- - Thursday, August 22, 2013

SERENADE: A MEMOIR OF MUSIC AND LOVE FROM VIENNA AND PRAGUE TO LOS ANGELES — 1927 TO WORLD WAR II TO 2012
By Carol Jean Delmar
Willow Lane Press, $27.99, 516 pages, illustrated

The story of the racial madness that swept mid-20th century Europe and resulted in the genocidal extermination of much of European Jewry is now firmly placed in the historiography of that time and place. Not just in all those history books, either: It has been implanted in the cultural consciousness of Europe and in most of the world. It was not always so, however. The word “Holocaust” was not in common use, and it was decades after the terrible events of the 1940s before a combination of numbness, aversion, understandable survivors’ guilt and quite unwarranted but characteristic shame that seems to accompany victimhood wore off to permit memory to take its course.

The child of two relatively fortunate Austrians who managed an early escape from their homeland and found refuge in the United States, Carol Jean Delmar grew up as an American daughter with relatively little idea of the dramatic events that brought her parents to these shores. Only after her mother’s death some years ago, did she begin, with some help from her father, to piece together their story. “Serenade” is as much about her and that journey as it is about them. Their reticence was typical, but it had the effect of investing their tale with an air of mystery that energized her quest. This led her to retrace their footsteps from their middle European beginnings to way stations in Italy, Panama and Cuba, and in the American South on their way to California, where they lived out the rest of their lives. She conveys throughout this book her keen determination to embrace that journey and, even more, their actual experience.

Sometimes, Ms. Delmar tries a little too hard to invest her parents’ odyssey with more of the “Perils of Pauline” type of drama than it merits. They really were much luckier and had an easier time of it than many of their contemporaries. The money they expected to be waiting for them in a Swiss bank account was indeed available to them, some to ease their peregrinations, the rest to be transferred to the United States to await what they hope will be their speedy arrival there. Although they have to spend time cooling their heels in Panama and Cuba, neither is for very long before they are safe and sound in Miami. Although Ms. Delmar mentions the cruel fate that bedeviled the hapless passengers on the SS St. Louis, denied entry to Cuba at this time, and sent most of them back to a terrible fate in the killing fields of Europe, a heavier dose of such context would have put her parents’ story in salutary perspective.

This, though, is a happy tale, one of reinvention and a preternatural capacity for falling on one’s feet. So Viennese opera singer Franz Jung loses both country and, by a cruel twist of fate, voice, but finds success as Hollywood costumer Frank Delmar. “Serenade” makes it clear that the author’s parents rejoiced in becoming Americans, something their daughter says they passed on to her. She includes reproductions of both their naturalization certificates, which afforded them new names and clearly an identity that ran deeper still. They never returned to their native land. It was a pair of proudly American parents who raised an American daughter, and their capacity to embrace their present and a keenly anticipated future rather than look backward was key to their ability to thrive in their new world. In short, they adapted. Their story reminds us that history’s storms can uproot all manner of people, diverting them from their expected lives to quite another destiny.

“Serenade” is a hard book to categorize, blending as it does elements of fiction, memoir, investigative writing and even seeming ventriloquism. There have been more remarkable tales of this ilk, but it is unlikely that there will be ones more imbued with such desperate authorial passion, one that prevented this Californian from being the Viennese she would have been — if Hitler had not cast his dark shadow across Europe and the world.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.