When I wrote my September 2020 blog post, Fiction or Biography: Imagining the life of my grandmother, I had no idea of the treasure trove of material lurking in my brother’s loft in Oxford. After the death of our mother, the three of us trawled through box after box, folder after folder of photos from both sides of the family. The constraints of time, the other demands on our lives, put limits on the endeavour. I had to get back to my job in Spain. So after days spent looking through as many of the photos as time allowed, we divided those we had seen between us and what remained – the cases stuffed with letters, documents and more photos – got shoved into Tony’s loft for another day or, as it turned out, another year: thirteen years to be precise. It was my decision to embark on this new novel based on our grandmother’s life that spurred my brother into investigating the contents of his loft, which we had all forgotten about. Lockdown provided the perfect opportunity for what proved to be a mammoth task.
Up till then, my main source apart from my memories was the taped conversations with Oma (as we called her) and with our mother. Oma had never talked to us about her past, perhaps because a large part of it was too traumatic for her to recall, as she hinted on one of the tapes, so this hidden bounty was for me an absolute gift. For most of February, Tony was ringing me up or sending me messages detailing his amazing discoveries. Every couple of days there would be something new. The letters between my grandparents, their children, friends and relatives, in German, French, Italian and English (fortunately not Bulgarian!) revealed a huge amount about their personalities and relationships as well as events in their lives. I had wondered what my grandfather Heinrich called his wife Margarete. The letters answered my question: Gretl in some, Gretchen in others – both diminutives of her name. In those days – the twenties, thirties and early forties – people wrote so many letters. When my grandfather was away on business, they wrote to each other almost every day. He wrote to the children too, and they to him. The international post, despite using rail not air, must have been much faster than it is now. The letters proved what a close and loving family they were. For all his faults, Heinrich was a devoted husband and father.
A copy of their marriage certificate confirmed the family story of an elopement. They married in a civil ceremony in the town of Brassó, located in the state of Transylvania. At the time it was part of Hungary; now it’s known as Brasov and belongs to Romania. Another fascinating find associated with this and dated a few months earlier was a tattered residence certificate from Nagymarton, just over the Austrian border with Hungary. It attested that my grandfather was a resident of Brassó, far to the east. In fact he lived in Vienna, as did his wife-to-be. I wonder how much he paid in bribes to the Hungarian official who signed it. My research indicated that marriage laws were less strict in Transylvania than in Austria.
There are sad letters from Paris where Heinrich died of cancer in 1938, the last, written shortly before he died, in a scrawl that has yet to be deciphered. He was only fifty and had been wrongly diagnosed with an ulcer. By the time his wife arrived from Rome, he was already unconscious. Her anguished letters to her children and my mother’s in reply are heartbreaking to read. There are letters from a camp on the Isle of Man, where my grandmother and one of her daughters were interned for nearly a year as enemy aliens in England. I had no knowledge of this until the letters turned up. And then there was Oma’s poignant suicide note along with a coroner’s report.
The photos too are immensely revealing. There are studio portraits of Heinrich’s birth family: his parents and four siblings. His father had the most magnificent handlebar moustache. My grandmother described one of Heinrich’s brothers as the most beautiful boy she had ever seen and the photos bear this out. What a heartthrob! He was gay and a socialist, which didn’t exactly make his life easy but it gave him the underground contacts to escape fascist Italy, which later enabled him to arrange for Oma and her children to enter Britain. Another photo shows Margarete and Heinrich with their four children, also posed in a studio.
I can’t wait to get my hands on this stash of letters, documents and photos but the UK is out of bounds for me at the moment and there are far too many to send, so I will just have to wait. Meanwhile, the new cache means I have a fair amount of rewriting to do. Already I have enough to make a good start, even before seeing the bulk of the material.
What my grandmother went through – two world wars, years of semi-starvation, life-threatening illnesses of her children, daring escapes from debtors and Nazis to new countries with new languages to learn, her husband’s typhus in an internment camp, backstreet abortions – puts our pandemic woes in perspective. I’m calling it a novel, but whether it’s classed as fiction or biography, her story – the hair-raising adventures she suffered (and suffering is an appropriate word for most of them) – risks being considered too unlikely, too dramatic, a wild exaggeration. It is not.