Friday, 7 October 2011

Letters From a Dentist - Liz Kessler

Last weekend, I went to Vienna with my father. It was the first time I’d been to the city where he spent the first eight years of his life. The city he had to leave in 1938, because the Nazis didn’t want him there.

I have told his story before – so forgive me if you’ve read or heard it – but it was only when my latest book came out this year that I realised how deeply it resonates within me, on so many levels. And so I’m going to tell it again.

A Danube Steamer today
See this boat? It was a moment aboard one of these that changed my father’s life forever.

Picture the scene. Vienna 1934, and my father, aged four, was recovering from whooping cough. My grandfather was Czechoslovakian, my grandmother Austrian, and they lived in Vienna. As a treat following my father’s illness, his father took him on a Danube Steamer, where he knelt in his smart clothes looking out at the world passing by, not realising his feet were inching closer to an English lady beside him.

‘Careful with your shoes, Heinzele, you’ll dirty the lady’s dress,’ my grandfather said.

The lady smiled, and replied, ‘No, no, it’s all right,’ in halting German. ‘What a lovely boy,’ she added, pointing to my father, in his ‘pretty’ clothes and golden curls.

 My father as a young boy, with my grandfather
My grandfather and the lady got into conversation – as far as they were able, given the language barriers. She and her husband were in Vienna for a dental conference. The adults soon became so engrossed in conversation that the English couple, Mr and Mrs Jones, missed their stop.

As they reached the end of the line and discovered their fellow conference members had disembarked at an earlier port, my grandfather offered to show them a little of his city and bring them home to meet his wife and share some traditional cakes and coffee. And so, the Joneses came briefly into my father’s and grandparents’ lives.

The only contact after this was a note, written in stumbling German, which my father still treasures.“My dear Mr. Kessler. We have nothing forgotten. I cannot the German well write but I think often out of you and that so lovely son.” It’s signed Gladys H. Jones and was written on the paper printed with her husband’s dental practice address.

The original letter from Gladys Jones
Shortly after this encounter, the world went crazy.

My father had spent the first few years of his life living a happy, innocent existence in a small, Jewish family. In the late 1930s, families like his were no longer welcome in their own country.

Because my grandfather was Czech, they were able to move to Czechoslovakia, which they did in 1938. They were among the lucky ones. Soon, however, my family were once again unwanted Jews living in a Nazi world. Only this time, there was nowhere they could go. That is, nowhere unless they had a mass of signed certificates, permits and papers which would allow them to leave the country.

My grandfather began a long, difficult bureaucratic paper chase until, eventually, he had everything. Everything, that is, except for the final and most crucial item. An affidavit from someone in the country they wanted to go to, taking full financial responsibility for them. Without this legal document, there was no way for a Jewish family to leave the country.

So the trail reached a dead end. My family knew no one overseas. They had nowhere to go, and no one to help get them there. But then one day, my grandfather rediscovered the letter from Gladys Jones. The English couple they had met four years ago! Maybe they would write the letter that would give them their lives back. It was a very, very long shot. This couple had no reason to do such a thing. A day trip around Vienna was hardly a fair exchange for what he was asking. But my grandfather wrote to them anyway. It was the only option he had left.

Within weeks, the affidavit came. Yes! They would do it! Come to England – we will do whatever you need. My family had been saved. They came to England and lived with the Joneses for six months – and were finally free to live the rest of their lives.

But what if they had never met the Joneses? What if my father hadn’t been ill; if his father hadn’t decided he needed cheering up with a boat trip; if he hadn’t knelt on his seat! If the Jones’s hadn’t missed their stop...

At the end of all those ifs is an unthinkable alternative. No one needs reminding what kind of future awaited a Jewish family living under the Nazis.

This tiny chance moment that gave my family a chance of a new life makes my mind tingle. The thought of all those seemingly random decisions we make every day that could change the course of our lives forever absolutely fascinates me. In fact, this idea is at the heart of my latest book.

In A Year Without Autumn, Jenni finds herself transported a year forward in time, and discovers a terrible tragedy has torn her best friend’s world apart. Jenni needs to work out how she got there, and – more importantly – if she can get back and make everyone act differently so that both families face a different fate.

Even though this is my eighth children’s book, there’s something special about it for me. I think it’s because its inspiration lives within me at the deepest level possible. The tiny moment that saved my father’s life, and the fact that without this moment, things could have been so very, very different.

It may not say so in the pages of my book, but in my heart, A Year Without Autumn is dedicated to the many Mr and Mrs Joneses of this world, and the things they do every day without realising that they have just changed another person’s life forever.

A Year Without Autumn is now out in paperback.
Find out more about Liz on her facebook page or her website

32 comments:

Elen C said...

Wow! I hadn't heard that story before. Let's hear it for the Joneses of this world!

Lynn said...

Thank you for this. We need to hear stories of this kind. Wonderful!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

incredible. Just shows what small random acts of kindness in your day can possibly lead to. Just reading your story has lifted my spirits today - thank you Liz

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you - a very moving post.

