Sunday, 3 March 2013

Book of the Month: My Father's Roses (Nancy Kohner)

When Nancy Kohner died in 2006, of breast cancer, the obituaries described her as an authority on perinatal bereavement. She had written a series of widely read books and documents on the subject. Her guidelines for professionals to deal with stillbirths, miscarriages and neonatal death were de rigueur in the training of midwives and came to bear an influence in the way professionals dealt with  deaths of babies and supported bereaved parents.

The obituaries also mentioned that Kohner’s father, Rudolf, was a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, who had run a family business in Bohemia, and who had escaped to England when Europe stood on the cusp of the Second World War. Rudolh had found a job as a salesperson in Bradford; over the years, he had risen to the position of General Manager of the company that sold Heating Units. He married a local, English, girl, Olive, and begot two daughters, of whom Nancy was the youngest.

What many obituaries did not mention was Kohner had spent more than two decades researching her father’s family’ history and piecing together her Jewish heritage. She had been left with an amazing stash of letters, documents and photographs, preserved by her father and uncle—her Jewish ancestors, it would appear, were prolific letter-writers, and threw very little away—which recorded the lives of her family from the end of the nineteenth century up to the Second World War. Kohner set on a long labour of love to get the casually preserved archives of documents and letters translated, and, a week before her untimely death at the age of 55, finished writing the manuscript of what would be her only literary work of non-fiction. Two years later, in 2008, was published My Father’s Roses, Kohner’s heartrending memoir of courage, loss, and deep bonds of affection that transcended generations.

Kohner’s father, Rudi, was the youngest of three children. His father, Heinrich, ran a successful linen shop, while his mother, Valerie, twelve years younger than her husband, was a housewife. The family, by the time of Rudi’s birth, had settled in Podersam in Sudetanland. Rudi had two elder siblings: Franz Joseph (named after the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who had taken steps to improve the lot of the Jews in his empire in the latter part of his life), who was the eldest, and Bertl, his only sister. Through several meticulously and elegantly translated letters, the reader learns about how Rudi’s parents met, and gets a glimpse into their early lives. Early in the memoir is an incredible chapter where Valerie, the eldest of eight children of her parents, ‘speaks’ about her life in Libotschan, a village on the western edge of Bohemia where she grew up, in the nineteenth century. (The actual conversation between Heinrich and Valerie had taken place in 1930 and recorded verbatim in a diary by Franz, their eldest son!) Heinrich Kohner would be described these days as a self-made man. He was not uneducated, but, having risen from very humble background—he was taken out of school at the age of twelve because his father could no longer afford to support his education, and spent the next five years as an apprentice for an uncle who lived on the other side of Bohemia, not seeing his parents and family even once during this period—, his opportunities were limited. He had resolved that all his children would have what he had been denied: all of the children were well educated in schools in Prague. Heinrich and Valerie would appear to have especially high hopes for their first born, Franz. No sooner did Franz arrive in Prague for his secondary education than started a seemingly unending flow of letters from his parents exhorting him to do well in studies and reminding him of his responsibilities. These letters, written over a hundred years ago, and full of affection, are fascinating reads. Here is a slightly admonitory letter from Valerie to her son:

‘Your letter this week has not given us the pleasure we hoped for. The way you write shows that you are writing only because you have to. . . We have no idea how you’re doing at school and what you do with the rest of your time. Also, you must not be so immodest. You talk offhandedly about ‘going to a theatre’ but the fact is you can only go because the Herr Doktor [the family with whom Franz is lodging] is kind enough to take you. If I were in your position and allowed to see such a lovely performance, I’d have said: ‘It was very beautiful’, but you simply say ‘it was quite good’. We’re also surprised that you did not fast on Yom Kippur like last year. I am sorry to have to tell you off, but it’s got to be. You really have it so good. Few other children could say that of themselves and you must therefore show your gratitude by carrying out your good intentions.’

Franz is eleven at the time. 

