Vernon Katz recounts his childhood in Lippe, Germany, before and after Hitler’s rise to power.
When Dean Draznin asked if I’d be interested in interviewing Dr. Vernon Katz about his memoirs growing up in the 1930s in rural Lippe, Germany, a tiny free state that unwittingly played a key role in Hitler’s rise to power, I jumped at the chance.
One of the founders of the TM movement in Great Britain, Dr. Katz completed his doctoral thesis on Indian philosophy at Oxford University in the late ’50s. His teachers included Harold Wilson, who later became England’s prime minister, and philosopher Radha Krishnan, who became India’s second president. In the early ’60s, he worked with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi translating and editing the commentary of the Bhagavad Gita.
Affectionately known by many as Vernon, Dr. Katz is self-effacing, deep-souled, and kind-hearted, with a piercing intellect and ever-twinkling eyes.
“The title of the book, The Blue Salon and Other Follies,” Vernon explains in an overview, “reflects my Jewish parents’ total inability, in the early years of Nazi rule, to see the dangers that face them. They are rooted in German soil, having built their own successful brush factory. They think it is all a passing phase—the Nazis will soon see the error of their ways. . . .”
Knowing what we know now, it seems the height of folly to have hoped Hitler’s cancerous anti-Semitism would simply go away, but Vernon’s parents didn’t have that advantage. That’s the beauty of this disarmingly intimate, unsentimentally romantic portrait of the era leading up to the horrors of the Holocaust. Vernon takes the reader inside the painting, if you will, as humanity, hope, and humor are devoured by hate, horror, and hysteria, at first haltingly, almost comically, then crescendoing into a savage, purple Kool-Aid, Lord-of-the-Flies collective national hallucination that plunges Germany and the world, and especially Jews, into slaughter and chaos.
Vernon’s grandfather was a successful cattle dealer, his hardworking parents brush factory owners, colorful characters all. Vernon’s mother, who loved to entertain guests in her prized second-floor blue salon, was unable to entertain the thought of abandoning all they’d built up together over the years. When Jewish guests talked about emigrating, she declared, “So long as we have a single brick left, we stay home.”
I was amazed to learn how much Vernon’s mother identified with her German nationality. But when you consider her family genealogy stretched back 300 years in Lippe, all the way to the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, it makes sense. Two of her brothers gave their lives for the Fatherland in World War I. Having survived the “war to end all wars” and the “great inflation,” they hoped this latest political madness too would pass.
Flash forward to upcoming local elections in Lippe, Germany, January, 1933. Vernon writes:
The Nazis had suffered a setback in the November 1932 general election. If they were to be invited to join the government, they needed, above all, to remove the impression that their support was on the wane… Their big guns descended on our cabbage patch… Hitler himself spoke in sixteen towns and villages… I remember Grandfather’s words as he thumped the table in the upstairs living room… ‘These upstarts will never win here. The Lipper are not that stupid.’
For all their campaigning, the National Socialists Workers Party received only a slight increase in votes but their effort paid monumental dividends. Even though “the whole affair was on the scale of a council election in a county town . . . the indefatigable [Joseph] Goebbels blew this up into what he called Signal Lippe, an enormous propaganda campaign to show that the Nazis were winning the hearts and minds of the people.”
Two weeks later, Hitler was invited to become chancellor of Germany.
• • •
It was on a meditation course in Boppard, Germany, in 1985 that Vernon began The Blue Salon. Strolling through a monastery park, out of the blue, he was flooded with long-forgotten memories, streaming in vivid detail. He wrote down as much he could, then completed the book catch-as-catch-can over decades. “I so enjoyed writing it,” he confides. “A strange thing considering the period was so dark, though the first half of the book is lighthearted in an English sort of way with so many outsized characters.”
As an only child/miracle baby (a gynecologist told his mother she was unlikely to have more children after losing her first, a nine-day-old daughter), he’s ringside at all family and business discussions, an inquisitive, absorbent sponge. “By the time I was eight, I was a little old man,” he says, adding, “the book is a tribute to my parents and, because little has been written about the lead up to the Holocaust, particularly in rural Germany, perhaps a small contribution to history. “
• • •
Fifteen months after Hitler came to power, Vernon’s father and his brush factory were highlighted in a prominent trade journal, giving a false sense of hope.
On his 50th birthday in April 1934, a glowing tribute to Father with his photo appears as the center spread in the German brush manufacturers’ journal (which has the unfortunate name Der Fuehrer). Joy unconfined. Mother completely overhauls the house and plants a new orchard in unpropitious soil, hence The Blue Salon and Other Follies.
His father even wrote several letters to businesses abroad, saying basically, “See? Things aren’t as bad as people say.”
“Blow has to follow blow,” writes Vernon, “before my parents finally wake up from their dream.
From the time of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 the tone darkens. . . . Aged ten, I switch over to high school. On the way to school I am pelted with stones almost every day. Teachers in full Nazi uniform terrify me and the boys persecute me without mercy. I become the family scribe, writing letters in my newly learnt English to people who might help us escape to the USA.
Vernon recalls how sad his mother was when lifelong neighbors began crossing the street to avoid his family and how his friends slowly stopped coming over to play, as his teachers began teaching “race theory” and leading students in the “Heil Hitler” salute.
More and more people we knew suddenly appeared in uniform. A pork butcher on the make, a carpenter in search of trade, a cigar shop owner who could do with more customers . . . strutting about in polished brown jackboots, trying to ape their absurd Führer. . . . The whole thing seems ludicrous in retrospect, but it was not funny then. I soon learned to fear those uniforms.
Then on November 9, 1938, comes the Kristallnacht. The windows of our house are shattered at five in the morning, our little synagogue is burnt, and father is carted off to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The head of the Nazi factory trade union seizes his chance and accuses Mother of saying that Goering and the whole cabinet should be shot. Our doctor sends Mother to a mental institution to protect her from the Gestapo, and I am left without my parents in the large house.
Father returns from Buchenwald with stories of great cruelty. Mother returns from the asylum and is finally acquitted by the Gestapo. . . . In March 1939 I am sent to England with a Kindertransport. . . . In a dramatic climax, Mother is released on 10 August 1939 and my parents arrive in England on 29 August, three days before Hitler invades Poland.
The Blue Salon is an inside look through insightful eyes of a highly developed soul at a world that many people—including those who went through it—would rather not look at, even when it’s staring them in the face. A true triumph of the will, Dr. Katz does the memory of his mother proud with this eminently readable, heart-rending Holocaust tale that is as elevating as it is harrowing.
James Moore’s interview with Dr. Katz will air on September 19, 3 p.m., on KRUU-LP 100.1 FM on Planet Erstwild, streaming live at www.kruufm.com.
The Blue Salon and Other Follies is available at 21st Century Books in Fairfield, Iowa.