- Home Is Somewhere Else: Autobiography in Two Voices
Published in the “Margins of Literature” series, Home Is Somewhere Else follows a family of three who, on the margins of the Holocaust, live for nine months in Nazi occupied Vienna before escaping illegally in early 1939 into Brussels and then legally to England. The narration goes on to relate both the life of that family in England until the mother’s death in 1969 ended “the symbiotic threesome” (p. 203) and the subsequent emigration of the father and daughter to the United States where, with her retired father, the daughter pursues her career as professor of comparative literature. The final chapter, “As My Father Used to Say,” records the wisdom and witticisms of her father who died in 1985 leaving her alone, in mourning and still deracinated, having become “more [herself] and thereby more other” (p. 217). “My geographical roots are shallow; only those created by the brand mark of the red ‘J’ [meaning “Jew” and stamped on the family passport in Vienna in 1938] run deep into my being” (p. 217).
The technical interest of the book resides in its dual autobiographies. Desider, the father, wrote his (entitled A Superfluous Man) in the early 1970s after his retirement and emigration to the United States. Lilian, the daughter, read it in 1983 and found it organized into chapters around places where they had lived. Without rereading it, she began her autobiography in 1991, deciding to write alternative chapters that would be centered on the same places her father had written about: Vienna, Cologne, Brussels, London, Bedford, and Manchester. In addition, he writes a chapter on the Isle of Man where he was interned for four months in 1941 and she on Chertsey where she spent a year alone. She also writes a chapter about her mother’s life and one on her life with her father in America. [End Page 156]
Although both autobiographies are completely retrospective accounts composed, without diaries or notes of any kind, decades after the initial events they narrate, each reflects the preoccupations of the narrator at the time of the events being narrated. Thus Lilian’s, composed as “a tribute of [her parents] for bringing [her] through to safety” (p. xiv), contains the child’s impressions of family, friends, home, relatives, and nanny as well as her fear and terror as she experiences the Nazi entry into Vienna in 1938, Crystal Night, the train ride to Cologne, and the flight to Brussels. From Desider’s, on the other hand, emanates the broader vision of the responsible adult, parent and husband, conscious of the historical scope within which his particular drama unravels. He paints in vivid colors the happy decade in Vienna (1928–38), the descent into the hell of Nazism, the struggle to escape “this gigantic prison” (p. 47), and his appreciation and admiration for the British. He underscores the complexity of the situation by populating his account with scores of individuals—unfortunate Jews, sadistic Nazis, good Austrians, profiteers of all kinds—and by frequent conflicting references to Providence, destiny, luck, and the totally gratuitous nature of survival. Written as a memorial to his wife by a man who claims never to have wanted anything more than a normal life for himself and his family, his narration fittingly ends with her death in Manchester in 1969.
The power of the book, however, springs as much from what unites the narratives, as from what divides them. I am not speaking of the similarity of events but rather of the deeply held human values (responsibility, courage, sacrifice, family union, interdependence, and love) that resonate powerfully throughout both accounts. Indeed, the intertwining of the two voices is poetically and umbilically linked to the hands of father and daughter that grip each other throughout the narrative. We find a father who risks everything to keep his family together, a mother who gives up her medical career for the same reason, and a daughter, full of gratitude, love, and an intense sense...