Susi & Jacques
In September 2001, around the time that Austerlitz appeared in English, W.G. Sebald revealed to interviewers that one of the sources for the character of Jacques Austerlitz was a television program on the Kindertransport featuring the story of Susi Bechhofer. The program, Whatever Happened to Susi?, had aired on the BBC2 series called Forty Minutes ten years earlier on January 3, 1991, but it clearly made an impression on Sebald. In The Guardian, Maya Jaggi reported:
His new book, Austerlitz, out in Germany last spring, is published next month in an English translation by Anthea Bell. It was bought by Penguin as part of a three-book deal worth more than £100,000. The story concerns Jacques Austerlitz, who is brought up by Welsh Calvinist foster parents and in his 50s recovers lost memories of having arrived from Prague on the Kindertransport, the lifeline to Britain of some 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children in 1938-39. It was spurred by watching a Channel 4 documentary on Susie [sic] Bechhofer, who in mid-life remembered coming to Wales on the Kindertransport. She shared a birthday with Sebald, May 18, and was from Munich. “That was very close to home,” he says.
In 1996, Bechhofer, with the assistance of Jeremy Josephs, wrote Rosa’s Child: The True Story of One Woman’s Quest for a Lost Mother and a Vanished Past (London: I.B. Tauris). In the absence of the television program, which unfortunately does not current exist on the Internet except for a database record at the British Film Institute Film & TV Database, Rosa’s Child is a useful book for anyone interested in the historical origins of Austerlitz. In 1939, three-year old twins Susi and Lotte were among the children sent to England for safekeeping on the program known as Kindertransport. They were adopted by a Welsh Baptist minister and his wife, who were singularly unsuited to the task of adopting and thoughtfully raising young Jewish girls from Germany. With seemingly good intentions, they immediately set about changing the girls’ names and eliminating all traces of their former life. But eventually, her minister step-father sexually abused Susi for years and actively discouraged any attempt to dig into her real past (Susi’s sister died of brain cancer as a teen). An emotional, almost sentimental, book, Rosa’s Child is simply written, as if for a young adult reader. But in Susi’s personal search for information about her parents lie the seeds of the search that Jacques Austerlitz undertakes.
I’m not going to analyze the transformation that Sebald brought about when he took the story of a set of female twins and created the architect Jacques Austerlitz, but many superficial aspects of the Susi’s story can be found grafted onto Austerlitz. But I do find the comparison between the book covers for Rosa’s Child and Austerlitz to be curious.