A German Jewish woman’s story of how an heirloom family notebook led to the discovery of her connection to a forgotten hero of the Napoleonic wars.
World War II had just begun when Haas’ father decided to show her a notebook he told her had belonged to his great-grandfather Prince Augustus of Prussia but had been written by Augustus’ daughter, Charlotte. The 16-year-old Haas was full of questions; her father warned her against looking for more information because “there [was] nothing more to find out.” The book finally came into her hands 30 years later, igniting her old curiosity. She had to find out how “this romantic sounding prince [had come] to be with a Jewish tailor’s daughter” named Emilie. Haas began an odyssey that would take her from her home in London to archives in East Germany that no one from the West had entered in more than 40 years. The information she found not only offered exciting glimpses into a bygone world, but also revealed that Augustus was a social progressive who supported Jews during a time of fierce anti-Semitism. Haas also discovered that Emilie was neither Jewish nor poor and that Augustus was under royal edict to leave behind no legitimate heirs. After his death, Emilie deliberately entrusted Charlotte to Augustus’ tailor so that the child would remain safe from possible assassination. The twists and turns Haas discovered in her family’s past mirrored her actual journey and included a bizarre offer to spy for the East German government in exchange for microfilmed copies of archive documents. The author’s enthusiasm for probing the secrets of Augustus’ notebook is evident throughout the narrative, but she does not always plumb the complexity of her own feelings toward the journey, which took her to places with often painful associations.
A mostly pedestrian treatment of an intriguing topic.