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When a Book Still Has Legs

 Last week, I received an email from 91-year-old Joy Rubin in Gorham, Maine:

 

I have just read ["Searching for Fritzi"]  your moving account of your mother's courage in dealing with Fritzi and visiting Vienna. We knew Fritzi Russell from 1974 until her death in 1999. Her only allusion to her life in Vienna was one mention that her father had restricted her activities when she was growing up, insisting that she had to practice skating.   

 

"Searching for Fritzi," was originally published in 1999. It is, therefore, remarkable that I occasionally still receive news of my mother's champion ice-skating cousin, Fritzi Burger, from people who knew her, or knew someone who knew her. Last year an email arrived from a former tennis partner of Fritzi's who had met her in Tokyo at a posh club. The year before that I had an extended correspondence with a scholar in Berlin. The editor of Skateguard, published in Nova Scotia by Ryan Stevens, interviewed me in 2016 and wrote a long piece about the book. And now Joy and her husband, Marvin, have contacted me. They met Fritzi during the last chapter of her life in America. They knew her socially, Joy explained, as well as Fritzi Burger would allow herself to be known. Was I interested in hearing some details about her life in Maine? Although the answer to that question is yes and no—as  I will explain—I  am always polite and attentive when a reader contacts me. An email contact often leads to a telephone conversation.  I listen with rapt attention, I take notes, I ask a question or two. But there isn't anything I've heard in recent years about Frtizi Burger that has changed my mind about her.

 

Fritzi Burger, Olympic silver medallist, was a collaborator during the war, married to a Japanese national close to the Emperor. She spent the war years in Tokyo in relative luxury, never making any effort to help her European family escape the genocide, though she would have been well placed to do so. These discoveries shook my family, especially my mother, who did not want me to write the book before or after I discovered where Fritzi had been during the war. She knew Fritzi was a snob, a woman with guile, and didn't think she was "worth it."  I persevered, I could not stop. The search for Fritzi Burger became a metaphor for my murdered family.

                                                            

I wrote back to Joy Rubin and made a plan to talk on the phone. She hadn't read the addendum which was published in the revised e-book—more revelations about Fritzi during the post-war years in Tokyo—so  I sent it to her in a PDF file. 

 

          "Your book answered a lot of questions about Fritzi," Joy told me. "She never mentioned her Jewish ancestry.We even had her over for Passover one year."

 

My ambivalence softened, curiosity kicked in, as Joy continued: "Fritzi liked her luxuries, she had a vegetable garden, she brought over recipes, entertained lavishly, lots of dinner parties. The bathroom in her Gorham house was all light blue. She served foundue, those pieces of meat you dip in hot oil. She an an odd way of sitting, like a teenage girl, with one leg under the other. Her son, Yoshi, learned English from Armed Forces Radio in Tokyo and he sounded and acted very American. She never reminisced. She lived in the present. She had a grand-daughter."

 

          "I thought she had a grandson," I said.

 

          "No a grand-daughter, Michelle Nishikawa.  She lives in Southern California."

 

          "She is carrying the name of that prominent Japanese family," I said.  "Mikimoto-Nishikawa. Mikimoto Pearls. Close to the Emperor. I wonder if she knows the history. I wonder if she knows about my book."

 

 Needless to say, I Googled Michelle and found her on Linked In and Facebook. I left a message on her work phone. But she has not, as yet, replied. 

 

Will these quests and inquiries ever end, I wonder? Should  they end?  And what have we learned that we can pass on to future generations? Forgiveness, for example. Can there ever be forgiveness?  As a writer, I am not obligated to answer these questions. My only obligation is to find the story and write it, as fully and truthfully as I can.

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