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Syndic Literary Journal

Memoir ~ Henriette von Trapp ~ Introduction

The Memoir of a Survivor

by

Henriette von Trapp (1927-2013)

edited with an introduction by

Paul M. Levitt

Narrated by Kelly Riordan

Published by LeRoy Chatfield

2021

Introduction: The Memoir of a Survivor

When Henriette Lajoie married Rupert von Trapp, her married name would become famous nearly twenty years later, with the release of “The Sound of Music.” Her memoir, formerly known only to her family, reached me through her sister Francoise Brunette. I knew at once the only journal with the imagination and daring to take on this project was Syndic Literary Journal which had the audacity to serialize a novel of mine. Happily, the publisher, LeRoy Chatfield, has warmly greeted this new—and truly exciting—manuscript.

For those who have forgotten the von Trapp name, permit me to provide a reminder.

     The von Trapp family, celebrated in the movie “The Sound of Music,” had ten children.  Georg, the father, had sired seven of them with Agathe Whitehead, whose grandfather Robert had invented the first mobile torpedo (1866).  She died of scarlet fever.  Georg then married Maria Augusta Kutschera, with whom he had three children.  Maria, a novice in a nunnery, had originally been hired as a teacher for Georg’s daughter, also named Maria, whose health had been so badly compromised by scarlet fever that she required home tutoring.  The family members loved to entertain themselves by singing Renaissance and Baroque music, as well as madrigals and folk songs.  When Georg lost his money because of bank failures, Maria suggested that the family rent rooms in their spacious house to students and turn a hobby into a profession.  By giving concerts, they could supplement their meager income.

     From all accounts, the resemblances between “The Sound of Music” and the true story of the von Trapp family are more than one might think.  The family did detest the Nazi regime and did leave Austria for America in 1938.  But they left freely and not by scaling mountains.  They took the last train to Italy before the border closed, and from there made their way to London, where they boarded a ship for the United States.  Accompanied by Reverend Franz Wasner, the family priest, who was also a musical conductor, the family retained him as their manager.  In the movie, Georg is sadly misrepresented, portrayed as a curmudgeon who softens over time.  In fact, he was always a sensitive, understanding man.  Maria, idealized in the film by Julie Andrews, embodied the characteristics ascribed to her husband.  She was a stern taskmaster, who ruled the roost with an iron rod.  Willful and authoritarian, Maria refused to seek competent legal advice and heedlessly signed away the family’s rights to the film, to the dismay of the children who would have earned untold sums had Maria not been so headstrong.

     In the United States, the family toured for six months, exhausted their visitors’ visas, went to Scandinavia, returned to the U.S. through Ellis Island, where they were briefly detained, and applied for citizenship.  Musical tours paid the bills, and in 1940 the family bought a farm in Stowe, Vermont, which later became a prosperous summer musical camp and a retreat between tours to relax.  Eventually, the children, tired of the unceasing traveling and singing, wished to pursue different paths.  With the dissolution of the group, Maria von Trapp energized the musical camp, which became a major stop for aspiring youngsters.  It had been open to the public until 1950; it is now a destination ski resort.

     Three years before, Henriette Lajoie married the oldest of the von Trapp children, Rupert.  In her memoir, she says little about her relations with his sisters and brothers.

–  The father, Georg Von Trapp, died in 1947.  He is buried on the family property in Stowe. 

–  His second wife, Maria, died in 1987 and was buried alongside her husband.

–  Rupert became a medical doctor and died in 1992.  He is buried on the Stowe family property.

–  Agathe moved to Maryland and became a kindergarten teacher.  Died December 2010.

–  Maria dedicated herself for 30 years to missionary work in New Guinea.  Died 1987.

–  Werner found his calling in farming.  Died 2007.

–  Hedwig taught music.  Died 1972.

–  Johanna married and later returned to Austria.  Died 1994.

–  Martina married and died in childbirth, 1951.

     The three children born to Georg and Maria are as follows.

–  Rosmarie, born 1929.

–  Eleonore, born 1931.

–  Johannes, born 1939.

******

     When one ponders the title of Henriette von Trapp’s memoir, the word “survivor” looms large.  To survive is presumably to triumph over some life-threatening event.  In the case of Henriette, she overcame at least four such events, and until she died in 2013 fought to survive the effects of the worst of them.

     The word survival also has several other meanings, one of which is to gain or achieve a freedom heretofore unavailable owing to the absence of choice.  If, as some philosophers say, choice is a synonym for freedom, then most women around the world are unfree.  Given the culture and the period that saw Henriette came of age—a time of early marriages and female deference to men, particularly to fathers and husbands—she went from the bosom of her family to the bed of her husband.  Choosing marriage over college, Henriette felt that her own maturity and the responsibility of helping her mother run the house and raise the younger Lajoie children would school her sufficiently in the demands of domesticity.  From the beginning, children imbued her life with meaning and constantly kept her busy.  But two years into the marriage she contracted polio.

     If ever a woman found herself trapped, with limited choices, it was Henriette.  Although incapacitated by a crippling disease, she wanted to prove to herself and the world that she could still succeed at her chosen profession:  to run her own house and raise her children.  (One was born before the polio struck, one during the infectious period, and four after.)  Eventually, overcome by the intolerable burden, she allowed herself to use birth control and began to make space for her own life.  After her marriage ended, she found work with the U.S. Navy (in the Commissary), where she remained for twenty years, saving for her retirement and savoring an independence unavailable to most women of her generation.  That she managed on her own until her death, despite the debilitating effects of post-polio syndrome (progressive muscle weakness and atrophy), makes her story all the more remarkable.

*******

     Although American letters are awash with memoirs, this short one arrests a reader’s attention because of the passion that Henriette brings to her subject.  Her meeting and falling in love with Rupert Von Trapp are the stuff of a romance novel, except that in this instance it is true.  Her devotion to children and family, given her dreadful disease, required the endurance of an argonaut.  The descriptions of her experience with polio belong in the historical annals of medicine.  (In fact, I shared the relevant passages with The New England Journal of Medicine, which chose not to publish them.)  From her initial symptoms to the misdiagnosis, from the callousness of doctors to the sensitivity of other patients, from the intolerable itching that tormented her daily in her iron lung to her discovery that her second child was born with polio, from her refashioning her house to make it functional for a person in a wheelchair to her husband’s waning interest in her, the story never flags.  It is, as they say in the print profession, a page turner.

     When Rupert tells Henriette that he wants a divorce and later an annulment, which will allow him to marry again in the Catholic Church, the story delves into church machinations that cannot help but give one pause.  But for Henriette, the annulment and its implications are a bridge too far.  From her wheelchair, she fights to protect her integrity against the massed might of the local diocese and the Roman hierarchy.  It is David against Goliath.  Waiting to see who wins is worth the price of admission, with twists and turns worthy of a thriller.

     By the end of the story, I trust that most readers will conclude, as I have, that in an age of unprincipled self-interest, Henriette von Trapp’s “The Memoir of a Survivor” is a useful reminder that freedom rests on courage.

Paul M. Levitt

Emeritus Professor of English,University of Colorado at Boulder

 

 

 

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