34. Klose

By Peter Fraenkel

Yes, I have written about Frau Klose before, but briefly: She merits more.

September 1935. The Nazi’s “Nuremberg laws were proclaimed “for the protection of German Blood and German Honour”. They forbade marriage or sexual relations between so-called “Aryans” and Jews – or even part-Jews. They further made it illegal for any Jewish household to employ an “Aryan” maid under the age of 45 if that household included an adult Jewish male. Ours did – my father. My parents thus had to give Frieda notice. She had been with us almost four years. Letting her go was a serious loss, not just because she was a good worker but because Frieda was someone my parents could trust.

In those years one heard horror stories about maids who denounced their employers for some incautious political joke. This could land them in a concentration camp. Employers became timid. Some even covered their telephones with tea-cozies. How could one be certain that phones could not be bugged to spy on the family’s conversations? Other tales went around about maids – “but she’d been such a nice girl” – who had blackmailed their employers when egged on by a Nazi boyfriend.

Frieda had a room in our apartment. My parents were tolerant about her late-night visitor, but that came to an abrupt end. Her fiancé – as she told my mother in tears – had been dragged off to a concentration camp. Mum had to comfort the distressed girl. She told us he had, in earlier days – by which she meant before the Nazis got in – been active in a Social Democratic party rowing club. In the years of the Weimar Republic many political parties had affiliated sports and social clubs. Rowing did not seem like a dangerous activity but perhaps there was more to the young man’s political involvement than Frieda knew or than she was willing to tell. Certainly she had emphatic political views herself. She always referred to the Nazis as “diese Schweinehunde” – these pig-dogsuntil my mother told her sharply to mind her tongue else she too, might end up in a concentration camp. “And don’t imagine they’ll lock you up in same camp as your fiancé”.

So Frieda had to go. She was not the innocent village virgin of the Nazis’ imagination. Nor was my father the dark, hook-nosed seducer caricatured in their gutter-press. Frieda wept bitterly when she had to say goodbye.

Even before the Nuremberg laws were brought in my parents had decided to move to a smaller but more modern flat. Now coal no longer had to be carried up from the cellar to fuel tiled ovens. This new flat was centrally heated. In the bathroom hot water spouted miraculously from a tap. We could now manage with a part-time helper.

Frau Klose was happy to work mornings only. She went home to her husband every afternoon. I remember her as tall, bony, grey-haired, probably in her late fifties – a God-fearing lady; a woman unlikely to provoke the lust of lascivious Jews.

Even so, in those days, how could one be sure one was not importing an informer?

My mother asked her “And would it not worry you to work for a Jewish family”?

“Certainly not” Frau Klose had replied. “My last employer was Jewish – a Herr Doktor Grabower – ein Ehrenmann – a man of honour. He had had a big medical practice, but they forced him to close it down. He was a generous man too. He never charged poor people. But the Herr Doktor was forced to emigrate. He’s in America now. I’ve already had a postcard from him. I myself have only the best experience of solche Herrschaften – such gentlefolk.”

Frau Klose was taken on.

When we moved apartments I had to be enrolled in a new school and was persuaded to join an after-hours handicraft class. At home I showed off my first primitive carpentry. “Very nice,” said Frau Klose. I didn’t believe her. “Perhaps you’d like to meet Gustav, my husband? He’s a carpenter and cabinet-maker. So was his father before him. We’re rather sad that we don’t have a son to carry on. You must come and meet Gustav.”

A week later she took me to her flat, not far from my new school. They lived in a Hinterhaus – a rear block. From the road one walked through a coach entrance leading through the house, crossed a back yard and then reached this second, parallel house. Usually it was the poorer who lived in the rear blocks.

Herr Klose was very friendly and communicative. “Seven years of apprenticeship” he told me, “that’s what it takes to become a master craftsman.”

“All that time with the same teacher?”

“Not quite”, he explained. “Not the wandering years.”

