"I'm afraid she wasn't lucky to-night in selecting me as one of the ingredients for her mixture," Erich laughed; "but then I'm not much good at any of these functions—even the more exalted ones—held by hostesses eager to show hospitality to us unhappy refugees. Refugees," he repeated the word bitterly; "how I detest the label! I always feel like a performing seal made to do its tricks .... 'Now do tell us your experiences, dear Baron Weissbach .... Did you have to clean out latrines? Was your mother made to scrub the pavement with her sable cape?' … It seems quite an anticlimax when I have to say I didn't and she wasn't." His voice trailed off into silence.
I don't know how long I've been meaning to read Rose Allatini (most of whose novels appeared under the pseudonym Eunice Buckley, though one crucial one, Despised and Rejected [which I also still haven't read but which was reprinted by Persephone], was published under the pseudonym A. T. Fitzroy), but it's quite a long time. And my attention was particularly caught by her books about Jewish refugees from Hitler in the early years of World War II. Most of these are difficult or impossible to track down, but ILL came through with Family from Vienna, with its theme of refugee experiences that's painfully relevant again, and which I recently read in rapt fascination and enjoyment (though not without some slight qualms).
On the one hand, it's such an utterly delightful and fascinating family story, focused on a well-to-do Jewish family, some of British nationality, others refugees from Austria following the Anschluss, forcibly reunited in London. They're a varied and vivid bunch, from loving but slightly dotty Annushka, a widow who lives in genteel but not unlimited wealth in London with her daughter Camilla (surely a stand-in for Allatini herself), having married a wealthy Spaniard; to her awful son Ernest, "a Jewish-born anti-Semite", who focuses all his attention on trying to be taken for a Gentile. There's also an easily-offended cousin, Minna (die meschuggene Minna), with whom Annushka has a jealous, competitive relationship which is a delight to read about, and Annushka's three newly-arrived, once-glamorous sisters, accustomed to Austrian high society but now determined to make the best of a flat in Bayswater. And there are some unexpected arrivals (or, in one case, a tragic failure to arrive) of other old friends and even old beaus.
It's largely played as a middlebrow social comedy, albeit with dark edges, and it's a sometimes uneasy but overall terribly entertaining and amusing tale, and its Jewish characters live and breathe very nearly as vividly and irresistibly as those in Isaac Bashevis Singer or Grace Paley. Although they're not all lovable, they are all entertaining, and one would dearly love to be an invited guest at their gatherings.
On the other hand, one hardly knows what to make of the novel in retrospect. Allatini, of course, writing around 1940 or early 1941, couldn't have known just how horrific things would become, though she certainly knew of concentration camps and that they were terrible places from which one might well not return. It's an eternal question just how much was known about the camps when, but they seem to be thought of here like Soviet gulags or prisoner of war camps, rather than as systematic tools of genocide. Regardless, the reality is that we can't really imagine how the novel would have been read on its release in 1941—history overtook it and permanently changed our ability to relate to such a tale.
For example, this post-Anschluss Jewish joke is quite funny from the point of view of how irritating one's family can be, but perhaps a little harder to giggle at in retrospect?:
"So now you are all three here," she commented wonderingly, "it seems really a marvel. . . . "
To her surprise this was greeted with a shout of laughter. "Forgive me, Nushka darling," Toni cried, "but that reminds me of such a lovely story that's going about. ... Two Jews meet on the bridge in Prague three days after the Anschluss. One says to the other: 'I say, have you still got any relatives left in Vienna?' The first answers: 'Unfortunately, no.' 'What do you mean—unfortunately?' 'Unfortunately they're already here.'
Although most of Annushka's relatives are well-to-do or at least well-connected enough to make their escape from Austria, some acknowledgement is made of those in more serious difficulty:
There was no denying that this whole refugee question demanded endless gymnastics and adjustments of one's point of view; a perpetual juggling with, and comparison of, relative values. The homeless Jewish cobbler stranded on some river bank in no-man's-land would account himself blessed if he might spend a night in these rather sordid little rooms in Bayswater; but members of the erstwhile prosperous and leisured classes, suddenly precipitated out of their habitual environment, might well feel that such rooms represented the final word in exile and social degradation.
But the rather upper class perspective of the novel, though important to acknowledge, didn't particularly detract from my enjoyment of it. Zany upper crust characters are a staple in many of my favorite novels after all. What might be more distressing for today's readers is an occasional sense of implicit apology, on the part of even the most likable characters, for the behavior of more uncouth Jewish relatives, and even for the race as a whole. An example from the wonderful Annushka:
When Annushka stopped to consider what refugee-relatives from the Continent were capable of being like, she realised how fortunate she was in the possession of these sisters who socially were so eminently presentable; spoke such fluent even if—she was constrained to admit—not always quite correct English; and above all, were titled. Which, she sagely concluded, was always a good thing for any foreigner to be in England.
This type of passage (and there are others) may have been Allatini's way of seeking compassion for the refugees that were becoming so common in England (and also poking a bit of fun at England's own elitism). And it's also true that Allatini is working to tease out all the varied attitudes, from Ernest who is utterly self-loathing in regard to his race, to Annushka who loves her family but sometimes wishes they behaved in less "foreign" ways, to a younger generation that includes both anti-Semitic Jews and young Isabel, passionately in love with a Jewish man, and Susan, who despite a Gentile upbringing finds herself irresistibly drawn toward her previously little-known, thoroughly Jewish relatives. And there's a rather hilarious scene in which various refugees attempt to correct each other's English, which reveals all sorts of things about the need to fit in and the insecurities that refugees (indeed all immigrants) must face.
It's a difficult tightrope that Allatini walks, but all things considered I think she handles it rather brilliantly. Not perfectly, but extraordinarily well, and she must have felt in some ways that writing this novel was important "war work" —surely no one reading about such a wild and wonderful family could have failed to be moved by their plight—however genteel that plight was compared to those less affluent and well-connected.I wasn't expecting to find a rather cheerful middlebrow family comedy lurking in a novel about Jewish refugees from Hitler, and it remains an open question how most readers today would react to it. But then Singer made comedy out of the lives of Holocaust survivors and Paley inspires giggles about the troubled lives of impoverished New Yorkers. At any rate, Family from Vienna strikes me as a delicious slice of life in a very specific time and situation, though one distinctly haunted by the events that soon followed its publication.