Monday, March 19, 2012

Two Lives by Vikram Seth 2005

"Henny and Shanti had no children. But they did have an author for a great-nephew. And his Two Lives is a stay against their oblivion." from a review by Blake Morrison published in the Guardian on 9/16/2005

Although the writer Vikram Seth is not Jewish, a very large part of this moving story is about his Jewish great aunt Hennerle Caro who escaped to England from her home in Berlin in 1939.  Shanti Seth, the author’s great uncle, met Henny Caro, his future wife, having rented a room from her mother before the war when he came from India to attend dental school in Berlin. They reconnected in England where he had already settled because as a "foreigner" he could not practice dentistry in Germany. They did not get married until 1951. Shanti Seth practiced as a dentist despite having lost an arm during his service in World War II.

The author came to know Shanti Uncle and Aunt Henny when in 1969, at the age of 17, he left India to attend school in England. A childless couple, Aunt Henny and Seth Uncle enjoyed the author’s company a great deal, treating him like a son. His great aunt suggested he learn German when he realized he needed to master a foreign language other than English as an education requirement. She offered to tutor him, which she did. He stayed close to them through the rest of their lives, visiting frequently, and flying in as often as he could from wherever he was when, as they grew older, they underwent a number of medical crises. Aunt Henny died in 1989 and Uncle Shanti  in 1998.

The author’s original intent was to write a biography of the interesting life of his great uncle Shanti; he conducted extensive interviews with him after Aunt Henny died. But on a visit from India, in helping to clean out the attic after Aunt Henny’s death, Vikram Seth’s father found a trunk in the attic belonging to Aunt Henny  full to the brim with correspondence, documents, and a few books. Her husband knew nothing about the trunk and their contents. Most correspondence covered the years from after the war through to the early 1950’s when Hennerle Caro was trying to find out about the fate of her mother and sister who had stayed behind in Berlin. Most were from Christian friends in Berlin consoling her on her loss and providing the information that they had gathered about the last days of Hennerle’s mother and sister who, she learned, though they lived together, were separated at death. Her elderly mother was deported to Theresienstadt, her sister to Birkenau.

The very long section in this 500 page book devoted to Henny Caro quotes these letters extensively and make for very interesting reading. Henny frequently made carbon copies of her responses so we hear her voice as she conveys her anger and bitterness at the fate of her family.  What’s particularly interesting in her letters are her inquiries to friends she trusts about others of their friends who were trying to re-establish contact with her. She wanted to know exactly how they had each behaved during the war, what groups they had joined, who they had associated with. She is bitter about those who wrote to console her after she finds out from others that certain of them stayed away from visiting her mother and sister even though many of her friends had known them well. Others had put themselves at risk by visiting them and helping them out with food before they were deported.

Henny was an heir to her mother’s, her sister’s and her two maiden aunts’ estates. Henny’s closest Christian friend who still lived in Berlin offered to help her with claims against the German government to facilitate compensation for both her lost wages and all confiscated property. The letters back and forth between Henny, her friend, the German government and the American government (because she suspected her wealthy aunts had sent money to American banks) reveal a callousness on the part of the bureaucracy in both governments that still outrages so many years later.

Vikram Seth informs us that before he investigated these letters in the trunk he only had a superficial knowledge about the Holocaust. He knew no Jews growing up in India. He was shocked that he had known nothing about his great aunt’s past. When he talked to his great uncle who had known his mother-in-law and sister-in-law when he lived in Berlin, Shanti Uncle said his wife never wanted to talk about it.

For the author, writing this book  included doing research about Jewish Berlin, the Nazi edicts visited on its Jewish residents, deportations, and conditions and procedures in the Thesienstadt and Berkenau concentration camps. At one point the author visited Israel to give a talk and found himself spontaneously going to Yad Vashem where he found entries for Gabriele and Lola Caro in German documents. Reading the German, a language he loved that was part of his connection to his great aunt when she had tutored him, so sickened him that for a period he stopped reading German and listening to German Leider.

The author concludes with making some salient points about having written this book. He is troubled with the fact that he was publishing letters that were not meant for the public eye, but decides that since Shanti Uncle and Aunt Henny are long gone, their lives are now part of history. He makes the point that their lives spanned most of the twentieth century and through his research and analysis the author reveals how the major events of the 20th century shaped their lives and those around them.

To read an article about the fate of Jews in Berlin, click here.
Isaac Caro – married Gabriele (Ella) Schmelkes
    Lola Caro – daughter of Isaac and Gabriele
    Hennerle Gerda Caro – daughter of Isaac and Gabriele; married Shanti Seth
    Heinz (Hei) Caro – son of Isaac and Gabriele; married Mia stonewalling at absurdity of responses from US and Germany

Olga and Flora Glaser – Henny’s aunts ( exact relationship unclear)
Malchen and Sigfried Pawel – Henny’s aunt and uncle (exact relationship unclear)

Friends and Acquaintances
Hans Mahnert – married Wanda
Fredy Aufrichtig
Jazko Rabau – married to Rose
    Inge – daughter of Jazko
Heinrich Etzold (Henry Edwards) – married Nita
    Susan Edwards – daughter of Henry and Nita
Adolph Berliner (A.G. Belvin)
Luther Berliner – brother of Adolph
Cora Berliner
Hans Altmann
Alice and Else Pasch – sisters
Adolf Wolffsky
Frieda, Ursel, and Klaus Alexander
Margot Berlowitz Weissberg
Walter Schachtel
Tilly Reich
Paul Oppler

Berlin, Germany
Charlottenburg, Berlin
London, England
Le Paz, Bolivia
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia
Auschwitz, (Berkenau) Poland
Atlanta, Georgia
Shanghai, China
Capetown, South Africa

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