Occasionally, even a lawyer is in want of a lawyer. Just as doctors should not treat themselves or a pharmacist should not self medicate, a lawyer should not try to be her own client. Some preliminary research is fine and a legal background does make oneself less prone to dubious or unlawful practices. A spouse with a legal background can certainly act as valuable support, but in general it’s an avenue one should avoid. Hence, an outsider is needed.
In the autumn of 2009 I found myself in such a situation and this is how I eventually came to find Meriel Schindler, the Head of the Employment Practice and Partner in the law firm Withers LLP in London. I remember our discussions as sympathetic but yet to the point and this is also how the matter was concluded; swiftly and with legal efficiency. The bill was ultimately paid by our common opponent.
I had another exchange with Meriel in 2020 when I wanted to know whether one could take age discrimination to court in the UK. You could, she informed me, but the recourse is limited and the reward potentially small. However, when we reacquainted ourselves Meriel told me about a book project she had started into her family history. After her father died in 2017 she was left with a lot of photo albums and recalled stories of her father about alleged relatives like Franz Kafka and Oskar Schindler or his recollection of the persecution against Jews in November 1938. In a concerted action across Germany and Austria their businesses were destroyed and people beaten up or killed.
This is how the “Lost Cafe Schindler” came about and I eventually came to find the book by sheer coincidence on a business trip to Vienna. When I have time between meetings I go to my favourite bookstore Tiempo Nuevo in Leopoldstadt. I like its carefully curated selection with temporary writers and local reference. I had already chosen one book and as I was looking around my eye caught the name Meriel Schindler. And then it hit me: this is the same person that so successfully represented me back in 2009. Needless to say, I immediately bought the book and started reading in the next café.
The book speaks on many levels to the reader: it covers an important part of Austria’s history and its belated efforts to deal with its role during the Nazi regime and the painstakingly slow restitution process to return stolen property to their rightful owners. The most commonly known case is the story of the return of the Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer depicted in “The Woman in Gold” starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds (2015). Meriel covers the story of her family which had established a successful business in Innsbruck and also ran the Café Schindler in the 1930s.
Google her name and you will also find interviews where she explains her thought and writing process. This is not just the carefully researched story of a Jewish family with its roots in Bohemia and later in Innsbruck, Austria. This is also the story of dealing with what the author herself described as an estranged relationship with her father.
I find it impressive how a lawyer of almost thirty years applies her skills to this very personal project not only telling the story of her family, but also addressing open issues that she could not bring to a conclusion while her father was still alive. Writing this book seems like a healing process. She also describes how writing can be a means to organize one’s thoughts, bring structure to convoluted and fractured stories and even closure by finally finding truth.
Finally, for me, she is also an extraordinary role model: excellent in her chosen career and still finding a creative outlet in writing such an impressive book. As lawyers, we are trained to capture our thoughts and analysis efficiently for the benefit of our clients. I have always found this training useful in my corporate roles that I held over decades. However, Meriel is taking this skill set to the next level and has found her voice in the most creative way.