Here's something I wrote several months ago for a place that, if they'd taken it, would have paid for it. They didn't take it, for reasons I did understand at the time. Anyway:
On a rainy Saturday morning in July I and my wife collected Michael, his son and his grandson from a hotel near Oxford Circus and drove north. We set off early, expecting to get lost in the maze of roundabouts around Milton Keynes, which we duly did, and arrived at the brasserie in an outlying village at the appointed time for Michael’s rendezvous with Judith. Judith and my wife are half-sisters, Michael is their half-brother; this was the first meeting between Judith and Michael.
The backstory is another maze. Friedrich, the father they have in common, was born in 1897 to Frank Wedekind and Frida Uhl; because he was conceived while Frida was still married to Strindberg, he was given that surname. Frida herself is worth a detour: she lived for a decade in Berlin, where she helped establish cabaret performances, and then in Vienna, where she persuaded Karl Kraus to put on a private performance of Pandora’s Box with Wedekind himself playing Jack the Ripper. (Tilly Newes, the nineteen-year-old who played Lulu, became Wedekind’s wife less than a year later.) She was described by a Berlin cabaret producer as being driven by ‘literary-erotic curiosity’. After firing a pistol at a high-society reception in Vienna, she fled to London, where in 1912 she opened a nightclub off Regent Street, the Cave of the Golden Calf. Her planning was chaotic and rushed – on the opening night the paint on the drop curtain was still wet – but she put on a good show: gypsy music, cabaret, fine wine, décor by Wyndham Lewis, Spencer Gore, Eric Gill and others. In Return to Yesterday (1932) Ford Madox Ford recalled nights when ‘Ezra and his gang carried me off to their nightclub which was kept by Madame Strindberg, decorated by Epstein and situated underground. London was adorable then at four in the morning . . .’ In 1914 she went to America; she returned to Europe in 1924 and died in Salzburg in 1943.
Friedrich, after after being shuttled around during his childhood and sent to boarding school, married Marie Lazar, an Austrian journalist and writer of children’s stories, in 1923. Judith was born a year later. Her parents separated; she and her mother lived in Denmark and Sweden in the 1930s and 40s, and under her bed in Northampton she has manuscripts written by her mother during that period. Judith is a very courteous, very private person. After coming to England following her mother’s death in 1948, no one could have assimilated more assiduously: she married a trades unionist in the shoe business and provided high tea on the Sunday afternoons when I and my wife and our children visited. When a diligent researcher from America found her out and asked for more information about her mother, Judith agreed to meet (in a hotel) and answer certain yes/no questions, but wasn’t going to volunteer more than the researcher had the wit to ask.
Friedrich became a roving reporter for German newspapers. He covered the Italo-Abyssinian war of 1935–6 alongside Evelyn Waugh. In Spain during the Civil War he was mistakenly accused by Arthur Koestler (in Spanish Testament, 1937) of being a Nazi informer; much later, my wife remembers, during her childhood, the two men dining and drinking together as friends. Working with Count von Moltke (who was executed by the Gestapo in 1945), Friedrich and his second wife, a Dutch woman named Utje, sheltered a number of Jews or helped them escape from Nazi Germany, for which they were posthumously honoured as ‘righteous among Gentiles’ at the Yad Vashem memorial museum in Israel. In 1943–4, by then living in Sweden, Friedrich wrote a novel based on this experience. It was published in Swedish translation and under a pseudonym by Bonniers in 1945, and reissued in 2002. The original German manuscript is lost, and no current member of the family – as far as I know: it keeps finding new extensions – has read the book. (A report I commissioned from a translator in 2008 describes it as ‘a brilliant book, with the same sense of immediacy as, for instance, Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française’, but so far no UK publisher has taken the bait.)
Michael was born in Berlin in the 1930s from Friedrich’s affair with a married Jewish woman, who then left for Palestine with her husband and the child. He has lived since childhood on a kibbutz, and knew nothing of his true father until, around six years ago, his mother died; he broke off from the book he was writing – about the man he had always believed to be his father, a prominent scientist – to search through his mother’s letters and photographs, and discovered Friedrich. Using the internet, he then found my wife and through her, Judith, his half-sisters.
It was still raining in the village outside Milton Keynes and Judith’s daughter, protective of her mother, who is partly deaf and has difficulty with large gatherings, had booked a table for just four: Judith and Michael, herself and her partner. I, my wife and Michael’s son and eight-year-old grandson adjourned to a pub further down the steet. We ordered fish and chips, and a hamburger for the grandson, and talked about Friedrich. Of all his children, only my wife – who was born when Friedrich was almost sixty, and married to his third wife – spent any length of time with him: though she lived as a child with her mother in Munich, during the long summer holidays she stayed with her father in Italy in his house overlooking Lago Maggiore. He died in 1978. He was, we agreed, fond of women, to put it mildly. Michael’s son told of getting through on the phone to one of the people Friedrich had got out of Nazi Germany and who was now living in New York: oh please, she said, not him, though he had saved her life.
By the time we drove back to London the sun had come out and it was hot in the car. Michael answered his mobile phone, another of his sons calling from Israel. Yes, he had met his sister. He was happy, and he believed she was too. Acknowledgement of kinship had been instant and certain, just as it had been when my wife travelled to Israel five years ago to meet Michael for the first time. (On arriving at the kibbutz, Michael had cooked Jerusalem artichokes with a sauce that my wife recalled from her childhood, as cooked by her father.) My wife and I left Michael at his hotel and came home to have supper with our own sons and the girlfriend of one of them, who was born of a Bulgarian mother and an Iraqi father and came to London after the fall of Communism. People scatter. Judith is in her late eighties and frail; Michael is in his seventies and lives 2,000 miles away. It’s unlikely they’ll meet again.