Someone tells someone she knows someone who writes fiction and memoir. The second someone, or party of the second part, asks the party of the third part if she would read a short essay by his wife, who died last year of ovarian cancer. How could the party of the third part refuse?
No longer am I the party of the third part. I’m engulfed. The essay glitters, it shines, it alarms. It has to be read. I write Gregory Wolfe, who reads unknowns because he knows art can come from anywhere. I ask if he might take a look. He does.
I give you Lee Haupt’s “The Ring.”
—Mary L. Tabor, August 2015
IT IS DECEMBER 1999. My aunt Lisl lies dying in a bleak condominium in that quaintly named California retirement community, Leisure World, regaling us—my husband and me—with her life stories. We have been visiting her once a year for the past eight years, ever since her beloved husband, Hans, died, and what she calls her charmed life came to an end. The basic text of these stories (in the sense of a scriptural passage to be expounded upon) is the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938. From year to year some of the facts and details change, but the stories are the same. Thus, “regaling” is probably not the word I want. It suggests entertainment, and these stories bore me to tears.
Lisl raises a thin arm from the heating pad she is holding against her stomach and stretches it towards me: “I look like a concentration camp victim,” she says. Her arm is, indeed, an awful sight, the skin loose and discolored. But her face is worse. It requires an effort to look at it, or to meet her eyes without flinching. Her eyes, like the few clumps of hair left her from chemo, are a dull mustard color.
The fact that I may—no, must—have heard different versions of the stories from my parents doesn’t faze her. My parents are dead. She has a monopoly on the facts now. Besides, her stories are not history, but an overflowing, a hemorrhaging—of what? The exile or survivor’s longing for self-justification? significance? roots?—before her life, already lost, is extinguished for good.
They begin when Lisl and her mother, my grandmother, whom we all called “Mu,” are imprisoned in the Wien Staatsgefängnis—the state prison in Vienna—or, in an alternate version, they are imprisoned in the Hotel Metropole where the Gestapo was headquartered, either for twenty-four hours, or in another version, two weeks. In either version they question her about her last name, Fischhof. “Are you related to Adolf Fischhof?” (She is, in fact, a descendant of Fischhof, a leader of the 1848 Revolution, a founder of the Austrian parliament, and its first Jewish member.) “Never heard of him,” she barks back at them.
Next, Lisl smuggles some of her mother’s jewelry out of her father’s office safe under the noses of Gestapo officers. “While one Scheisskerl—shithead—said something to the other, I grabbed the jewelry.”
Then, Lisl and Mu emigrate to England. Lisl works as a housemaid—or cook—in England until she and Mu leave for the US, destination Hollywood.
And end with Lisl battling the bureaucracies, banks, and insurance companies of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland from 1946 to the present, in letters and in person, to recover or receive compensation for her family’s stolen property.
“Hans,” she says, beginning to sob, “never cared for those abgemagert—emaciated—runway gals.”
To distract her, I ask her if she knew Freud in Vienna. The Berggasse where he lived was only a few blocks from the apartment where she lived with her parents.
I already know the story and can repeat it verbatim, because my husband has asked her this question on earlier visits.
“Of course I knew Freud,” she says, dabbing her eyes with a tissue and recovering at once. “I used to walk his dog every afternoon, after school. He loved that dog.” She stretches out the word “loooved,” caresses it, and begins to laugh. Then, in a hushed voice she says, “He was very cheap; he paid me only a few groschen every week.”
Lisl’s charmed life began after she divorced her first husband, Adelbert, and married Hans, her lover.
Hans came from Germany, from Leipzig. He was cultivated, suave, considerably older than Lisl, with killer good looks—a cross between Stewart Granger and Paul Henreid. Lisl has a photograph of him on her nightstand. He’s dressed in tennis whites, long pants, smoking a cigarette in a holder. His dog, a Weimaraner, lies at his feet, looking up at him adoringly. The only non-suave thing about Hans was his profession: he was a dentist. But since he had a very small practice and made his living mainly by teaching, it didn’t count heavily against him.
