A tale for our times, a story of exile, rebuilt lives, loss and identity.
Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre is the extraordinary story of one family, from the impoverished Czech countryside of the 1860s to imperial Vienna, and from Nazi-era Vienna, Prague and Brno to post-war America.
The Flatters and the Graumanns were comfortably off without being wealthy. They were intellectually curious and some of them very accomplished. Yet they were also ordinary people with all the familiar doubts, worries, talents, ambitions and vanities … Some felt Jewish, others less so but all were forced to do so. Many were murdered, others escaped. The survivors’ children and grandchildren are today scattered across Europe, the US and Canada.
This family saga is based on seven testimonies by members of the immediate family circle. The cardboard-and-watercolour puppet theatre of the title was put together in Vienna in 1932 by the author’s great-uncle Otto as a family game. Like a faded snapshot, it recalls carefree days before the world changed. This is a story of rare immediacy that touches on themes of loss, identity and choice. (The drawing above is by Uncle Otto).
“Brigid Grauman gives us the serendipity and insight of prewar and wartime Europe, without superimposing a modern sensibility. She does not shove, she lures.” – The New York Sun
“A profound and devastating memoir. Shows with beautifully wrought detail how the tsunami of history tore apart the lives of her Viennese family.” – Megan Williams
About the author
I have led a settled life in Brussels since 1965, but I was born stateless and rootless in Geneva to my Irish mother and my naturalised American father. I grew up in France, Israel and Belgium. For many years I worked as chief editor of Brussels’ English-language newsweekly, and wrote for leading British and American publications, including the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and ARTnews.
- Jindřich Blum – My Uncle Otto’s sorely lamented friendGreat-uncle Otto wrote a moving tribute in his memoir to his friend the Czech architect Jindřich (Heinrich) Blum, which didn’t make it into my book “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre”. He wrote it because, he said, “it is the duty of those who have been close to the wantonly murdered to […]
- Mahler, Freud and meI based my book “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre” on seven family memoirs, but I also read as much as I could about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I wanted to embed those memoirs into a Jewish context and for that had to understand the political and literary zeitgeist. My great-grandparents had many […]
- Einstein’s helping hand for my refugee familyAlbert Einstein must have had hundreds of letters from desperate European Jews asking for help. My grandmother Emma was among those 1930s letter-writers to him at his office at Princeton University. Einstein’s reply to Emma can now be found at the Einstein Archives at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Her three-page plea […]
- The family’s “shameful” secretA good many stories didn’t make it into “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre”. One of these was about the lovely illegitimate Martha. Born of unmarried Adelheid’s brief love affair, she was ostracised by most of the Flatter family. My great-grandfather Siegmund was of legendary generosity but refused to welcome her into […]
- Snake, lizard and toadskin: my family’s handmade shoesHand-made shoes were once the nec plus ultra, and my family made some of the very best. Artists, aristocrats and business tycoons wore Graumann shoes made in Brno. This bespoke footwear gets a brief mention in “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre”. Although they were works of art, they would now be […]
- The girl with the military tattooTattoos may be ubiquitous nowadays, but it wasn’t always thus. So I was amused by an anecdote of my great-uncle Richard Flatter, lawyer by day, but playwright and a leading Shakespeare translator by night. It didn’t make it into my book “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre”. “Never overworked” as a lawyer, […]
Brilliant site where experts recommend the five best books in their subject and explain why they chose them.
