My Ash Wednesday friend

Ash Wednesday has become, for me,  the anniversary of an unexpected friendship. Lent has not been a season I notice and hasn’t been, except for the year that was my last as an undergraduate. Then Ash Wednesday presented an excuse for what I thought would be self improvement through social suffering, but it all turned out so differently.

That semester, I was enrolled in a French class that met four days a week at the ungodly hour of 8 am. For all intents and purposes, I had completed not only what courses I needed, but was also swimming in credits, so my thought was that if I ended up sliding, rather than sailing, through Marie Jeanne Lambert’s early morning performances (she was everything a French teacher should be: dressed in black, perennially smoking Sherman cigarettes, quoting Sartre and Camus by turns), it wouldn’t spell academic doom for me.

But the problem is that I have always been an early morning person and also am seemingly incapable of arriving any later on the scene of an appointment (or a class or a workday) with less than a quarter of an hour’s lead on the starting time. (It may have helped that I lived only about 4 blocks from campus that semester.) So, every day, at 7:45, I would arrive to a classroom empty yet of everyone except a woman from the community who had, rather unusually, taken advantage of the college’s open door policy on auditing courses. Hollywood in the Seventies, apparently, was not bursting at the seams with folks who felt the need to audit Renaissance Art History, Microbiology, or Marxist Economics.

Hilde Willheim wasn’t just seemingly old because I was young; she was 82 that year and planning a trip to Paris for the first time in 35 years. She enrolled in the course–which was at the high end of intermediate–to refresh her French. She lived on Ivar Street and got to IHC every day in a cab, promptly at 7:45. So the two of us were on our own in the classroom for about a quarter hour, Monday through Thursday.

And Hilde drove me nuts. She talked and talked and talked. She was Viennese and her accent was only middling strong and I had grown up surrounded by Mittel-Europeans with considerably thicker accents, so understanding her speech was a cinch. But she asked questions and made me talk and then she wanted to have actual conversations. It was not my idea of how to start the day.

Since the semester had started around the end of January, it was only a few weeks old when Ash Wednesday appeared on the horizon. I was living with a fervent Roman Catholic, so the event was on my radar. And then I was struck by that sort of idealistic inspiration known to kill some youth and transform others: instead of giving up something for Lent (not an intention I’d ever considered), I would take on a sacrifice of a positive sort. I would make myself pleasant and responsive to Hilde.

The first few days it was real work. But within a week or two, I had fallen hook, line, and sinker into her thrall. She was an amazing person, a retired artist and bonne vivante who managed to be both bon and vivant in spite of history’s 20th century curve ball.

Hilde had grown up middle class, an assimilated Jew in Vienna, and gone to university and then art school. She’d become an art professor at the University of Vienna. When Hitler came to power and then Austria became its satellite, Hilde’s life, of course, unravelled. She told her story to me in 10-minute chunks for days. There remain some standout chapters. The most awesome one was the day she brought me smuggled snapshots. She was living in a ghetto then, making her way by teaching art to the ghetto’s teenaged girls and she did this, among other ways, by having them design–well, simply draw–ball gowns. The Jews in the ghetto were forbidden from entering a neighboring wood. One day, Hilde led the girls there, on the theory that if they could go where they had been forbidden, they were still free. And they took each others pictures–the snapshots–to prove (at the risk of death) that they had rebelled in this way, that they were, in fact, still free agents.

Eventually, Hilde arrived in the United States, at the dawn of the 1950’s. She worked for years as a window designer in NYC department stores, eventually retiring and moving to the promised warmth and Bohemia of Los Angeles.

In short, by Easter, we were friends. And the friendship stuck. After I moved back to Boston, at the end of that semester, we kept in touch by phone and letter. When I visited Los Angeles, I would call for coffee and cake in her tiny bedsit on Ivar. She lived until the last half of the Eighties. I had just moved from an apartment in East Oakland to one in West Berkeley, was literally unpacking a box on Addison Street, when the phone rang. It was another friend of Hilde, calling with the news that she had died a few days earlier.

I own some lace that she made as a young woman, and a small tapestry she made after she arrived in LA. I have no pictures of Hilde, which seems ironic, given the impression the ones she took in the forest made on me.


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