Note: I originally posted this bit of family history in August 2006. I’m reposting it now, inspired by two things: Ken Burns’ excellent “The War” (I swear the man’s a conservative) and Ahmadinejad’s pretending that the Holocaust’s historical reality is open for some sort of debate. I think both — the one almost sublime, the other evil and ridiculous — are reminders that these stories still need to be told, if not by the first generation, the generation that lived it, then by the second generation, the one that grew up hearing about it.
My mother is a very circumlocutious story teller. She bounces around chronologically and is remarkably free with indefinite pronouns. This means her stories can be a bit difficult to follow. On the plus side — and this is a plus side that completely outweighs the minor difficulties involved in teasing out the facts — her stories are absolutely fascinating. She’s lived an incredible life, as did my father, and she has an amazing memory, both for her own family history and for my dad’s (he’s gone, so he can’t tell me those tales).
Today I got my father’s history, more of it than I’ve ever known before. My paternal grandfather, whom I’ll call Max, came from Roumania (or Russia). He was at one time a successful shopkeeper. Unfortunately, though, he had a terrible gambling problem, and ended up losing his store at a card game. With nothing to keep him in Russia (or Roumania), he ended up in Berlin shortly after the turn of the last century. There he met my maternal grandmother.
My paternal grandmother, whom I’ll call Judith, came from the Galicia region in Poland. Family lore had it that her father was a prominent rabbi or cantor (I incline to the latter, and I’ll tell you why in a bit). When Judith was a young girl, her mother died. In accordance with Orthodox Jewish law, her father married Judith’s aunt, who then morphed into her stepmother.
At some point in time, this family too moved to Germany. They must have had some money at the time, because they opened a cigarette factory. The factory was successful, and they eventually became quite wealthy. Judith grew to be a beautiful young woman (I’ve seen the sole photograph my father was able to salvage from his youth), but I gather that life in her stepmother’s home was not easy. A couple of half sisters came along (who were also half-cousins), and Judith was pushed into the background.
Unsurprisingly, when Judith met Max, who was quite a dashing young man with a handlebar mustache, she quickly decided to marry him and left the family home. Judith’s family did not cut off contact with her (Max was, after all, Jewish), but they certainly were not warm.
Judith and Max soon had a son (Judah), followed six years later by a daughter (Beatrice) and, after another six years, they had their last child — my father. Life was not good to them. Max was a mediocre breadwinner and, apparently, what little he earned got gambled away. Things became even more difficult in the years between Beatrice’s birth and my dad’s birth, because Germany became embroiled in WWI. A year after the war ended, Judith was pregnant with my father. Faced with a disastrous post-war economy, and with another child on the way, Max went off to America to make his fortune.
Max apparently did fairly well in America. He began to send money to Judith, begging her to buy passage so that she and the children could move to America. The marriage can’t have been a happy one, though, because Judith refused to join Max in America. Instead, in a series of spectacularly stupid moves, Judith routinely took the dollars he sent and converted them, immediately upon receipt, to Deutschmarks. As you may or may not know, post-WWI Weimar Germany suffered from spectacular inflation. One of my father’s earliest memories was seeing women with wheel barrows full of paper money heading to the stores to buy bread. This inflation meant that Judith, instead of sitting on valuable American dollars, immediately converted them into money that, by week’s end, or even by the next day, was worthless.
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself “what about the stepmother with the cigarette factory?” She was no help. She poured her energy, and her money, into her own two daughters, one of whom apparently was one of Germany’s most famous concert pianists. (This is why I think Judith’s father was a cantor, not a rabbi.) Not only that, this pianist was married to one of the best known German-Jewish writers of the 1910s through early 1930s. I’d love to boast about their names, but I don’t know them — that information died with my father.
Since Judith’s family didn’t cut her off entirely, my Dad still had memories of visiting the family mansion and listening to his aunt (who had beautiful hair, he said) play the piano in the parlor for him. When he wasn’t visiting his grandmother and aunt, though, my father lived in a Dickensian slum. His mother had eventually landed in a small apartment over a brothel, which meant that my father learned the facts of life early, and in the ugliest way. His sister and brother, who were so much older than he, fell in with the Communists, who were considered a very reasonable alternative for poor Jews in Weimar Germany.
Eventually Judith couldn’t cope at all, and she applied to her family for aid. Rather than using their wealth to help her directly, they put pressure on a Jewish charity to step forward and help her family. Over the years, this help meant that Judah went to the Jewish school for academically gifted children (where he was lauded as the smartest student in the school’s 200 year history); Beatrice went to a convent school, of all places; and my Dad ended up in a Jewish orphanage.
Although the orphanage’s head was, apparently, a woman with somewhat sadistic tendencies, there is no doubt that the orphanage was a good place for my Dad. It provided stability, good food, and a coherent family comprised of teachers and fellow orphans. Through the orphanage — and again with pressure on the Jewish agencies from his wealthy step-family — my father followed his brother to the academic Jewish school, where he acquitted himself well, although not with his brother’s genius.
