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Nursing a Memoir to Publication: Finding a Niche, Defining a Life

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The publishing of a book -- especially one that's personal and not a footnoted artifact -- is still worth celebrating, even if it's being published in the traditional format of pages between covers. This is particularly true if you're the author and the book is primarily about you.

So here's a bit of self-promotion for which I apologize in advance.

The book -- out this month from Central European University Press -- is called Objects of Remembrance: A Memoir of American Opportunities and Viennese Dreams. It's about an arc of life that starts in pre-War Vienna, but quickly shifts to the United States. It's a book in the shadow of the Holocaust, but also about the amazing and complicated process of becoming American in the 1950s.

My mother was pregnant at the time of the Anschluss, and we left Vienna in 1939 when I was seven months old. I became a refugee, of sorts, and the book tries to discover what that could possibly mean. I was hardly a "Survivor." And our family did not have to traipse through woods to get to freedom. But no family of the time was unscathed and there was abundant and tragic damage to ours. My mother was separated from her parents. We left for America and they stayed and perished.

The word "Jewish" doesn't appear in the title, but that's something of an oversight. The book could have been called Rootedness and Rootlessness since it is illustrative of the religious and social fates that confronted so many people as they were distributed, or they distributed themselves, around the world. We, for example, did stints in Macon, Georgia (three years) and Cincinnnati, Ohio (close to 15 years) before finally, late in our migration, returning to New York City. How these exile communities in the South and the Midwest sought to educate and hold on to its young charges is a tale in itself.

Indeed, for me as author, one of the most interesting aspects was learning how the national Jewish organizations worked to expand opportunities for refugees and immigrants by encouraging them to move from the major ports of entry to other places, other towns and cities, where jobs (hard to find in a Depression) might be located. That's how we got to Macon.

When I wrote this book, one question involved genre. Was this a Holocaust book -- even though I (who was born in Vienna and left as a seven month old refugee in 1939) was hardly a Survivor? Was this a book about universalizing the refugee experience -- trying to show, directly or indirectly, that the lives and patterns of families of the 1930s are echoed in the lives of refugees of the 21st century?

Or, was this predominantly a book about Vienna and Austrian Jews who tried to recreate their life in a new world? My desire to write the book was triggered after -- owing to reparations and restoration-related legislation -- Austria was providing citizenship to people who left in fear and terror. I applied and received Austrian citizenship and, I think, wanted to explore my motives and feelings in doing so. In this period, my working title for the book was How Austrian Am I?

But could I write, authentically, about myself and Vienna, a place I had studiously avoided?

I compensated for my own lack of direct observation by reading such memoirs or recollections as George Clare's Last Waltz in Vienna, David Weiss's Reluctant Return, Lore Segal's Other People's Houses, Richard Berczeller's A Trip into the Blue and Peter Gay's My German Question to find voices that would educate me and with whom I can, in my mind, converse. I tried to learn from such stories what life in the critical days of the 1930s was like for my mother and father.

And I talked to Austrians who remained Austrians. I wanted to maintain my distance from my Viennese past while writing about it. This proved tricky. I wanted to capture how I felt about Vienna growing up while, all the while, new friendships, new experiences were altering my prism of attention. I became a more frequent visitor to the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York. I went to Vienna on the earlier publication of the German language version of the book.

I'm not sure I achieved the balance that would have been appropriate. My dichotomy is captured by the subtitle (that's what subtitles are for). It could be a book about my complex relationship to Vienna and my process of becoming an American at one and the same time.

You can find the book on Amazon.com.

You can see some of the book's photos and find out about upcoming book talks on the Facebook fan page.