Memories of a Lost Era

This memoir was written by my aunt, Mrs. Lola Grunfeld, my father’s sister, who was born around 1921 in Germany. In 1937 she and her family fled to England, where she still lives today. I found her description of growing up in a wealthy family in Frankfurt  fascinating and thought others would also find it interesting.

The education and attitudes that my grandparents bequeathed to my aunt were very different from those I taught my children sixty years later. After reading this memoir, I understood more about life in those days before World War II.  The demarcation between the rich and the poor was very obvious and accepted. The rich understood that there were responsibilities that came with the privilege of wealth. Children knew their place and understood that some things were only for adults. Learning Torah was not just for the children, but for the whole family as a unit. I hope the WWW readers will share my fascination as well.

—Devora Schor


It seems a little late to start writing my memoirs, since I am in my 80th year. Nevertheless, after repeated requests from some of our grandchildren, I have decided to put pen to paper to try my best to recapitulate events of my childhood, youth, and adolescence. It is probably important for the next few generations to know a little about the past we were privileged to experience, and perhaps draw some inspiration from some of the events which I am about to relate.

Let me say right from the start that this is not an exact account of dates, locations, and similar facts, as I’ve never been any good at that sort of thing. Rather, I am going to relate meaningful happenings, ideas, and values that were instilled in us. My parents tried to put into our young minds and shape our personalities on very lofty ideals and spent much time in discussing amongst themselves and asking advice of competent educators on these matters.

After my mother’s death, my sister and I were sorting out letters that we found in my mother’s belongings. After reading one or two of them, we decided to read no further, but rather to destroy them. We reasoned that although the contents of these letters were of the greatest interest and perhaps even historically important, as they threw much light on the way people lived and behaved in those days, we had no right to delve into our parents’ private lives. Hence, these beautiful and meaningful letters must remain a secret.

However, the first of those letters written by my mother to my father during their engagement period referred mainly to her hopes and aspirations regarding the bringing up of family according to what she had absorbed during her lessons in the Shamshon Raphael Hirsch School, where she was taught by Rabbi Joseph Breuer. His teachings colored the rest of her life and made her into a modest, unassuming, yet deep thinking and kind woman, quite unaffected by the wealth and quiet luxury she was accustomed to most of her life.

My father too developed a strong affinity to rabbanim and talmidei chachamim, more so than the average baal habayis in those days. Our glorious Frankfurt kehilla was the focal point of his life. He also employed a regular “house rebbe” by the name of Kalinovitch, who was one of many Polish immigrants in Frankfurt. My brother Meier also had a rebbe, Mr. Zimmerman, who came regularly.

Another interesting aspect of our education comes to mind most vividly. In the winter months, come what may, my parents employed a very well-known talmid chacham by the name of Feuerwerker, who came to us Friday nights after shul for at least an hour and a half to teach us the weekly sidra. By “us” I mean the whole family: grandmother, parents, and all children. We all had to sit through these shiurim and concentrate on them, although I must say in all honesty that we children were rather bored and not at all appreciative. I can still see in front of me quite clearly the mauve sofa on which my mother reclined. My grandmother sat regally in her armchair, as did my father, and we children wriggled about on ordinary chairs, consulting our watches at regular intervals.

My mother employed various ladies from prominent homes who came in the afternoons to help us with our homework and influence us in Jewish matters. We loved Yetta Rosenheim and Nechama Kahn, as these two succeeded in making our childhood so much more meaningful and enjoyable. Yetta took us three older girls on an idyllic holiday to a village called Jugenheim, where we boarded with a very fine frum family and where we spent the days rambling and playing, but never without shiurim in the afternoons.

We were brought up very strictly in certain gashmius matters. Thus, we were never allowed anything but butter on our sandwiches to school, while most of the other girls had herring and egg sandwiches and other delicacies. This was in order not to hurt the poor children, of which there were many, mostly from Poland.

Mother also insisted that, at our bas mitzva parties, when making our lists as to whom to invite, the first five had to be girls from poorer homes. I should add that those parties were always beautifully prepared and furthered many a friendship between us and those underprivileged children.

Our school had a social worker. Tall and imposing, she filled her days with doing mitzvos and chasadim. My mother was her ardent admirer and accompanied her on many of her errands to the poor. Once I was invited to accompany her on a mission to the Alstadt (slum), where some of the Polish immigrants lived. There we distributed wonderful food parcels without putting these people to shame. My mother knew how to speak to those “bekoved” (respectable) people, and I learned a great deal on this unforgettable expedition.

My mother and two of her friends decided to open a Kakospeise. This meant that every morning before school started, all those children who lacked a good breakfast assembled in a large hall and received boiling hot cocoa with rolls and butter. We, of course, had to join in, although we had already eaten similar fare at home. Until this very day, I don’t like cocoa, as it reminds me of the awful smell when the cocoa was a little burned. On top of the drink, there floated some unappetizing cocoa skin, which made us feel quite sick. However, the picture of those three kind ladies dressed in white smocks and carrying heavy jugs of cocoa till all were fed is still vivid in my mind and left a deep impression.

To illustrate our strict upbringing in certain gashmius matters, I must include a little story still very vivid in my mind. My mother and her sister-in-law were in the habit of frequenting a kosher bakery most morning for elevenses (a midmorning snack), where they were served the most delicious Mohrenkopfe and Schillerlocken (a nicer version of eclairs) filled with real cream. My best friend and I, who were about 11 years old at the time, knew of those delectable patisseries and felt that we too were entitled to taste them. But how to go about such a daring adventure? We had very little money, and we did not think there was even the remotest chance of it ever happening.

