I 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 siblings, who themselves had confusingly large families, so I drew up a family tree. Not an elaborate tree, but one that allowed me to see relationships at one glance. Then I discovered Geni, an American genealogical tree-building platform that aims to create a unique family tree for the whole of humanity, a gigantic spider’s web of connections.
Geni has a feature that can quickly become addictive. It allows you to look up famous people and, via its miraculously rapid algorithm, show if you are linked to them. Here’s an example: I type in the name Gustav Mahler. After a minute or so, a link appear that is not a blood link but that, counting in-laws, connects us nonetheless.
Having found that I could also claim family bonds with Sigmund Freud, Karl Popper, Theodor Herzl, Tom Stoppard, Franz Werfel, Albert Einstein and Arthur Schnitzler, I went obsessively through most of the illustrious names I had mentioned in my book or come across in my research.
The closest connection I found was to Richard Beer-Hofmann (1865-1945) who had origins in the small Moravian town of Lomnice where one of my great-grandfathers was born. He was a key figure in Vienna’s cultural history, a poet and playwright whose ambition was to bring Judaism to the stage in his biblical dramas. His only novel, “The Death of George” (Der Tod Georgs) was one of the first experiments with interior monologue.
And he happens to be my cousin eight steps removed. Beer-Hofmann was also a man of great charm with a love of plants, dogs and cats, and although I may not be bound to him by blood, nor to any of those other great names, I am thrilled to claim them all as my own. Research on Geni is a distraction, but a lot of fun.