- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005


By Frederic Morton

Simon & Schuster, $25, 213 pages


By Peter Fraenkel

I. B. Tauris/St. Martin’s, $42.50, 249 pages, illus.


It seems incredible even now when we know that it did happen. A madman, who also happens to be a frustrated artist, feels rejected by the great imperial city which is the capital of his nation and focuses his resentment on the Jews. He serves in the army of a larger, more powerful neighbor and, after its defeat, succeeds in capitalizing on that nation’s demoralization to seize absolute power there on his way to world domination.

Not so coincidentally, the first stop on that road is the takeover — the Anschluss — of his native land and its great but no longer imperial capital. Among the array of bogeymen he has invoked to help him achieve this end, there is that particular bugbear, the Jewish people, whom he has not only demonized but will nearly succeed in exterminating wherever he holds sway. Unusually frank in his aims, he has laid out this plan in some detail, starting with a book, “Mein Kampf,” written a decade before he seized power, and continuing through countless subsequent diatribes.

A well-known story doubtless. And yet every now and then you have to pinch yourself as a reminder that in the third decade of the 20th century — within the memory of many still living today — this insane monster had a great nation dancing to his tune with malign effects radiating out across Europe and indeed the entire world. Which brings us to these very different books by Frederic Morton and Peter Fraenkel, two men whose lives would be disrupted (to say the least) by having to uproot themselves as teenagers from their native lands because Adolf Hitler had decided that they no longer belonged there.

It is salutary to remember that Mr. Morton, whose family were established burghers of Vienna, and Mr. Fraenkel, who like his forebears was rooted in the venerable German province of Silesia, emigrated not because they suffered from restlessness or wanderlust or any of the itchy feelings which have caused folk to leave home over the centuries. No, they and their families were suddenly unerwunscht — no longer wanted — simply because they were Jewish, a racial categorization by the Nazis which had nothing to do with religious practice or even cultural identification: racism pure and simple.

You might argue — indeed I suspect that both authors might aver — that they were eventually better off in their adopted countries than they would have been in their native land. Emigration may in the end have benefited them, but it still should not have been forced on them. Reacting to an official hailing him as a fellow Silesian on a recent visit to Germany, Mr. Fraenkel expresses himself in that inimitably mordant tone which shows that a lifetime away from his native land has not erased its effect on him:

“…[I]ncautiously, he made a remark that Germans have made to me before and frequently since. This needled me into bitter responses. What he said was: ‘You left in 1939? You were lucky. You were spared those difficult times — the bombings, the Russians, the Poles.’

“Confronted by such a remark I have often hit back: ‘very lucky. So lucky we would have been spared those thousand bomber raids even if we had not left. Why? Because we would have been murdered before the raids began.’

“Faced, on a later visit, by a particularly self-satisfied beer-bellied Bavarian I have done worse: ‘You would have murdered me before those air raids began.’”

And nearly 70 years on from his forced departure from Vienna, Mr. Morton can summon up with emotional immediacy what it was like to be a Jew there in those days; and what it was like, nevertheless, to contemplate leaving: “We were members of the condemned race in the Vienna of 1939. When my mother left for the hairdresser or I for school, we always kissed each other without admitting why. Each time might be the last. We lived from breath to breath. The supreme sound in the world was the footstep on the stairs. Outside, in the fine spring sun, troops of apple-cheeked young men marched through the city and sang ‘The Song of the Long Knives.’

“These dangers were bright and lethal and intimate. My father had been swallowed up by them in Dachau and emerged again. But ‘refugee’ was, for all of us, strangely beyond the imagination. I knew it had to do with being poor, with learning English, and studying the mazed map of London. But none of these things plumbed the depth of the word. It became less fathomable the more quickly we approached it.”

Mr. Morton and his family did indeed experience as refugees their share of poverty and isolation, first in London and then in New York. His evocation of working in a bakery as a young man is as vividly rendered as are his adult experiences as a successful writer hobnobbing with the Rothschilds, Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Mann.

After the dark early chapters about Nazi Vienna, “Runaway Waltz” is for the most part a sunny, lighthearted book as it chronicles the foibles and eccentricities of the author and those he encounters as he writes the articles and books that have enriched and established him in his adopted country. Yet there is a definite sense that in some respects, large and small, he remains a Viennese, rooted in that city which had rejected him because he was a Jew. And running throughout the book, there is a melancholy leitmotiv concerning the anxieties and awkwardnesses of his parents, who, understandably, were too old to make the successful transition to being American that their son managed to do.

Mr. Fraenkel and his family were not fortunate enough to obtain visas for England or the United States. They faced a grim choice between Swaziland, a tiny British protectorate sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, and the larger but only slightly more developed central African British colony of Northern Rhodesia, which became Zambia after gaining its independence in 1964. On their way to Africa, the Fraenkels visited compatriots of theirs whom they envied for managing to settle in the Netherlands.

As Peter’s father, who had been a lawyer and government official in Germany before Hitler’s takeover, struggled to eke out a living as a dry cleaner in Northern Rhodesia’s dusty capital city of Lusaka, he and his family could not but remember that none of their friends whom they had seen so happily settled into Dutch life in 1939 survived the Nazi occupation of Holland.

Despite the family’s poverty, Mr. Fraenkel was educated (at the expense of the British colonial authorities) at a good school in Southern Rhodesia and then at the university in Johannesburg. He went on to have career in the neophyte broadcasting service in central Africa and later at the BBC in London. Clearly he has never forgotten the experience of being forced into a difficult exile, but he even manages to have some empathy for the Germans of his native Silesia, who were in turn forced out of their homes by the post-World War II adjustment of German’s eastern borders. His hometown of Breslau, a city that was German for many generations and had, he tells us, the third-largest Jewish community in the nation, is today the Polish city of Wroclaw and Germans are as scare there as Jews. When he visits there, he finds both strands of his heritage, the German and the Jewish, eradicated. He cannot indeed go home again.

But in these two books, the authors manage to revisit and evoke the home that they preserve in their memory. To their credit, they remember individual acts of kindness: domestic servants who protected them from the Nazis or wept when they left; civil servants who were capable of treating Jews with respect despite the terrible temper of the times; a fierce-looking German army officer who bought an ice cream on a train for a child who was hungry because the dining facilities were closed to Jews. That Mr. Morton and Mr. Fraenkel can do so honors them as it does the spirit of humanity that was able to flicker even in those cruelest of times.

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

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