The survival of a milliner

The artistically observant eye of a designer is not all that different from that of a writer.

hats and hitler 521 (photo credit: SXC)
hats and hitler 521
(photo credit: SXC)
“Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler” is probably the most fashionable Holocaust memoir you will ever read. In this firsthand account of the Anschluss, the Nazis’ annexation of Austria in March 1938, milliner Trudi Kanter makes mention of the feel of every fabric, the cut of every dress, and the decoration of every hat. Surprisingly, however, this keen eye for sartorial aesthetics adds to the drama of this tragic history, rather than trivializing it.
Kanter’s account was almost lost to history.
As she approached the age of 80, Kanter, who by then had lived 45 years in England, wrote the memoir as a tribute to the great love between her and her second husband, Walter Ehrlich, who had died in 1960. It was published in 1984 by a small press, drew no attention, and went out of print. It was a chance discovery of the book by an English editor in an old book shop only recently that led to its republishing by Virago Press in the UK and by Scribner in the US.
British novelist Linda Grant suggests in the book’s introduction that it was specifically Kanter’s seemingly flighty passions for clothes and men that caused people to dismiss “Some Girls”. “The mid-eighties was a time before the fashion for the memoir, and before publishers became interested in accounts of the Holocaust by ordinary individuals, so she had two strikes against her,” Grant wrote. “There was, too, I think an instinctive shrinking away from accounts of the war that did not treat it with the solemnity of historians… Her book went down into oblivion. Some readers believed it to be a novel.” The book’s unfortunately frivolous (some might say even ridiculous) title most likely did not help either.
Almost nothing is known about Kanter’s life in England after the war, other than that her beloved Walter died in his late 50s of an apparently misdiagnosed blood infection.
What we do know is what she tells us in her memoir about her life in the years just before and just after becoming a refugee from Nazi persecution, including her escape.
Kanter was born in 1905, the only child of an upper middle-class Viennese Jewish jeweler father and a non-Jewish mother. As a child, she admired them, but longed for them to show her more affection and attention.
However, as she and they got older, she grew to love her parents more, and she became their protector and caregiver as danger closed in.
Snippets of her childhood come into play within the story she tells, but her main focus is on her world as a milliner with a swanky salon catering to wealthy (though not always respectable) women. Until March 1938, her days were filled with supervising the 12 women who worked in her workshop and showroom, taking buying trips to Paris, and making nice to her customers – many of whom became her close friends. Her nights were filled hobnobbing with the beau monde at chic restaurants and renowned cafés like the famed Demel. With her beauty, charm and vanity (she makes constant mention of her long, flaming red hair), Kanter never lacked for male attention.
Despite some disjointed chronology in the earlier sections of the book, it is evident that she was already married to a young Jewish man named Pepi Miller when she met Ehrlich, a handsome and dashing businessman who swept her off her feet.
The Anschluss takes place shortly after she falls in love with Ehrlich, so while Kanter scrambles to find a way out of Austria for her and Ehrlich, she has also to dissolve her marriage to Miller, with whom she remained close.
At this point in the story, Ehrlich comes across as totally impotent, paralyzed in the face of events. He is hunted by the Gestapo (it’s unclear if there is a reason other than that he is Jewish), yet it is Kanter who figures out how to engineer their escape from the increasingly threatening situation in Vienna.
“You know that you always put your head down and charge at the wall, whereas I need to think carefully before I make a decision,” Ehrlich tells Kanter. “Let’s make arrangements and leave in an organized way, openly. We are not going to flee under cover of darkness, like criminals. Trust me.”
Fortunately, Kanter knows better than to do so. She keeps her head together and uses every work and personal contact she can to secure permission for her and Ehrlich to exit Austria. Kanter does this by contriving a business trip to England to sell sample hats, supposedly generating foreign currency revenue for Austria, which is cash-strapped due to boycotts against the Nazis.
Every step of the way, as the couple makes it over the border to Czechoslovakia (where they are warmly welcomed by Ehrlich’s relatives who refuse to recognize the dangers that lie ahead for them), then on to France and England, it is Kanter who solves potentially disastrous problems and essentially saves their lives. Those who dismissed “Some Girls” when it was first published as the work of a frivolous person, read the fashion-conscious hat maker completely wrong.
Once Kanter and Ehrlich make it safely and almost pennilessly to London in the fall of 1938, it is suddenly Ehrlich who comes into his own. As Kanter has several (understandable) emotional breakdowns, it is her husband (who we suddenly learn is an inventor) who takes a practical approach to holding things together. Eventually, the formidable Kanter emerges once again, finding a job as a hat designer, and pulling strings and standing in line for hours on end to secure visas for her elderly parents. Later, after the war breaks out, it is she who figures out a way to have her husband and father released from an enemy alien camp near Liverpool.
Kanter’s descriptions toward the end of the book of living through the hellish Blitz are as equally evocative as her earlier descriptions of the terror she and others felt as the Nazis marched into Vienna.
The artistically observant eye of a designer is not all that different from that of a writer.
It is a shame that there is no record of the writer’s post-war life, other than the little she reveals about her and Ehrlich’s respective professional successes. She tells us that they were among the first refugee aliens to become naturalized British citizens, that they changed their last name to Ellis, and that Ehrlich died next to her in bed. Perhaps she simply saw the rest of their time together, and the rest of her life, as an obvious continuation of their love story.
That Trudi Kanter landed on her feet is really no surprise. She made it through the horrors of her time by being, in many ways, a woman before her time in terms of her independence, self-reliance and assertiveness.
Fortunately for us, “Some Girls,” like its author, has proven itself to be a survivor.