36. Julius

By Peter Fraenkel

He’d been a medical student – back at Frankfurt. His professors considered him ‘promising’. Perhaps he was a little too forward in class discussions, always insisting on clarifications. But they liked his questioning spirit. His fellow students sometimes smiled and referred to him as “Herr Sanitaetsrat”. This was, by now, an archaism – a title that had, in the days of the Kaiser, been given to respected elderly medical men. He was well aware of the irony but still mildly flattered. Questioning was in the spirit of the age – accepting nothing carried over from a discredited past. The Kaiser –once worshipped as close to God – had bolted ignominiously.

Now, a new world was being created.

But this new world did not last. It could not survive inflation and economic collapse. The questioning spirit fell out of fashion. It subverted order, discipline, authority. It was negative…. a disease brought in by Jews.

Julius himself – unaware of resentment he aroused among some – was dreaming of becoming a surgeon. Grateful patients would recommend him for honours. Hadn’t he saved their lives when others had given up?

He passed his first two years with ease. It was in the third that the blow fell. He was expelled from the university ‘on racial grounds’. He was devastated. He should, of course, have seen it coming but he had been far too immersed in his studies. His father feared a breakdown. He offered to take him into his business. Julius refused indignantly: “Flog ladies’ knickers? Not bloody likely.”

The father was hurt. He was a wholesaler in clothes. Knickers was but one of dozens of lines in his store rooms.

“So what do you propose to do? Sponge on me while I hawk these knickers?”

Julius had not had time to give the matter any thought. He had not seen it coming.

“I’ll go to Palestine”.

“To do what?”

“I’ll join a kibbutz.”

Kibbutz? What do you know about farming? I gave you a plot in the garden once when you were a lad. You remember? You never grew a thing – not even a radish.”

It looked like the beginning of another row.

“I’ll go on hachshara”.

The idea had come to him in a flash. His cousin had recently joined such an agricultural training farm to prepare himself for in Palestine. Julius had had a postcard only a week earlier. It showed bronzed youngsters with scythes. It had come from Lithuania. Of course there were similar establishments in Germany but they were oversubscribed. The cousin had had to go abroad.

“Well,” said the father, “perhaps they’ll teach you what work is about.”

“That was uncalled for, father. You know I’ve been working hard at my studies. Three years … wasted.”

Next morning Julius wondered whether he had been too rash. Father might have financed medical studies abroad – maybe in Switzerland. But it had not been the moment to ask. He knew that the father’s business was suffering from Nazi boycotts.

So Julius found himself in Lithuania. There he met Helen. They sang Zionist songs together. They dancer the hora. They took Hebrew lessons. They made love. Together they were going to make the land of their ancestors bloom. At the end of the farming season Julius brought her back to introduce her to his parents.

“Pretty”, conceded his father, “but as thick as two planks.”

“What do you mean?”

“She only parrots slogans picked up on your course. Has she never had a thought of her own?”

This led to another quarrel.

But Julius’ year with a scythe, a spade and even a tractor proved yet another waste The British imposed immigration restrictions in Palestine – a concession to Arabs who were horrified by the alien swarms descending on their ancestral land. Julius would have to wait two years, perhaps even three, for a visa. But war seemed imminent.

Julius married Helen in haste. He would have time to repent at leisure. The wedding reception was interrupted by air raid sirens – but it was only a practice drill.

The young couple went to consult an advisory service set up by the Jewish Central Association. They advised a crash course and he ended up as a gents’ hairdresser on Lugard Road, Akasul, Africa.

He hated it.