In My Beginning

They met at a masked ball in Prague. I never learned what their costumes were, but certainly her mane of auburn hair must have entranced him, and his tall dark handsomeness no doubt caught her eye. He came from Vienna but was working here in a business established by his grandfather, as he'd done since he was 16 and his father died. She was born in the town of Beroun, just outside Prague, and never went to school in her life. Her father, director of a textile mill and anglophile in his ways (orange marmalade and toast for breakfast, the London Times, English wool in winter), provided her with tutors. Her older sister and brother went to University but not Dolly. She was the pretty one, the pampered one, home-schooled, intuitive and wonderful at tennis, which she played with her coach on the family's court.

When they met at the ball, I'm sure he filled her dancing card with waltzes. Tino loved waltzing and as a Viennese took to it naturally, spinning round and round in the same direction without getting dizzy. She was a little stiff in his arms, she held herself very straight and proud and even then, I'm sure, they looked like the perfect couple.

They married in 1933 in the Old Town Hall with its astronomical clock where at the stroke of every hour the Twelve Apostles and other figures made their rounds, rotating in slow parade above the gilded zodiac and other medieval representations of time's domain, the oldest operating clock of its kind in the world. It was springtime. In Germany, Hitler had been in power as Chancellor since the end of January. Dolly wore a suit, as did Tino for their civil wedding. After the ceremony they celebrated in a good restaurant, meat and dumplings, beer for some of the men, though Dolly couldn't stand it and Tino never developed a taste. They were wine drinkers, vivacious, attractive and very popular, both of them, but mainly as a pair. Her high cheekbones led some to refer to her as a classical beauty which wasn't quite true, though she did resemble Queen Nefertiti of ancient Egypt. And he, with his long legs and long face, brown eyes and dark brown hair, an inveterate charmer and raconteur, was every hostess' dream.

In some ways it was a showcase marriage. They were perfect together -- she gracious and beautiful, he handsome and entertaining. Their apartment in downtown Prague was so tastefully furnished -- all modern of course -- that it was featured in an architectural magazine. She worked a little, when it amused her, in haute couture in Prague's best designer shop, Rosenbaum's. They liked hiking in the mountains on weekends, usually in the Tatras, but in winter they would go to the Vorarlberg in Austria.

She became pregnant a few times, and each time they decided the political situation was too dangerous, with Germany too close to home. Her abortions were handled well, in a country that had legalized abortion many years earlier. In 1938 they went for their usual spring skiing in the small town of Zürs, and on the 12th of March they stood high on a slope with their guide Robert, watching as the Nazi troops marched up to the Edelweiss Hotel, gave their straight-armed Hitler salute, took down the Austrian flag and ran up the red flag with its black swastika.

"Geh'ma, geh'ma," Robert whispered with urgency. Let's get outta here! He led them, skiing, across the Alps until they were beyond the border, until they were safe in Switzerland, where they made their way to Zurich and by train back to Prague. Their Jewishness was not something they thought about or ever mentioned; they were part of the culture they belonged to, the spreading Austro-Hungarian world of art and music, Freud and Marx. They celebrated Christmas with a tree and Easter with painted eggs but now they had become Jews, scapegoats of the Reich, the vermin of Aryan Deutschland.

By the fall of 1938 they were aboard the S.S. Normandie, their traveling trunks and furniture in the hold, he clasping his American passport, she her Nansen, the passport issued to refugees whose homeland no longer existed or who were considered non-persons in their own country. Tino had been naturalized as an American when his father Leo, who was able to establish a residence in New York, became naturalized in 1912. At the time, if the head of a family became an American citizen, so too did his wife and children. And after the Anschluss, when they returned from skiing Tino had been able to contact the American Embassy in Prague and was eventually issued a dollar-green passport, his birthplace appearing therein as Vienna, Germany.

They sailed past Lady Liberty, arrived at Ellis Island, and made their way to the new world, like all the other Adams and Eves thrust out of their native garden by the serpent's tongue and left to wander through unfamiliar terrain. Once he settled Dolly in Manhattan (in a rooming house), Tino returned to former Austria and to Prague where their families and friends were living. He brought out whomever he could with his dollar-green passport: his mother, his sister, Dolly's youngest brother. Her sister Eva would be going to England with her big blond German Heinrich, son of a Jewess and himself a Marxist; her elder brother Fritz was determined to stay on until he could get his two sons out. Their mother, my grandmother, would not leave until all her children were safe.