The attitude of Franz and, later, Rudi (who arrives in Prague ten years later for his secondary education), is of unmitigated fealty towards their parents. Both the boys, from a very early age, seem acutely aware of the sacrifices made by their parents, and promise each other (and their parents) that they would do everything in their capacity to make their dreams come true. The middle sister, Bertl, on the other hand, is different. Moody and self-absorbed Bertl is a free spirit. Intellectually sophisticated, capable, and emotionally independent, she finds the emotional interdependence encouraged by their parents (and accepted without questions by her brothers) suffocating. Bertl arrives in Prague when she is sixteen. She loves the city and, unlike Rudi, who is also in Prague and is continuously pining for his parents, wants to live life to the full. She is also closer to Franz, her elder brother, (than to her parents), to whom she writes ironic, teasing, taunting, self-deprecatory, and occasionally ecstatic, letters.  “You should always read Rilke aloud. It is glorious!” she declares in a letter. On another occasion, she enthuses: “Have just read a wonderful letter by Bjoernson. You can’t imagine how magnificent it is. So magnificent one can no longer think any evil exists in the world.” Bertl is so immersed in books—she reads Ibsen, Strindberg and Rabindranath Tagore—that her mother gets worried that her ‘Putte’ (family nickname for Bertl) is becoming a bookworm. Bertl, in her thinking and attitude, is probably decades ahead of girls from backgrounds similar to hers. Her mother thinks she is a ‘strange girl’.  Strange or not, she is prone to experience intense emotions, and is gripped from time to time with adolescent doubts.  Here is an extract from a letter she writes to Franz, who is now serving in the First World War.

‘I suppose that truly great artists do not have to develop: they are great from the beginning and remain great. . .but I am developing very gradually and I fear the peak because after that I will decline. Maybe I’ll never even reach the peak. At times it makes me despair and I just want to give up. At other times, I feel young and courageous and want to climb to the top as fast as I can. . . I feel sad that people I didn’t even know a year ago are closer to me than my parents, but it is because they understand me and talk to me in the right sort of way. These days I don’t want to tell our parents anything. . . I think a rift often opens up as one grows older. I hope you’ll understand what I mean although I can’t express it very well.’

Like his fellow Jews, Franz volunteers to fight for Germany when a Serb nationalist assassinates the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Europe is propelled in to the First World War. His parents are worried sick for his safety as the news of the war casualties begins to trickle in; there are many from their extended family—uncles and cousins—who give their lives for the Fatherland. What comes across from this private correspondence is the fierce loyalty the family feels towards Germany and their unquestioning acceptance of her position. The family, Heinrich in particular, felt exceedingly grateful towards the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Franz Joseph, the manumiter of the Jews; and considered it the duty of every patriotic Jew to fight for the victory of the Fatherland.

Franz survives the war, albeit with lasting injuries to his legs. Over the next two decades the children settle into comfortable matrimony save Rudy. Franz marries a Jewish girl called Edith, who would be his faithful companion over the decades.  Bertl takes the bold step of marrying a non-Jew (albeit a German), a step that breaks her father’s heart, although he, Heinrich, becomes very attached to Bertl’s first and only child, a daughter named Elsbeth, whom he calls die Goldige—the Golden One. (Marriage to an Aryan should have made life less arduous for Bertl compared to her Jewish family  (whose service for Germany in the First World War would count for nothing) when, decades later,  Hitler’s armies rolled into Sudetenland ; but fate had something totally different in store for her.) Franz trains as a lawyer and opens his practice in a nearby town of Brux, while Rudy takes over the family business.

Through a combination of imagined history, letters that have survived, and photographs, a vivid picture emerges of a wonderfully warm and closely-knit Jewish family, their aspirations, and their concerns and pride, as it lives in the small town of Podersam between Prague and the German border.

