“DAVID: what a nice Welsh name,” my father’s side of the family said when I was born. “David: what a nice Hebrew name,” my mother’s side of the family said.
It was 1936, and my parents, Poppy and Alan, were living in Vienna, in Meidling, the house of my maternal grandmother, née Mitzi Springer. How fortunate they were! A friendly postcard to Poppy from Franz Lehár (of The Merry Widow fame) has survived to bring on a flush of nostalgia.
The first Springer was an orphan who had made money, and founded and financed the Waisenhaus for Jewish orphan boys up to the age of 14. On one particular high holiday, Alan, an Anglican doing his best, had borrowed a hat so outsized that everyone in the Waisenhaus synagogue exploded with laughter as he tried to prevent it from sliding down to cover his ears by spreading a handkerchief over his head. How innocent they were!
Fault Lines, the memoir I have just published, takes its title from the uncertain identity of this family. Where exactly did these fortunate and innocent people fit in?
Mitzi was an only child whose mother had died giving birth to her. Brought up exclusively by her father and a governess, she never went to school. Besides German and Hungarian, she spoke perfect French and English, with no foreign accent in either language. From an early age she wrote a diary, almost invariably in English. Unexpectedly practical in business and financial matters, she was unexpectedly emotional in personal matters.
For these people to be taken for Jewish was rather like having a part in a play. In their own view completely assimilated, they went to the same parties as everyone else, ate the same food, and married for love, irrespective of religion — Mitzi had been an enthusiastic match-maker for Poppy and Alan. Also, like everyone else, they celebrated Christmas with a tree and presents, and even Stille Nacht.
At any moment, though, reality might show up the play-acting for the illusion that it was. As a teenager, Mitzi had overheard one Austrian army officer remark to another: “What a pity the little Springer girl looks so Jewish.”
Unusually for girls at that period, Poppy, her younger sister, and two other 13-year olds had celebrated their bat mitzvah, the ceremony that confirms Jewish identity. They had received instruction from a prominent rabbi, and worn white dresses for the occasion — hedging their bets, so to speak, by looking like little Roman Catholics at their first holy communion.
MY GRANDFATHER Eugène Fould, French and Jewish, had died a few years before I was born. Mitzi then married Frank Wooster. Uncle Frank (as he was to me) was handsome and easygoing — not quite the idler that he seemed, because active service in the First World War had damaged his health. To me, Uncle Frank appeared secular, worldly, flippant. Embarrassingly, he was something of a secret drinker.
Under Frank’s influence, Mitzi Fould-Springer now reinvented herself as Mary Wooster. First, an amiable canon received her into the Church of England in time for her wedding in London. Then she acquired British nationality, and began to praise “our” King and Queen in her diary. Neville Chamberlain’s speeches were “magnificent”. Jews, she thought, had mostly brought their misfortunes on themselves, and she distanced herself from them.
She and Frank saw nothing odd or dangerous about driving into Germany as tourists, attending the annual Bayreuth festival, in spite of Adolf Hitler and the swastika flags flying everywhere. Lawyers would surely always be there to come to the rescue, and bankers and accountants would always be there to provide the funds to pay the lawyers.
THE war put a stop to any element of play-acting. One of the first acts of the Gestapo in Vienna was to close the Waisenhaus, and then to deport the staff and the orphans to be murdered in Auschwitz. Next, the Gestapo expropriated Meidling.
I describe in Fault Lines how the members of the family scattered. Mitzi and Frank set off on a roundabout journey that ended in Canada. My parents happened to be in England, having left me in the charge of my nanny, Jessie.
Along with an uncle and aunt and their two children, my first cousins, Jessie and I were to undertake a long journey via Vichy France and Spain to Tangier in Morocco, and then to Portugal, from where we flew home to England on the final lap.
Hitler categorised those of mixed parentage as Mischling, or half-caste, and in some cases they paid for it with their lives. At the time, my nanny was 67, and I was five; and, as luck would have it, I never had to find out whether the Germans would have separated, interned, or even deported us.
AT ABOUT the age of eight, at the school that was turning me into an English child after my foreign experience, I had a teacher whom I thought extremely pretty. One day, she suddenly let drop that nobody had wanted to fight the war with the Germans except the Jews.
I had heard this word without really knowing what it meant, although I understood that it somehow concerned us. When I got home, I told my mother what I had just heard. She took me by the hand and led me into an old orchard, where we talked.
One by one, we went through the members of her family: “Granny, Uncle Max, Auntie Lily, me — all of us are Jews. You know me, and you know them,” Poppy said. “Do you think any one of us could have wanted war?” And then she drove off to the school.
We used to go on a Sunday to the little local church. Alan would often play the organ. Poppy was like any other member of the congregation. After that one conversation in the orchard, she never spoke again to me on the subject of Jews. No rituals, no kosher food, no instruction, no worship.
They went to church, it seems to me, simply to observe a convention: that is what people do on a Sunday; and maybe they were hoping that it would help me in some unspecified way.
IN WALES, where we have a house, at Christmas there’s a tree, and Stille Nacht, and all the details surrounding the birth of the most universal of Jews. I attend the small and historic church near by in much the familiar but uneducated spirit of my childhood. I was married in that 12th-century church, and hope to be buried there. The Jewish content of the hymns and psalms, the lessons, and even the sermons, always takes me by surprise.
A journalistic assignment that once came my way was to write a profile of the novelist Saul Bellow (who memorably remarked that Israel is to moralising what Switzerland is to winter sports). In the course of getting to know him, I told him what had happened to me. After some reflection, he said: “You have been close to the Jewish experience.”
I discovered the truth of it on another journalistic assignment. Reporting on the Six Day War of 1967, I came across Israeli gunners with a battery of heavy artillery, firing salvos that shook the ground, and I couldn’t help thinking that something like this would have saved the orphans of the Waisenhaus.
A fault line is there, no question about it; but it may help to broaden the mind, and deepen the human spirit.
David Pryce-Jones is a writer and historian. His memoir, Fault Lines, is published by Criterion Books at £20.