115. Spittoon

I loved visiting Opa – grandfather Fraenkel – in his office at Glogau. He had a supply of chocolate coffee beans in his drawer and I was always given a few.

His office was an all-purpose place.  At Chanukah all the family got together there and together we sang Mo-aus Tsur … and a day or two later we assembled again, but this time to sing “Holy Night” and other Christmas carols. Surprising, perhaps, since Opa was chairman of the Jewish congregation of Glogau. As I grew older and bolder I quizzed him about this once.

“One has to do that — for one’s staff”, was his reply, but I was not convinced: he did so obviously enjoy singing carols.

Adjoining Opa’s room, on one side, was the large dining room. This was the main family social room. On the other side was the office of his clerks.  He had five or six such clerks, each sitting at a writing desk of his own, but some apparently preferred standing and worked at curious standing desks. All were presided over by a Bürovorsteher –a supervisor- clerk.

Why did a small-town-solicitor require such an army of clerks? Because – at that time – if you needed more than the original document it had to be copied by hand. There was, at the time, no easier way of getting a copy.  Copyists were chosen for their neat, clear handwriting. But eventually there came an amazing new innovation – the typewriter –to be followed soon after by carbon paper. Now letters could be prepared in duplicate or even triplicate. Fewer copyist-clerks were needed. Some may have fallen on hard times. Their sole skill had been their calligraphy.

One thing I hated about Opa’s office was the spittoon. I think every office had one. So did many shops and so did the post office. Men brought up their phlegm noisily and became skilled at aiming it into these receptacles from some distance. It showed you were a man. Women never spat.  But spittoons soon went out of fashion – “Unhygienic!” “Disgusting.”  Whatever happened then to all that phlegm? I don’t know.

When grandfather took retirement he moved to Breslau to be near his children, the spittoon came with him. But the disgusting old habit did not.

He took me, his grandson, walking in parks and occasionally, on Jewish High Holidays, to synagogue services.  On these occasion he would be dressed in a Frack – tailcoat, white tie and a top hat. Even I had to be dressed in my best.

Although he was new to the town of Breslau, a large numbers of acquaintances greeted him on our walks and I had to shake hands with them politely.

“No, Peterle, not the left… the good hand!”  It took me a while before I got that right.

Many of these acquaintances had come from smaller provincial towns, as he had, and had followed their children to the larger city. I suspect an additional reason must have been the menace posed by the rising power of the Nazis.

In a big city Jews would– perhaps –   be more anonymous.