“Opa”, my mother’s father, Martin Goldschmidt, was a successful lawyer in the small provincial town of Ostrowo not far from Posen. Today they are in Poland and the little town is called Ostrow Wielkopolski and Posen is Poznan. When Opa was born they had been incorporated into Prussia which later became part of Germany. In an earlier century Poland had been brutally divided and partitioned among its more powerful neighbours – Russia, Austria and Prussia.
The population was mixed. The townsfolk were mainly German or German-speaking Jews. These Jews – my ancestors – had earlier spoken Yiddish (a dialectal variant of German) but by grandfather’s time they had switched to German-proper. Most of the peasants, however, spoke Polish. Grandfather could not speak it, though I guess he knew a few juicy swearwords.
Germany lost the 1914-18 war and the state of Poland was re-created. Ostrowo, naturally, found itself in Poland. I recall my mother telling me of her shock as a schoolgirl when some of her classmates, who had long been friends and with whom she had always spoken German, suddenly refused to speak that language.
Residents now had to “opt” for one or other nationality. Without hesitation grandfather Goldschmidt chose German. He gave up his successful legal practise and his home and moved to the town of Breslau in what was then considered Germany-Proper. Nobody would then have dreamt that after another war, even Breslau and all of Silesia would also become Polish. Two million Germans were then driven out.
Grandfather had always been an innovator and back in Ostrowo he had outraged his neighbours by installing a new-fangled innovation: a telephone! It wasn’t like our phones today. You had to turn a handle several times to ring, then wait patiently. Eventually a far-away operator answered and you requested a connection. The operator re-plugged several cables into a switchboard and eventually communication was established.
Opa’s phone had created outrage in Ostrowo because his neighbours were certain all those wires would attract lightening. The town would burn down and it would be his fault. He had to show them photos of cities like Berlin where there were even more wires but the town remained unburnt. It took a while for the agitation to subside.