What an absolutely amazing and fascinating memoir/history/biography. The author, Catherine Ehrlich, is the granddaughter of Irma (Hutter) Kolmar Ehrlich. Irma’s life (she was born in 1890) spanned the turn of the 20th century, both World War I and World War II, and all of the upheavals wrought by both of the wars.
Irma’s childhood was spent in Klatovy, Bohemia, part of what is now the Czech Republic, and at the time was part of the Austrian Empire. She was able to remember a great deal and at the age of 86 began typing her memoirs. It was Catherine’s plan to, as she said, “nest Irma’s stories in their proper historical landscape as things happened.” That is exactly what Catherine did with historical narrative interspersed with Irma’s own words. The result is fascinating and includes Irma’s childhood in Bohemia (with recollections of her grandparents) and her early schooling, her attendance at Charles University in Prague in 1910, her first marriage to Erwin Kolmar (who was drafted in 1914 into the Austrian army and died in Russia), her growth in Judaism, her marriage to Jakob Ehrlich (who worked tirelessly planning for a Jewish homeland), her life in Vienna during the 1930’s both before and after Jakob’s arrest and death, and her eventual escape with her son Paul, first to London and then to New York. Because of Jakob’s work and the people he knew, Irma met people in all walks of life and at all levels of society. She knew eight languages—six fluently (Czech, German, French, Italian, English, and Latin) and some knowledge of two others (Hebrew and Turkish).
Catherine’s research helped her provide the longer historical view while she uses her grandmother’s words and family lore to tell the story. While many of us have heard some of the history of eastern Europe, especially during the years after World War I and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, this very personal look at the situation by someone who lived it somehow makes it more real.
Lessons learned and other thoughts: History keeps repeating itself and we have trouble learning from it. History is so much more alive with personal stories and recollections such as these. While most of our stories may not be as dramatic as Irma’s, they are nonetheless important, especially to our families. Irma’s is, and was, important on a much broader scale: Catherine was able to tell the stories that were lost with the deaths of so many in the concentration camps and in the fighting.