“Vien, Vien, nur du allein [Vienna, Vienna, only you]” might be the refrain underlying the memoir of hardheaded businesswoman Trudi Kanter, whose elegant and practical exterior hid a woman deeply in love with and inextricably attached to her beautiful, romantic native city, Vienna. Kanter, a designer of artistic, high-end hats sought after by Vienna’s upper crust, loved the culture of her city – its cafes, its pastry shops, its art, its exquisitely turned-out men and women – and the loss of all that hurt her as much as her fear of losing her husband and family as the Nazis swept in and took control of Austria.
Kanter’s book, Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler – a movingly detailed recounting of her prewar life, her romance with her second husband Walter, and her clear-eyed, decisive maneuvering to rescue her family and continue to earn a living – was the subject of an unusual book discussion group in Forest Park last week.
The book was Sex and the City turned into Schindler’s List, as the lightness and joy of Viennese life turned dark and difficult. Held, appropriately (surrounded by elegant hats and jewelry) at deedee and edee boutique, 7415 Madison St., the discussion was led by Centuries and Sleuths bookshop owner Augie Aleksy. Aleksy created a “hats and Hitler” display as well as a poster pulling together elements in Kanter’s story, in honor of both book and event.
The 16 readers (mostly women) were enthusiastic and the talk energetic. Sharing wine and crackers, participants responded to a list of questions and comments written by Aleksy.
The book was originally self-published. Kanter apparently never wrote again, and died childless in 1992. A copy of the book sat unnoticed in a secondhand shop in London until happened upon by an editor who was struck by the story and brought it to the attention of Simon and Schuster.
Madeline Moon of Oak Park enjoyed “the love story – he improved her and she improved him. She was strong enough to make it without him, but very jealous.”
Hene Waterbury of Oak Park noted Kanter was “very fortunate; she had contacts in Paris and London” which gave her the extra pull she needed to escape the Nazis – pull someone poorer, less educated and lower class would have lacked. Chicagoan Gloria Waber also participated in the discussion; she contributed some of her mother Sylvia’s 1940s hats to the Centuries and Sleuths display, including one from Vienna.
Kanter’s precise eye for detail in fashionable attire is also trained on the inch-by-inch Nazi-led degradation in Viennese life – the public bullying and abuse of Jews on the streets, the late-night knock that meant someone would vanish, the anxiety of no longer knowing who remained a friend and who had turned informant – makes for a colorful yet unsentimental telling of the events of her life before, during and after the war.
The book, now finding a new and wider audience, is available at Centuries and Sleuths.