What is the measure of a life well lived? Rare is the person who does not look back on a lifetime with some sense of marvel — marvel at the journeys completed, the lessons learned and the friends made. Some people live lives so large they seem to pack many existences into their brief time on this planet. Longtime Aspen resident Charles Paterson is one such person.
Paterson’s memoir, “Escape Home: Rebuilding a Life after the Anschluss,” is a testament to the idea that a person’s life is a mosaic of moments, memories and interactions. Written along with his daughter, Carrie Paterson, the book is thick with history, featuring photos and maps on many pages.
Paterson assembled this collection of historical details that reads, more than anything, like a love letter from a son to his father, a tribute to the man who made a most difficult choice, a choice that saved Paterson’s life and the life of his sister, Doris.
Born Karl Schanzer, Paterson was a 9-year-old Jewish boy living in Vienna, Austria, when Hitler initiated his violent aggressions in Europe and, with the Anschluss, swept into the region, seizing and annexing land as he went. The dramatic results are just a small part of the story Paterson tells. First, he carefully lays the groundwork of the family’s history up to this pivotal point, detailing a comfortable existence in the stately world of Habsburg glory. The family lived well, and Paterson knew an idyllic existence before the shifting winds of war befouled all they had worked so hard to acquire.
With Hitler on the doorstep, life’s focus shifted from the lovely family garden and picnics in the famous Vienna Woods to seeking out the safest and most expeditious way to flee what seemed inevitable: a war that spelled a despairing end to their way of life. Following shortly on the heels of his young wife’s death to illness, and unable to acquire a travel visa for himself, Paterson’s father, Stefan Schanzer, made the agonizing decision to send his two children off on their own to the distant shores of Australia, where a volunteer family (Paterson, whose name the author later took to honor the family that saved them) had agreed to adopt them, sight unseen.
Thus begins an odyssey of many years, with the family torn apart by war and thousands of miles.
Paterson uses letters, diary entries and his own memories to stitch together the dramatic story of the two youngsters trying to make a new life for themselves in Brisbane, Australia. He weaves in the details of his father’s struggles back in Europe as the Germans swept east and west, forcing him on an eventual and circuitous route through France and Spain, to Portugal and eventually to the United States.
“Escape Home” documents more than just Paterson’s childhood struggles during and immediately after the war. Much of the book revolves around his early years in Aspen, long before it became the destination for the rich and famous. Eventually reunited with their father in the United States, Paterson and his sister began their lives for a third time, seven long years after they fled Europe. On a casual trip with friends to ski in the Rockies, Paterson passes through Summit County, enjoying the rustic charm of the youthful Arapahoe Basin, and eventually discovers Aspen, also a resort not yet on the world stage. He falls in love with the valley and makes the decision to buy land, in the hopes of building himself a little place.
Years later, after his tiny cabin has grown room by room, Paterson’s life is set on yet another course, one that will pay off in a big way back on that little parcel of land.
On a visit back east, and purely by circumstance, he is given the opportunity to pursue a dream when he is offered a much-coveted apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright. Back in Aspen, with his head full of ideas and designs, and the carefully honed skills to follow his dream, he builds and runs The Boomerang, a popular lodge in Aspen for many years.
The author concludes that no matter how many stories one shares — and the book is rich with them — a family’s story never truly ends.
Tangential tales from generations of relations could occupy one for many hours, and there is the reality that history is being made every second of the day, with people living their lives forward for the next generation to look back on and wonder. The book is a touching legacy to Charles Paterson’s family, past, present and future and a reminder for all to delve into history and find the gems.