Their idyll, though is about to be shattered, as Hitler’s National Socialist party comes to power in Germany. Interestingly, the correspondence from this period, for example, between the two brothers Franz and Rudi, makes no mention of the news from Germany, although it is inconceivable that, educated and informed as they were, the Kohners were unaware of the disturbing developments. It is as though they had repressed the news from their consciousness lest they be overwhelmed by it, or, as Kohner puts it simply (and succinctly), they were living in their own moment.  It is left to Valerie to note what she observes around her in Podersam, where there are increasing signs of German separatism. Here is a prescient entry from her in 1935, the same year in which the racial laws were announced in Nuremberg (and the Podersam Jewish community of which the Kohners were members (though barely observant), would have been left in little doubt of their fate if the Germans occupied Sudetenland):

‘Everything here is rotten, it doesn’t bear description, the whole atmosphere, this hostility, you feel it all over. Tomorrow . . . the SHF [the ‘Sudetan Heimat-Front, a previous name for the pro-Nazi party that became the SDP] are planning a big do. . . I feel sorry for Rudl, who has to spend his life here in future.’

However, even Valerie, the ever-watchful and thoughtful matriarch, did not see the catastrophe that would befall them and millions of European Jews in less than five years. She thought the family would be able to carry on living in Bohemia.

In 1938, the Munich agreement between Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy, allowed Hitler to occupy Sudetenland. Within a month the der Tag arrived and the nightmare began for the Kohners and thousands of Jews in Sudetenland. On 10 October 1938, the German army marched into Podersam, greeted by enthusiastic crowds, waving flags and throwing flowers. The day before Rudi had left his shop for the last time, his elderly parents, along with other members of the family having left the area earlier for Prague. There is a photograph in the book (possibly an official photograph) that shows the cavalcade of German tanks on the high street of Podersam. On both sides of the road are throngs waving and clapping enthusiastically. In the corner is Kohner’s shop, closed with blinds drawn over the shop windows. The shop would never re-open; the Kohners, so violently uprooted from the environment they called their home, would never return to Podersam; the building (which the Kohners owned, with shop on the ground floor and their residence on the first), improbably, would stand for decades, unclaimed and dilapidated—Nancy Kohner would visit it four decades later but not enter the building, a decision she would come to regret—before being bulldozed by the communist regime in the 1980s.

Kohner makes a poignant comment on the photograph, and, linked to it, the nature of evil:

‘As a child I had naively thought in terms of an enemy. . . One day, I childishly imagined, unknown and hostile people entered the safe territory that was my father’s home. They had come unexpectedly but with the clear and absolute intent of destruction. . . Looking on this photograph, I looked on the enemy for the first time and began to realise that horror comes slowly and subtly and sometimes in disguise. These cheering people were my father’s neighbours, acquaintances, customers, even friends. In previous weeks, some of these Podersam Germans had been exchanging greetings with my grandfather, commiserating with my grandmother for the pain in her back, checking on progress with their orders for linoleum. Now, caught up in a larger event, they are welcoming into their town what must for my father and grandparents, signify the end. But these one-time friends and neighbours do not look forward, they cannot know, and have no malevolent intent. . .’

One does not require great powers of imaginations to tell what happens next. The once comfortably well off Kohner clan begins living in a crowded flat in Prague, where, over the next few months, it becomes clear that their lives would not be safe. Then ensues the struggle to obtain visas to escape to the safe haven of England, in the first instance, where, should they be successful in gaining entry, they would have to start all over again, probably on a much lower rung. It is also clear, although no one dares talk about it, that the chances of Heinrich and Valerie obtaining a visa are non-existent. England does not want elderly Jews who would not be able to work and, in all likelihood, be a burden on the society. Bertl’s German husband, Rudolph, courageously, decides to throw in his lot with his wife’s clan, rejecting the easy option of staying back in Sudetenland (a decision all the more remarkable seeing as Bertl, as has been more than once hinted in the book, was not faithful to him). The tragedy that betides the Kohners—the deaths, the suicides, the separations—while not unique to them (similar fate befell millions of Jews)—is still heartbreaking.

