UNCLE OTTO'S PUPPET THEATRE By John Klassen (Book Review)


John Klassen


Brigid Grauman

Brigid Grauman was born in Geneva to an Irish mother and American father. She spent her childhood in France, Israel, and Belgium. According to her autobiographical note, this book was “inspired by her quarrelsome and very literary Austro-Hungarian family, many of whom were among the Nazis’ millions victims.”

Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre

The denigration, dehumanization, and murder of millions of people in the Holocaust is impossible to grasp in the whole, but memoirs, stories, and accounts can bring the impossible to personal, comprehensible levels of understanding and empathy. Brigid Grauman’s book is a fine, well-written contribution to this literature.

Grauman’s story runs from the 1860s to today, chronicling the lives of her “large family with uncles, aunts and cousins in Vienna, Brno and Prague”. She places these lives within the political, social, and cultural changes that swept Europe, and describes how each family member, “reacted differently to the fact that they were Jews.” The basis of Grauman’s book is a remarkable treasure trove of unpublished narratives from seven different family members. This in itself presented challenges: “Different memoirs tell the same story differently because memory plays tricks, and also because emotions distort facts.” Grauman does an excellent job of putting the stories together, always with a judicious eye, and respect, for the differences.

The book is more than the linear story of a large family. In weaving the different narratives together and thus reconstructing her own family, Grauman touches upon a number of universal themes: the use and abuse of historical narratives; the unreliability of even well-intentioned memory; the “fickleness of fear” through which people become inured to actions or policies as a means of self-preservation; the charactertransforming effects of regrets and self-recriminations for actions taken/not taken; the generational effects of individual traumas; the possibility of forgiveness of oneself and others; the essential unknowability of the personal demons and compromises and lives of others; the need sometimes to be humble in judging the actions of others; the fragility of social structures including the law; the fragility of life; the evanescence of the memory of other lives. Throughout, Grauman brings to life a number of family members who were doing what we all do: trying to live and adapt and make a life with the love of family and friends. A book such as this reminds us that these things are to be treasured, and fought-for, because circumstances can sweep everything away.

I think the writing of this book was also a catharsis for the author. Grauman had a close, sometimes complex, relationship with her father, but in the end she realized that, “...I no longer had to filter my family through Bob’s [father] sensitivity. I had plunged into his memories and identified closely with him, but this had not given me much space for myself. Bob’s dying [in 2009] had freed me to reconstruct my family in my own words, through my own personality, [emphasis added] without feeling that I had to seek Bob’s blessing or spare his feelings.” This is another universal sentiment that many can appreciate.

Grauman not only reconstructed her family for herself, but through this book she has shared their lives, and broader issues, with readers.

Tags: John Klassen