Discover the story behind ‘The Suitcase,’ a captivating journey through history, as authors Taussig-Boehner & Housman share their insights.
Deborah Taussig-Boehner and Lauren Housman are the talented authors behind the captivating book “The Suitcase.” Delving into a remarkable personal history that spans continents and decades, “The Suitcase” unravels the life story of Vladimír George Taussig. Taussig-Boehner and Housman reveal the inspiration behind the book, the extensive research undertaken, and the challenges they faced in weaving together a narrative that sheds light on a fascinating, yet lesser-known, aspect of World War II history.
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What inspired you to finally explore and document the contents of your father’s suitcase?
Debbie has always valued family history, and in the early 2000s began to research and document her maternal and husband’s families with the plan to tackle her father’s family last, as she knew the research would be more complicated. Also, she was in possession of his suitcase full of memorabilia, and ever since she could remember, she had half seriously commented that she wanted to write a book about his life. Her father died in 1966 when she was 10 years old, and she has vague memories of comments he made, people who visited, and photos of his parents which were framed and displayed. Over the years, her mother made reference to him passingly, dropping a name or mentioning his involvement during WWII, but she did not elaborate on details, and Debbie never pressed her for more information.
Fast forward to 2012, Debbie had completed her maternal family trees as well as her husband’s, had learned much about the research process, and suddenly had time and the need for a challenge, so she decided to tackle the contents of the suitcase. She began by spreading out all the contents, organizing the photos, letters and documents into chronological order, then arranging everything into a timeline. What emerged was a story that seemed unbelievable, yet fascinating and needed to be told. Because she was venturing into the realm of non-fiction, she determined that she had an obligation to ensure that the documents contained in the suitcase, were, in fact, accurate and set out to verify all the written memoirs and information contained in personal letters.
How did the collaboration between you both come about, and how did it shape the development of the book?
During Debbie’s first two years of research, she read many memoirs written by Shanghai refugees and by Holocaust survivors. It struck her that, perhaps because of the way the accounts were told and not “shown,” such fascinating stories of every-day people, those who were not world renowned, were, for the most part, sitting and gathering dust. She determined that The Suitcase needed to be written more like a script, where scenes and dialogue would tell her father’s story as well as his family’s story in an exciting way. She established the first-person narrative and began to create several scenes but was challenged to arrange them in such a way that would make sense since two stories, each half-way around the world, were being told at the same time.
Debbie had known Lauren for years, as she is the daughter of a colleague and had recently graduated with an MFA in creative non-fiction. Debbie felt that, between the two of them, they could collaborate to make an amazing story into an amazing read. After bringing Lauren up to speed with timelines and drafts she’d created, and familiarizing her with the contents of the actual suitcase, Lauren began drafting. As Lauren produced drafts of scenes and began connecting the dots, Debbie would comment, the pair would brainstorm for hours around the kitchen table, then, during COVID, on the phone, Lauren would re-draft, and the storybegan to take shape.
The collaboration was successful for several reasons: Debbie could draw upon her limited memories that helped to set the tone of the narrative and recalled specific occurrences in her young life that referenced back to her father’s upbringing and expectations. She also knew that the story was so complex that it needed someone with honed writing skills to do it justice. It was serendipitous that Lauren was an emerging writer and available. Lauren welcomed the opportunity, and treated Taussig’s story as if it were one of her own family. With fresh eyes, she was able to make observations and connections that had previously not been obvious. Primarily, though, our collaboration was particularly fulfilling because neither of us took offense to the other’s changes or suggestions, and we fed off each other’s ideas. We also share the same general philosophies as Taussig, and a similar standard of perfection. Even in writing the answers to these questions, we have bounced drafts back and forth numerous times until we were both satisfied with the result.
What was the most challenging part of piecing together the story from various documents and materials?
Transferring the information found in Taussig’s letters, reports, articles, and other sources into the flow of the story. Early drafts had entire letters and reports reprinted in the text, but as we finessed the story, Lauren was able to embed, for example, a letter from home, within a conversation or statement of fact. Some news articles or letters were retained in their entirety, if they were particularly powerful.
Another challenge of “quilting” the story from what was available would have to be what wasn’t in the suitcase. Things Taussig would have known, and would easily have been able to write himself, but, coming to it almost a century later, we were left to fill in the gaps not only through a sort of exegesis of the suitcase’s contents, but also through performing targeted research to understand, and to recreate, his world. We also benefitted from information we were able to gather through research that Taussig would not have known while still alive—for example, the contents of formerly-sealed files that Debbie was able to obtain, and the publication of information about the victims of Terezín.
Can you share a particularly memorable or surprising discovery you made during your research?
For Debbie, the answer is threefold: Learning that Nový Berštejn belonged to Taussig’s ex-father-in-law, and not to his family (as she had been told). Secondly, the eye-opening discovery of the British distrust for Taussig and his activities in Shanghai and beyond. Finally, the realization that Shanghai had been a port of last resort for Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives from Hitler’s Europe.
For Lauren, two come to mind: Learning about Terezin, and the way it was used to fool the world. And finding sources stating that the Czech Government-in-Exile had no sympathy for the Jews and thought they deserved what was happening to them. So many facets of Taussig’s struggles with the Government- and Army-in-Exile came into focus.
How has working on “The Suitcase” impacted your understanding of your father and his life experiences?
Since he died when Debbie was so young, she placed the memory of her father on a pedestal of sorts. Her mother always confirmed he was a loving and caring father. Debbie never knew of his struggles and indiscretions, and while she knew that he hailed from Prague, it was not until she read family letters and archival records that she got a better sense of his family and their values and challenges.
