Barry Denenberg Redemption Arc, Part 1. Probably Part 1 of 1, but we’ll see. This is a step in the right direction.
One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping: The Diary of Julie Weiss, Vienna, Austria, to New York, 1938, Barry Denenberg, 1938.
This is flat-out one of the most depressing DA books out there. It’s actually significantly more depressing than a book about slavery, and how awful is that? It’s far, far more depressing than the Titanic book where hundreds of people dying is the main plot!
Julie Weiss is a wealthy girl growing up in Austria with her family, where her father is a respected physician, her mother a renowned beauty, and her older brother a snotty intellectual college student. She likes to play cards with the family’s maid, Milli, and annoy her brother Max, and spend time with her best friend Sophy, and avoid practicing the piano, and so on. Her family is very, very well-off, and live in a large and fancy apartment in the centre of Vienna, complete with a dining room that seats twenty, priceless paintings, and so on.
Her father is exceedingly busy, and her mother spends her time either fretting nervously or shopping and socializing with people, so Julie spends a lot of time with Milli instead. At school, Julie gets top marks, puts up with irritating boys, and afterwards her irritating piano lessons, and generally the issues of your average 13-year-old girl. Her mother has a younger sister, Julie’s Aunt Clara, who left to go to New York many years ago and no one ever talks about. But other than that, a lot of her problems are pretty standard-issue teenage girl—her mother doesn’t understand her, she argues with her BFF, she’s not crazy about school, etc.
As much as I knock on B.D. for his lousy characterizations, this one is pretty damn good. Julie is smart and witty without crossing the line into annoyingly-precocious, and she’s not any more informed about world events than you’d expect your average young teenager to be. I won’t fault the foreshadowing for being a little on the heavy side, because that’s basically the theme of this book, but it’s actually fairly well done for being so intense.
Anyway, Sophy complains that her teacher dislikes her because she’s a Jew, and Julie says she doesn’t understand that, because she’s Jewish too and nobody really seems to mind too much. She’s more concerned with why her mother continues to insist on taking Julie shopping with her when neither of them enjoy spending time with the other, or why her parents don’t get along very well, or why she has to wear braces. “I’m the only one on the whole entire school who does and I look like I tried to crash through a fence.” There’s a truth bomb for you.
The first really disturbing thing Julie notes is that after she overhears her father and uncle arguing about Hitler, and one of the boys at school keeps crowing about how Hitler’s book is going to replace the Bible, she goes to the bookshop herself to see this book that everyone keeps talking about. The bookshop owner tells her that she needs her father’s permission, which is unusual for her, but after that gets it for her. Even in her own family they’re divided—her uncle thinks that Hitler has done wonders for Germany, and he only cares about Polish Jews, not Jews in Vienna, but her father thinks this is faintly ridiculous.
Following this, Julie’s father decrees that she is going to begin taking English lessons, rather than piano—but she is under the strictest confidence not to tell anyone. No one. Julie asks her brother his thoughts, and as Max is a Zionist, he says the Jews won’t be safe until they’re all living in Palestine—but Julie has no idea why—she lives in Vienna, why isn’t she safe there?
Julie’s English lessons are far more enjoyable for her than piano, though, so she doesn’t mind going. But things begin to go downhill very slightly for her at school after Hitler’s speech to Austria is broadcast on the radio—the worst bully at school begins calling her “Jew Lee,” her mother’s beautician begins to cancel on her, and Milli begins to talk about how great Hitler is and how much he’s going to accomplish. The vote in Austria takes place in March, but it is cancelled and Hitler comes instead—this is, of course, the Anschluss, but Julie is too young to really recognize it.
The very next night, Jews are being hauled from their cars and beaten, and a group of thugs break into the Weiss apartment—they toss the piano over the balcony, haul Julie’s father and brother into the hallway, and Milli begins screaming “She’s the one you want. She’s the rich Jewish bitch,” while pointing at Julie’s mother. I’ll just stop to note that this is very, very heavy stuff for a DA book, and it’s a horrible subject that’s handled quite fairly. They force Julie’s mother to dress in her finest gowns and haul her into the street as well, and they don’t return until late that night. They had been forced to clean the streets using an acid that blistered and stripped their hands—but Max says they never even saw their mother. I wonder if it’s a veiled reference to rape, but I can’t quite decide.
The dressmaker stops serving them. Milli up and leaves—no one knows where. Swastikas have bloomed everywhere, and Julie’s teacher is removed and replaced with another pro-Nazi teacher. The family chauffeur offers very kindly to still escort Julie and her mother around the city, even offering the use of his own little car, because he doesn’t understand what’s going on and doesn’t think it’s right. But Julie’s mother is so vague and out of it that she isn’t able to really do much of anything. They’re forbidden from moving freely about the city, they can’t go to the library or movies, and then Jewish kids are forbidden from school. In the space of a month, this happens.
