Excerpted from The Ground Under My Feet by Eva Kollisch, German/literature faculty emerita
In 1939, as a 14-year-old Jewish refugee from Vienna, Eva Kollisch was rescued by a Kindertransport and brought to England. Some nine months later she and her two brothers were reunited with their parents in the United States. The Ground Under My Feet is a collection of autobiographical stories and essays tracing her journey. This essay begins after the war; the family has established a new life in Staten Island, New York.
She was of my mother’s generation, an Austrian-Jewish refugee, small-boned, birdlike, instantly recognizable by her high-pitched voice, her white gloves, and the inevitable little hat she wore at a rakish angle. She used to make these hats herself: by profession she was a milliner, a modiste. But really she was a poet, in love with the German language and dedicated to Austrian literature as well as to Exile (i.e., Austrian-Jewish) literature.
It was she who was the guiding spirit behind those gatherings in the Liederkranz Hall or the Austrian Forum that began in the late fifties. Maybe twenty-five or thirty people would meet there, all Austrian Jews, writers and their friends. Fine faces, worried-looking; pale, stooped shoulders; sometimes a gleam of wit, a shared joke, an embrace. On occasion my mother would take me along. Having spent most of my childhood in an anti-Semitic small town, I had no good memories of that time and was critical of my mother’s generation for still feeling so identified with Austria.
“Meine Damen und Herren” (Ladies and gentlemen), Mimi Grossberg would begin, with a graceful upward turning of her palms, “may I introduce….” Sometimes she would be talking about a dead Austrian poet; sometimes a living one would be standing by her side. She was informal, feminine, witty, at times ingratiating, but one sensed her powerful will. She was driven by two passions: her love of Austria; her hatred of the Nazis.
When it came to the Nazis, she could use strong language. She would call them shitty dogs, swine, devils, fiends from hell. But pre-Hitler Austria—Vienna with its high culture, and the Austrian countryside with its mountains and meadows, its rural folk and crystalline streams—that would bring tears to her eyes. She was not the only one: most of those assembled at these gatherings suffered from Heimweh (homesickness).
They were grateful to be in America; they knew they had missed—by chance, by luck, and by a matter of months—probable extermination. Now they were here, in the city of glass and steel, struggling to make a new life; but they would not give up their mother tongue: they identified with another tradition—graceful, literary, ironic, musical Vienna. Even after everything was known about the Holocaust, they bent over backwards to find as many “good” Austrians as possible.
To me, Mimi exemplified that spirit. It amazed me.
“How deluded can you get?” I would scream at my mother, including her in my accusation. My mother, the poet, said that I didn’t understand. I hadn’t spent most of my life in a country so rich in beauty and culture, then taken over by barbarians.
“But Mutti,” I would remonstrate, “they, the Austrians, are the barbarians.”
“Only some,” my mother replied. My mother was a humanist. She didn’t believe in the wholesale condemnation of a people.
But I continued to focus my antipathy on Mimi. There she was, rushing up to kiss my mother, when we arrived at the Liederkranz Hall or the Austrian Forum, bubbling over with, “Ach, Grete, wie schön!” (Oh, Grete, how beautiful!) This was about some recent poems my mother had sent her. As for me, she looked me over ironically, I thought, giving me the fish eye. I was certain the antipathy was mutual.
A gulf separated us: I with my need to look tragedy in the face, she with her public cheerfulness; I with terrible gaps in my knowledge of German and Austrian literature and history, she with her great familiarity with that tradition, with her wonderful memory for names and dates and places. I was always afraid she would find out all I didn’t know. (A complicated mixture of guilt, shame, longing, and the need to earn a living would drive me later to do graduate work in German.) I envied the poetry she could recite by heart, the anecdotes she could tell about Grillparzer, Trakl, and Hofmannsthal, about Schnitzler, Werfel, Roth, and Karl Kraus, with a light touch and so much charm that you would have thought she had known them personally.
