Window into an Exotic World

Among the items Dad brought with him when he arrived in New York was an album covered in beige canvas containing snapshots of family, friends, and landscapes. The slender volume was organized by location and date neatly written in white ink on its taupe-colored pages. The photographs themselves were sometimes annotated in black ink. They were pictures of elegantly dressed, confident-looking people, secure about their place in the world. There was no hint of the catastrophic events that would soon envelop them and millions of other European Jews.

To a middle-class kid growing up in a stiflingly dull American suburb, the pictures were a window into a thrillingly exotic world.

As I boy I spent hours leafing through the frayed pages of that album. To a middle-class kid growing up in a stiflingly dull American suburb, the pictures were a window into a thrillingly exotic world. There was my father skiing in Yugoslavia, horseback riding in Italy, swimming off the Dalmatian Coast, hiking in the Bavarian hills. In almost every picture he is meticulously groomed, with his short dark hair brushed back and mustache neatly trimmed. He is often dressed in a suit and tie, sometimes accessorized with a topcoat, homburg, kerchief, and gloves. I sometimes wondered how this dashing young blade turned into the sedate, pot-bellied man I knew as my father.

The picture I liked the best showed two men dressed in fur-collared overcoats feeding the pigeons at St. Mark’s Square in Venice. One of them, wearing a homburg and an impish smile, was my grandfather Otto; the other, bare-headed and handsome, a pigeon perched on his outstretched arm, was my father.

Fascinated by the world captured in these photographs, I would ply Dad with questions. Who are those people? Where was this taken? What are those mountains in the distance? His answers — if he answered at all — were invariably brief and frustratingly vague, which only piqued my curiosity more.

It’s clear from the pictures that Dad and Lotte were close friends, most likely lovers.

Dad is usually pictured in the company of family and friends, and more often than not, there is an attractive, well-turned-out young woman hanging on his arm. One woman in particular was a frequent subject. Her name was Lotte Roderer, and with her round, open face, engaging smile, sparkling eyes and wavy dark hair, she resembles Ingrid Bergman. It’s clear from the pictures that Dad and Lotte were close friends, most likely lovers. There are pictures of them dressed to the nines standing in front of a palatial hotel in Karlsbad, the posh Czech spa town, strolling in a wooded park, posing arm-in-arm and ski-to-ski in the Alps. Perhaps the most telling picture shows Lotte lying languorously with her eyes closed on a bench next to my grandfather, looking perfectly at ease, as if she were a member of the family.

My grandfather Otto and my father’s girlfriend, Lotte Roderer, at an Italian ski resort, ca 1935.

My grandfather Otto and my father’s girlfriend, Lotte Roderer, at an Italian ski resort, ca 1935.

Liniment and Vanilla

Liniment and Vanilla

One of Dad’s first jobs in New Haven was working as a night clerk at the Hotel York, a residential hotel in a sketchy neighborhood near the railroad station. He earned $10 a week, which even in those days was a paltry sum. In January 1939 he took a job as a salesman for the J.R. Watkins Company, a Minnesota-based maker of soaps, spices, extracts, and other household products.

Bibs and Tuckers

Bibs and Tuckers

My parents were both Ashkenazi Jews from not-very-observant families, but that’s where their similarities ended. My father grew up in a world of big houses, fancy cars, and vacations at posh resorts. My mother was the product of a tight-knit family of modest means. She was 31 when she married and had lived with her parents in the same house virtually her entire life.

Matinee

Matinee

Once or twice a year Dad took the family to New York for a weekend matinee. The show that made the deepest impression on me was a performance by the French mime Marcel Marceau. From the moment he shuffled onto the stage in his signature striped sailor shirt, tight-fitting black vest, and white bell-bottom trousers, I was completely in his thrall.

A Retirement Home in Bohemia

A Retirement Home in Bohemia

On Tuesday, August 18, 1942, Train Da 503 pulled away from Platform 40 of Frankfurt’s Grossmarkthalle. Its destination was a small town north of Prague, near an old fortress called Theresienstadt. The train was packed with more than a thousand elderly Jews. Among them were my grandfather Otto Kupfer, 68, and his 72-year-old sister Mina. Both would be dead by the end of the year.