October 22, 2012 2:12:10 PM
In March 1938 came the Anschluss, the march of thousands of Nazi troops to reclaim Austria for the Fuehrer who had been born there. In Vienna, a witness to the intrusion was Trudi Kanter, a young milliner with a showroom in the city. She was half Jewish, and she was to witness the rampage and the outrages, and she was eventually able to get herself, her husband, and her parents out to safety in England. She brought out a self-published survivor's memoir in 1984, which almost no one seems to have noticed. An editor rediscovered it years ago in a second-hand bookshop, and at last it is going to be noticed. Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler: A True Love Story Rediscovered (Scribner) gives Trudi's story, with its unforgettable views of the beau monde of Vienna, its frightening account of the Nazi goons moving in, and the surprising fight she had to make for her husband and father's freedom after they all got to England. Trudi is sharp, observant, funny, and full of love for her Walter; the book works as an important memoir of a unique time but also as a personal love letter. Sadly, Trudi died twenty years ago and could not know how many people are going to be affected by her work this time.
Trudi was a beautiful young woman whose bright red hair was always crowned by one of her chic hats. She had a hat manufactory and showroom in Vienna, employing twelve young women. She was fond of them all, and they of her; there was the lightness and good humor of 1930s Vienna within the little shop selling superficial fashions. Her business was good, and her customers were wealthy, and many of them were her friends. She was married, to Pepi, a lively man with whom she had a strong friendship, and a mutual agreement that the marriage was over. At the start of the memoir, she has just met Walter, who is charming, courteous, and handsome. "No wonder, my darling," she writes of other women, "no wonder they were after you. No wonder. Your eyes, the blue of African violets, dark hair, graying at the temples. Your slightly olive skin, smooth all over your body. Your sweetness, kindness, decency. You did flirt, trade on your good looks, but not like a rogue. Good-naturedly, for fun." There are many such passages of apostrophe to her great love.
Trudi's appetite for color, for pastry, and for male company are constants in these pages, which benefit from the keen observation of someone who worked in fashion. When in 1935 Trudi was in Paris to see the fashion shows, she was instructed by a veteran milliner how to copy the hats without being noticed. She could not write or draw during a show, but using the lengths of her fingers and hands she could measure secretly, and she could memorize the colors and shapes. When the show was over, she could scramble to a bistro and start sketching and making the memories permanent.
She also happened to be in Paris in March 1938, doing her buying for the coming season, when she saw the headlines that the Germans had prepared to enter Austria. Her Parisian friends were shocked that she would consider a return home, but it was where her work, her Walter, and her parents were, and she could not stay away. She was in Vienna when the troops came in: "We hear it, coming from the end of the street. Closer, closer. Each step at the same split second, loud, powerful, terrifying. We are like tiny ants whose nest has been disturbed, running in all directions, trying to find a hole, a blade of grass, somewhere - anywhere - to hide." Walter was always too trusting and too optimistic. He told her in a cracked whisper, "Don't worry, darling. Don't worry. Please. Everything will be all right," which elicited her response, "Walter, how can it possibly be all right?"
Walter may have had many charms, but Trudi had repeatedly to make up for his passivity even when their situation was obviously dire. The headquarters of the nationalist party that opposed the Nazis was smashed to pieces across the street from her showroom. Jewish men, women, and children were forced to scrub pavements free of anti-Nazi slogans, using burning acid. There was an epic of denunciation as janitors and maids took their revenge. Friends and customers disappeared. There were swastikas all over. Even the superficial hat business reflected the change and Trudi's hats became less gay than the ones she had seen in her Paris excursion: "I used more veiling to hide women's eyes. To hide their sorrow."
It fell to Trudi to start hunting up visas, jobs abroad, exit permits, kind tax inspectors, and influential people in the millinery world. She arranged a business trip to England, "selling model hats in order to bring English pounds to Nazi Germany," but she had no intent of returning. She went through far more difficulties arranging for Walter to join her, but he eventually did. They left behind the business, which could not carry on, and Walter's beautiful apartment and priceless furniture. In England, she found work, but she also spent time in the offices of London officials, begging for exit visas for her parents. She was able to make these appear, too. Trudi was resourceful, but she was mostly lucky. Walter's relatives, for instance, reluctant to leave Prague, disappeared into the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Her family's problems were not over once they got to England. One of the many distressing parts of this memoir is to learn how Walter and Trudi's father were treated in their new home. All Austrian men were arrested and put into internment camps. Her uncomprehending father said, "But all the refugees are on England's side! We want England to win!" Nonetheless, as enemy aliens they were sent to a camp near Liverpool, where they could not have books or radios or visitors, and their mattresses were scant straw. Trudi had a new round of campaigning to get them out, and was eventually successful, but she could not change attitudes. When they were in the bomb shelter during a night of horrendous destruction, some Briton picked a fight with Walter whom he felt did not deserve the protection that an Englishman did.
I would love to know more about Trudi's life, and whether she returned to Vienna for visits or kept up friendships there after the war. Sadly, it seems as if this book, neglected when she published it, is all we will have. We know that Walter died in 1960, and that Trudi remarried, and that she died in 1992, and that she had no children. When the publishers of this volume tried to find out more about her, there was little else that could be found. Even the holder of the copyright of the original edition is unknown (the colophon page of this edition asks anyone with information to come forward). Trudi is gone forever, and had no idea that her heartbreaking book with its original eyewitness stories was to be a priceless legacy.