Then, in mid-April, Julie’s mother kills herself. She took all of her pills at once, but her father tells everyone it was pneumonia. Her father is taken for questioning to the police, and when he returns he tells Julie and her brother that some time ago he wrote to their Aunt Clara, to get them safely to America, and they need that precious affidavit to get them there. They have spent all their savings, and pawned Julie’s mother’s jewelry and furs, and nothing else to do. Sophy’s parents actually put her up for adoption and send her to England to get her out of Austria, and then Max leaves suddenly, too—they suspect for Palestine, but of course they can’t be sure.
Her father sells off everything—the paintings, the furniture, the rugs. But just after that, Aunt Clara writes that they’ll sponsor them happily—just to let them know when they’re arriving and they’ll meet them and do anything they need. But then Julie’s father springs on her that she is going alone—he can’t leave his patients.
There’s a month-long skip, and then we’re in New York City, where Julie is staying with her aunt Clara and uncle Martin. She’s paranoid about everything and spends days sleeping or unwilling to move from her bed. Once she gets up to explore a bit, she sees that the apartment is massive compared to her family’s—and they were wealthy in Vienna, so Clara and Martin must be fabulously rich, indeed. There’s a room for their daughter, Eva, who is a few years older than Julie, but no Eva herself. There’s a cook, Mrs. Parrish, and a maid, Susie, but there’s not enough to distract Julie from her frantic worrying about her father and Max.
Julie doesn’t want to venture far from the apartment, though, so she sits on the fountain outside and watches the doormen and the cars going by. She begins to meet the other people in the building, helps Clara rehearse lines (as she is a famous actress), and listens to her uncle’s stories about Wall Street. Susie takes her to the zoo, but Julie almost starts sobbing at the sight of the polar bear in a cage, so Susie nixes that idea again.
Everything Julie does reflects how very sad and lost and alone she is—in the space of a few months, she’s lost her home and her country, her normal life, her mother, her brother, and for all intents and purposes, her father as well. The sadness bleeds through into everything she does, and it’s awful and painful to read. She doesn’t want to go anywhere, especially to school, so she sits around at home and watches her uncle take photographs and helps her aunt rehearse for plays. One Sunday she goes with her uncle to the park to take candid portraits of people, but other than that, they try really hard to keep her sheltered and away from the news as much as possible. She never receives any letters from her father or anyone else, which is just miserable to read about.
One day Susie takes her to lunch and tells her about Eva—her cousin, now dead. She had been dating a 26-year-old man (ew ew EW EW EW), who got her pregnant, and they sent her to their vacation home in Nantucket to have the baby—but there were “complications,” and she died. You get the impression that Clara and Martin are also grieving very badly for their daughter, and they’re a good fit for poor broken Julie—that their broken parts fit together very well. Not like they’re replacing her, but they’re glad to have another teen girl around to look after.
Clara is going to play in Peter Pan, and the girl who is going to play Wendy drops out—so Clara makes Julie read for the part, which she gets. It opens in just a few days, and she gets rave reviews for her performance—and amazingly, Julie discovers that she loves the theatre. She loves the play, she loves acting—since it allows her to be another person—and she seems to be recovering somewhat until Kristallnacht, when she’s consumed with guilt and regret for living a beautiful, fun life when her father and brother are “god knows where” and possibly dead.
Then, things move on seemingly with no issue, and the producer of Peter Pan tells Clara and Julie that he’s producing a new play called Our Town, and he wants them to play the mother and daughter again. Our Town is about two families and a daughter who dies giving birth—like Eva—and the fragility and beauty of life. While they’re deciding, Julie also learns what came between her mother and her aunt Clara—her father. Apparently Clara met Julie’s father first, and fell in love, but being so busy with her acting, Julie’s mother swooped in and started spending all her time with him—and then they eloped. Clara couldn’t stand it, and Martin helped her and floated the idea of moving to America—and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the epilogue, you learn that Julie’s uncle Martin dies from cancer in 1941, and her father died just two weeks after her arrival in America in 1938. Her brother Max made it to Palestine (later Israel), and later came to America to visit Julie. She never married, but had a daughter in 1946 at 20, who also became an actress.
Rating: B+. This one is very, very good, with some flaws. The voice is very good—uncharacteristic for B.D.—and the writing is fairly decent. It touches on some very heavy themes and it’s uncharacteristically depressing for a DA book, even though they tend to be on the dark side for some eras. However, I am somewhat irked that out of the two books the series covered with Jewish protagonists, they both end up as professional actresses and have similar stories—coming from the Old Country to escape persecution and finding success and a new life on the stage that allows them to be someone else. There’s room for more diversity in Jewish stories there, and I wish it had been evident. But overall, it’s very good—better than a fair bit of the usual run of WWII books that seem to imply that the war has always been going on and the reasons behind it are obvious. This is a bit deeper and I like that.