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.