I brought a box of soap to my Austrian friends as a hospitality gift. It was found in a drawer in my aunt’s house, which I have recently cleared out after her move into an assisted living facility. The box is of fine black, durable, shiny cardboard, is about a foot long and a few inches wide, and holds three large, thin bars of soap in one layer, and in the other layer, which forms a shelf when you open it out, there were six small bars of soap, though two are missing. It was the guest gift box in a Viennese hotel from a long ago trip by family members. There’s no way to know when they traveled, but I think it must have been in 1910, when my great-grandfather traveled across Russia in the Trans-Siberian Railway to visit a mission he supported in China. The soaps still retain a faint reminiscence of their original perfumes.
A small round label on the outside indicates that the soap was made by the company MEM, a successful soap company founded by the Jewish Mayer family at the beginning of the 20th century, and sold in 1938. My innocent self thought, whew, they sold and got out. But from the heavy holocaust cloud which is always accessible in Austria, my friends said no, it would have been confiscated by the Nazis. There was no further information about the fate of the Mayers. They and their company disappeared into that dark cloud.
On this trip, I also visited friends in “The Hamptons of Austria,” Woerthersee, for a couple of days. The wife is an elegant, warm woman who always delights me. I met her husband for the first time; a fit, friendly, and smart man many years older than she. They have three children, including a toddler son. The husband heads a very successful business, in existence for two centuries, which has made possible his sports car, motorboat, and airy, beautiful home right on the water. I was curious and impressed that in every generation for over two hundred years there has been a family member to carry on the business. Today’s next generation is preparing to continue the trend.
We crossed the lake in their comfortable motorboat one evening, and I mentioned that the wife looked lovely sitting in the back of the boat and I would like a photograph, but I hadn’t brought my camera. The husband turned around, with the boat going about 100 kilometers an hour (that’s about 60 mph), to photograph her. He took his time about it, and then she called out, and we turned to see another speedboat veering out of our way. We had become a dangerous, unattended missile. I joke that we nearly died, and try not to imagine the sudden end we would have met if the two boats had been only a few feet closer.
Back in Vienna, my Viennese friends told me that the husband was Jewish and his family had somehow gotten through the war with their business intact. How? How? It is a question I would never ask my Woerthersee friend.
When I asked our negligent speedboat driver if he enjoyed his time with his grandchildren, he answered, “I enjoy life. My children, my grandchildren, I enjoy it all.” Without pretending to psychoanalyze our interesting and hospitable Woerthersee friend, I might conclude that inside that always accessible holocaust cloud there is room for extremes; the high of a speedy motorboat, and the low of knowing that at any time something might throw us out of control. It could be devastation, and it could be an unexpected bright and bubbly young son. You may as well enjoy life.