A Chick Lit Holocaust Memoir

Trudi Kanter’s Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is an engaging, feminist charmer

Models Peggy Healy and Muriel Maxwell in hats typical of the period Models Peggy Healy and Muriel Maxwell in hats typical of the period | Photo: myvintagevogue.blogspot 

Holocaust memoirs are many, often beautiful, almost always reflective, even philosophical and deep. An art form all their own, from another place, from other lives, other times: wonderful, but distant.

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is different. This memoir feels very “now”, the chick lit of Holocaust memoirs with an unintentional feminist message: Women rule.

This bizarre combination of the horrors of war (“A hand sticks out of the rubble, the top of someone’s head. I’m going to be sick. A boy lies pinned under part of a roof.”) and love for fashion (“Walter wears a dark grey bespoke flannel suit, handmade white brogues with black toes, a white silk shirt, a tie.”) will take you by surprise, place you outside of usual canons and open you up to the lesson this book offers: You need to fight for yourself. And when the going gets tough, you have to do what it takes. Even more so if you are a woman.

Models Peggy Healy and Muriel Maxwell in hats typical of the period Models Peggy Healy and Muriel Maxwell in hats typical of the period | Photo: myvintagevogue.blogspot 

Models Peggy Healy and Muriel Maxwell in hats typical of the period Models Peggy Healy and Muriel Maxwell in hats typical of the period | Photo: myvintagevogue.blogspot

 

Rediscovered in a Cambridge bookshop

Trudi Kanter’s memoir was discovered by editor Ursula Doyle in a bookshop in Cambridge, England in 1987. Little is known of Kanter: She was born in 1905, died in 1992 in London. She was an only child who had no children, and her husband’s family all died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. What we do know, we know from her book: She was a successful, independent hat designer with a beautiful workshop on Kohlmarkt 11, always one of the most prestigious addresses in Vienna. She was a young, beautiful – and divorced – lady who managed her flourishing business and supported her parents.

Just as she was falling in love with a handsome and wealthy businessman named Walter, the Nazis occupied Vienna. Kanter, unlike her fiancé, quickly realised they would have to leave the country if they wanted to survive. And this is where Kanter’s personality begins to sparkle, and inspire page by page – while Walter froze and became completely useless, she did whatever was necessary to get them out of Austria and create a new life in London.

As Doyle commented: “Trudi lied, bribed, coaxed, harassed and bullied her way through every channel she could think of, official, unofficial, and criminal, to get herself and her fiancé, Walter, out of the country.”

Once they were safe, she did the same to rescue her parents.

What makes this book a treat, and a lesson, is her openness in describing her actions – it will make you wonder if she was not aware of, or if she did not care about, how she came across: two-faced, snobbish and fraudulent. She described how a friend called Gustl asked her to help him by urging her connection at the American Embassy about his visa. Although she knew her connection was already back in America, Kanter promised to help – albeit with a note that it would cost “a lot” of money.

She was lucky, as Gustl got his visa without any intervention: “Two days later, jubilant Gustl telephoned. ‘The letter from the consulate has arrived! I’m safe – I’m leaving as soon as possible.’ A miracle, another miracle, I thought. […] I had asked for the exact sum my parents would need for the next six months. […] I didn’t feel guilty.” A very questionable moral trait – to which she offers no further analysis.

 

Unassuming heroism, daily pleasures

Thus, she stays on the surface – the main reason Kanter’s book does not achieve the stature of literature is she stays on the surface; she does not have the interest, or the capacity, to go deeper, to pull her heart out and serve it to the reader. But she doesn’t need to; this superficiality and bluntness in her writing style as well as her actions are what make the charm of this book. 

Some of the best moments are Kanter’s colourful descriptions of places, people and fashion. For instance of the fine life of pre-war Vienna: “Demel was a place of old fashioned courtesy. Hands were kissed, heels respectfully clicked. Nobody was ever in a hurry. […] I admired the wine-coloured carpets and window seats, where nests of little old ladies peeped out at passers-by.” Or fashion shows in London: “For the hat show, customers arrive in chauffeur-driven limousines wearing Balenciaga and Patou, jewellery from Van Cleef & Arples and Cartier, sables, mink, chinchilla. They push and shove to get the best seats. White mink on black suits. Russian lynx on a red coat. Pearls. Diamonds.”

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is a strange book. It is an easy read with a great pace, and never boring. It will bring you both the joys and horrors of life, tell you about love, romance but also war and death. It will immerse you in other times and places. It will teach you to fight for yourself.

And it will remind you of the pitfall of today’s youth-obsessed culture: We can learn about life only from those who have lived it. ÷

 

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler

by Trudi Kanter

Scribner, October 2012

pp. 272 

 

Order online at:  “Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler” (Trudi Kanter)

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