I was born the following summer, a native American. Soon after my grandmother was shipped to Auschwitz where she was killed. Fritz' boys were shot by the Nazis in front of their parents in their apartment (too young, at 9 and 11, to bother transporting), their mother dispatched to Auschwitz and Fritz sent to Terezin (Theresienstadt), where he was kept alive because of his brilliance - four Ph.D's - to be one of the Jews purposely preserved by the Nazis for use after the Final Solution. Men like that and a few pretty women were singled out, surviving by sex or wit.

I grew up American, though my parents' world still surrounded me. For a while very early on we had old ladies living in our attic, fuzzy in my memory, silent crumpled figures in gray or black whom I was supposed to address as "tante," auntie. Then there were my parents' friends, refugees who came to our house in Kew Gardens, Queens, most of them artists, intellectuals -- an architect, a set designer (at the Met), a psychoanalyst (to Danny Kaye), a sculptor of large nudes, a translator (of Mein Kampf) and others, bringing to the house a medley of languages (though everyone knew French) and the sophistication of central Europe, of the Czechoslovakia that was a model for democracy before the war. Later my parents moved out to a beautiful house on Long Island, built in 1638 by English pirates with its entrance facing the sea, though protected by an artificial mound serving as a fortress that overlooked the private beach below. By now my father had prospered in foreign trade, my mother was a graphic artist and sculptor, and the people who came out to visit were caught in the spell of a little Europe-beyond=New York, where the food was always exquisite (our cook was Swiss), the cakes flourless and the wines mainly Burgundies. Cocktails on the hill were served with delicate canapés, beef tartar, deviled eggs, the sun going down behind the Bronx and the waters of the Sound flecked with pink as a necklace of lights came up on the bridges into Manhattan -- the Triborough and later the Throgs Neck -- and across from where we sat in the gathering dusk we could see the blinking green light that had served as Gatsby's orgiastic future.

The years passed; I moved out into my own life, to college and beyond; to London, where I lived a few years and wrote novels that were published, and then I returned and married a Brit and had a son, and he grew up in the suburbs near my parents. My mother died first, of multiple myeloma. My father moved to a house in another part of Great Neck, small but exquisite too in its possessions. Then he died at 89, and eventually we moved into the city and made a new home.

We -- my family, myself -- had outwitted Hitler. We had re-established ourselves, become part of a world that we'd partly made. I rarely thought about what had been going on in Europe around the time of my birth and during my infancy. It wasn't talked about at home, and we as a family again celebrated Christmas and Easter. The world was often terrifying, but I and we were safe here, where they had come.
In my beginning in my end. I was terrified by Trump from the start, when everybody who knew anything said he was just a clown, an entertainer; that anybody could see how awful he was, and wasn't it great for Hillary, who would have the biggest landslide ever. I did not believe, I was too frightened. I knew that in the cafés of Vienna people had said the same of Hitler and they went on saying it until they or people they sympathized with were taken away in cattle cars and gassed. My friends told me to relax, those were different times, different economic conditions, nothing like that was possible now, I was as crazy as Chicken Little.

But I could remember when it was a universal conviction that we were not like the Germans; we were the good guys. The Allies were God, the Axis powers the Devil: all clear-cut. And then I grew up and travelled and read the papers and could see that the Germans were building a just and reasonable nation, capping the salaries of bosses, giving workers shares in the company for which they worked, setting up windmills across the country to gather energy from air; providing health care from birth to death, including free spas for the aged, massages, music everywhere. Germans are us: they are who we hope to be and who we hide from ourselves.

This summer was a nightmare of media blasts, the clown with the orange dishrag coming into our homes, thoughts, nightmares. Surely he would go away, I was told. He would implode, hasn't got a chance, they said. I still worried. The Supreme Court -- what would happen there, and for how many generations to come? And now we have come to the fall, the numbers are being crunched, and some of the polls are showing Trump ahead.

All of us believe what we prefer to believe, that's how our minds work. Denial makes life possible at the most critical moments. But my friends in England remained in shock for months after Brexit, even though the polls had warned them. History, as Santayana warned, doesn't teach anything ("Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.") But this time round, our inability to learn may have consequences so great that our legacy will be as nothing compared to our inheritance.

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