Non­fic­tion

Irma’s Pass­port: One Woman, Two World Wars, and a Lega­cy of Courage

September 1, 2020

Gold­en-haired Irma grew up in Impe­r­i­al Aus­tria believ­ing that wars and prej­u­dice were fad­ing, only to have her life upend­ed and her iden­ti­ty chal­lenged to the core by two world wars.

His­to­ry con­fronts Irma time and again. Arch-Nazi Adolf Eich­mann plays a twist­ed role in the fate of her promi­nent Jew­ish politi­cian hus­band, Jakob Ehrlich, and her own escape from Vien­na. After arriv­ing with her son first in Lon­don and then in New York, Irma encoun­ters a daz­zling world of pow­er elites, includ­ing Chaim Weiz­mann (the first pres­i­dent of Israel), British par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, and oth­er renowned fig­ures who engage her in bring­ing relief to refugees.

Nar­rat­ed alter­nate­ly by Irma’s grand­daugh­ter, Cather­ine, and Irma her­self, this account of Irma’s jour­ney from Czech coun­try girl to grande dame in New York is a riv­et­ing, inti­mate tale of aspi­ra­tion, activism, and world-chang­ing nation­al move­ments. Part per­son­al mem­oir, part his­tor­i­cal dra­ma, Irma’s Pass­port is ulti­mate­ly a trib­ute to human dig­ni­ty, a sto­ry in which one woman can restore the lives of many and courage is a vic­to­ry in itself.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Cather­ine Ehrlich

  1. How does the theme of empow­ered and coura­geous women in Vien­na, Lon­don, and New York dif­fer from the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive you had in mind before you read this book?

  2. What are all the sources of Irma’s strength? Does Irma show qual­i­ties as a woman that are dis­tinct or undervalued?

  3. What role does edu­ca­tion play in Irma’s life?

  4. What do you think of the author’s con­clu­sion that Irma’s pride was an asset? Do you think pride can be transformative?

  5. To what extent do you see Jew­ish val­ues in this nar­ra­tive? What do you think of the author’s asser­tion that her fam­i­ly his­to­ry is adaptation?

  6. Do you think of lan­guages as a fig­u­ra­tive pass­port in life? Discuss.

  7. Con­sid­er Grand­ma Julie and Grand­ma Irma. Do you see a dis­tinct role for grand­par­ents in build­ing fam­i­ly narratives?

  8. Did you learn any­thing new or sur­pris­ing about WWII his­to­ry? Zion­ism? Holo­caust? How does that change any pre-exist­ing per­spec­tive you had?

  9. If you like Paul were expelled from school at 14 — and all your non-Jew­ish class­mates had fought for Hitler — what would it take for you to be open to reconciliation?

  10. Did you find any­thing unex­pect­ed or famil­iar in the orig­i­nal Zion­ist manifesto’s state­ment that immi­gra­tion is a vicious cir­cle: that a large influx of for­eign­ers is uni­ver­sal­ly dis­rup­tive. Are there impli­ca­tions for now?

  11. Jakob as a Zion­ist under­stood the threat of anti-Semi­tism but stood his ground. Many won­der why Jews didn’t leave Europe soon­er – why they under­es­ti­mat­ed Hitler. What do you think of Jakob’s stance? Con­sid­er­ing Aus­tria in the 1930s, what con­di­tions would make you decide to leave your home­land? Could a change in lead­er­ship make you emigrate?

  12. After Paul died, the author found unex­plained dia­mond ear­ring in his draw­er. Do you have such heir­looms with an ele­ment of mystery?