Lisl and her mother arrived in the US in 1940. After a few days in New York, they got on a train. It was on the train they met Adelbert from Stockarow. Adelbert got off in Chicago.
Lisl and Mu went on to Hollywood. They had a letter of introduction to an émigré photographer, Bernard of Hollywood. He was to arrange a screen test for Lisl. She got the test, but the studios already had one raven-haired Viennese beauty under contract—Hedy Lamarr—and Lisl was given the Laufpass—the heave-ho. In another version of this story, Lisl could have gotten a contract, if she’d been willing to bummel her way to stardom. She hadn’t; so, it had been Chicago and Adelbert.
Adelbert was aggressively nondescript, a nep—a zero. He came from a small hick town outside Vienna—Kankakee to Chicago—where the locals went around, and probably still do, in Alpine dress—men in Loden suits and Tyrolean hats; women in dirndls. The Viennese émigrés teased Adelbert about Stockarow. But if they found him provinzlerisch, and comically ill-matched to the beautiful and gregarious Lisl, they didn’t say so. He’d lost his beloved parents and sisters, his uncles, aunts, and cousins—everyone—to Hitler. He was der arme Adelbert—the poor or pitiful Adelbert. He had no one, except his family’s elderly cook, Fanny. She’d come to the US a few months after him, because—so the story went—although a gentile, “she could not live in a country where the Herrschaften—the master and mistress—were not welcome.” Fanny’s loyalty was a testimony to the kind of family from which Adelbert came, and Adelbert’s devotion to Fanny a testimony to his sterling character. Adelbert actually seemed to enjoy his hick status among the Wienerin, encouraging their Stockarow jokes and probably pretending to be more of a simpleton than he was.
And then Adelbert was history.
In 1956, soon after Lisl and Hans were married, they went back to Vienna. Hans had taken early retirement from his university post—the university’s dental school was about to go out of business. Europe beckoned. Like many of the émigrés, Hans viewed Chicago as a cultural backwater. It had a symphony, a nascent opera company, but no resident ballet company, no homegrown theater, no cafes, no schlag, no Gemütlichkeit. Only New York could boast those things, but unless one was very very rich, New York was “unlivable.”
Hans’s parents had been killed by the Germans. He wouldn’t have returned to Leipzig, even if it hadn’t been in East Germany—or any other German city—but he had “nothing against the Viennese,” and no objections to living in Vienna. Besides, he and Lisl wouldn’t be dependent on the natives for society. There was already a small group of Jewish returnees living there, and a sizable community of English and American expats. Language would not be a problem, and in the fifties, Vienna was cheaper than Paris or Rome. Hans got some kind of appointment at the University of Vienna, and off they went.
On one of their rare visits to Chicago (if they came to the States for a visit during those years, it was to New York, California, or Florida), Lisl told my mother’s Viennese circle, gathered at our house for Shabbat dinner and gin rummy, that she and Hans had returned to Vienna because she “did not want to live in a country that had rejected Adlai Stevenson.”
In 1989, however, Hans’s vascular problems forced them to return to the US for good. He needed a warmer climate. “We came back to the US,” she said to me more recently, “but not to Chicago, not to the insults of your father.”
My father, who had spent six months in Buchenwald Konzentrationslager, made no distinction between Austrians and Germans. He hated them both with a ferocity that frightened even the two Auschwitz survivors who belonged to my mother’s circle. He expected every Jew to shun Austria and Germany, as one would shun the cities of the Inferno.
When he and my mother traveled to Europe, he permitted her to visit Lisl, and her father’s grave, only on condition that she enter Austria from a neighboring country—Czechoslovakia or Switzerland—and leave it within twenty-four hours. He regarded Lisl’s defection as treason. He raged against her.
Lisl had cuckolded der arme Adelbert, whom, privately, my father held in contempt. Lisl had then married her lover, Hans, and now lived among the murderers. She was an unprincipled whore, whose company was not fit for my mother or my sister. Good riddance.
