The Box with the Sunflower Clasp

Rachel Meller

(UK)

‘What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.’
– Nicolas Abraham, ‘Notes on the Phantom’

To my great sadness, I have no memory at all of my mother’s voice. By the time I was three months old, Ilse had taken her own life. At some level, my mother’s death is always with me. Knowing so little about her means the least expected of triggers can conjure up tears. Like the moment a character in a soap opera heard a message that his dead mother recorded years earlier. It made me realise with a jolt that I have no idea of the sound of Ilse’s laughter, or her weeping. 

I was too young to remember anything of the events immediately after my mother’s death in October 1953. I was born in Southwest London five weeks after the Coronation, and given the middle name of Elizabeth. Back then, the treatments for postnatal depression were electroconvulsive therapy and barbiturates. Years later I was shocked to learn that Ilse’s hospital bed was surrounded by policemen, waiting to arrest her should she survive: until 1961 suicide was a criminal act. But the drugs she had been prescribed for this poorly understood condition proved effective when she made her fateful decision, and the need for her prosecution never arose. Meanwhile, my father Josef’s loss was temporarily doubled: I was removed from what remained of the family and taken into care. In one blow, my father had lost not only his wife, but also his three-month-old baby. This was a sadness he and I would never discuss. 

The state-run nursery to which I was taken was probably perfectly pleasant, but part of me imagines that I was incarcerated in a Dickensian orphanage. The fact I developed a chest infection there adds grist to that mill. Despite this, my early experiences never crushed the optimistic side of my nature. Nor can I say that I grew up unhappy. Nearly all childhood photographs show me beaming – before the onset of the usual teenage moodiness. This was not so for my elder sister, who appeared serious, her brows furrowed. This is hardly surprising: Claudia was six years old when we lost our mother. After Ilse died, and my sister was left with just our father, she simply asked him: when would she get a new mother?

We were lucky: the answer turned out to be very soon. Josef could retrieve me from state care only if he found someone to help look after us. The young man, a refugee from Vienna’s Nazis, was reeling, numb with grief and barely able to think. How could he get his family back, and continue his work as an architect for Hammersmith Council, when he could barely boil an egg? His father, Opa, as we called our grandfather, saw a small ad pinned up at the premises of a local Jewish organisation. It had been placed by a woman seeking a domestic position. He arranged a meeting between his son, a shell-shocked widower, and the prospective ‘help’, to see if she might assist him with cooking and childcare. 

Ruth was a refugee from Saarbrücken in Germany, at 33 a year older than our father. She had been working as a maid in the home of a demanding family in Golders Green. Seeing the broodingly handsome man and his two dark-haired little daughters, she accepted the challenge of taking us on. Her role quickly changed. On New Year’s Day 1954, little more than three months after Ilse’s death, Ruth and Josef were married. In my judgemental youth, I viewed this as taking place with indecent haste; I am much wiser and more understanding now of my father’s pragmatic decision to remarry so soon.

I knew no other mother but Ruth. With the arrival of this kind and practical woman, a new, more capable family unit was born. By 1956 so was my half-sister, Sonia. Ruth showed all her daughters equal love, concern and affection – a superhuman feat I would not appreciate until much later. She never merited that dark label of fairy tales, ‘stepmother’.

But I always knew someone was missing. My ‘real’ mother, Ilse.

We all long to understand our roots, where we come from. How that which we inherit from our past – through both our genes and our environment – makes us the person we are. As we grow older, this desire seems to strengthen. But our ties to the past are easily snapped. Political persecution can uproot our ancestors, displacing them from their home and all that’s familiar. The death of a parent – especially one whose life is never spoken of – steals at least half our connection to our roots. My mother’s death was a tragedy that remained shrouded in silence, barely mentioned after I first learnt of it.

I was three years old when Ruth took me gently aside for a serious talk. She sat me on her lap and explained that she was not my ‘real’ mother. My father stood silently by, pipe in hand, leaning against the living room wall, while she imparted the unbelievable truth. I told her not to be silly; I refused to accept her ridiculous words. Of course I loved her not one jot less that day. Only as a teenager did I come to resent her existence and curse my luck at having a stepmother. I would storm away from each row to fling myself on my bed and shed hot tears in my candlewick bedspread. At night I would weep for my ‘real’ mother (who would have understood me so much better than this one). But once the turmoil brought on by surging hormones had passed, so did my unjust anger towards Ruth. In truth she understood me better than anyone ever has.

Although she never met her predecessor, Ruth must have talked to my father about Ilse. But it felt wrong to quiz her about the woman she had replaced, and so I almost never did. I deliberately avoided the subject with my father. My feelings towards him were simpler than those towards Ruth: I adored him. When I was little, he entertained me with funny faces and stories, and immortalised me in an affectionate nonsense rhyme that still gives me pleasure:

Rachel Elizabeth is a fine child 
Although there are times when she talks a bit wild-
Ly-lora, ly-lora, this is a queer rhyme
But still I do love her at any old time.

