- - Thursday, November 29, 2012

By Trudi Kanter
Scribner, $24, 258 pages

There have been many books by and about refugees from the Third Reich, and they are as varied as the types of people caught up in the undiscriminating grinding apparatus of Nazi hatred. But there can be few if any that manage to combine terror and death with such sheer frivolity as this engaging memoir by an Austrian milliner who not only managed to find refuge in Britain but, against great odds and enormous difficulties, got her new husband and parents there as well. Despite all her travails in accomplishing these extrications and surviving the Nazi bombs that pursued her and her family during the Blitz, Trudi Kanter manages to evoke the carefree life she was free to enjoy in pre-Anschluss Vienna before madness swept over her native land.

Interestingly, unlike other chroniclers of this sick season in her part of the world, Ms. Kanter does not see Austrian Nazism as an even more malignant isotope than what the Austrian Hitler had managed to impose on his unfortunate adopted land, Germany. Her fellow Viennese refugee George Clare, who like her found refuge in the British Isles and whose memoir “Last Waltz in Vienna” is the ne plus ultra of its genre, found the atmosphere so poisonous back home that a trip to the Reich’s capital, Berlin, seemed almost like a breath of fresh air. Yes, Ms. Kanter sees her fellow Jews being made to scrub the sidewalks and walls with corrosive acid — an Austrian specialty, exceptionally vile then even by Third Reich standards — and observes a season suddenly rife with spiteful denunciations, plunder and looting.

Yet she reports not just the kindness of an Austrian Nazi official in bending the rules to permit the business trip that is key to her escape, but his plea for her eventual return home:

“‘Look’ — he turned over his lapel and showed me his swastika pin — ‘I have been a member of the Party for a long time. Our arrangement with the Germans is as follows: they came in to establish a National Socialist state. Having done so, they will leave again. Austria will be run by us. By Austrians. We will have our own version of National Socialism. I want you to know that Jewish people like yourself will not be affected. You, your parents, and your grandparents were born in this country. You are Austrians and have nothing to fear.’ I tried to hide my tears and turned to the window.”

It is clear from Ms. Kanter’s reaction to this surprising declaration that she does not doubt the sincerity of the man who spoke it to her. Even with the knowledge of how differently events turned out for Austria, extinguished as an independent entity by Hitler, only to be resurrected after he was dead and buried, and for Europe, where birthrights of citizenship or long lineage of domicile were nullified for Jews under Nazi rule, you can see a spark of pride in her Austrian heritage still unextinguished. You also glimpse the diabolically diverse methods and false promises Hitler employed to enlist misguided people who still had within them vestiges of respect for decency into his mad, cruel, destructive plan for global domination and genocide.

Ms. Kanter’s attraction to the light rather than the storm clouds that bedeviled so much of her existence makes her book a happy read rather than the chronicle of gloom and doom it so easily could have been. She consistently meets obstacles with determination and adversity with resilience. Even when wartime Britain interns her husband and father as enemy aliens, her shock is tempered with understanding rather than sharpened with bitter irony.

Only when her husband is falsely reported to be on a ship carrying internees to Australia that has been torpedoed does her spiritedness falter momentarily. But the joy she conveys at learning he is safe in his internment camp is a more natural mode. Similarly, her evocation of pre-Anschluss life in Vienna, eating delicious pastries in cafes and sumptuous meals in restaurants, falling in love, rejoicing in the success of her millinery business, plunges one into its pleasures as she avoids any hint of the elegiac that might tinge her memories with sadness.

This life and the business trips she took to Paris and London in her heyday represent the normal state of affairs in her worldview, with Nazism the sick aberration. A healthy outlook is built into her DNA and into the heart and soul of this book, which, in addition to its other virtues, also validates yet again the truth of Leon Trotsky’s sinister dictum that even though people are not interested in history, history is interested in them.

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

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