In 1987, when I was an undergraduate, I was browsing in a bookshop in Cambridge, England, when a book (one copy, spine out, on a shelf in the back of the store) caught my eye: Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler by Trudi Kanter. It was a self-published memoir which, unusually for such a thing, had made its way into a mainstream bookshop—I can only imagine that the title had caught the buyer’s attention, as it had mine.
I bought the book and read it, and it lodged in my mind: this true story of a young hat designer in Vienna in the 1930s. Trudi Kanter evoked that now-vanished world with incredible vividness; she had been a young, good-looking, independent woman who loved doing all the things that young women do: dancing, reading, visiting friends, flirting, falling in love. She saw no reason why her life would ever change. But of course it did—drastically.
I think almost anyone who has read an account of living in a country occupied by the Nazis tries to imagine finding themselves in that unimaginable situation. But before reading Kanter’s book, most of the memoirs I had read about the experience of Europe’s Jews before and during WWII came from places which to me, in 1987, felt far, far away—Poland, the U.S.S.R., Czechoslovakia—concealed behind the Iron Curtain, home to terrifying athletes and elderly waxwork leaders standing on balconies saluting never-ending parades of tanks. Vienna was different: it felt nearby, like Paris, or Rome. Reading Trudi’s book brought the events of WWII much, much closer to home.
Trudi’s life up until the arrival of the Germans in 1938 had been charmed. But she realized long before many of her contemporaries that the fact that her father was Jewish put her in danger. Trudi lied, bribed, coaxed, harassed, and bullied her way through every channel she could think of, official, unofficial, and criminal, to get herself and her fiancé, Walter, out of the country. Once they were safe in London, she worked every avenue all over again to get her parents out.
In 1989, after graduating from university, I got a job at Granta, the literary magazine, as the editor’s assistant. I stayed there for seven years and became the deputy editor; I then went to work at Picador, until 2008. It was only three years ago, when I took a job at Virago, which alongside a thriving frontlist, publishes books by women that have fallen out of print over the years, that I realized I had an opportunity to bring Trudi’s story to a wider readership. The book had accompanied me throughout the slightly itinerant life many of us live during our 20s. It had been in and out of cardboard boxes and lent to friends; I had reread it several times. There it sat on my shelf with its 1980s cover, and occasionally I would think what a shame it was that Trudi’s story wasn’t more widely known. And in those intervening years, the world had changed; it was now possible to consult resources online to find out what had happened to her, and whether there were any surviving relatives who might hold copyright in her memoir.
I managed to establish that Trudi was born in 1905 and died in 1990; that she and Walter registered with the Jewish Refugee Council when they arrived in London in 1938; that there were census records of them at an address in St. John’s Wood in the 1960s. But she was an only child who had no children, and Walter’s family had all died in the Terezin concentration camp.
My colleagues fell in love with Trudi, whose personality blazes through the pages of her book, and so in the end, we decided to go ahead and publish, including in our new edition an appeal for any further information regarding Trudi’s estate (nobody has come forward yet). Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler was selected by Waterstones for its book club, which ensured front-of-store display in its branches. Trudi was a born writer. Her descriptions of her life in prewar Vienna—the wonderful food, the ever-changing fashions, the glorious music, the lush gardens, the romantic cafes—are almost unbearably vivid: unbearable because one thinks of her sitting down in London in her late 70s to remember it all.
And Trudi either did not know or, I prefer to think, did not care how she came across at various points: haughty, treacherous, disloyal or mendacious, why did it matter? Her memoir is a story of love and hatred, of civilization and barbarism, of home and exile, and above all, of the heroism of a completely ordinary, extraordinary woman. And it’s back on the shelves to enchant readers the way it enchanted me.
Ursula Doyle is associate publisher at Virago, part of the Little, Brown Book Group in the U.K.; Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler will be published in the U.S. by Scribner in October.