I must have looked blank so he explained. “For two years I wandered from town to town, from workshop to workshop, learning from master craftsmen. With some masters I stayed three or four months. I got all the way to Alsace. I met some very nice people.”

“Mainly their daughters!” chipped in his wife.

“It’s going out of fashion, this wandering. It’s a pity, a great pity.”

Then he showed me his proof piece – the task he had been set at the end of his apprenticeship to qualify as a master.

I was amazed: It was a miniature circular staircase, self-standing. Each little balustrade had been turned delicately on a lathe. Every mahogany tread had been inlaid with a chess-board pattern in a darker mahogany. The whole model was no more than three foot high.

“I was twenty before I finished it,” he explained.

If I had been, then, the D-I-Y man I became in later years. I would have been awestruck by the skill involved.

“It needs a lot of dusting,” chipped in Frau Klose. “Every tread!!” But she could not hide the pride in her voice.

“Do you still make such beautiful things?” I asked.

“No.” he shrugged “only benches for railway carriages – third class”.

“Don’t complain” intervened Frau Klose, “you’ve never been unemployed – not even in the years of the big inflation. Half the country went hungry but we always had food on our table. They needed wooden benches for these carriages. Nobody could pay for the padded class.”

“Except Nazi bigwigs”, chipped in Herr Klose.

“You mind your words, Gustav Klose,” said she. “You know you’re being watched.” And to me she explained: “He used to be an active trade unionist, before that lot got in. So he’ll be on their list”


November 10th 1938. Early morning. I was setting out to cycle to school when my mother called me back. She sounded agitated. She was still on the phone: “The synagogue is on fire!” My father had turned on the radio, but the radio reported nothing. Nor did the day’s paper which had just been delivered. A few minutes later Frau Klose arrived but she did bring news. She had been to the baker to pick up warm rolls, as she did every morning. There everybody had been talking.

Nazi storm-troopers had been in our building earlier that morning. They had arrested two Jewish men but had missed us, perhaps because our apartment was set back a few feet so our brass nameplate was in the half-dark. But we feared they would be back.

Most Jews cowered in their homes waiting. My father showed unexpected decisiveness: “I’m not going to sit here waiting for them to come for me. I’ll walk into town and mix with the crowds.”

My mother protested: “What if they arrest you off the street? How will I ever know? Take the child with you. He can come back and report.”

That was how I came to be in the midst of that turbulent city, Breslau, the morning after Krystallnacht.

I have often been asked how someone as highly strung as my mother could have allowed – no, persuaded – my father to take me into danger. Had she no fears for her only child? Undoubtedly she believed that even Nazis would not harm a child. We did not yet know whom we were facing. I, too, do not recall that I had any fears for my own safety. Only for my father’s

We walked around the city centre.   I saw a smashed-up bottle store, with liquor flowing over the pavement and into the gutter. A drunken woman was doing a jig, crowing: “Serves them right, the Jew pigs.” The onlookers said nothing and seemed embarrassed.   We walked on to the synagogue and stood, amidst a large silent crowd. They gazed at the burning building. I overheard one older man say “Now was that necessary?”

We did not go back to our apartment right away. We had arranged to meet my mother at Aunt Hannah’s, my father’s sister. Her husband had died the previous year and we assumed this would be on the records so that no storm troopers would come to her place. We overrated German efficiency. They did come, but not until a day or two later.

After dark, having spent an anxious day with Hannah, we made our way back to our own apartment. To our surprise Frau Klose, who normally only worked mornings – was still there. She had stayed to guard our property and to tell us how she had coped with “that rabble”.

Stormtroopers had, indeed, come shortly after we had left. Frau Klose re-enacted the scene with gusto: “Fraenkel, Hans Moritz?” they had bawled.

“I regret Herr Regierungsrat is not at home.”

“What the hell! Herr Regierungsrat (literally Mister Government Councilor) “We want the Jew Fraenkel.”