Abi Burlingham said...

What a moving story. It never fails to amaze me how the contact we have with other people can change our lives. In your father's case, this really was a life-saver for him and his family wasn't it? Thanks for telling it Liz.

Katherine Langrish said...

Wow, Liz - this story brings tears to my eyes. Marvellous affirmation that there is good to be found in the world as well as all the other awful stuff.

Alison Staples said...

I love this.

It just makes you realise the massive consequences of small acts of kindness. It's a great story. Thank you for sharing it.

Ax

Sue Purkiss said...

This is a wonderful story, Liz, it really is - thank you for telling it!

Have you read The Glass Room, by Simon Mawr? It's about (roughly) Czechoslovakia before, during, and after the war. I thought it was very special - you might enjoy it.

Little Leaf Guest House said...

Great story. Just goes to show how our lives are made up of small, tiny in fact, choices that we make every day and it's that which determines our future.

Liz Kessler said...

Thanks for the lovely comments!

Sue - I haven't read that but I will look out for it.

Little Leaf - that's the exact point that totally fascinates me. Mindblowing!

Lizx

adele said...

Lovely post, Liz. And I know all about how wonderful JONESES are. Both my sons in law are called that! They are brothers!

Liz Kessler said...

How wonderful - let's hear it for the Joneses!

Wendy Meddour said...

The best and the worst of humanity - all wrapped up in your story. Thank you for sharing - my, how we all turn on a sixpence!

Malaika said...

This is a beautiful, heart-warming story, Liz - and even if I had heard it before, I would be happy to hear it again and again. A Year Without Autumn arrived today - and now I am looking forward to reading it even more than I was before. Thank you.

Lucy Coats said...

Truly wonderful - and we all need reminding that those random acts of human kindness can sometimes make a real difference. Thank you (and the copy of A Year Without Autumn I bought in St Ives is next on the tbr pile - so looking forward to reading it.)

Anne Cassidy said...

This is a movie story Liz. You should pen it, for adults maybe and add in a romance....

Anonymous said...

Great story Liz, about how an ordinary conversation can change lives...

Liz Kessler said...

Malaika, Lucy - thank you! Hope you both enjoy the book! :)

Anne - I've thought for years that I want to write this story, and last weekend while I was there, I had an idea how I might do it - so watch this space...

Lynne Benton said...

Wonderful story, Liz. I'll definitely be watching this space...

Linda Strachan said...

Lovely post, Liz. Looking forward to reading A Year Without Autumn

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

You have me very close to tears here, Liz. A couple of months back I was asked to work on a non-fiction book for Polity Books that is called Eichmann's Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938--1945 by Doron Rabinovici. It's a very good work but reading it broke my heart in two. So I am very glad to read of your family's story and know of the precious few that escaped this unimaginable fate. Please let us know when it is about to be published (I don't keep track of titles otherwise), because I would like to read your heartfelt novel.

Book Maven said...

I love this story, Liz!

Let's all try to keep up with the Joneses, remembering the incredible consequences of every small act we do.

Stroppy Author said...

What an amazing, inspiring story, Liz. Thank you for sharing it. I am always fascinated by how the tiniest things can have such massive, unexpected consequences.

Savita Kalhan said...

A very moving post. I missed it yesterday, but so happy I read it today. Tears at 9am on a saturday morning! Looking forward to reading A Year Without Autumn. Thanks for sharing.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes missed this too yesterday Liz... its wonderful story and you told it well. And like Sue I can also recommend The Glass Room to you. Its a tremendous book and will resonate as its set in Vienna at the same period.

Lynne Garner said...

Thanks for sharing it's so lovely to read how one small act can change the lives of those involved.

madwippitt said...

Wow. What a story!

Ann Evans said...

A lovely story, Liz. It is amazing how the smallest of incidents can change and affect lives. It really makes you think.

Sue said...

That's not just a moving story, but one that makes you think - about all those outcomes that, but for a small and, at the time, unimportant detail, could have gone the other way.

I can also thoroughly recommend "The Glass Room" plus "The Invisible Bridge" by Julie Orringer - about two Jewish families in Budapest/Paris in the 30s and WW2.

Abi Fox said...

Hi. What a wonderful story! I love your books, by the way. A year without Autumn was stunning. Thank you.

angela cerrito said...

oh, what an amazing family history. I can see how it relates to A Day Without Autumn.

BeckB said...

Hi Liz
Thank you so much for visiting our school on Thursday. (Beckers Green)
The children loved meeting a "real-live" author and thoroughly enjoyed hearing your tales and asking you questions.
They are eagerly ploughing through your new book and keep giving me updates! ( no surprises for me!)
Talking about inspiring teachers- made us all smile- it is what we strive to be - such a responsibilty but something we love.
So thank you for making their day and making writing really come to life at BGPS!
Looking forward to more Emily adventures!
Best wishes
Becky B