Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre

Brigid Grauman, former editor of the Bulletin, has just published a book about her father’s family, who were Jewish. She starts with her great-grandfather Siegmund Flatter from whom cascades a cast of characters stretching from mid-19th century Moravia, now the Czech Republic, to Vienna, then France, the UK, Cuba, the US and Belgium – ending in the present day.  She tells the story of strong characters from modest roots moving within one generation into positions of some importance in the larger cities of the day.

Her Graumann grandfather for instance grew up above his father’s small shoemaking shop in Brno and became an international lawyer in Vienna – eventually for Solvay – hence the Brussels connections… And as was common among the central Europe Jews, many were passionate about prevailing culture – music, arts (Uncle Otto was a painter) and letters (Uncle Richard was the leading translator of Shakespeare into German and studied theatre with Max Reinhardt).

What makes the story even more compelling is that Brigid has managed to place her family with ease into the events and thinking of the time – some with direct consequences for the individuals concerned. She has anchored them into the tale of Jewish assimilation and upward mobility of pre WW1 – mainly in Vienna - to the inevitable tales of prejudice, loss and migration of WW2 and the subsequent search for new roots. I was very intrigued about how her grandmother, born in Vienna, ended up running a chicken farm in New Jersey…

Brigid has an Irish passport (her mother was Irish), Jewish origins, was born in Geneva, lived in Israel as a child, has French half-sisters and has now spent long years in Belgium. Reconstructing her family story has allowed her to ‘create my backstory which has given me foundations – or in other words – a more serene view of my rootless life.’

She has had quite a bit of help. No less than seven relatives had written personal memoirs – not diaries, but ‘books with a narrative intention’. They all survived WW2 and each tried she says, ‘to make sense of their destiny and do so by recalling worlds which have disappeared. Together they form a remarkable gift from the past to explore the worlds my family had belonged to.’

This is an easy read covering complex issues and times but told through the lens of one family. Individual characters are clear, compelling and uncompromising, as is Brigid’s prose – plus there are many photos and portraits by uncle Otto interspersed along the way which add a cinematographic quality.

And that is what makes this panoramic sweep through history so accessible.

By Diana Kanter

We plan to hold a discussion evening in the New Year with Brigid about her family history and the process she undertook to write this book. The book is available for purchase on Amazon.