114. The Letter

By Peter Fraenkel

It was 1922 – a time of great inflation in Germany.  My father was a Referendar – a trainee lawyer. As part of his training he had to spend time as a court clerk at Gleiwitz in Upper Silesia.  His salary was paid daily. Every day the lady, from whom he rented “digs”, would wait at the entrance of the court house. He would hand her his day’s salary – retaining only enough for a packet of cigarettes. She would rush off to buy their supper.

“Quick! Before the prices go up.”

Frequently he managed to get home for the weekend. Train tickets cost only pennies. At home in Glogau they ate well. Grandfather Arnold was a popular small-town lawyer. Peasants paid him in kind: a dozen eggs, a cockerel, potatoes. They didn’t wait for his bill – that might have been meaningless – millions of Mark. Many people tried to grow their own vegetables but these would need guarding day and night … and still they disappeared in the dark.

One weekend father took home a letter which had greatly pleased him. He showed it to grandfather Arnold. It came from a man who had served on father’s gun crew in the 14-18 war. Father had been an artillery sergeant.

The letter said what a decent superior my father had been – unlike some of the brutes he had come across.

Grandfather read the letter and pronounced judgement: “Ein Schnorrbrief” – A scrounger. That’s a begging letter!”

“How can you say that?” protested my father. “He doesn’t ask for a thing. He doesn’t plead poverty.”

“Wait. There will be a second letter.”

Grandfather was right. The former comrade pleaded he had spent weeks searching for work, but who, these days – would employ a man who looked like a tramp? He didn’t even own a decent suit anymore. Was there anything that my father could do for him?

The Fraenkels, too, had no ready cash.  Only foreigners and conmen had money in those days. My father sent his former comrade one of his better suits. He hoped it would fit.

Some, in those days of hardship, grew rich. On a trip to Berlin my father met a distant cousin in the company of several pretty girls. The cousin invited him to join them for dinner at a fancy restaurant … the kind of restaurant father could no longer have afforded.

“He must have been working the black market,” my father told me.

Though in later years father often had to visit Berlin, he never looked up that cousin again.

“The meal was excellent,” he told me years later. “The girls were gorgeous — but not my type. Too much paint. Far too much.”