Strong, capricious woman: Learning to live from Aunt Jele


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Strong, capricious woman
Learning to live from Aunt Jele

Von Katja Sembritzki

She was in a concentration camp, saw dreams shattered, lived to be 101 and never lost her zest for life. With “Better alone than in bad company”, Adriana Altaras pays tribute to her stubborn aunt – touching and at the same time incredibly funny.

Aging, loneliness, saying goodbye to life plans that you thought were safe and to life itself – at first glance these are not necessarily topics that make readers reach for a book light-heartedly. But not doing so would be a big mistake in the case of actress and opera director Adriana Altaras’s “Better Alone Than In Bad Company”. The autobiographically colored book reads and above all sounds – more about that later – wonderfully. Because it is written with melancholy lightness and wonderfully funny. And it has a protagonist that you just have to take to your heart.

In her book, Altaras looks back on the life of her “stubborn aunt”, who already played a supporting role in her bestseller “Tito’s glasses. The story of my exhausting family”. Jelka Fuhrmann lived in Mantua, Italy, had the right proverb ready for every situation, played solitaire and followed the motto: “A woman needs a car, jewellery, exquisite clothing and a dog”. “One man was not included in their list,” adds Altaras. At almost 100 years old, the aunt was still crawling far out onto Lake Garda, misplacing and hiding things and accusing others of stealing. She found it unreasonable to be treated like an old woman: “Do you really have to be able to see and hear everything to make a reasonably decent lasagna?”

Altaras has an intimate relationship with her aunt, they are almost like mother and daughter. Because her partisan parents had to flee Zagreb, she grew up as a little girl with “Teta Jele” in Italy for a while. Later, when she was in Germany, she would visit her aunt regularly – alone, with the entire Abitur class or with her various lovers. The aunt also stands by Altaras when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. She cooks pasta for her desperate niece, because, according to Jele, you can survive anything with pasta. And she repeats the same monologue over and over again in variations: “It will pass. He’s an idiot. They’re all idiots. They’re cowards. An old story. You didn’t do anything wrong. Forget him. Look how beautiful the lake is. “

War, concentration camps and a credo

At the age of 99, the aunt still lived alone and “happily felt her way from furniture to furniture in her apartment, almost like a sleepwalker”. Then she falls, breaks the neck of her femur and ends up in a nursing home. It’s 2020, the Corona pandemic is raging, Mantua is not far from the epicenter of Bergamo, the borders are closed and visits from Berlin are impossible. And so the two can celebrate neither the 100th birthday of the aunt nor the 60th birthday of the niece together. To do this, they often call each other.

One question runs like a red thread through these conversations and the entire book: How do you live a life that may not have turned out quite the way you imagined it? The niece sees her plans of growing old with her husband fall through and feels lonely. But “better alone than in bad company,” according to the aunt’s eponymous credo. She also had dreams, but “there was this war (…). It shaped everything. Everything that followed was the opposite of what I had imagined.”

In 1938 her great love fled to Australia, the young man “came from Germany and knew what to expect”. But Jele’s father didn’t want to believe that and wouldn’t let her go, so she continued to work at the cash register in the family glass factory in Zagreb. Giorgio saved her from the concentration camp, to which the Nazis deported the Jewess together with her sister and mother. She married him out of gratitude, but found him terribly boring. From him she once got “an electric blanket instead of roses” and a strenuous mother-in-law on top of that, she had a lover in Zagreb.

“Saying goodbye is an art”

Altaras creates her book as an interplay between two narrators and can thus illuminate situations and memories from different perspectives. She has thus created ideal conditions for an audio book version with two voices. Altaras reads the part of the chapters that are told from the niece’s point of view and develop from the telephone conversations herself – just as spiritedly as one knows her as an actress in films. In other passages, the author lets the aunt reflect on her life. Actress Angela Winkler takes over these sections, she speaks calmly and with the right portion of grandezza. Again and again she hides a hint of weary impatience in her voice. For example, when the aunt misses her independence, is bored in the nursing home and just wants to go home.

But Jele will never leave the home again. She sleeps through her 101st birthday and Altaras is sure that she will die. The next day, the aunt sits cheerfully in her armchair and spreads the Shiseido cream she loves so much on her face. “Saying goodbye is an art that only a few have mastered,” it says at one point. And at no age is that easy.

Altaras has written a really touching, profound and, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, humorous portrait of this very original aunt. Listeners will not soon forget this strong, capricious woman who, despite her experiences in the Holocaust, her unrealized dreams and ultimately her frailty, never lost her zest for life. In the end, the aunt summed it up with her own optimism: “Maybe I didn’t master life. But I lived it.”

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