And then came 1933, and the pressure on the family was on. Judah and Beatrice became more and more intertwined with the Communist party. This put them at two disadvantages with the ascendant Nazis, because they were both Communists and Jews. They did recognize, however, the threat the Nazis were to them. The wealthy step-family continued to exist in denial, believing “it can’t happen here.”
Although not a Communist, my father, by 1935, also began to understand that it could indeed “happen here.” The anti-Jewish pressure from the Nazis was increasing daily. The turning point for my Dad was a soccer game. It was a Jewish school vs. Hitler youth game. My Dad’s Jewish team beat the Hitler youth handily on the field. Unfortunately, the Hitler youth — and their parents — beat the Jewish team brutally off the field. Dad’s eyes were both blackened and opened.
In 1935, one of Dad’s teachers, Izzy, approached him with an offer: Izzy had been hired by a group of wealthy Jewish parents who had successfully obtained visas allowing their children to make aliyah. For reasons lost through time, Izzy and his wife, who were childless, were allowed to bring another child, and they chose my Dad. My Dad, alienated from the mother who had abandoned him, the wealthy family that wanted nothing to do with him, and the siblings that saw the Communist party as their real family, said yes.
So it was that, in 1935, my father left Germany and landed on a proto kibbutz in Northern Israel. I say proto, because the land was nothing but a mosquito infested swamp with a couple of shacks. Over the next four years, my father and his fellow kibbutzniks labored day and night to reclaim the land and create a community. They succeeded. My father, however, was not a social man, and the combination of years of communal living, whether in the orphanage or the kibbutz was too much for him. He left for Tel Aviv. Sadly, he had no usable skills for surviving in the “big” city and, by August 1939, was literally starving to death in the streets. War was a blessing. He enlisted the day Britain entered the war, and served with distinction and bravery through 1944, when he was discharged on medical grounds.
But what about the rest of the family? Judah and Beatrice were spirited out through Communist lines. Judah, the genius, ended up as a low-level embittered civil servant in Denmark, living in a slum of his own making. Beatrice eventually ended up in Palestine. At war’s end, however, she announced that East Germany was purified by Communism, and returned to Berlin — East Berlin — where she lived to the day she died. Despite Communism’s manifest failings, she never lost her faith in that “religion.” Judith escaped from Germany and ended up in a Belgian convent, where she hid throughout the war. Family mythology has it that the nuns forced her to convert as a condition for keeping her, which may nor may not be true.
And how about those rich ones, the ones who refused to help the family, and who saw to it that my father ended up in the orphanage? They all died in the Holocaust. And that is one of the great ironies, isn’t it? Had they been kinder to my father, more generous and humane, he might have died too. As it was, their insensitivity and selfishness placed him in the orphanage, where he met Izzy, who took him to Palestine, where he survived the War and contributed both to Nazi Germany’s defeat and Israel’s creation.
And one more footnote about Max, the man who went to America. As I said, Max did fairly well in America. In another irony, though, just as the German branch of the family ran out of luck in 1933 with Nazism, so too did Max’s luck run out: he died that year when a streetcar hit him.
That ought to be the end of the story, but it’s not. About five years ago, a client asked me to research an obscure area of probate law. I couldn’t find any local authority, so I expanded my search to cover all cases on the subject, anywhere in America. I generated two hundred hits on the computer database. I was flipping through these hits in a desultory fashion, focused entirely on the legal principles, when my eye got caught on a case name. I gave the name a second look because it was a variant spelling of my maiden name. For the heck of it, I called the whole case up on my computer and began to read.
The case told an interesting story. In 1933, a man named Max died in New York City. His widow, who lived in Germany, asked the German government to act as her agent in the New York probate court. The local representative for Max’s estate, however, protested this move. He pointed out that, by 1938, when the court issued the case I read, Germany had imposed a multi-million dollar fine against all Jews, meaning that it was unlikely to turn over the money to the widow and her children. More to the point, the local representative pointed out — and the German government agency appearing in the New York court conceded — the family had dispersed. The mother was in Belgium, the older son was in Denmark, and the daughter and the “infant” son were in Palestine. On these facts, the court rightly concluded that it would be a travesty to give the money into German keeping and denied the German petition for the money.
I got a very peculiar feeling reading the case, and carefully examined the names of the widow and her three children. I didn’t recognize the widow’s name — Judith — but it couldn’t be a coincidence that the three children shared my aunt’s, my uncle’s, and my father’s names. A phone call to my mother confirmed that Judith was indeed my maternal grandmother and it become very clear that, by sheer dumb luck, out of the huge body of American law, I stumbled across a little piece of my family history and of American-German legal history in the 1930s.