They barged in, pushing her aside. They searched our cupboards and looked behind curtains and under beds. Finally they opened my father’s violin case.

“Also so klein ist der Herr Regierungsrat aber nicht”, she barked at them. “No, Mister Government Councilor is not that little!”

Miserable though we were, we could not help laughing.

The next days of waiting were tense but Frau Klose sensed that laughter was therapeutic. She re-enacted that scene several times over, legs astride, arms akimbo: “No, he’s not that little.”

Breslau Jews were transported to the concentration camp at Buchenwald near Weimar – the city of Goethe and enlightenment. There men were humiliated, beaten and starved. They were made to do hard labour like breaking stones. Most were unused to such work. They were accused of malingering and belaboured with whips and truncheons. Some were hanged for minor infringements. Others committed suicide by running into the electrified perimeter fences.

My father was never arrested. He was not robust and might never have survived Buchenwald. Perhaps he owed his escape to Frau Klose’s warning, early that morning when she came up from the bakers with warm rolls and news of arrests.

Not long after we managed to emigrate

Sometime in 1946 or ‘47. Once the war was over my father made strenuous efforts to trace the Kloses. He knew that Germans went hungry and were being driven out of Silesia. He had no sympathy for the great majority who had hailed the Fuehrer but he did not generalize about Germans. Several of our German friends had taken risks to help us – as Frau Klose had done. He wanted to help the Kloses. He never found them.

What could have happened to them? Thousands fled the city as the Red Army approached. Of course the Nazis had lied that their heroic troops had stopped the advance of the Mongolian hordes way inside Poland. People were amazed when they first heard cannon fire quite close. It provoked a panic flight. But I doubt this elderly couple would have trekked West on foot, as many were now doing.

In 1944 the advancing Red Army surrounded the city and Breslau remained besieged for three long months. 35,000 regular troops defended Breslau and 10,000 of the old and maimed were drafted into the Volkssturm. They dug trenches and dug mass graves in parks. The town was shelled day and night and – weather permitting – bombed from the air but the Red Army did not try to seize the town. Not yet. Their main thrust was towards Berlin.

The town was supplied largely by air for 76 days and for the last 16 even ammunitions could only be brought in by plane.

Whole streets of apartments that had, until then, remained habitable were blown up by the Volkssturm: In the final days twenty thousand buildings were levelled – mainly to open lines of fire for the defenders.

In the quarter I knew best, a block of apartment houses bounded on one side by “our” street was contested, day and night, for all of eight days. In fierceness this has been compared to the battle for Stalingrad, though on a smaller scale. Fighting went on from house to house, floor to floor and room to room. The entire quarter was left a heap of smoking rubble. Perhaps, among the scorched debris, a Russian soldier would have found fragments of a miniature balustrade — and wondered.

Breslau only surrendered four days after Hitler’s suicide.

Even many years later, when I first revisited Breslau – by now the Polish town of Wroclaw – I could only recognize one single pre-war building in “our” vicinity – a Catholic church rebuilt by Poles.

Losses on both sides were heavy. Figures are disputed but German records speak of 6,000 soldiers dead and 10,000 civilians – not counting masses of suicides. The attackers’ losses were even heavier: 5000 Soviet officers and 60,000 men. A vast Russian military cemetery now exists a short walk south of the park where I played as a child.

After the collapse of Hitler’s regime Poland was rolled westwards. Silesia was annexed to Poland and some two million Germans were driven out. They were replaced by Poles resettled from lands now annexed to the Ukraine.

This “relocation” took place in chaotic and lawless conditions. Thousands of frozen bodies lined the route they were forced to march.

Frau Klose and her husband did not survive. Where, when and in what circumstances they found their deaths I do not know. In which mass grave do their bones lie? We shall never know.

But in my memory she still stands tall, arms akimbo, legs astride. Very tall.