Yet to me, with my arrogant hierarchies, she was not an “intellectual”; she was an entertainer, a story-teller. “Ihr wisst ja” (Of course you know), she would begin one of her talks, tilting her head flirtatiously, the dark green or purple feather on her little hat bobbing and waving. So she would reach out for the community she was creating and binding with the assumption of a shared knowledge and experience. Only I was excluded; I was the only younger person in that room. I vented my anger at Mimi. I saw her as manipulative and sentimental; a master at name-dropping; an impresario of Heimweh.
That they would bother to carry on at all about Austria, these refugee writers who gave their readings in German, always with such mixed emotions, but always with their love for Austria prevailing—that was something I continued to marvel at. But secretly I judged their loyalty to be a moral defect of which my mother was also guilty.
“Mimi is not a real poet, at least you are,” I would say to my mother, trying to create for her an extenuating circumstance. I admired my mother and loved her, though she irritated me greatly with her idealism and what I considered her inexcusable naïveté. My mother thanked me for the compliment. It so happened that Mimi, all modesty, agreed with my judgment. She called herself a minor poet with a major mission.
My mother and Mimi were not personally very close; theirs was a literary friendship. But they had much in common. Already middle-aged when they emigrated, stripped of their formerly unquestioned bourgeois status, they both worked hard to make a living: Mimi made hats, my mother had become a masseuse. They shared the same love of music, languages, and poetry. My mother had buried both her parents before the Anschluss. Mimi’s parents, I had some dim recollection, had died in the Holocaust but I never heard her mention this.
In addition to her work, my mother had a family to take care of; Mimi, who had lost a beloved husband some years earlier, was childless. She used all her free time to promote the refugee writers. She deepened her study of Austrian literature, she searched for connections and bridges, and selflessly helped individual refugee poets find publishers. Over the years she succeeded in putting together a number of anthologies of Austro-American poets-in-exile, which can be found today in many university libraries and in archives, in this country and in Austria.
By the sixties, she began to spend summers in Austria, and frequently traveled there during the year as well. She went in a semi-official capacity. Her letters to my mother from the land of their birth were always happy. She had become an educator, a mediator, a cultural spokesperson.
Begrudgingly I started to admire her as I grew older. But something grated. That sing-song voice. That optimism. That living in a different time. That refusal to fully condemn America (as I and my friends did) for its role in the Vietnam War, for its ecological depredation, racism, militarism, and homophobia. Everything that was important to me separated me from Mimi and my mother. I thought the world was rotten to the core and would have to be made new. They felt (in spite of Hitler and subsequent genocides) that it was miraculous to be alive. They still had faith in “humanity”—and found ways of letting music, poetry, and nature console them for whatever was wrong.
The first true affection I felt for Mimi was after my mother’s death in 1979.
I saw how much she had done for my mother—was still doing: helping with the posthumous publication of her last book; helping to find an archive for her work; transliterating letters in German I had received from my mother as a child in a Gothic script I had forgotten how to read.
Once I had to deliver some pages of my mother’s manuscript to Mimi’s apartment. Two tiny rooms in Washington Heights—books everywhere, an upright piano, dust, doilies. She served tea in fine porcelain cups and said she envied Grete for having such a good daughter to look after her work. I felt embarrassed. I was not a good daughter. I admired my mother’s poems but didn’t care for their romantic subject matter. I had my own life to lead; I could hardly wait to be done with the job of literary executor.
During my visit I began to notice that Mimi never talked about herself or asked me anything about my life. I existed only in relation to my mother, the poet. And Mimi existed only in relation to Austrian literature and the Austrian Exile writers.
“Why do you want to give your life to that stinking little country, that drove you out, that persecuted and killed its Jews?” I wanted to scream. But she was so much of a piece, so fiercely organized around a core: her mandate. Her single-mindedness frightened me. I could see that if I didn’t watch out she would try to conscript me to carry on her work. I got up to leave.
“Will you come again?” Her eyes were not fishy now, they almost seemed to have some warmth in them. I embraced her.
Earlier, while I had sat there, listening, I had discovered to my surprise that I no longer was put off by her manner of speaking. It struck me how very Austrian it was, and how endearing I found that, even against my will. In her accents I recognized my mother; in her peculiarly lilting melody, the sound that once meant home.