Freud took his couch. Einstein took his violin. Brecht left with twenty-six suitcases. Marcel Duchamp shipped one large trunk filled with miniatures of his artistic creations, including the iconic porcelain urinal. ‘My whole life’s work fits into one suitcase,’ he said. These are the sorts of things, Frances Stonor Saunders reveals in The Suitcase, that people fleeing the Nazis took with them. Her own father, also pursued by the Nazis, owned a suitcase, which he may or may not have taken with him when he fled. The suitcase serves as the central metaphor and mystery of this Holocaust-era family story of escape and survival.
Saunders’s book spans three generations. The family saga at its heart has been filtered through the ‘rusting sieve of family memory’ and has passed through the ‘fog belt of Alzheimer’s’. It begins in the 1930s in the Romanian oilfields of Ploieşti, where her paternal grandfather, Joseph Slomnicki, a geologist, businessman and ‘perpetual foreign alien’ with Jewish blood and a British passport, was making a good living in the petroleum business. He found himself increasingly imperilled, however, first by Romania’s home-grown fascist movement and later by the Nazis themselves, whose agents swarmed the oilfields to secure a resource vital to the German war effort.
‘Why not leave, when they had British passports and a homeland in reserve?’ Saunders wonders. ‘Why linger, when every exit door was slamming shut?’ It is a poignant and painful question. Saunders hints intriguingly that her grandfather may have been involved in a failed British espionage operation to sabotage