146 The Dark Cliffs

By Peter Fraenkel

I live on the 27th floor of a 39-story building with views over London. It wasn’t always so. My place of birth, Breslau in Silesia, boasted only one single building that rose to all of nine stories. The locals referred to it jocularly as “our sky scraper”.  Virtually every other building had four inhabited floors and two service floors… a cellar and a loft. It faced another similar dark cliff on the opposite side of the road.

In the cellar we stored coal – brought up by the bucket-load by the concierge to heat the tall tile oven in the corner of our living room. There was also a coal-fired cooking range in the kitchen. These two sources of heat were sufficient to keep our 4-room flat comfortable, even in cold winters.

I kept my bicycle in a corner of the coal cellar so I had to hump it up some flights of stairs when I needed to cycle to school.

The loft contained what they called the “wash kitchen” –coal fires were lit under large copper kettles to boil the family’s washing in soapy water.

A washerwoman came in once a fortnight to work on the washing together with our maid.  Dripping-wet washing was squeezed through rubber rollers, then hung up to dry on lines that stretched across the loft. The washer woman came back to iron it, using a coal-fired iron. In later years this was replaced by an electric one.

Each flat had the use of the loft for one day a fortnight. There was also a small dormitory-room in the loft for any family who had a second maid, usually a nursemaid for a young child. Second maids could, usually, not be accomodated in their employer’s flat. This, usually, had only one narrow maid’s room with whitewashed walls. The walls in the “gentry’s” rooms, on the other hand, had wallpaper.

I suspect second maids did not greatly mind being relegated to the austere loft. There they could receive friends – even boyfriends – unchaperoned.

Maids of peasant origin (as most of them were) were addressed by their Christian name, like “Marta”. However, if they had received some education or came from a middleclass family this became “Fraeulein Marta” (Miss Marta). They were then addressed in the polite “Sie” rather than the familiar “du”.

Grandmother Sophie told me she had once asked one of her maids what had made her come to work in town, implying, I guess “for the pittance I pay you.”

The maid replied “Gnaedige Frau” – “merciful madam” (though that sounds awkward in English) “in your house I get meat most days of the week.  In my home village – only on feast days.”