78. What if

By Peter Fraenkel

In the cool of the evening, after dinner, at Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia, my father would go for a walk. I accompanied him frequently, lighting our way with a torch – in case of snakes. Street lighting was rudimentary in this remote colonial outpost.

Dad was struggling, not very successfully, to make a living as a dry cleaner. It was not the career he’d ever envisaged. Back in Germany he had studied law but then become an income tax official. For a refugee in South Central Africa his thorough grounding in German income tax legislation was probably the most useless preparation anyone could have imagined. His conversation on these evening walks often turned away from his depressing present to the past which had, at the time, looked so much rosier. He spoke about what might have been. What if the Nazis had not come to power? What if the great inflation had never happened? What if, by the time he had agreed to emigrate, the world had not shut most gates against the likes of us? What if…. 

As was the custom at the time, he had studied jurisprudence at three different universities – a year at Freiburg, a second at Berlin, and the third at Breslau. Berlin had been most fun because the Kempners, his maternal grandparents, lived there. When he had exhausted his monthly allowance before his father’s next instalment arrived, he could always dine with his grandparents and even, after the meal, accompany them to the ‘Lokal’. There they met their friends –always the same – and they consumed a liter of beer– never more, never less. He often accompanied them. 

The Kempners had owned a factory making overcoats at Goerlitz in Lower Silesia. When Grandfather Kempner reached the age of only 45 (I think) he decided to sell up. He had calculated that with the proceeds of the firm’s sale plus his savings, both invested in gilt-edged bonds that yielded 3 or 4%, he and his wife could live the rest of their lives in genteel comfort. 

He sold up and moved to Berlin. They rented a comfortable flat in the West End. Every morning the maid brought up warm delicious bread rolls from the baker for breakfast. Later grandfather walked to the barber and had himself shaved. The barber retailed neighbourhood gossip. The maid struggled to lace grandmother Kempner into a tight corset. Then the Kempners walked to a nearby café for coffee and a piece of cake. This was called ‘second breakfast’. In the café they read newspapers. Four or five different dailies circulated around the café, attached to wood and wire frames. pg. 2 

Twice a year they took a two weeks’ holiday in one of the little spa towns which had proliferated in Germany and the neighbouring Czech lands. There he and his wife sipped the local mineral water, reputed to cure all of humanity’s ills. They walked in the wonderfully maintained parks, then took their seats in a circle around the pretty music pavilion where the band played operetta tunes. He might tap the rhythm with his walking stick. In the evening the two of them went out for a beer – one liter each, just as they had in Berlin – and met folk they remembered from the previous year’s visit. 

Two or three times a year – on high holidays – they went to synagogue – he dressed in tailcoat and Zylinder, a top hat. They did not take their Judaism very seriously. Several of their friends had even converted though they had never become fervent Protestants. They readily admitted having become Christians because it had opened career prospects that had been closed to them earlier. They even told jokes about it: 

Cohn, newly converted, pleads with Levy to get himself converted as well. Why? “Because I’d like to have some gentile social contacts.” 

In an earlier period any apostate might have suffered social ostracism within the Jewish community, but not by 1910. The world was stable and nothing was ever likely to happen to upset their relaxed, comfortable life style. 

The Kempners kept one living-in maid who slept in a narrow maid’s room next to the kitchen. Once a fortnight a washer woman came in. She scrubbed clothes by hand in a Waschkueche – a laundry room in the loft of the apartment house. Each tenant of the eight flats had the use of that loft for one day, or part of a day, per week. Wet washing was squeezed through the rubber rollers of a mangle, then hung out to dry on lines that stretched across the loft. The washer woman came again the following day to do the ironing. 

Central heating was still a rarity. In the corner of each room (except the maid’s) stood a tall tiled oven. The concierge brought up brown coal ‘briquettes’, the size of a small loaf of bread. He got tips from every tenant for this. It must have augmented his salary greatly. Once a week, on the maid’s off-day, old man Kempner himself fed such briquettes into the tile-ovens – and grumbled. pg. 3 

The maid did most of the cooking. Mother Kempner occasionally baked butter biscuits filled with marmalade or cherry jam. Margarine would have been cheaper but considered fit only for servants, and the poor. Father Kempner, however, generously, permitted the maid to put butter on her bread. This gave rise to arguments. His wife accused him of showing too great an interest in the maid. He protested – rightly – that this was slander. It irritated him particularly because the maid was very plain. 

It perturbed my father that the Kempners quarreled incessantly – she bitching on endlessly. My father kept out of their quarrels. They told their large circle of acquaintances that he was a wonderful grandson. He visited them regularly. They never thought it suspicious that his visits were always in the last week of the month. 

As a student my father was kept on a short leash. Once, as a young blood, he had ventured into a casino and lost heavily….lost his entire month’s allowance. He wrote a pathetic letter to his father begging him to wire some money. Father, a well-regarded small-town lawyer, could have afforded it. What came back, however, was a brief telegram: “Go hungry!” 

A minor hiccup. 

The world was stable and nothing – they thought – would ever happen to upset their lifestyle. But after 1914 the world collapsed into war and then hyperinflation. The Kempners, however, had timed their exits well. She died first and her husband was devastated. My father sat with him as he wept profusely. He then died shortly after. They had just managed to miss the financial collapse. 

My father – Herr Regierungsrat Doktor Hans Fraenkel turned dry cleaner and laundryman – reflecting on these golden days – would calculate, on our African evening walks – what he would have inherited from his two lots of grandparents if the currency had not collapsed. It was a tidy sum. He could have lived as they had lived. 

A dream!