My mother admired women who earned their own income. She raised me with the mantra-like phrase, “You must have a profession.” Her own education, hijacked by Hitler’s closing German universities to Jews, ended with her Abitur, a German high school degree equivalent to two years of a U.S. college. The dressmaker she visited with every garment she purchased, Frau Leopold, she’d point out as a woman who earned her own income. I nicknamed her The Frog.
As a child, I spent what felt like hours in Frau Frosh’s bedroom turned sewing atelier, playing with her long-haired Dachshund, both of us seated on a cushion by the 3-way mirror watching the procedure, Frau Leopold’s tattooed numbered wrist popping out now and then from her sleeve. I felt for the lady’s talent as well as nervous disposition due to her time in a concentration camp. “Poor woman, so courageous, what she’s been through,” my mother would say, as a way of remaining a loyal customer despite her sometimes wish to patronize another frog.
Their approach was this: We don’t care who you were or what you had in your life in Germany: even if your husband ran a bank. Here you are in America and here everything is possible. We will teach you a skill you can use, and we will supply you with the work. Among the other women being taught how to make flowers out of radishes, and sailboats out of folded napkins, was Henry Kissinger’s mother.
Excerpts from Sulamith's Daughter. A Memoir by Judith Austen.