This week, I happened on a movie – Woman in Gold from a couple of years back. The movie starred Helen Mirren, who vanished so utterly into the part of an elderly Viennese Jewish refugee, Maria Altmann, that there was no trace of Helen Mirren visible – the way that good acting should be, but rarely is. Briefly, the movie concerned Maria Altmann’s epic legal quest to have a famous and insanely valuable portrait of her Aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer painted in by Gustav Klimt in the early years of the twentieth century – a painting which had been looted by the Nazis – returned to her. The painting gravitated into the possession of the Austrian government, from which it was eventually pried by dint of persistent and effective legal action. A decent movie overall, BTW. But what struck me in watching it was how much the mannerisms, the accent, the character of Maria Altmann reminded me of a certain family friend, a woman of the same vintage, and similar background; Viennese, of a prosperous family who also ran afoul of the Nazis, and finished up living in Southern California. I wonder if Lainie and Maria Altmann knew each other, back in the day? Lainie lived in the right part of town and had the kind of income and background to have patronized Maria Altmann’s upscale boutique. Never know now, I guess. But I sought out the text of an early post on Sgt. Stryker that I wrote about Lainie’s rescuing angel.
Helene M. and her husband John were long-time friends of Moms’ from church, the church that we went to in Beverly Hills during the late 60s, a congregation full of movie people and European émigrés in a mock-Tudor building full of elaborate stained glass. Everyone called her Lanie, and I remember that she and her husband lived in the Park La Brea Towers, one of the elegant, very high-end Art Deco tower blocks set in a large park of trees. I may be wrong about the building, but their apartment was as chic, and tasteful as Lanie herself. Lanie and John were a little older than Mom, and there were no children. They were both Austrian, and had known each other as children in Vienna, but John had emigrated as a teenager in the late 30s and lived in New York long enough to lose any detectable accent. Lanie was the epitome of Viennese and Beverly Hills elegance, rather like a Gabor sister with red hair and more refined taste. They were at our house often, for Christmas, and Thanksgiving, and other holidays when my parents kept open house for an assortment of friends without their own family connections.
From visiting their own apartment, what I remember most particularly was the framed set of water color and ink drawings on the wall of the living room: three scenes from Smetana’s bucolic comic opera The Bartered Bride.
“A special presentation, you know,” said Lainie. “And the artist who did this, he put in little jokes – see, the buffoon under the blankets, those are jackboots he is wearing? And the rooftops, behind the trees in the background . . . those are the roofs of the huts. He put in the roofs of the huts. Another joke, you see. I have another painting, too, but I can’t bear to look at it. A portrait, of a man – so sad. It’s in the closet, it makes me cry to look at it and remember.” Her voice cracked a little, and she was tearing up, but she forced a little self-deprecating laugh. “Such a place! You know, I did not even know the trouble I was in, until they took away my coat! My good fur coat and they took it away! My friend and I, we had never been treated like that, not in our whole lives… we did not believe it, until we were in Theresienstadt!”
And then she served us coffee and little iced cakes, and tea sandwiches on thin bread, and we talked about other things, and in the car on the way home Mom said to me,
“She was nearly killed over that coat, but for an angel.”
“What sort of angel?” I was terribly interested, but I had hated to ask Lanie directly. “Why was Lanie in a concentration camp, anyway? She’s not Jewish.”
“Ah, but her grandmother or grandfather was, and that was enough for the Nazis; Lanies’ family was terribly well to do, and she was very sheltered – from the war, from the round-ups, from everything – and the coat was a present for her sixteenth birthday. They thought they were only going to be interned, she and her parents and her little brother, and the friend of hers who also had a Jewish grandparent. Suddenly, they were all separated, and she and her friend were in a long line, and the SS men were going through everyone’s papers and things, and suddenly they told her to hand over her coat.”
“What did she do?” I asked.
“She didn’t believe it, at first, and she began arguing with them, she wanted to keep her coat, it was her birthday present, and it was cold, and it was hers! And the SS began getting very angry, and then this man in the line behind her, said very quietly,’ Give them the coat’ He was an old man, a foreign Jew, from Poland or Bohemia, she thought, very ragged, as if he had been a prisoner for a while, and he said again, ‘Give them the coat’ and finally she took off the coat and gave it to them. She really didn’t know then what they could do, and how close she came to being killed. She always thought the old man was an angel, for telling her to give up her coat and saving her life. He was just there, a stranger. She didn’t know him, or ever see him again.”
Mom paused and shifted gears at the top of the grade. “She never saw her parents or her little brother again – they were gassed. Lanie didn’t even begin to guess they were in danger – until they took her fur coat.”
I thought about angels, for the rest of the drive home; not as tall shining figures with wings and barely heard choruses of heavenly choirs in the background… but sometimes appearing plain, and humble, just when you need the presence of one the most. Even if you don’t really know it at the time.