Our grandmother, Mu, came under attack too. She had always doted on Lisl, “the beauty of the family,” turning a blind eye to her immoral behavior. She’d neglected our mother. My father blamed her for our “poor mother’s” depression.
Neither my sister nor I thought Lisl deserved to be called a whore; nor did we blame her for leaving the idiotic Adelbert for Hans. My sister, however, was never taken in, as I was, by Hans’s continental style. My sister found him idiotic, too—pretentious and overbearing. Nor did we think our blue-eyed, hawk-nosed mother inferior in beauty to Lisl. It wasn’t Mu who had neglected her, we thought, but our father. We blamed him for our mother’s unhappiness.
But Lisl’s defection to Vienna turned us against her too.
And how could it have been otherwise? We’d been raised on the story of our father’s humiliation and suffering in the camp—not the details, but the general outline. The details, he told us, would come when we were older. Anyone who forgot what he’d “been through,” what Europe’s Jews had been through, and who turned his back on a country that had given him asylum, was utterly worthless—“Jew-trash.” My sister and I didn’t forget—how could we? But we resented being reminded.
Even as children, we knew that what our father had been through—not only the ordeal of the camp, but after, retaking his medical boards, first in England and later in the US—were weapons he and our “poor mother” used to exact obedience and deference from us.
What were our needs, our troubles, our accomplishments, next to his? What he’d been through not only excused his rages, his egotism, and his bad manners, it excused his contempt for us, his selfish, demanding, ungrateful daughters.
Lisl never kowtowed to him. She scoffed at his rules—rules which specified when one could visit my mother, how long one could stay, how long any of us could talk on the phone, and what one could or could not say “in front of the children.” Once, when he suggested he and Lisl “have a talk about Hans,” she told him to “go to hell and mind his own business.”
She wore pancake makeup, bright red lipstick, and plenty of perfume. “In America,” she had told my mother, as soon as we got off the boat, “everyone makes up.”
In winter, she wore a fur coat and turbaned hats. She laughed loudly, showing white teeth and dimples, her dark eyes sparkling. In summer, on Sundays, before she divorced the hapless Adelbert, I would see her from the window of our apartment—we lived in the same three-story court building as she and Adelbert—getting into Hans’s car. She would be in tennis whites, the two of them off to Evanston, to Northwestern’s “European” red clay courts.
Sometimes I thought my father railed against her because, secretly, he was in love with her.
Lisl’s stories depicting her charmed life with Hans make up a threadbare version of the opulent, nomadic hedonism of Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor: Fasching, carnival, and cabin class on the Cunard Line instead of private fancy-dress parties in Cannes or Tunis and private yachts. Clothes from Morton Bregman instead of Mainbocher.
Most of her stories begin, “When Hans and I were in Salzburg,” or “When Hans and I were on a cruise to X, Y, or Z, or at the Opernball,” followed by some astoundingly trivial revelation. “In Salzburg, they wanted 250 dollars a ticket for Tebaldi in La Bohème. It was ummmbelievable!” Onboard ship, Lisl and Hans never had to order an appetizer. “The waiters always brought us caviar; they knew how much Hans loooved caviar.” And leaning towards us, she says confidentially, in hushed tones, “You know, Hans had twenty pairs of black shoes. I said to him, ‘What does anyone need twenty pairs of black shoes for?’” She shrieks with laughter.
When Hans died, I called Lisl. She begged me to come to California. It was just before the Labor Day weekend; I had two days off from work, and I went. She met me at the airport, addressed me as “darling,” made a few inquiries about what I was doing, my husband, my job, and then spent the next four days crying on my shoulder and telling me how lonely she was, how she had no one, and about the charmed life she’d once led.
“Hans,” she confessed, “never wanted children.” Now, she wished they’d had a child. I remembered, however, that she’d had a tubal ligation while she was still married to Adelbert. She’d seen what my mother “had gone through” with my sister and me. She didn’t need “that kind of tsoris.”