I loved to curl up in my father’s soft corduroy lap, inhaling the scent of Balkan Sobranie pipe tobacco and Brylcreem as I snuggled in close. Years later I learnt something that made me love him yet more. On Ilse’s death, childless friends of the family, a genteel English couple named Lola and Jim, asked to adopt me. My father refused their kind offer. This revelation overwhelmed me with joy: he had wanted to keep me! I wish I could have thanked him, but by then he too was gone.

I could not mention Ilse’s name to my father. The man was damaged, too fragile for such questions. A barrage of losses – of his homeland, his career as a writer and his first love – took its toll. I was around ten when his first heart attack struck. From that day on, we had to tiptoe around him, avoiding any kind of upset. Doors must never be slammed; all conflict or argument was forbidden. So how could I ask him about Ilse? I dared not upset the man lying upstairs in bed, the invalid whose new-grown beard contained shocking streaks of pure white, despite being only in his forties. By then I had started experiencing tugs of guilt about being the cause of my mother’s premature death. I could not risk triggering my father’s as well. 

That left Claudia. Some sisters have a bond closer than that of best friends. But for children, six years is a vast gap to bridge, and she and I would not connect until our twenties. Even then, Claudia offered few insights or memories of our mother, rarely mentioning her name. She had begun to shield herself from more damage by developing a tough skin. This appeared overlaid – on topics concerning her inner feelings – with a thick cloak of silence. 

And that was how, oh so gradually, Ilse transformed into a mythical figure, a hazy idol wreathed in mystery. I would gaze at an album I had compiled of photos of her, memorising her gleaming hair and sparkling eyes, to try to keep her alive. I still glance every day at one I have framed, in which she’s laughing and carefree, a vein standing out on her forehead. It proves my troubled birth mother had, at least once, experienced real joy.

But someone else was still alive who had been close to my mother, who had grown up alongside her for sixteen years. This was Ilse’s younger sister, Lisbeth. Like my parents, Lisbeth had escaped Vienna and survived the Second World War. I knew little more than this of our aunt’s story, apart from rumours of a mysterious accident – some said, self-inflicted – which occurred in her youth, and that she had spent the war years in China. She now lived in San Francisco. But this geographical separation proved less problematic than my inability to close the emotional distance between myself and my aunt. She was languid and slow, in both movement and speech; cool and inexpressive. On my visits over the years to her home, despite my efforts, I learnt nothing of her past, or of my mother. I suspected the two sisters had never been close. 

Then Lisbeth’s own death changed everything.

On one of my visits to her home, I admired a large cabinet of East Asian origin. It stood nearly five feet high, since it rested upon a carved wooden base with lion’s paw feet. I knew the Chinese-style cupboard was no antique – Lisbeth told me she and her husband had bought it in California in the 1950s. Yet I loved its ebony lacquered wood, painted with swirling flamingos and flowers in thick layers of apricot, bronze, cream and duck-egg blue.

My silent aunt must have listened to me more closely than I had realised, or than she had ever let on. For she bequeathed me the Chinese cabinet. And more than that.

When I opened its glossy twin doors, I found something deep inside. Pushed to the back of the top shelf was a rectangular package, wrapped in layers of dry, yellowing newspaper. I reached in and drew out the object, which was much heavier than I expected. Beneath the newspaper I found a dark-brown wooden box, etched with deep carvings. Men and women, their hair in topknots, were depicted within Chinese landscapes full of shell-like blossoms, bamboos and pagodas. The lid showed a man reading to two adults from a scroll, while two children clung to his robes, one looking away, more interested in the scenery than the scholar. Other figures around the side played among tall spiky plants with unfamiliar fruits. At the front, a round metal clasp, engraved with a large sunflower, had two loops for a pin to slide through. The closure had no pin. I gingerly opened the box.

Inside was a set of envelopes and faux-leather wallets, filled with photographs, letters, and official-looking documents: marriage and death certificates, passports, and records of vaccinations and visas acquired. Picture postcards showed people and country scenes. Most of the items dated from the mid-1930s, with the last from the early 1950s. As Lisbeth had been born in 1922, the collection covered her early teens to her thirties. Flimsy yellowing sheets bore Chinese characters handwritten in red pencil. A few sepia postcards looked much older than the rest. Could the date on that incredibly faint postmark over the Deutsches Reich stamp really be 1919? 

Sifting through the box, I found a set of pale-blue airmail letters addressed to Lisbeth. All were sent from England to San Francisco in the early 1950s. Half a dozen were in a rounded, childlike hand, in distinctive green ink. As I recognised the writing, my throat tightened. These were letters from Ilse, my mother, to her sister. In the later ones she was no longer using German, but writing in imperfect English. I swallowed with difficulty as I read. My mother was giving Lisbeth news of Claudia, now six years old; then effusive thanks for the gifts of clothes her sister has sent to England. When I picked up the last letter, I stared at the date. The writing blurred after I made it out: May 1953. Two months before I was born, and five months before Ilse’s death, at the age of only 35. 

