The Real Clara Lang: Holocaust Survivor

      When I speak with book groups, they almost always ask me questions about the real people behind the novel’s characters. Women readers especially want to know more about Herman’s mother, Clara. “Did she ever see Albert again?” is one of their most frequently asked questions.
       Telling readers more about Clara fills my heart with the memories of this diminutive woman who was, in fact, my beloved grandmother. She was a typical woman of her times – dependent on the men in her life, gentle, and often passive. However, she was also well educated, musically talented, and had a backbone of steel.
       When Clara arrived in California in 1943, she came to stay with my family in Laguna Beach. For the rest of her life, she lived either with us or in the same neighborhood.  I imagine my baby warmth and milky smells gave her comfort for all she had lost. She was definitely the loving center of my life throughout my childhood.
       Clara Josephine Kohn was born July 7, 1889, in Nuremburg, Germany, the third youngest of ten siblings.   Her family was wealthy and lived in the upper floors of a large home with her father’s bank on the ground floor.  (This building was not bombed out during the war, and in the 1950s, it became the home of the Nuremburg Woolworth’s department store.)  Clara enjoyed a privileged childhood that included piano and violin lessons, regular summer trips to Switzerland, and higher education. She became an accomplished photographer, even developing her own photos.  But, perhaps because of her short and stocky figure, marriage proposals, so important to the security of a young woman in the early 20th century, did not come her way.   Clara, who had helped care for several of her nieces and nephews, earned a certificate in early-childhood education. In her early 20s, she taught kindergarten classes so she would not be totally dependent on her elderly father.
       Finally, a marriage proposal arrived but it was more of a business deal than a love-match.  Hugo Lang was the heir of a well-respected business family that needed funds to expand.  Perhaps he was attracted to Clara for her sweet personality or her accomplishments, but we will never know for sure.  It is clear that the large dowry she would bring to the marriage was a strong incentive. From her own admissions to me many years later, I know Clara was hesitant to say yes to Hugo’s proposal.  Her older sisters encouraged her to take what was offered as it might be her only chance to marry at her age.  So Clara became a reluctant bride in 1914 at the age of twenty-five.
      Again, I do not know . . . perhaps the marriage started out well. However, in the middle of an extravagant honeymoon to Italy, the newlyweds heard of the murder of Emperor Franz Joseph and hurried back to Germany.  Within months, Europe was at war and Hugo joined the Kaiser’s army.  Alone in her new husband’s hometown, Clara learned she was expecting her first child and returned to her parent’s home until after his birth. The family was not together again until Hugo, sick with typhus, returned from the front soon afterward.
        Perhaps there were some good years.  Less than a year after her husband’s return, Clara gave birth to another baby, a girl named Edith.  The third child, the hero of Immigrant Soldier, was born four years later.  Hugo’s distant cousin Rolla was invited to come and help Clara during a difficult postpartum recovery.  Rolla never left, and it is understood by family members today that she became Hugo’s confidante and lover, usurping Clara’s place.  (This uncomfortable situation, not really important to Herman’s story, was deleted from early manuscript versions of the novel.)
         But the real Clara found her dreams of a happy life all but destroyed and coped daily with an opinionated and demanding, unwanted guest.  Her only solace was her three children,her close relationships with a sister, and several nieces and nephews.  When Hugo died suddenly in 1935, Clara’s first independent act in many years was to tell Rolla to leave.  Soon Clara and her remaining family were scattered around the world as they fled Nazi violence against the Jews.  A fuller view of this period is part of Immigrant Soldier. 
      When my grandmother arrived in California, she stepped into another world —  quiet neighborhood in a rural setting, no nightly bombing raids, little rationing, chickens, ducks, a pig, and fruit trees in the back yard, and two granddaughters to cuddle.  Other than her longing for Albert, the love of her life lost in the maelstrom of Nazi Germany during the war, Clara was probably in heaven.
       Grandmother Clara was a huge part of my childhood. What do I remember of her besides the love she gave me endlessly?  She had gray hair which she wore in two braids that wound around her head like a halo. She always wore a steel-ribbed corset.  It was the first thing she put on every morning and the last thing she took off.  She was a smoker, though she was forbidden to smoke in our home. It was an unusual rule in those days, but my mother held strong opinions about the nastiness of tobacco that later proved correct. Because of her special training and experience with children, Clara occasionally got work with wealthy families in Los Angeles helping care for their newborns.  Though she sometimes came home for weekends, wearing a nurse’s hat and a starched white uniform, I missed her terribly during the long months she was away. Later, she moved into a small studio apartment within walking distance of our home, and after that she lived in a two-room cottage across the street from us. Though she always needed financial assistance from my father, she earned her own spending money by working for a local babysitting business.
       Many of my happiest childhood memories are of times I spent with my grandmother when she lived in a little house across the street. We had tea parties in the brick patio behind her cottage, and I helped her water her plants. Her tiny house had built in bunk beds in a sleeping alcove, and sometimes I was allowed to “sleep over.”  I loved to curl up in the upper bunk and pretend I was Heidi. I gazed out at the stars through an oval window and listened to the even breathing of my grandmother below me.  Often we shared a late afternoon snack – she ate pickled herring on pumpernickel accompanied by a tiny glass of Schnapps, while I nibbled on a portion of the dark, grainy bread slathered with real butter.  But she always came over to our house for dinner and sometimes lingered afterward to read me a story or to play Scrabble with my mother.
       As she aged and my father prospered, he bought a small house next door to ours where his mother could live.   Set back from the street, the roof was thick with the red blooms of bougainvillea and the rear yard connected to our large garden. Sometimes relatives from her scattered family arrived for a brief visit — relatives with foreign-sounding names and German accents who called my grandmother affectionately “Tante Clara.” I loved meeting these relatives, completely different from my mother’s large, Texas-bred family.
       Even as a teenager, I spent many happy hours visiting with my grandmother, always more comfortable with her than with my own mother and older sister. During my college years, I often stayed with her when I came home on a long-weekend.  I remember especially a week spent with my grandmother at the end of the summer of 1966, after I graduated from college and before I traveled to Mexico for graduate school.  I think she saw me as an adult then and also knew she was failing, so she told me personal things I had not heard before – things like the story of Rolla.
      Clara passed away the first fall I was in Mexico, and I miss her still. She is a continued presence in my dreams, and I am always happy to see her again and reluctant to wake up.  One of the things I remember her telling me that last summer was that she didn’t believe in heaven, but she did believe the dead live on for as long as loved ones remember and cherish them.   If that is the case, Clara is still alive.
Clara Josephine Kohn Lang
Beloved mother and grandmother
Holocaust survivor
July 1889 to November 1966


2 responses to “The Real Clara Lang: Holocaust Survivor”

  1. I remember Tante Clara and the bunk beds. My mother Lilo adored her, calling her “my favourite aunt.” (And, remember, she had a lot of aunts to choose from!) During the 1950s we regularly drove from Santa Monica to Laguna Beach to spend time with your family, and see Tante Clara.

    1. Katie Slattery

      Hi Catherine, Sorry it took me so long to respond. I’ve been busy with travel and starting a new book. So happy you enjoyed my post about Clara Lang.

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