Jul 2013 Journal

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An act of painstaking research (review)

Although many books have been written about the lives of people affected by the Holocaust, each one records a different story and there are distinct circumstances and reasons for embarking on the writing. In this remarkable book, Susan Soyinka initially places the emphasis on why she felt obliged to write the story of her family and on how she spent some 18 years delving into records and painstakingly piecing it together.

Susan’s mother, Lucy Fowler née Smetana, was born in Vienna in 1919 and came to England in 1938. She was very reluctant to talk to her daughter about her family and said there were almost no surviving relatives who could provide further information. It was only in 1995 that Susan discovered that her mother had uncles in America and Australia but had no contact with them. So the search began for people with the surname Smetana in both countries. With amazing perseverance and some luck, she managed to trace several family members including cousins, one of whom she actually met in London. Having been shown photographs from Vienna, her mother slowly began to reminisce about her childhood and early life in the city. Armed only with anecdotes and a few documents she had obtained, Susan Soyinka and her young daughter went to Vienna, where she obtained considerable information through the Jewish community offices as well as the Austrian State Archives. This enabled her to trace her paternal family history back to 1858, the year her great-grandfather, Josef Smetana, was born. She also followed up some interesting but inconclusive leads which suggested the possibility of a link with the Czech composer of the same name.
Further research gave her information about her mother’s other grandparents, Heinrich and Cäcilia Weinberger. The available documentation also provided information about the careers, properties and individual circumstances of family members. On a personal note, I was interested to see that Cäcilia’s father, born in Wishnitz in 1830, was Leopold Klausner; my grandfather, Elias Klausner, was also born in Wishnitz in 1858. Any connection?
As late as 2011 further information came to light through the Austrian State Archives and other sources about the many family members who became victims of the Shoah. This also recorded the documentation of the Nazi takeover of businesses and homes in 1938 and provided copies of the numerous forms required by Jews wanting to emigrate. The book contains many photographs, often including translations, showing these documents.
Having explained how much of the information was obtained, the author used the information to build up pictures of the lives of her ancestors ranging from the mid-nineteenth century to the Shoah. Separate chapters describe the lives of her great-grandparents and each of her maternal grandparents.
The early reluctance of the author’s mother to speak about her life in Vienna could be explained partly by having had an unhappy childhood. Her parents were divorced after her mother had an affair resulting in an illegitimate child. There was also considerable tension between her mother and herself. Susan Soyinka was much closer to her father, Fritz, who was not only a successful businessman but also acted as consul general for San Marino and was editor of the diplomatic newspaper in Austria. In May 1938, fearing imminent arrest by the Nazis, he committed suicide. This had a devastating effect on Susan mother, Lucy. On Holocaust Memorial Day In 2008 Susan and her brother visited San Marino, where they were presented with a plaque in honour of their grandfather.
In August 1938 Mrs Lucy Fowler, as she later became, made the decision to come to England and, after initially working in domestic service, obtained a job in a Nottingham hospital. Meanwhile, her mother, Susan’s grandmother, emigrated to France. Sadly, there the Germans eventually caught up with her and she was deported to her death in Auschwitz.
Neither Mrs Fowler, nor later Susan her daughter, had easy lives in England and the author frankly describes their marital and other problems. Susan herself scarcely knew she was Jewish and describes her search for a meaningful spirituality. After she had travelled and worked in Africa for some years, her desire to find her roots eventually led her to the great task which culminated in the writing of this book. She also rediscovered her Judaism and has become increasingly involved in Jewish genealogy.
Readers, especially members of the AJR, may find that the book serves as an encouragement to them to delve into their own family histories before it’s too late. The material is often there but to find it requires dedication and patience. There are in the book three family trees going back to the early nineteenth century and most readers will find these essential to remind them of family connections. The text is very well illustrated with 178 photos and depictions of documents. It also contains 14 appendices and a useful list of information sources.
In summary, Susan Soyinka’s book is not only a family history but also a well-referenced document about the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
It may be of interest to readers that the author will be giving two lectures at the Jewish Genealogical Society Family History Fair on 7 July in Elstree.

George Vulkan

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