A New Year’s Story

Years ago, among my family’s treasures, I found a small crocheted pouch. The ivory cotton thread was very soft. The top was a bit frayed. I pulled out the item contained inside—a small copper token, about the size of a quarter. The only thing I understood on the coin was the greeting: Prosit Neujahr 1938. Happy New Year 1938.

1938 was a significant year in my family’s history. In March, Austria was annexed to Germany. By May, my great-grandfather’s hat business was taken by the Nazis and my grandfather was imprisoned in Dachau. By September, my mother and grandmother made their way from Vienna, Austria to New Rochelle, New York to start new lives.

A 1938 coin in a pouch. Carried to the United States from Vienna. Clearly, this item had some significance. A journey through the pages of Google revealed the token was a Good Luck charm, a traditional Austrian gift for the New Year. The annual coin is still issued today, with a new image each year.

In 1938, the design was of a chimney sweep climbing a ladder, carrying the tools of his trade. A chimney sweep? Why would a chimney sweep be considered good luck? Wikipedia shared the reason. “If the chimney was clogged or drew poorly, it used to be impossible to prepare food and it got cold in the house. The chimney sweep cleaned the chimney and it was possible to cook and heat again. Furthermore, the regular cleaning of the chimney had the advantage that the accumulated soot did not ignite so quickly and there was no chimney fire or house fire. The chimney sweep provided relief from trouble or protected from danger. This is how he brought “happiness” into the house. Today it is said to bring good luck to touch a chimney sweep or to touch the golden button (alternatively the jacket).”

I can’t know for sure who crocheted the little pouch but I imagine it was my great-grandmother, Sophie Spiegel. I could see her fashioning the little bag, placing the token in it, hoping to carry good luck from Vienna to Holland to New York. It clearly had importance. She saved it. My grandmother saved it. My mother saved it. Now I am saving it.

One might say the charm didn’t do its job—look what happened to us that year! I like to think the charm, in fact, DID work. Yes, terrible things happened. But in the end, they all survived. That took luck.

I love the Good Luck charm so much that I decided to include it in my forthcoming novel, Nothing Really Bad Will Happen. If you have the time and the interest, I am including it here:

1937 was coming to a fast close. Rose hurried through the shops on Mariahilferstrasse to finish her errands. She needed to get back to her husband’s shop, LITAL, before the falling snow gained strength. Paul did not enjoy driving under the best of circumstances and she did not relish the thought of a 20- minute drive in the snow with him. It was times like this when Rose wished she knew how to drive. Paul could solve the most complex of problems, but a snowflake rendered him weak-kneed.

She quickened her pace, dodging the mob of shoppers on the sidewalk. A display of tiny forks and spoons hanging in a storefront stopped her cold. “Dorli would just love those,” she thought. She entered the shop, every inch of which was covered in Christmas décor. It didn’t matter whether one was Christian or Jewish—everybody decorated for the holiday season.

“Excuse me. Do you have more of those children’s utensils I see in the window?” asked Rose.

The clerk squinted over his half-glasses and tilted his head. “I’m sorry ma’am. It is very late in the season. I have only those on display.”

Rose pressed her lips together and drew herself as tall as possible. “Perhaps, sir, you might sell me the display items? I have a 5-year-old daughter who would love them for her doll kitchen.” She flashed the hint of a smile while beseeching him with her sparkling blue eyes.

“Ja. Ok,” said the clerk as he left his position behind the counter and walked towards the display window. “It will take me a minute to gather them.”

As the shopkeeper removed each tiny utensil from its hanging string, Rose looked over the items on the counter. A bowl of tokens caught her eye. She reached in and picked up one of the copper coins. She turned the coin over. Both sides were the same. Embossed in the center was a chimney sweep climbing a ladder and carrying the tools of his trade. Circling the edge was the New Year greeting, “Prosit Neujahr 1938.”

“I’ll take one of these New Year’s Good Luck coins as well,” Rose called to the clerk.

The clerk returned to the counter and placed the shiny tin utensils in a small box. “Frohliche Weinachten, Ma’am. Have a pleasant holiday,” he said, handing her the box. “Will you put the token in your bag?”

Rose took the small coin and slipped it into her oversized black handbag. Smiling, she said, “Thank you so very much.” Flakes of snow greeted her as she opened the shop door. She fastened the top button of her gray wool coat, struggling to avoid catching the fur collar in the buttonhole. The wind had picked up, and the street was already covered with a dusting of snow. She pulled on her wool hat to cover her ears, put her head down to avoid the blowing snow, and walked as quickly as she could the three blocks to LITAL.

“Where have you been?” demanded Paul, as Rose entered the shop. “The drive is going to be terrible!”

“I’m sorry. I just had to pick these up for Doris,” said Rose. She rummaged through the packages in her bag, pulled out the small box, and opened the cover. “Can’t you just see her face when she sees these hanging from the Christmas tree?”

Paul’s expression softened. “She will love them, Mutti. But now we must leave.” He threw on his beige overcoat, then grabbed his black bowler from the bentwood hat rack by his desk. Shoving his hat on his head, Paul moved to the door, holding it open for Rose. “The car is just down the street.” Noting the accumulating snow, Paul said, “Walk carefully! It is getting slippery.” He slid the key into the lock and turned it to secure the family’s business until his return.

The ride home was silent. Paul focused on his driving, gripping the Citroen’s steering wheel so tightly his knuckles were turning white.

“Mutti! Papa!” yelled Doris as her parents entered the apartment. “It’s snowing!” She ran to the large window in the living room that looked out over the front yard.

“You can watch the snow fall while we get dinner ready,” said Rose. She looked over at her mother, who was sitting in the large wing chair in the corner.

“What are you working on, Mother?” asked Rose.

Sophie looked up from her handiwork. “I’m crocheting an edging for one of the ivory tablecloths. Where have you been? We were getting worried.”

“I had errands to run.” Rose raised her eyebrows and nodded toward Doris. “Here. I bought you something.” She took off her coat and laid it across the back of a chair. Rooting around in her bag, she located the small coin. Handing the token to her mother, Rose said, “It seemed like a good idea.”

“A good idea is always welcome,” said her mother, rubbing the coin between her fingers. “Perhaps this will bring us the luck we need in the new year.”

Happy New Year to you all! Thank you for allowing me to share my writing journey with you!

2 thoughts on “A New Year’s Story

  1. The coin and its bag survived, those carrying the coin survived, and you’re here, sharing the stories far and wide. Happy new year!


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