Bernard Lewis, a Jewish scholar, was born in London in 1916. His memoir, therefore, is accurately titled Notes on a Century (Viking Adult, 2012). It is a fascinating tissue of anecdotes, many of them funny, a few of them touching, all highly informative. Lewis has done a great deal of travel, writing, and teaching throughout his long life, and what he remembers could fill many more 350-page volumes than this one.
Kurt von Schuschnigg is a bit younger—he was born in the late 1920s—and his memoir (co-written with his wife, Janet) covers fewer years, but much more adventure. When Hitler Took Austria: A Memoir of Heroic Faith by the Chancellor’s Son (Ignatius Press, 2012) recounts Schuschnigg’s life from roughly 1933 to 1945—a stirring period in central Europe by any standard.
Growing up as the only son of the chancellor of Austria, Shuschnigg experienced firsthand the intimidation tactics of the Nazis, who from the beginning declared that Austria needed to rejoin the German fatherland. They proved this by a terrorist campaign, which reached a crescendo when 40 separate bombs were set off all over Austria in a single day. The Nazis also managed to drug the Schuschniggs’ driver, causing a car accident in which Shuschnigg’s mother was killed. Shuschnigg Sr. remarried—by proxy, as he was in a Gestapo prison, while Schuschnigg Jr. experienced the hospitality of various family friends who hosted him throughout the war years. Eventually, his father, stepmother, and new little sister were assigned a cottage on the edge of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp outside Berlin. There they spent the remainder of the war, just one brick wall away from the horrific conditions of a concentration camp. Nonetheless, even in a cottage on the edge of a concentration camp, conditions of semi-normalcy can prevail. Shuschnigg’s father grew vegetables and listened to classical music and the BBC on a small radio, while Shuschnigg attended boarding school, graduated, and served the German Navy aboard the Prinz Eugen.
Oddly lacking in both narratives is a personal faith in a personal God. Schuschnigg’s book bills itself as a tale of “heroic faith,” but other than the fact that the foreword is by a cardinal and most of the people in the book were baptized as Catholics, faith is absent. Schuschnigg grew up in a devout family, but he mentions he rarely attended mass and seems to give very little credit to divine providence for preserving him and reuniting him with his loved ones at the end of the war. But he did take a few minutes to thank God in a church toward the end of the war.
Lewis mentions that Jewish communities once flourished in China, but eventually they were all but forgotten. When he asked whether anything was remembered from those communities, he was told, “One God. No pork.” Reading the memoir, one wonders at times whether Lewis is sure even of those two great commandments of Judaism. He chronicles his two divorces and his current girlfriend with a remarkable degree of dispassion. Perhaps having written 32 books gives one a certain amount of intellectual detachment. Yet despite this apparent aloofness from personally held religious faith, Lewis clearly enjoyed his life, and still enjoys it. At 97, his short-term memory is fading; his girlfriend, Buntzie Ellis Churchill (with whom he co-authored Notes on a Century), says he will soon be normal.
If you already know something about the last century, and enjoy personal narratives, you will love these books. After all, history is not meaningless, and neither are these memoirs, even though they leave out the Providence that makes life and history meaningful.