Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler by Trudi Kanter

While the title evokes something I'd expect to come from the mouth of Mel Brooks, this touching memoir is an unexpected treasure. Trudi Kanter, a milliner, was enjoying the life of a successful businesswoman, making hats for the chic and well-heeled of Vienna, when Hitler ratcheted up his campaign for European domination by annexing Austria in 1938.  Her slim memoir recounts her life before, during, and afterward.  She was a woman of stern stuff whose survival instinct allowed her, her husband and her parents to survive the era while millions like her did not. 

Despite the dark subject matter, the book is practically breezy in her descriptions of lavish, pre-war Vienna, the mercurial fashion world, and her deep love for her husband, Walter Ehrlich, though it is counterbalanced by the desperation and fear that accompanied the times and her extensive labors to seek safety for her family.

As a kid, I had a guitar teacher who was incredibly talented and, in my naivete, I couldn't understand how it was that he hadn't left my little hometown and made the big time instead of giving Saturday afternoon lessons at the music store to dopes like me for three bucks an hour.  When I asked him this question, he told me "You can be good but you have to be lucky".  That has always stayed with me and Kanter's tale proves out the theory.  Repeatedly, her luck, often in concert with her tears, her looks or her sheer pluck, allowed her to find some kind soul who smiled on her or some tired bureaucrat who looked the other way and awarded her a visa, a necessary document, or letter of recommendation that took her from Vienna to Prague to the relative safety of London.

Making this even more interesting is that, beyond what she reveals in the book, little is known about Kanter.  She died in 1992. She self-published this story in 1984 but the book has been long out of print and no one knows who holds the copyright.  Luckily, an editor found a copy in a book shop and was moved enough to republish it with a new introduction by British novelist Linda Grant and a new sub-title: A True Love Story Rediscovered.  It is well worth your time.

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