After her Austrian-born father Kurt died, in 2017, Meriel Schindler inherited, along with reams of papers and documents he’d been hoarding in his cottage, four coffee cups from the family café established by Kurt’s father Hugo in Innsbruck in 1922.
Familiar from her childhood, for many months they simply gathered dust on her shelf. In 2019, she looked at them again. Two bore the family name, Schindler. But the other two, beneath the café logo, had the word Hiebl, the name of the Nazi who expropriated the café from her grandfather in 1938 and ran it as a Nazi hangout during the war. “I wonder who has drunk from them,” she wonders. “And what they did during the Third Reich.”
There is a mini industry of family memoirs exhuming the lost and forgotten stories of the Holocaust. Schindler’s is prompted by her fractious relationship with her father, a con man and minor criminal who’d moved to England as a child in 1938 to join his mother, who airily boasted of family connections to Franz Kafka, Alma Schindler and Oskar Schindler, who claimed erroneously to have witnessed his father nearly lose his life during Kristallnacht, and who harboured throughout his life an almost pathological obsession with litigation. Might the clue to his aggrieved and dissembling character, which had incurred numerous encounters with the authorities, lie in the scattered traumas of his family history?
Schindler’s book never properly answers that question, but it does provide an impressively researched account of Jewish life in the Tyrol up to and during the Second World War. Hugo shines the brightest, the entrepreneurial Jewish food importer and passionate Tyrolean hiker who proudly served his country on the Southern Front during World War I, and who set up Café Schindler after the war to raise the spirits of his war weary compatriots with a convivial menu of cake, schnapps and American jazz.
A decade later those same Tyrolians would line the streets to cheer on the Nazis. Alongside him is a vast cast of characters, including a sprawling tree of family members who died in camps or escaped to America, plus potted biographies of the Nazis who caved in Hugo’s head with a toboggan on the infamous night of November 10, 1938 and orchestrated the theft of his business.
Alas the connection to Oskar Schindler proves unfounded, but there is an extraordinary sub plot involving an Innsbruck doctor, Dr Bloch, who treated the young Adolf Hitler’s mother in 1907, and who in earning the undying gratitude of the Fuhrer was able not only to survive the war but help several fellow Jews escape it.
Hugo would eventually escape to England to join his wife and children, including Kurt’s brother Peter. After the war he became determined to retrieve what was rightfully his, including the café and the family villa and was partially successful (the café remains today although the Schindler food emporium is now a lap dancing studio).
Schindler, a lawyer, has a professional obsession with the small print and draws on the vast amounts of Nazi documentation to painstakingly piece together the various convoluted (and illegal) transfers of property and assets. War is about what is lost, but also what is owed, and what can never be repaid.
But such a scrupulous fixation with detail is not always to her story’s advantage. Schindler carefully resists over-characterising relatives she never met, but lacks the novelist’s flair for properly animating her narrative. There are a couple of agonising letters sent to Kurt by his grandmother and aunt before they were deported to Poland, but also many dry clods of facts, conscientiously excavated, which feel more useful to the historian than the lay reader.
More interesting are the details that fall between the cracks, and the aspects of our inherited histories that we cling to but which can never be verified. Hugo, on hearing the wife of the Nazi who had stolen his cafe had fallen into destitution after the war, apparently sent her some money. Was that true? The memory is Kurt’s, who remains throughout a shadowy figure, and we will never know.
The Lost Cafe Schindler by Meriel Schindler (Hodder and Stoughton, £20)