As I refocused on the pale-blue paper, the box’s significance dawned on me as if a blind has been snapped open to the sun. With neither notice nor explanation, my aunt had left me a collection of items she had treasured for decades. During her lifetime, this woman, the only close female relative in our small scattered family apart from her mother – our grandmother – was always reticent. An enigma, unwilling – or unable – to speak of her feelings, or her past. Her gift made me look at her anew. Were the contents of this box her way of telling me her story at last?

Lisbeth’s box with the sunflower clasp would lie untouched in a corner for years, vanishing beneath the cloak of familiarity. The routine of everyday life took over, the arrival of two baby boys and a career to carve out taking priority over the past. Until one day I found myself drawn back to the box while I had been contemplating my Viennese roots. I lifted the clasp as if for the very first time, and looked at the contents anew. I resolved to study every single item inside, something I had never yet done. I would use them to reconnect with, and discover, my family’s past. The voices of my mother and her sister had been silent for too long. The time had come to make them speak, and to listen to their story.

Chapter 1 — Vienna, June 1937: Thwarted ambition

Lisbeth and Ilse grew up cocooned in middle-class ease, living with their parents, Arnold and Edith Epstein, in one of Vienna’s elegant apartment buildings on a street named Am Tabor. This lay in Leopoldstadt, the city’s second district, whose famous Ferris wheel still towers over the Austrian capital’s amusement park, the Prater. 

The girls, Lisbeth and Ilse, drank heisse Schokolade at Kohlmarkt’s Demel café, where my aunt developed her lifelong love of thickly whipped cream. Their vivacious and attractive mother was an excellent cook: her fruit-filled dumplings married sweetness and sharpness to perfection. In the summer the family stayed in a welcoming Pension outside the city. The air was fragrant with the smell of hay, and filled with the sound of birdsong and clanking cowbells. Lisbeth loved the sweet yellow butter that accompanied their crisp breakfast rolls and jam. 

The sisters lacked nothing, except perhaps closeness to one another. I had long ago picked up this sense of their separation, but have no knowledge of its source. What united them was their love for their parents, and a shared passion for dancing. As small girls, they were taken for portraits at studios run by Michael Sohn in Heinestrasse, and Weitzmann’s in Praterstrasse. Ilse had been blessed with the family’s good looks; by her side, Lisbeth appeared plain, with her heavy jaw and straight, severely cut dark hair. Perhaps the four-year age gap kept the girls distant, or was it their contrasting natures: the older, pretty one lively and impulsive, the younger more measured? I doubt they had many friends in common. 

When I first looked at what lay in Lisbeth’s box, I knew very little about Vienna. A visit there with my family when I was ten had left just one clear memory, more worldly than spiritual. It was of the melting flavours of chocolate, sharp cherries and whipped cream in my first slice of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte – Black Forest gateau: a combination so wonderful that even my father’s undisguised gloom at revisiting his birthplace could not ruin the moment. Nor did I know about the district where my aunt and mother had grown up. Their address – Wien II, Am Tabor 22 – came from a picture postcard sent to Lisbeth, kept safe all those years inside her wooden box. The date mark was illegible, but it was signed by a Judith Benedikt who was sending beste grüsse to my aunt. The picture on the front of the postcard showed a Gothic-looking guest house in the mountain resort of Spital am Semmering. 

One morning as I sat at my desk, the sun shining in through the Velux attic window, the postcard with the Austrian guest house on seemed to demand my attention. The address on the front prompted me to type ‘Am Tabor’ and ‘Vienna’ into Google. Up popped a link to a documentary called Vienna – City of Dreams, presented by an American art historian named Joseph Leo Koerner. Like me, he was a Jew with Viennese roots. 

The film confirmed what I knew of the stately capital, heavy with baroque eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings, and rich in composers, psychoanalysts and writers. But then, to my amazement, Koerner mentioned Am Tabor, where his parents had lived. At one end of the road was the great Nord Bahn, significant as the arrival point of nineteenth-century migrants flocking to Vienna from all over Europe. Many were poorly-off Jews from Galicia, Czechoslovakia and other parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire in search of work or a better life for their families. And many were fleeing antisemitism. They would stream down Am Tabor from the Nord Bahn to find lodgings. By settling here, in Vienna’s second district, the immigrants transformed Leopoldstadt into the city’s new Jewish quarter, the other side of the Donaukanal (Danube canal) from the medieval Judenplatz. That square had been purged of its Jewish residents by the bloody pogrom of the fifteenth century.

The Box with the Sunflower Clasp’  is published by Icon Books (May 2023, £25). Available to order from Bookshop.org.

Rachel Meller

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Rachel Meller grew up near London, the middle of three daughters of Austrian refugees. After studying neurobiology at Sussex, and research into neuroendocrinology at Cambridge University, she became a writer in a communication consultancy. She retired early from her day job, much as she enjoyed it, in order to write The Box with the Sunflower Clasp, her first book.

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