Volume 76, Number 26 | November 15 - 21, 2006

Theater

Photo by Bruce Glikas

Caralyn Kozlowski and Michel Gill in “The Milliner,” now at the 13th Street Theater.

Returning to the promised Deutschland

By Jerry Tallmer

We are talking about her grandfather when she drops it like a hand grenade between the coffee cups at Café Mozart: “I interviewed the son of Adolf Eichmann.”

Yes, Suzanne? And?

“I expected him to be like his father. Instead he was this sexy, interesting guy. I said to him” — says Suzanne Glass, here in Café Mozart, a little bit of the old country, of several old countries, on West 70th Street in Manhattan — “I said to him: ‘You are the son of one of the greatest monsters in history, and I’m the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and here we are in Tubingen, Germany, eating Spaghetti alla Carbonara.’

Yes, Suzanne. And?

“I asked him: ‘How do you feel about your father?’ And I knew, if he gave me the wrong answer, like ‘Well… he was my father’ — I would have to get up and leave. But he said: ‘To me, he’s a historical figure,’ so I stayed and finished my Spaghetti alla Carbonara.”

Suzanne Glass, journalist and novelist, has now written a play, “The Milliner,” which is in a Directors’ Company production at the 13th Street Theater through December 17, and is all about an imagined man named Wolfgang Georg who is very like a real-life man named William Wollenberg who was Suzanne Glass’s maternal grandfather.

Wolfgang Georg is a Jew — a German Jew — who has been running away from his Jewishness ever since circumcision. He is a milliner; he makes fancy hats for stylish women. He gets out of Germany just in time, gets to London, starts over again in London, hates London, hates the British, wants only to go back to Germany, and as soon as he safely can — after the war — he does. 

You can take the Jew out of Germany, but you can’t take Germany out of the Jew. Wolfgang is more German than the Germans …

I know that, this journalist said to Suzanne Glass. I’ve known that since I was a kid, listening to the put-downs and gutturals of refugee relatives from Berlin. Or just look out, Suzanne, through that plate-glass window, here on West 70th Street.

Pretty soon you’ll see two old women coming along, or another two, or another two, Upper West Siders who’ve been in this country 60 years and are still gabbling to one another in thick Deutschsprechen English.

Robert Moses — yes, bulldozer Moses, like him or not (and I did not) — coined an apt phrase for the phenomenon: the Bei Unsters — “bei uns iss vos besser.” 

Come to think of it, Robert Moses, like Wolfgang Georg, never liked to think of himself as a Jew. But in the end, Wolfgang Georg, unlike bulldozer Moses, was forced by one slip of the tongue of a shopworn Rheinmaiden to know what he was and act upon it.  

“My grandfather, William Wollenberg — we called him Vivo,” said Suzanne Glass — “was a German through and through, even though a Jew. He was a milliner, like Wolfgang. He was a pianist, like Wolfgang. He worshipped Goethe, and wanted a poem by Goethe — a poem that’s in the play — put on his tombstone in London, which it is.

“He was still talking German, after 50 years. He loathed the English, couldn’t stand them, thought them stupid and colorless, thought the Queen was badly dressed and had no style. The only Englishwoman he admired was Princess Diana. He got his wife — my grandmother — out of Germany in 1938, and went back to Germany himself only once [unlike Wolfgang Georg, who after the war shuttles back and forth between the two cities, London and Berlin].

“He was alive until I was 27,” said the Suzanne Glass who was born in Edinburgh on a date she prefers to keep to herself, but whose mother, Ruth Wollenberg, was born as the bombs started to fall on London in 1940.

“My grandfather told me: ‘Suzanne, learn many languages, it’s the one thing they can’t take away from you.” She speaks seven. “And he told me: Anti-Semitism will surge again.”

He and her grandmother, Eva Sachs Wollenberg, lived in Hampstead Gardens, London. “She [like Wolfgang’s wife in the play] refused to go back to Germany.

She’s 97 now. She helped me with my research. We want her to come over for the play. She said: ‘My darling, I want to see what you’ve done with Papa’s hats.’
Another little hand grenade: “My great-grandfather was Einstein’s dentist.” He also had a collection or 13,000 posters that were grabbed by Goebbels when the great-grandfather was taken off to a concentration camp, only to be released after 17 days.

“Last year my father, digging around on the Internet, discovered that some of those posters were in a museum in Berlin.” 

She doesn’t know how many of her family and forebears died in the Holocaust — but a lot.

“I dreamt this play two years ago on a plane to Chicago to see some friends. Sketched the idea out on serviettes on the plane.”

Before Suzanne Glass wrote “The Milliner” she’d written two novels, both published by Random House: “The Interpreter” and “The Sculptors.” She has a degree in English and Education from Cambridge University, a masters in Interpreting from the University of Zurich, then attended journalism school in London, where she subsequently freelanced for The Scotsman, The Guardian, The Times, and for several years had a lifestyle column, “The Looking Glass,” in the Financial Times.

One of her interviews was with Rudolf Giuiliani, just after 9/11. “I was expecting not to like him, and I liked him very much. I mean, he talked to me about his emotions.”

Never married, she lives in North London “surrounded by artistic Jews.” How about Germans? “Oh, many, many.”

There’s a line in her play: “We need to feel at home somewhere. Need to feel the earth beneath your feet.”

Where does Suzanne Glass feel at home? London?

“Yes, but the truth is I feel at peace in Israel.”

William Wollenberg and Wolfgang Georg had better learn Hebrew. Robert Moses too, maybe.

THE MILLINER. By Suzanne Glass. Directed by Warren Wills. With Michael Gill, Julia Haubner, Caralyn Kozlowski, Maria Cellario, Donna Davis, Steven Hauck, Glenn Kalison. A Directors’ Company world-premier presentation through December 17 at the 13th Street Theatre, 130 East 13th Street, (212) 352-3101.


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