The Lost Café Schindler: One Fam­i­ly, Two Wars, and the Search for Truth

  • Review
By – October 25, 2021

Many chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors dream of find­ing a trunk full of doc­u­ments in the attic of the fam­i­ly home or a box of let­ters in the back of an old desk after their par­ents pass away and the chance of get­ting answers to ques­tions has sud­den­ly passed with them. And while this remains a dream for near­ly all, for Meriel Schindler, author of the deeply heart­felt book The Lost Café Schindler, it came true.

The hun­dreds of tat­tered, Nazi-era doc­u­ments and fam­i­ly albums from as far back as World War I, which she found in a cache hid­den by her father, were woven into lit­er­ary gold in her hands; they pro­peled her on a sat­is­fy­ing jour­ney of fam­i­ly redis­cov­ery, tak­ing us along on a wild ride through cen­tral Europe before and dur­ing the Holocaust.

In and out of prison, up and down the eco­nom­ic lad­der, back and forth between homes in Lon­don and Inns­bruck, Schindler’s father proved over and over again that he was long on charm but short on respon­si­bil­i­ty. He told the fam­i­ly they were relat­ed to Oskar Schindler, which turned out to be true by a very long stretch, and Franz Kaf­ka, which turned out not to be, and warned his chil­dren they should nev­er tell any­one they were Jewish.

Schindler explores her fraught feel­ings for her frac­tious father, Kurt, by telling the sto­ry of the fam­i­ly busi­ness, the Café Schindler in Inns­bruck, found­ed by her grand­fa­ther in 1922 and expro­pri­at­ed by the Nazis for their use in 1938. She deft­ly mix­es the per­son­al and the polit­i­cal in a full and grace­ful narrative.

Schindler, a lawyer in Lon­don, delves into her family’s his­to­ry and their scat­tered trau­mas, min­ing her her­itage as the source of many of her fears and anx­i­eties. Dur­ing the trip, she learned a great deal about Jew­ish life in the Try­ol before the Holo­caust and through the war. She grieves when she dis­cov­ers a vast array of rel­a­tives who per­ished in the camps. In a moment of tri­umph, her grand­fa­ther Hugo has some small suc­cess in his attempt to retrieve the café and the vil­la lost to the fam­i­ly in the Holocaust.

For­tu­nate­ly, this mem­oir is unusu­al­ly pre­cise and deeply researched to the last detail, based in large part on Nazi doc­u­men­ta­tion that defines the loss­es her fam­i­ly suf­fered. The sto­ry is care­ful­ly ani­mat­ed with por­traits of rel­a­tives she nev­er met, and they come alive on the page with flair. This is his­to­ry writ­ten with per­son­al­i­ty and the breath of those who lived it, all the more mean­ing­ful because it is inher­it­ed his­to­ry that many share. Schindler writes in a style that plays well with time, mov­ing back and forth eas­i­ly between the present and the mid-1800s, with numer­ous stops in between, as she traces the his­to­ry of Cen­tral Europe and her fam­i­ly mem­bers. There are side excur­sions along the way to explain her dis­en­chant­ment with her father; although Schindler has not quite rec­on­ciled with him by the end of the book, there is a sat­is­fy­ing move­ment toward forgiveness.

The Lost Cafe Schin­der gives read­ers a new trove of knowl­edge about Aus­tria and how the liveli­hoods of its Jew­ish cit­i­zens were destroyed, plus an under­stand­ing of the social real­i­ties of their lives in the after­math of atrocity.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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