Histoire de l’Oncle Otto
Interview in French with the Union des progressistes juifs de Belgique (UPJB)
What people are saying
A stunning book. Wonderfully researched, it brings to life both the anguish and the lives of her family members. A tour de force.John Richardson
Wise, compassionate and knowledgeable. A deep insight into the Zeitgeist of Central Europe’s tragic history.Daniela von Bethlenfalvy
By turns moving and entertaining, a worthy addition to the canon.Ian Davidson
A fine read: unknown angles on one Jewish family’s life as Hitler took over Europe, with insights into the psychology of survival, integration, memory and forgetting.Robert Madelin
This is an easy read covering complex issues and times. Individual characters are clear, compelling and uncompromising, as is the author’s prose.Diana Kanter
One of the great successes of the book is to offer contemporary audiences candid glimpses of everyday lives from the times of the Emperor Franz Joseph, or the Anschluss to post-war Geneva. A tumbling kaleidoscope of characters gradually resolves into a coherent mosaic.Peter O’Donnell
A powerful family saga, skilfully portraying the drama of Central Europe’s Jews against the backdrop of two world wars.Emily von Sydow
Many of the stories are tragic, yet this is not a sad book. Ms Grauman takes us along on her rigorously researched, lovingly narrated journey of discovery.Kate Casa
Brigid Grauman’s fine, well-written book brings to life the love of family and friends, and reminds us that these things are to be treasured and fought for.John Klassen
Part memoir, part detective story, as the gathering storm of World War Two casts the author’s ancestors to the wind. Highly recommended.Brooks Tigner
This stunning book skilfully weaves together disparate voices like silk strands, bringing to life the story of a family torn apart by war, displacement, guilt and recrimination.Carla Ciminera
Wonderful story telling based on family memoirs and photos. A vivid description of real people whose lives – and temperaments – were shaped by history and geography.Nancy Russotto
What an amazing story – and beautifully told. An important piece of testimony.Nick Witney
Tender and compelling. A deep look at what the cataclysms of Mitteleuropa meant for an ordinary Jewish family, and how extraordinary it becomes in the details.David Tonge
A gripping history of persecution, loss, courage and renewal. A fascinating read for anyone interested in the Second World War and the long shadow it has cast.Alice Jolly
NU Magazine Nr.82
NU Magazine Nr.82
WINA Octobre 2020
WINA Octobre 2020
Straight Outta Moravia: a Jewish saga that lures us in
Can the Holocaust be 2020 funny? That’s the question Americans are asking about Jojo Rabbit, a recent film about Hitler, a boy, and the boy’s mother, starring Scarlett Johansson. The film’s directors and screenwriters reckon the only way to get millennials to the Germany of the Holocaust is to appeal to humour through current music and current-sounding jokes in their own language. The characters in this film about a small German town pun in English. Some critics have declared “Jojo” a success, but others leave the theatre to ask themselves: “But how was it really?” …
For full article click here
Book Q&A with Deborah Kalb, Washington
(You can visit her website here)
Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your family, and what impact did writing it have on you?
There were several reasons. The first was that I had always felt rootless, as had my parents themselves. My father was born in Vienna but left with his parents when the Nazis marched in, and so lived the life of an exile. His mother-tongue was German, his passport was American, he settled in France after my parents’ marriage broke up, and married a French woman, and then another. My mother was Irish, and left London as a very young woman because she felt stifled there. She and my father settled in Geneva, as two young people without family nearby.
As for the Jewish side of things, my father who was Jewish didn’t feel Jewish because he hadn’t been brought up in that tradition. My highly romantic mother wasn’t Jewish, but she espoused causes and ideals, and took us to live in Israel. As a result, my sister and I were neither French, nor English, nor Jewish, nor Catholic, nor anything really.
We never knew three of our grandparents, and the fourth, our paternal grandmother, lived far away in Vineland, New Jersey. Writing the book didn’t help me discover an identity, but it allowed me to put into words – and that’s the business I am in – a story I had always felt belonged to others and had now made my own. As any journalist knows, you only know a story when you’ve written it.
The other reason I wrote the book is that I had the rare privilege of owning seven family memoirs. It turned out that my family was highly literate, wrote poems, performed plays, and loved to write.
My father gave me the first set of these memoirs, saying without conviction ‘you may be interested in this’. Then the others came into my hands in various ways. Over the years I realised that they contained rare insights into a whole historical period, from life in the Jewish quarter of a town in Moravia, in what is now the Czech Republic, to life in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, on to the Anschluss and after. I felt that I had a duty towards these forebears, and that I wanted to take up the challenge of conveying what it meant to be this particular Jewish family. I feel very appeased at having met the challenge.
For the full interview click here
You can order the English edition of Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre on Amazon, the Book Depository and from most bookshops. My publisher is Vienna is Edition Konturen. You can order the book from his website (please don’t forget to include your postal address), and in bookshops.