WE ALL HAVE, in our middle age, heavy burdens to carry. Hurts, real and imaginary, inflicted on others, angry words which could not be taken back any more, impatience, neglect, opportunities missed, wrong turns taken. Sometimes we can make things good again, mend our ways, spend time repairing the nets of our relationships where they have worn thin, where there are shreds instead of loops. But sometimes the pattern of our past cannot be repaired: when the people we have wronged, people we think we have wronged, are no longer alive. One great sorrow, after we have children and understand what having children means, is often that we cannot tell our parents any more how sorry we are: sorry for all the callous remarks, sorry for all the thoughtless actions of our teen-age years, sorry for the selfishness, the assumption that everything they did was our due, their tribute to us.
This undoubtedly is the spirit which moved George Clare to write his very moving book. In 1937 he was 17. His name was Georg Klaar, and he was the son of a high Viennese bank official, the grandson of a physician, the great-grandson of an Austrian Army surgeon. A proper, secure family, certainly, and typical of Central European Jews of their time, "of people who, within a short space of time, moved from the narrowness of the East-European ghettos into that wide and glamorous world of West-European culture, absorbed it, became an essential part of it, climbed to new heights during the enlightened nineteenth century . . ."
The great-grandparents had come from Czernowitz and from Lw,ow, and "although both the Klaars and the Schapiras . . . belonged to the same social level, the marriage between (the author's parents) united two strands of Austrian Jewry. The Klaars were Austrians of the Jewish faith, while the Schapiras were Jews who lived in Austria . . ." Distinctions, probably duly noted and discussed at length over fragile tea cups in musty living rooms, or on Sunday afternoon outings in the Wienerwald, in those long-ago days before the Nuremberg laws made all Jews equally guilty, before they all became one again, in Auschwitz.
The Klaars, then, were thoroughly integrated into their Austrian milieu. They served their country in World War I, could recite long passages from Goethe and Schiller, from Lessing and Grillparzer, and relished the farces of Johann Nestroy and the ironies of Karl Kraus. The world in which Georg Klaar's father grew up was a romantic one, "a world where young men, literally and figuratively, sat at the feet of writers and poets . . . There were few cities in the world where artists were held in such high esteem, enjoyed so much social prestige . . . But in their art there was also . . . a kind of death-longing, a decadent joy in the decline of Europe's last sunlit decades. . ."
When Hitler came to power in Germany, there was even a slight admiration for this Austrian who promised to make Germany great after the iniquity of the Versailles treaty. The anti-Semitic tirades were heard and excused, "it was really a form of self-protection, foolish certainly, but very human . . ." Nothing will happen to us, after all we are Austrians, they thought. The winds of time will chase the cloud from the horizon. The few who knew better, who had seen the danger, who warned, were dismissed as pessimists.
But everything happened to them after the Anschluss: they lost profession, property, country: in 1942, Vienna's Gauleiter could happily report to the Fuehrer that Vienna was, at long last, judenrein.
Georg Klaar's parents did manage to escape: via Berlin to Paris, with Georg continuing first to London, then to Ireland, then to London again to join the British Army. There he was, at 18, cast into the role of military analyst. "Hitler will never occupy France," he told his father. "Stay in Paris, you love it. What would you do in Ireland?" This is where George Clare sees his guilt which will torment him all his life. His parents, their energy sapped, helpless, stayed in Paris. When the Germans occupied, they had to go to a residence assign,ee in southern France. Then came internment, deportation, death.
The author's return to the Vienna apartment of his childhood is one of the most moving scenes in the book. How many of us have confronted our past in this manner, after unbelievable losses? How many of us have stood in empty rooms, trying to remember where the family furniture had been, looking for clues, for explanations which could never be there?
The collection of photographs is small for a book of this breadth. We sense why: escaping, emigrating, in flight, one does not carry family albums. Even when leaving possessions for safekeeping with neighbors, one rarely thinks of saving family mementos. One photograph, to me, was almost unbearably poignant. It is that of Ernst and Stella Klaar in Austrian native costume, the Trachten-look, as it is called nowadays: the father in an Austrian Janker, the mother in a Dirndl. In Czechoslovakia, where I grew up, things were terribly simple: wearing such clothes meant that one was in sympathy with the Nazis. I remember being 5 or 6, coveting a Dirndl and railing at my mother for not allowing me to wear one. I know that for patriotic Austrians this was different, and the Klaars must have felt very much at home, very Austrian, wearing the costume.
Some words of criticism for the editor: Kaiser Franz Josef would surely not have liked seeing his name adorned with a hyphen throughout the book. And why the repeated spelling of Marseille with an "s" at the end? And, last but certainly not least: Grandmother's maid could not possibly have been called Annitschek, -ek being the diminutive ending for Czech masculine names. Annitschka must have been her name, I presume, and she was a stout and faithful soul, the kind that only existed in that particular space and time.
I don't know whether the subtitle "The Rise and Destruction of a Family, 1842-1942" is the author's, or whether it was added at the publisher's suggestion. I would not have recommended adding it, for I find the family, the many uncles and great-uncles, the aunts and great-aunts, the cousins, and half-brothers shadowy, peripheral figures, interchangeable and very often confusing. But the parents, Ernst and Stella Klaar, come through clear, strong, loving. They are admirable and pitiful at the same time. The book is a song in their memory.