In 1938, my then fifteen year old mother and her mother fled Vienna a step ahead of the Nazis, and traveled to England where they eventually boarded the Queen Mary and came to America. My grandmother went to New York with her richer sister and brothers and started a little retail cosmetics dynasty. It never amounted to much, just three stores, separately owned, in Manhattan and the Bronx, good incomes for sixty years, and rubbing elbows with a young Estee Lauder.
My mother, an only child, went to live with a family in West Virginia and finish high school before joining her mother in 1940 at Lameť Cosmetics, their upper west side store on Broadway, between 89th and 90th.
My grandfather, however, never made it out of Vienna. For years my mother and grandmother wondered where he was, why he never got in touch. Anyone in their position would have assumed that he’d simply been exterminated by the Nazis in the Holocaust, but inquiries made went nowhere and they found no record of his death. Maybe he was still alive in Russia, they thought. They hoped. They waited.
The question lingered. My mother told tales of her father the actor, the hairdresser, the bon vivant who married at thirty eight a woman twenty years his junior.
My family migrated to Los Angeles on February 9, 1964 – the day the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan, and not long after that my mother hit the wall. She’d lived without a father for too long and the missing and hurting and questions came crashing down all at once and she took to her bed to mourn. I understood, but not really, not deeply.
My mother more or less stayed in bed. Sure, she’d leave it to travel and work, to be with the family, but it still remained the center of her universe, the warm burrow to which she always returned for reasons of health or heart, the place where she dreamt, and her dreams often died.
My mother is a relentless optimist in a body only a pessimist could design. Nonetheless she pursued her life with an anything-is-possible attitude, especially when nothing seemed possible. After all, she’d escaped Nazi death; she’d prospered in business; she’d finally broken away from the provincial European family in New York and a mother who would rather play bridge than be maternal. She’d early-on developed a fierce independence and self-reliance and was a feminist in deed before it was fashionable. Once in Los Angeles, she become a real estate agent in the San Fernando Valley – that is until my father insisted she stop working. My father was burdened less by backward ideas, than insecurity. Maybe if my mother earned more than him she’d also find a reason to leave him. She never would have – this revealed more about him than about their marriage – but the only way to prove it was to quit and so she acceded out of love – and always regretted it.
My father had reason to be insecure. His mother had once told him how much the pain of childbirth had made her suffer. As a child, he’d cut out an eye on a broken bottle and gotten glaucoma in both. His greatest fear was not being good enough, not to mention going blind and being abandoned.
He compensated by over-achieving. Working in his father’s Harlem dry goods store, he paid his way to a night school Bachelors degree in electrical engineering that took eight years. A Masters soon after, and employment with various defense contractors, a profession with steadily diminishing returns in the seventies. After a series of reverses he finished up his career at Jet Propulsion Laboratories working on various planetary missions until he finally went blind. (After which he returned to school for a Bachelors in Psychology. A stroke kept him from writing his Masters thesis.)
My father was also an immigrant and an only child. Born in Berlin, he came to New York in 1941, by way of Palestine, where he’d lived ever since the Nazi’s took his father’s Mercedes in 1933. “Today my car, tomorrow my life,” my grandfather once told me, explaining that he'd immediately relocated the family to Haifa, where he became a farmer and apartment landlord.
My father also had his visions of independence, security, and success, and to both him and my mother California embodied them. Two visits in the Fifties convinced them, and thereafter the goal was in sight. They did a pretty good job of it, all things considered, raising two sons through generationally tumultuous times. We learned the story of our respective relatives and ancestors, and were taught to appreciate our good fortune at having been born in the United States. Even more so, we learned that having made it to California to carve out our own lives in the land of the permanent vacation and open-ended opportunity, represented the ultimate achievement. The rest was just gravy.
My missing grandfather, of course, had missed out on it all, and in 1983, when he would have been 100, my mother finally put his ghost to rest. Wherever he had gone, whatever life he’d lived – or not – time had run out.
Recently I traveled to Vienna with my family and, on August 30, visited my mother’s first cousin, Hans, and his wife Grete. His father had been my grandfather’s younger brother. Over lunch at his summer cottage on a section of the Danube called the Alten Donau (Old Danube), I learned that he’d spent many of the years since I’d seen him last in 1985, working on his family tree.
Hans pried open a thick notebook of pictures and statistics and told me more about my mother’s side of the family than I’d ever known. Then he emptied an envelope of documents, many of them with the Nazi letterhead, that he’d retrieved as research.
“Here you can see that your grandfather, Albert, wanted to sell his business,” said Hans, translating the German. “He tried three times, but the Nazis always denied him, saying the salon – he was a hairdresser – was scheduled to be liquified because he was a Jew, and so had no value.”
My grandfather, it turned out, had been trying to put together the money to buy his way out of Austria. My mother, who loved him dearly, had always and only told me that he’d had a chance to leave with his wife and daughter but for some reason had stayed behind. She seemed mystified and angry at his actions and sometimes made it seem as if he had simply been cavalier and willfully disbelieving of the imminent mortal danger. It wasn't true. After my grandmother, who'd been recovering from a broken hip in Los Angeles, died, I cleaned out her NY apartment and brought a suitcase of her effects west. In the papers, my mother discovered some letters that told another story: Albert had wanted to leave but my grandmother’s older sister - and head of the family - wouldn’t send the money, so Albert was forced to try and sell the business instead. That, and even more so the revelation that my grandmother had for decades withheld from my mother letters full of love that my grandfather had written to her, sent my mother back to bed, where she read them all and cried.
Unable to sell the salon, Albert had had to stay, and by August 1942 it was too late.
Through diligent digging, Hans was finally able to determine the course of events. He showed them to me in black and white, on a Swastika-adorned page. Name, birthdate, religion, destination.
Albert was taken on August 31, 1942 and shipped to a concentration camp in Minsk.
Five days later, on September 4, 1942, he was killed.
“Better than starving to death,” Hans said.
All my mother’s wondering and waiting and not being able to get on with her life; all for nothing.
My mother, the eternal optimist, of course had the last word. Just to be safe she found a way to make her father live on – and in her own home – in more than just melancholic memory.
She gave me his name, Albert, as my middle name.
This I’ve always known.
Last week I learned that today is the 64th anniversary of Albert’s senseless death.
Now I understand.