For many years I preserved what must be the most unsuitable present I ever received as a child: a seal with my initials and a box with sealing wax. Aged eight I was not in the habit of sealing my private correspondence. Nor did I do so later, as an adult. Perhaps I only kept this seal because I had fond memories of Uncle Georg, who was dead by then.
Georg Spiro wasn’t actually my uncle, but my mother’s – the oldest sibling of grandmother Sophie. He was a well-known ophthalmologist at Berlin but he usually came to Breslau, where several of his family lived, once a year. With the seal came a gift of 5 Mark – much more welcome at that age.
Georg was unlike other members of my ever-so sedate, boring family. As a young man he had travelled the world as a ship’s doctor. He had been battered by typhoons in the South Seas. He had, I believe, climbed Mount Fuji. He was a mountaineer and an early colour photographer – mainly of mountains that he had climbed. His large collection of slides was eventually taken over by the German Mountaineering Club. He was a keen botanist and encouraged my own interest in plants. He would point out to me poisonous plants that distant Pacific islanders used on their arrowheads. On family hikes up Mount Zobten, an extinct volcano in Silesia, he would draw my attention to a little flower that flourished on the lower slopes of the mountain. “Look at it carefully”. Later he would point out a very similar plant higher up the windswept mountain, but not quite the same: It had changed and adapted to the harsher environment.
Though the oldest of our party he got to the café at the peak of Zobten before the rest of us and came back carrying ice-creams for us.
Georg himself apparently did not cope with climate quite so well. According to my mother, whose English sometimes descended into malapropisms, “Uncle Georg exposed himself on the Matterhorn”. What she was trying to say was that he had contracted a kidney complaint when, surprised by a heavy mountain fog, he had had to spend a freezing night in a hollow high in the Alps. She asserted that it was this that killed him soon after. I was never entirely convinced by her diagnosis.
What puzzles me far more about Georg is his politics. He belonged to the Verband nationaldeutscher Juden, the League of National-German Jews. This was a minute political group that came as close as any Jews could to supporting the Nazis. A Dr. Max Naumann had founded the League in 1921 – which was before there was a Nazi party. He was a Berlin lawyer and a highly decorated former army captain. The movement was fervently anti-Zionist. German Jews were Germans, just like German Protestants or German Catholics. They did not divide their loyalties between the fatherland and any such crazy project as a Jewish state. Naumann denounced Zionists as the protégés of the British – “our enemies” in the recent war. Naumann agitated against Jewish migration into Germany from Eastern Europe. ”Pitiful creatures on a not-quite human level” was how he described Ostjuden. His movement got very little support from the Jewish community but much antagonism. Apparently it never had more than 3,500 members. The league called upon its members to vote for candidates of the Right. Naumann went so far as to express hope for a Hitler government – “the only political organisation capable of bringing about a rebirth of the German spirit”. This statement created outrage in the Jewish community and even among his supporters many thought he had gone too far.
What Uncle Georg thought of all this, I do not know. We talked plants, not politics. When the Nazis eventually got to power they banned the League and imprisoned Dr. Naumann!
Georg died of that kidney ailment in 1935. The family believed him to have been a bachelor but at his funeral an unknown lady appeared in deepest mourning. Uncle Ernst, the second-oldest brother, introduced himself to the unknown lady. She, to his great surprise, told him she was Georg’s wife! When Ernst later came to sort his brother’s papers he found that this seemed to be true.
Many years later I asked Edith Schirbel, a niece of his, about this. She said, “I did once drop in on Uncle Georg at his Berlin apartment -unannounced. This seemed to make him very angry. ‘Next time you want see me’ he barked, ‘phone first and make an appointment.’ I did wonder – was he trying to hide something? “
Later I asked my mother about this. She was aware there was something odd here. She too had been puzzled. After her death I found a letter she had preserved. This letter, dated 1917, had been addressed to her father, my grandfather, Martin Goldschmidt. I found it very moving – a deeply anguished letter. It appealed to Martin for his intervention. Her much-loved Georg now wanted a separation. Martin knew, she said, the long and deep attachment that existed between the two of them. She wanted to care for him, as (she implied) she had long done. It was signed Elie but I could not decipher the family name following.
I had intended to translate this letter and to include it in this story. In the end I decided there was something indecent in prying into the private anguish of these people long dead.
I have burnt her letter. A mystery? Let it remain so.