Friday, June 02, 2017
Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler by Trudi Kanter
It is hard for us to say goodbye. Uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews, cousins, grandmother. Seventeen people.
I remember a tiny pink-and-white gingham dress trimmed with white rick-rack.
None of Walter's family survived Theresienstadt.
On Sunday, 3 September 1939, I see a policeman wearing a tin hat. On top of our red pillar box a yellow square of gas-detector paint. The street is deserted. Everyone is listening, waiting, at home, abroad, at sea. Germany has invaded Poland, Warsaw is being bombed. The clock strikes eleven.
"The ultimatum has expired," Walter whispers.
I close the window. We sit at the kitchen table, staring at the wireless, trying to understand what Chamberlain is saying.
"Everything that I have worked for, everything that I had hoped for, everything that I had believed in during my public life, has crashed in ruins."
Outside, silver barrage balloons float in the blue sky.
Somewhere, I've got a copy of the book that The Sound of Music was based upon, but I haven't yet read it so Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler is the first book I recall reading that describes Austria at the beginning of WWII.
Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler by Trudi Kanter is the memoir of a woman who owned her own millinery. Both a savvy businesswoman and an artist, she was responsible for going on buying trips to purchase the ribbons, flowers, forms, and other parts to make hats, as well as keeping an eye on the market and coming up with designs, which she then had her employees make in the studio portion of her Vienna flat. In the process of divorce as the book opens, Trudi (then Trudi Miller) was aware of the horrors happening in neighboring Germany and kept her eyes and ears open. But, the new love of her life was oblivious. Heedless to her warnings that they needed to leave the country, Walter presumed that the danger would be minimal and they ended up staying well after the German tanks rolled into Austria. Both Trudi and Walter were Jewish, as was her former husband, Pepi.
Through the author's eyes, you get a glimpse of what it was like being a Jew living in Austria at the beginning of the occupation. As her story opens, Trudi and Walter are falling in love. Both are prosperous but Walter seems particularly well off. When the Germans arrive, though, they begin to confiscate his possessions and eventually they go in search of the man, himself. Trudi is helped by sympathetic neighbors at least twice when the Nazis come to arrest him.
Using various contacts and with dogged persistence, Trudi slowly gathers the documents needed and takes journeys to help her prepare for their escape. She also manages to acquire the needed visas for her parents. In Czechoslovakia, they stay with Walter's family, and then they finally end up in England, where Trudi is able to work in her chosen profession and eventually set up her own business.
Trudi Kanter's story is particularly unique for its artistic viewpoint. As a hatmaker, she's got an artistic eye and aesthetics are very important to her. So, while someone else might describe the frustration of living in a drab flat after escaping Austria and leave it at that, Trudi talks about the way she worked to bring color into her life by draping a bright yellow shawl over the bed and buying yellow flowers. Some memoir readers might find her eye for beauty a distraction but it didn't bother me. I particularly thought it was interesting when she said hats were getting so small that a you could put a sequin and a feather in your hair and call it a hat.
At any rate, I thought the book was an excellent addition to the many WWII memoirs I've read. Having never read the perspective of a Viennese Jew, I was unaware that Jews were put to work scrubbing the streets. Just two weeks after closing the book, I read about that in another book (which I'm currently in the midst of: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder). There are moments that it seems like Trudi's life could have sailed on just fine in spite of Hitler, and then something will happen . . . something terrifying or shocking . . . and you realize that, no, they're not safe. They'll never be safe in Austria.
Recommended - Particularly for those who like WWII memoirs. The only problem I had with Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler was that it was a bit choppy and sometimes that meant reading a paragraph or a sentence twice in order to figure out what exactly the author was trying to say. And, yet, there's an immediacy and a uniqueness to her storytelling that makes it a great addition to the many memoirs of WWII. During a particularly vivid bombing scene in which both Trudi and Walter ran to help pull people from the rubble and put out the fire, I think I barely breathed. Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler can also be seen as a tribute to Walter, the love of Trudi's life. The two times she spoke of his death, I could barely see through the tears. "To exist in a world which did not contain Walter seemed pointless," she said while Walter hid from the Nazis.
Trudi Kanter was, in fact, ahead of her time. She wrote Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler in the 1980s (the original publication date is 1984), before memoirs became a popular publishing category. It was apparently largely ignored. The copy I have, with the cover above, is a reprint by Virago with a "Clearance, $2.00" sticker on its cover. I have no idea where I bought it but it's been floating around for a while.
While looking for a cover image to post, I came across another cover that I really like:
This one is fitting because there were a lot of heavily flowered hats at the shows she attended; in fact, the author described some hats that were not just covered in roses but made entirely from them. I like the pink-dominated cover for that reason. But, I like the Virago cover, as well. I think both give a good sense of the time and place and the focus on the author's profession. Trudi Kanter was a formidable woman, admirable for her business sense and her persistence. Terrifying as the story can be, it almost feels like the word "feminist" should be attached to the description, somewhere. She was a feisty woman. A great book to read with a teenage daughter, to discuss how one woman's persistence and belief in herself paid off.
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