend in Vienna.  I even wrote a Chalet School fanfic to try to sort it all out in my head, but it really is difficult.

In this, we’ve got a British author inheriting a large amount of family papers from her Tyrolean-born father, who escaped from Innsbruck as a schoolboy in 1938, and looking into her family history – centred on the Cafe Schindler, the very popular coffee house on the Mariatheresienstrasse which was founded by her great-grandparents.  It was seized from the family after the Anschluss, but they did eventually get it back, but then sold it on in the 1950s … and it still exists.

The author seems to have started her research because she had questions about her dad and her complicated relationship with him.  I’m not sure that she needed to be so negative about him in a published book, but that was her choice.  The questions about him are never really answered, but there’s a lot in this, going back to the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, and how the various members of her family came to be in Innsbruck, or elsewhere.

There’s a fact-is-stranger-than-fiction subplot about a relative by marriage, Dr Eduard Bloch, a Jewish doctor in Linz who treated both Hitler and his mother before the Great War, and got some sort of special protection in the 1930s because Hitler had always liked him.   But the main character ends up being Hugo Schindler, the author’s grandfather – a proud Tyrolean, proud Austrian, who sometimes wore lederhosen and a little green hat, fought for Austria-Hungary in the Great War … and was badly beaten by people from his own local community on Kristallnacht, and lost his mother, sister and brother-in-law in the concentration camps.

The book takes us through the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the awarding of South Tyrol to Italy, and shows us the Schindler family setting up their cafe and how it became very popular in a city coping with the shock of everything that had happened.  Innsbruck wasn’t Vienna: there were very few non-Catholics there, and there were no “Jewish areas” – everyone lived together, one community.  But then, and this was something I found out myself when doing some research a few years ago, the events of Kristallnacht were particularly brutal in Innsbruck … and it has to be said that Tyrol has a history of intolerance of religious minorities.

And yet, after the war, the Schindler family chose to return.  The author talks about the complexities of the post-war era and how it suited everyone to cast Austria as a victim, when in fact Austria had welcomed the Nazis in.  There’s a lot of personal stuff in this book, which is, after all, a family history – family feuds, different members of the family ending up in different places, etc, but the main focus is on the Cafe Schindler, and they did eventually get it back.   The story isn’t always set out in the clearest of ways, but there’s a moving end in which the author ensures that “steine”, memorial stones marking the place where a Holocaust victim lived – I saw quite a few of them in Budapest in 2019 – are placed for her great-grandmother, great-aunt and great-uncle.

Then there are recipes for Kaiserschmarm, apple strudel and Sachertorte.  I made sure that I had all of those when I went to the Vienna Christmas markets in 2019.  In fact, pretty much the first thing I did after leaving my luggage at the hotel was to rush off to the Cafe Sacher to have genuine Sacher Torte on its home patch.   Austria, land of coffee houses.  And Nazis.  But time moves on, and, as the author says, very few of the people who had anything to do with Nazi atrocities are still alive.  And the Cafe Schindler’s still there.  I very much hope to go back to Innsbruck one day, and, if I do, I’ll be calling in.