The next year, my husband came with me. We spent a few days in one of the low-end Marriotts near Leisure World, visited Lisl, and then took off for LA or Palm Springs. He thought Lisl was lively despite her periodic bouts of weeping. Every year, she entreated us to visit her, and every year, we reluctantly agreed. Perhaps I went out of duty—my mother would have gone. But I recall that Lisl hadn’t come running to my mother’s bedside when she lay dying of cancer. Lisl had wept on the telephone, actually shrieked, that her nerves were too bad to make the trip from Vienna to Chicago. She had stayed away.
I’d written to her after the funeral describing my mother’s death, a straightforward factual account of the harrowing finale. A reproach.
She wrote back that she hadn’t been able to come “to be with her only sister” because Hans had not been well enough to travel—his vascular problems. This was followed by an explanation of my mother’s cancer. The cancer had been brought on by her unhappy marriage. “Your father,” she wrote, “gave your mother cancer.” This charge she supported by invoking the authority of a Viennese “specialist” whom she and Hans had raised to guru-status, one Professor Ringle, who believed cancer to be self-inflicted.
She then went on to inquire about “the ring,” a ring with “a large pale blue topaz.” She says she had given it to my mother for safe keeping on one of her visits to Chicago.
No such ring lay among my mother’s jewelry. My mother had bequeathed a handsome pearl and jade brooch to Lisl, and I was to see that she got it, and I’d mentioned it in my letter—but no topaz ring. As I knew my mother to be scrupulously honest, I doubted Lisl’s story.
I knew that if I didn’t find the ring, Lisl would hold my sister and me accountable for it, and I wasn’t wrong. Even now, dying, she retells the story of how she gave it to my mother to keep for her, to guard, to save. “You never found that ring?” she says.
What irritated me was not the ring, but her charge that my father had killed my mother, and her citing the quack, Ringle. Not because I liked my father any better than she or blamed him less for my mother’s unhappiness, but because Lisl had many times in the past mistreated my mother and hadn’t come to her deathbed.
I wrote her a blistering letter and received a curt note from Hans, who asked me not to write again as Lisl’s nerves were bad following my letter, and it had taken all of the great Professor Ringle’s skill to restore her to equilibrium.
On our last afternoon with Lisl before flying home to Chicago, we sit in her living room. She is propped up on a heating pad, in an armchair, wearing an inch of makeup. She looks considerably better. She tells me she is leaving me her photograph albums. “They will be sent to you after I’m gone.” I tell her I only want the old albums, the Vienna albums—two or three of these remain. The others, piled up on bookshelves, document her charmed life—the trips, the friends, the yearly Opernball.
“Throw out the ones you don’t want,” she says, throwing up her arms. “Throw them out!” She laughs her big photo-op laugh.
This is it, her bequest to me. She says, “You are not a Grab-Geier”—the vulture who waits to pick the bones of the dead.
I did, over some ten years before her death, receive several gifts from Lisl:
a half-used packet of German-made motten-papier—moth papers—with whatever moth-repellency they might once have had long gone;
a flecken-roller—a spot remover shaped like a roll-on deodorant, the cleaning solvent made from pig bile, which, like the motten-papier vis-a-vis moths, has no effect whatever on spots;
a brown “leather” belt with the explanation that she never wore anything brown on account of the brown shirts, Hitler’s Sturmabteilung. “What about black? Or gray,” I’d asked her, “the colors of the Gestapo?” No, it was only brown she couldn’t stomach.
Perhaps I am a Grab-Geier. I want more than the albums. There are two small drawings I covet—one that belonged to Hans by Ludwig Kirchner, the other, a small landscape by an Israeli artist. And an original print of a famous photograph by Bernard of Hollywood of Marilyn Monroe, the publicity still from The Seven Year Itch, autographed by Bernard. But I know I won’t get these, or anything of value, because she has told me so.