Towards the end of the book, is a photograph of Valerie, who ends up living alone in the Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia—Heinrich, mercifully dies within months of moving to Prague; Bertl, who probably had the brightest chance of escaping to England kills herself; the rest of the family is in England. The photograph, probably taken a few months before Valerie, along with thousands of Sudetenland Jews, was gassed in Treblinka, shows an elderly woman frowning at the camera, a look of indescribable loneliness and desolation etched on her face.

In October 1945, on the day of what would have been his mother’s seventy-first birthday, her favourite Rudl writes to a contact in Czechoslovakia:

‘The news we have had about my mother from many good friends for the last few months has left us in no doubt as to her fate.’

How do people come to terms with loss? How do they cope with the catastrophes that devastate their lives? What is it that gives them the wherewithal to survive grief? Kohner’s father never spoke to her of his mother’s death; or of his sister’s suicide; or of the ruins of the prosperous life he had once led in the Old World. What was his identity? How did he see himself? It is as though Rudi Kohner’s life was divided into two parts—in Bohemia where he was born and lived till he was thirty five; and in England where he came as a refugee and lived for the remainder of his life. The two lives had no common links save his elder brother Franz. His English wife and children belonged to the latter half of his life and had neither the knowledge of nor (in his wife’s case) the interest in his former life. And, with the exception of his brother and sister-in-law, no one from his past life had made it to the shores of England. Although he was born and bred in Czechoslovakia, he never considered himself as Czech, which is understandable, seeing as Czechoslovakia did not exist when he was born; he was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was named after the emperor’s son. He spoke German, his culture was German, and he was educated in German (although he learnt Czech as a second language in school). He must have considered himself a German throughout his early years. Yet, with the coming of the Second World War, he could no longer consider himself a German and was driven out of his homeland. He arrived in England as a Jewish refugee; he was Jewish, even though the religion played hardly any part in his life. He then settled in England, learned to speak English and, in due course, became naturalized British. Growing up in the 1950s, his daughter knew that ‘we were not the same as other, indigenous Bradford families’, but neither did she consider herself to be Jewish; she was barely aware that her father was Jewish. Had he become British, then? This is how Kohner remembers her father:

‘My father was a piece of exotica. He never lost and never concealed his foreignness, and loved it. He looked different to other children’s fathers—taller, darker, and in my eyes twice as handsome, with a high broad forehead, an impressive nose and a black moustache. He dressed well, was something of a peacock in fact, and in summer wore a freshly cut rose in his buttonhole. . . He spoke fluent and highly literary English, but he never lost his accent and would often accentuate it . . .’

Kohner remembers that the language of her childhood was scattered with foreign expressions—both German and Yidish. Raucous German songs also featured in family life. Her father was a musical man. Kohner's father's musical tastes while they remained Germanic and orchestral in the main with a particular love for Mahler, he was not averse to Wagner. He told many funny and anecdotal stories about his childhood to his children, but never shared the family letters or correspondence from more than sixty years ago with his daughters, although he stored all of it in huge trunks and wooden crates in the attic of their house. And he could never bring himself to visit either Podersam (where the family property stood unclaimed) or Prague (where his father and sister lay buried) in the almost fifty years he lived in the UK. One can only imagine the continuous grief and guilt that lay hidden underneath his persona of an exotic continental gentleman. As he grew older and his mental grasp deteriorated, the past and the attendant feelings of guilt and regret claimed him more and more, not having been left with anyone—his elder brother, Franz, had died fifteen years earlier—with whom he could share his past. It was then that he wrote to his daughter more often and much more sadly. However, he never spoke to her about his mother’s fate and the last painful years in Bohemia; and when he died in 1987 there was still a lot that was left unsaid. It was left to his daughter, when she became aware of her imminent death, to piece together the fragments of her family’s past.  Kohner concludes:

‘May be I had believed, for far too much of my life and seduced by my father’s stories, that the past was waiting for me intact. The discovery that it was not only lost but deliberately destroyed was shocking.’

My Father’s Roses is a beautifully fine-drawn portrait of a family, with family voices from a distant generation interspersing with the author’s wise and humane observations and speculations, the narrative moving agilely and seamlessly from past to present and back, a chronicle of love and grief.