"THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS" is one of the best memoirs I've ever read.
Salka Viertel (1889-1978) I had no knowledge of who she was prior to reading her memoir. But no sooner had I begun to read the first few pages, a door had been opened to a spacious house with many rooms, corners, and closets by an old, dear friend I hadn't heard from for many moons. Salka's words became alive and I eagerly listened to her life story. A life that had begun in a bourgeois Jewish family (her father was a distinguished lawyer and also mayor of Salka's hometown) in the province of Galicia in the latter years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Salka aspired to be an actress and, after wearing down her parents' resistance, was given acting lessons. This was in the era just before the outbreak of the First World War. Salka became acquainted with some of the finest actors, artists, and musicians as she slowly ascended the ladder to a steady acting career which earned her distinction. Then the war intervenes and for a time, Salka and her younger sister Rose (who would became an actress herself) served as nurses before resuming acting in both Austria-Hungary and Germany. She led a somewhat bohemian lifestyle before making the acquaintance of the man (Berthold Viertel) who would later become her husband. Berthold was a talented poet, writer, and had extensive interest in the theatre. He would go on to become a distinguished theatre director, poet, and film maker.
The memoir then takes the reader into Salka's later life which took her from Europe to America, where she would eventually work in Hollywood, make the acquaintance of Greta Garbo (who became a close friend), become an American citizen, and helped find homes in America (Salka lived in a lovely house in Santa Monica, California, not far from the Pacific) for many of the writers, artists, actors and actresses who were lucky to escape Hitler's clutches.
Through reading "THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS", the reader is given access to 2 lost worlds spanning half of the 20th century. That is, " --- the pre-Hitler German-speaking stage and the pre-CGI Hollywood" as it was from the 1920s to the 1940s. Through all her ups and downs, Salka Viertel remained resilient, strong, tender-hearted, and full of life. I am so glad that I made her acquaintance.