The Survival Of A Milliner

This book review was first published in the February 13, 2013 issue of The Jerusalem Report.

cvr9781451688306_9781451688306_hr“SOME GIRLS, Some Hats and Hitler” is probably the most fashionable Holocaust memoir you will ever read. In this firsthand account of the Anschluss, the Nazis’ annexation of Austria in March 1938, milliner Trudi Kanter makes mention of the feel of every fabric, the cut of every dress, and the decoration of every hat. Surprisingly, however, this keen eye for sartorial aesthetics adds to the drama of this tragic history, rather than trivializing it.

Kanter’s account was almost lost to history. As she approached the age of 80, Kanter, who by then had lived 45 years in England, wrote the memoir as a tribute to the great love between her and her second husband, Walter Ehrlich, who had died in 1960. It was published in 1984 by a small press, drew no attention, and went out of print. It was a chance discovery of the book by an English editor in an old book shop only recently that led to its republishing by Virago Press in the UK and by Scribner in the US.

British novelist Linda Grant suggests in the book’s introduction that it was specifically Kanter’s seemingly flighty passions for clothes and men that caused people to dismiss “Some Girls”.  “The mid-eighties was a time before the fashion for the memoir, and before publishers became interested in accounts of the Holocaust by ordinary individuals, so she had two strikes against her,” Grant wrote. “There was, too, I think an instinctive shrinking away from accounts of the war that did not treat it with the solemnity of historians… Her book went down into oblivion. Some readers believed it to be a novel.” The book’s unfortunately frivolous (some might say even ridiculous) title most likely did not help either.

Almost nothing is known about Kanter’s life in England after the war, other than that her beloved Walter died in his late 50s of an apparently misdiagnosed blood infection. What we do know is what she tells us in her memoir about her life in the years just before and just after becoming a refugee from Nazi persecution, including her escape.

Kanter was born in 1905, the only child of an upper middle-class Viennese Jewish jeweler father and a non-Jewish mother. As a child, she admired them, but longed for them to show her more affection and attention. However, as she and they got older, she grew to love her parents more, and she became their protector and caregiver as danger closed in.

Snippets of her childhood come into play within the story she tells, but her main focus is on her world as a milliner with a swanky salon catering to wealthy (though not always respectable) women. Until March 1938, her days were filled with supervising the 12 women who worked in her workshop and showroom, taking buying trips to Paris, and making nice to her customers – many of whom became her close friends. Her nights will filled hobnobbing with the beau monde at chic restaurants and renowned cafés like the famed Demel. With her beauty, charm and vanity (she makes constant mention of her long, flaming red hair), Kanter never lacked for male attention.

The rest of this review can be read in the February 13, 2013 issue of The Jerusalem Report.

© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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