Austerlitz

Background

Sebald saw a program on BBC television about the Kindertransport entitled Whatever Happened to Susi? In 1939, 3-year-old twins Lotte and Susi Bechhöfer arrived in London on a Kindertransport evacuating Jewish children from Germany. Adopted by a childless Welsh minister and his wife, they were given a new identity to erase all traces of their previous existence. Only fifty years later, after Lotte's death from a brain tumour at the age of 35, did Susi Bechhöfer discover that their parents were Rosa Bechhöfer, a young Jewish woman who perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and Otto Hald, a proud soldier in Hitler's army. The discovery of her real identity propels Susi on a painful and courageous quest in search of her past and the surviving members of her natural family. In the course of her search, she confronts dark secrets from her own past and urgently needs to reappraise her life. In 1999, Susi published a memoir, Rosa's Child: One Woman's Search for Her Past and a film has been made from it titled Susi's Story. Sebald told Joseph Cuomo in an interview that he tried to obtain a copy of the BBC program, but the BBC would not release it.[2]

At the conclusion of the book Austerlitz takes from his rucksack a copy of Dan Jacobson's Heshel's Kingdom, an account of his journey in the 1990s to Lithuania in search of traces of his grandfather Heshel's world. The Orthodox rabbi Heshel Melamed's sudden death in 1919 had provided an opportunity for his widow and nine children to leave Lithuania for South Africa, which, in light of events two decades later, ironically, had been a gift of life. "On his travels in Lithuania Jacobson finds scarcely any trace of his forbears, only signs everywhere of the annihilation from which Heshel's weak heart had preserved his immediate family when it stopped beating."[3]


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