Additionally, she certainly did not understand the tumultuous times in which he lived. He was a survivor in every sense of the word, and grew from a self-serving young man to someone fighting for the greater good. As a child, she was shielded from his past and only saw him as her papa who left early in the morning and came home late at night trying his best to provide for his family. He tucked her in at night and sang “Land of Hope and Glory.”
She knew about the fate of his family, yet he did not dwell on the subject. In addition to the contents of the suitcase, he wrote a letter with instructions that it be given to her and her sister on the occasion of their 15th birthdays. He knew that he had a heart condition and wanted to ensure that he had the opportunity to impart his wisdom to them should he not be alive as they grew. The letter discussed his concerns for his maturing daughters: primarily warnings about drugs, sex, and, curiously, religion. Religion was an unexpected inclusion because he was not a religious man and his daughters were not raised in a religious household in the sense of adhering to the tenants of an organized religion. Instead, he wrote that the principles of courage, decency, honesty, and tolerance were the best religion. Now, having the benefit of the research, knowing his life’s story, Debbie knows he was speaking from personal experience.
How did you balance historical accuracy with the creative aspects of writing when reconstructing events and conversations?
Everything in the book, whether in dialogue or exposition, was based on something Taussig wrote, or something found in research; the people, relationships, events, and settings are all documented in newspapers, memoirs, letters, diaries. We honed in on scenes that would show what Taussig’s “normal” was like, how it was shattered, and what the “new normal” became, and we did this over and over throughout the book as Taussig constantly faced challenges, had the rug pulled out from under him, and found ways to rebuild his life. We used dialogue to reveal character and highlight events that happened “between the scenes,” but kept it based on known events and outcomes.
When Debbie began her research, she traveled to Southern Methodist University where the Sassoon Diaries are housed. There, she was able to document Taussig’s activities as well as identify his contemporaries, as his name was mentioned numerous times in the diaries. She then visited the archives of the North-China Daily News in Shanghai, and concentrated on finding Taussig mentioned in the newspaper, which appeared many times in the sports and social sections. Lauren took it a step farther, using the North-China Daily News and set out to discover what else was happening and get the pulse of the Settlements and the city, thus being able to create a fuller picture of his world. Another useful tool in early research was accessing the Hong List, or city directory of Shanghai which contained Taussig’s addresses over the years.
The hope is that the result, by immersive “showing,” as opposed to rote “telling,” The Suitcase will both “instruct and delight,” making the story come to life in a way that other memoirs of that era do not. It was also important to appeal to a broad audience—“Shanghai historians” familiar with the subject matter, war buffs orthose looking for a new perspective, readers who are approaching Shanghai/Czechs/the Holocaust for the first time, and everyone in between.
How has working on “The Suitcase” impacted your own perspectives on history, culture, and personal identity?
Debbie and Lauren are both aware of how history repeats itself across times and cultures. They agree with Taussig’s feelings of a common humanity superseding any man-made geographical or cultural lines. In the short period The Suitcase covers—just two decades—we had to be aware of all of the history that came before, to understand what shaped his world: the emergence from the restrictions of the Familiants Laws; how the Habsburg Empire shaped Czech/German/Jewish relations; how the British Empire shaped life in the Treaty Ports and in India; how Sino-Japanese relations affected life in the Far East. How do the events in the book have bearing on the world we see today? Anti-Semitism. The war in Ukraine. Democracy. Fascism. Authoritarianism. Resistance. Colonization. We seem to go around and around, instead of coming together…
As for personal identity, Lauren, who studied Faulkner in undergrad, can’t help but think of the quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Our identities are based on our past, both personal and collective, and we carry our past with us and build on it each day.
Debbie adds, the fact that her father chose to retain and preserve the contents of the suitcase, and the innate responsibility that his daughters felt to hold on to it over the years, lead to the natural conclusion that he very much wanted to share his past, and perhaps leave a legacy of influence to his children and future generations.
Were there any moments during the research and writing process that were particularly emotional or challenging for you?
For Debbie, reliving the night of her father’s death.
For both, the concentration camp chapters. Debbie visited Terezin at one point in her early research,and both read extensively about the camps. Lauren then created a timeline of major events within the camps, and was able to place the Taussig family within them based on the times of their transports, and documentation of Julie’s death. It was a challenge not knowing precisely when, how, and where Taussig’s brother and sister did actually die. In the book, we address this “not knowing” and why we wrote their endings the way we did. It is devastating that this was the fate of so many—they are just gone, and we will never know their stories.
Lauren would add delving into some of the horrors of war that directly and indirectly shaped the story—the Battle of Caporetto and what Taussig would have experienced in the Great War; accounts and photos from the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanking; the murders of journalists, resistors, and others who tried to make a difference.
Do you have any plans for future projects or collaborations, either related to “The Suitcase” or exploring new topics?
We are concentrating on the success of The Suitcase.
Lauren is in the early stages of marrying her two worlds, writing and funeral directing, and has begun working on a historical fiction about an American funeral director and his funeral home in Shanghai during the 1920s-40s. The time frame and setting overlap with The Suitcase, and there will be the occasional familiar character, but it is a different view of Old Shanghai. At its heart is a chance to delve further into the disparities between native Chinese and Westerners, and the idea of being of service to a community that is so large, and so multi-national and multi-faceted.
Photos courtesy of Deborah Taussig-Boehner and Lauren Housman