After a few weeks of depriving ourselves of other things, we finally succeed to save enough for one Mohrenkopf each. The great day arrived and we figured that about noon would be a good time, since the two ladies would certainly have left the bakery by then.

Our excitement knew no bounds and we stealthily made our way, continuously looking over our shoulders to see whether anyone was following us who could betray our secret. At last we arrived at the forbidden place. Who can describe the horror we felt when, upon opening the door, we saw my mother and auntie still enjoying their gorgeous cream cakes. One look from my mother, who understood the situation at once, was enough for us to beat a hasty retreat. I have little doubt that we shed many tears of frustration and disappointment on our sad way home.

How different from nowadays! Still, on reflection, I think most of us turned out quite nicely, in spite of our stricter upbringing, as we were constantly aware of the deep love behind our parents’ very strong principles.

Now, against my wish, I must describe the house in which we lived and the style of our daily lives. I say “against my wish,” as some might interpret this as a kind of boasting. However, without this description, my tale would lack background, environment, and authenticity.

When my maternal grandfather passed away, my parents decided to move into my grandmother’s house. Though surrounded by loyal servants, she was quite lonely. So we said goodbye to our first house and moved into my grandmother’s luxurious villa. She lived on the main floor and we occupied the second and third floors. Everything was spacious and beautifully furnished. There was an aura of real luxury, beauty, and good taste, but it was all so subdued, so very contrary to the taste of the nouveau riche, that we were hardly aware of it. We just felt comfortable and were brought up quite strictly with regard to unnecessary expense.

The floor beneath the ground floor was called the “souterrain.” It housed two large kitchens, one belonging to my grandmother and the other to us. In those kitchens reigned supreme the two cooks. Ours was Frau Grunstein, who had a son Walter who ate all his meals with her. My grandmother’s cook was called Regina. She had a huge Alsatian dog called Afra that was fairly docile. The two cooks did not get on with each other. I suppose there must have been some rivalry between them, very understandably so. Both were fine frum ladies, and both cooked exquisitely.

Each morning at around ten o’clock my mother and grandmother went down to their respective kitchens to discuss the day’s menu. We children were hardly ever allowed in the kitchen, which explains my complete inability to cook when I was newly married.

Apart from the two ordinary kitchens, the souterrain also contained a spacious, well-equipped Pesach kitchen. It was Regina who did all the Pesach cooking. There was also a lift down there, which operated by manually pulling strings. All our food was sent up by this lift. It was always delicious and piping hot, and I remember the meals in our dining room as very pleasant occasions with lively discussions and two maids serving us.

We all had a turn once a week to have dinner downstairs with our grandmother. My day was Monday. We could choose between two languages, French or English, and were not allowed to speak any German during those meals. I loved those dinners and enjoyed polishing my French with my grandmother, who spoke it fluently.

My paternal grandparents lived a very different lifestyle. Our grandfather had a sizeable business; he was a grain merchant and a member of the Grain House, to which few Jews were admitted. He was well respected in our kehilla and was in charge of the matza baking each year. Both my grandparents were extremely modest, with high expectations of their children, especially in the field of honesty and integrity.

Every Shabbos all the grandchildren went to my paternal grandparents’ house after shul in happy anticipation of a lovely hour spent with our grandparents. First, we all had our turn to be gebensht, and after that we each received a few plain cookies called anisplatzchen.

The yard in the back of their house was no means an ordinary yard. In it several goats, chickens, and cats were faithfully tended by my animal-loving grandmother. At one time they delivered a goat mother of her dear little baby goat. To say the least, this was not the usual thing done in Frankfurt amongst our friends.

My tale would not be complete without mentioning the famous, or rather infamous, Rabbinerwahl (fight about rabbis). When the Frankfurt kehilla needed a new rav after Rabbi Dr. Solomon Breuer’s death, there were great differences of opinion. Many congregants were in favor of the late rav’s brother, but others wanted a rav from other areas of Europe with different outlooks and hashkafos, while nevertheless maintaining the principle of Torah Im Derech Eretz espoused by the great Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. It was a very unpleasant and difficult period in the history of our wonderful kehilla, and I only mention it here because of my father’s role in the debate. He was firmly on the side of Moreinu Rav Yakov Rosenheim, who was instrumental in appointing the Hungarian Rav Rabbi Joseph Horowitz. My father was, in fact, Rabbi Rosenheim’s greatest supporter and friend. Unfortunately, this machlokes dragged on for a long time and left a bitter taste in people’s mouths until finally the deep feelings of animosity were ironed out.

The years passed, and we were beginning to feel the dreadful ominous beginning of the Nazi era. We children were only vaguely aware of the hatred of the non-Jewish population. I can still hear clearly the obnoxious tune of “Und wenn das Judenblut vom messer spritzt (And when the Jewish blood splashes from the knife),” sung by the Hitler youth, usually at night before we dropped off into an uneasy sleep. This “lullaby” will never be forgotten by any of us.

One day in 1937 our parents assembled us in the living room and told us that we were going to leave Germany in a few days’ time to settle in England, where my father had business connections.

Who can ever forget the sad, sad night when father, mother, and six children, together with their faithful nanny, Schwester Marta, boarded the night train from Frankfurt and left forever our beautiful childhood and past to start an entirely new life, uncertain and at that point frightening, in a new country which proved to be our haven and where we live until today in peace and serenity?

We were all crying, huddled in two compartments, while our parents tried to comfort us. After a couple of hours, my mother presented us with an ingeniously compiled photo album. She had painstakingly collected photographs of our teachers and beloved principal and of all the officials at our wonderful shul. We looked and looked, and our tears stopped flowing. There and then a new seed of courage and optimism was sown into our young souls, and we slowly began to look forward to our new life in England.

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