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A gulf separated us: I with my need to look tragedy in the face, she with her public cheerfulness; I with terrible gaps in my knowledge of German and Austrian literature and history, she with her great familiarity with that tradition, with her wonderful memory for names and dates and places. I was always afraid she would find out all I didn’t know. (A complicated mixture of guilt, shame, longing, and the need to earn a living would drive me later to do graduate work in German.) I envied the poetry she could recite by heart, the anecdotes she could tell about Grillparzer, Trakl, and Hofmannsthal, about Schnitzler, Werfel, Roth, and Karl Kraus, with a light touch and so much charm that you would have thought she had known them personally.
Yet to me, with my arrogant hierarchies, she was not an “intellectual”; she was an entertainer, a story-teller. “Ihr wisst ja” (Of course you know), she would begin one of her talks, tilting her head flirtatiously, the dark green or purple feather on her little hat bobbing and waving. So she would reach out for the community she was creating and binding with the assumption of a shared knowledge and experience. Only I was excluded; I was the only younger person in that room. I vented my anger at Mimi. I saw her as manipulative and sentimental; a master at name-dropping; an impresario of Heimweh.
That they would bother to carry on at all about Austria, these refugee writers who gave their readings in German, always with such mixed emotions, but always with their love for Austria prevailing—that was something I continued to marvel at. But secretly I judged their loyalty to be a moral defect of which my mother was also guilty.
“Mimi is not a real poet, at least you are,” I would say to my mother, trying to create for her an extenuating circumstance. I admired my mother and loved her, though she irritated me greatly with her idealism and what I considered her inexcusable naïveté. My mother thanked me for the compliment. It so happened that Mimi, all modesty, agreed with my judgment. She called herself a minor poet with a major mission.
My mother and Mimi were not personally very close; theirs was a literary friendship. But they had much in common. Already middle-aged when they emigrated, stripped of their formerly unquestioned bourgeois status, they both worked hard to make a living: Mimi made hats, my mother had become a masseuse. They shared the same love of music, languages, and poetry. My mother had buried both her parents before the Anschluss. Mimi’s parents, I had some dim recollection, had died in the Holocaust but I never heard her mention this.
In addition to her work, my mother had a family to take care of; Mimi, who had lost a beloved husband some years earlier, was childless. She used all her free time to promote the refugee writers. She deepened her study of Austrian literature, she searched for connections and bridges, and selflessly helped individual refugee poets find publishers. Over the years she succeeded in putting together a number of anthologies of Austro-American poets-in-exile, which can be found today in many university libraries and in archives, in this country and in Austria.
By the sixties, she began to spend summers in Austria, and frequently traveled there during the year as well. She went in a semi-official capacity. Her letters to my mother from the land of their birth were always happy. She had become an educator, a mediator, a cultural spokesperson.