She is saying to my husband, “When we left Vienna, we could take nothing, nothing. I was the first to leave for England. Mu, and”—she turns to me—“your parents came a few weeks later.” I nod, thinking she’s going to repeat the story of how she and my grandmother made off with Mu’s jewelry under the noses of the Gestapo, but I’m wrong.
“There was a woman, a gentile woman,” she continues. “She wore a large Kreuz—crucifix—around her neck.” She sketches the size with her hands. “She traveled to and from England as a courier for Jews lucky enough to find a sponsor in that miserable country. She made her living that way.
“We gave her my father’s diamond ring, a ring he’d always worn on his little finger. It had a big blue stone.” She makes a circle with her index finger and thumb to illustrate the size.
My husband turns to me. I shake my head. I haven’t heard this story before, not from Lisl, and not from my parents.
“The courier was to deliver the ring to your father’s brother, your Uncle Erich, who was already in England.”
She says when she went to collect the ring from Erich, she saw that the original stone had been replaced. She noticed it immediately, on the instant she held the ring in her hand.
“Instead of a blue-white diamond, there was a yellow diamond, an inferior, less valuable, diamond. My father,” she says, referring now to my grandfather, “wore that ring on his little finger until the day he died. I would have known it anywhere.”
She says she confronted Uncle Erich. He denied he’d switched the stones. The ring was exactly as he’d received it from the courier. He was no thief.
But Lisl knew he was lying, and, she says, her mother believed her and backed her up. She adds, “If only he’d admitted it. If only he’d said, ‘I needed money to feed my family.’”
“Did Mu see the ring?” I ask. Lisl doesn’t remember.
“What about the courier?” my husband asks. “Could she have switched the stones?”
Lisl waves this question aside and continues.
“When your father was told, he went into a rage like you’ve never seen. He clenched his teeth and snarled at me like a rabid animal.”
I want to remind her, but don’t, that when my father arrived in England, he had no teeth. Soldiers had knocked them out on the train to Buchenwald. Yet I can easily imagine his snarling at Lisl like a rabid animal.
“He said his brother would never have done such a thing,” she continues. “Your mother knew I was right, but what could she do? She had to side with him. Your father,” she adds derisively, “was a cold fish.”
I am dumbfounded. I ask, “Was my father always a cold fish, always so angry, even before Buchenwald, or only after?”
“He came from a dysfunctional family, or no family. He was sent to the Jewish orphanage in Vienna after his father killed himself and his mother couldn’t take care of all the children when he was eight or nine.”
This is a familiar story: my father, the Austrian Horatio Alger. I’d heard it many times. It illustrated the difference between us—him, a self-made man, a doctor—and me, his “stupid, impudent, smart-alecky daughter.”
I ask her again. “Did Mu see the ring?” But the spell is broken. She has no more to say about it.
When we take our leave, I hold her thin body against mine as she whispers, “Goodbye, darling.”
On our return flight to Chicago, I enter the story of the courier and the ring in my diary. It explains something I puzzled over as a child but never had the nerve to ask my mother about: How she, my grandmother Mu, and Lisl, stripped of their possessions by their countrymen, emerge in exile each in possession of several stunning pieces of jewelry.
The pearls I am wearing are the same pearls my mother wore on her wedding day, a gift from her grandmother.
What Lisl wanted me to remember was how she’d defended her beloved father’s ring, how she courageously exposed Uncle Erich’s perfidy, how she’d been rewarded by my father’s savage, unforgivable attack.
Our plane descends towards O’Hare, rattling above the snow-bound Midwestern landscape, drops sharply to follow the Kennedy expressway to the landing strip.
I hear the leitmotif of the Rhine maidens in my head. The drama is ending. Tante Lisl will join her beloved Hans in a gravesite overlooking the Pacific.
In a few minutes, my husband and I will make our way across the airport’s remote parking lot, in the teeth of a west wind, wondering if our car will start.