Zygmunt Frankel



The success of the two families started somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century when the Jews of central Europe were beginning to enjoy considerable emancipation, and the talented ones among them making the most of it. My mother's great-grandfather Abraham Friedman was a successful iron merchant in Wieliczka, a small town near Cracow well-known for its salt mines. His son Eliahu expanded the family business into a large and successful firm which, apart from trading in iron and steel, owned a sawmill complete with tracts of timber, a brick factory, and a number of stores and shops. His business acumen included public relations, local politics, and, when necessary, bribes. The family tradition has it that he "held Wieliczka in his fist." An orthodox Jew with full beard and sidelocks and long black coat, he gave generously to charity, not only Jewish but also the local monastery, although how much of that was true charity and how much public relations is anyone's guess. The family lore includes a story of his dining some relatives in a Viennese restaurant , and someone at a neighbouring table commenting "That must be someone". The family lore accepts the remark at its complimentary face value, disregarding the possibility that it might have been a jeer at a nouveau riche addressing the waiter in too lordly a manner, especially with anti-semitism as virulent as it was in Vienna.

Eliahu Friedman and his wife Rachel had eight children. All the sons joined the family firm in various capacities when they grew up. One of the daughters, my future grandmother Sarah, was married at nineteen to Sigmund Rosenzweig, the son of another prosperous merchant of Wieliczka, although not quite of Friedman's caliber. His father, Solomon Rosenzweig. insisted on conducting his business with the highest ethic and morality: no secret deals, no pulling of strings, no politics, and certainly - God forbid - no bribes. His business prospered all right; it just never quite caught up with that of the Friedmans.

There was also another difference between the two family heads. For Eliahu Friedman the Bible was the portable homeland, and wherever a Jew stood with his prayer shawl over his shoulders, there God listened from the skies of home. The Rosenzweigs, as observant Jews as any, were also lending an ear to a Dr. Theodor Herzl, a journalist and writer from Vienna, who advocated the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, and whose followers were known as Zionists. Not that many prosperous and established families in the Austro-Hungarian Empire seriously considered pulling up stakes and going to the distant and primitive Palestine with its Turkish rule, Arab peasants, heat, sand, flies, and malaria. But it was a lofty idea, worthy of sympathy and an occasional donation. The Jewish pogroms were taking place far away in barbaric Russia. Surely not even Dr. Herzl expected anything of the sort in civilized Europe, and of course he himself did not settle in Palestine either.

Upon his marriage, my grandfather Sigmund joined the Friedman firm, rising to the position of first among equals. Because of his education, manners, and business acumen, it was he who travelled widely on the firm's behalf and initiated its major business deals. (He also contributed a few conventional but well-written patriotic poems to the Viennese press, and began to learn English at fifty to be able to read Shakespeare in the original.) Shortly before the war he was granted the abovementioned title of Kaiser's Councillor, awarded to prominent citizens who had made some contribution to culture, science, or business. It carried the right to a brief audience with the Emperor to thank him for the honour, and my grandfather took the opportunity. There was a framed photograph of him in Wieliczka, taken the on the day of the audience (not with the Emperor but in a photographer's studio). He stands there, somewhat corpulent, wearing the prescribed morning coat with matching trousers, stiff collar and tie, and holding his top-hat and stick which he handed over to a palace attendant upon entering. The audience, conducted to stiff rules, lasted about two minutes. My grandfather took up position before a curtain which was drawn aside after a while and he was announced. He advanced a few steps into a room with a desk behind which stood the Emperor Franz Josef, looking, according to my grandfather, exactly like his portraits except somewhat older and more care-worn. Stopping at a specified distance from the desk, my grandfather bowed and recited the prescribed formula of thanks. The Emperor inclined his head slightly, said a few kind words about Wieliczka, and made a correct estimate of the size of its Jewish community which my grandfather confirmed. (He must have been supplied with a few pertinent details by his secretary just before the audience.) After a brief silence there came another inclination of the imperial head, and, with a bow, my grandfather left the room walking backwards so as not to turn his back on the Emperor, and the curtain slid back into place.

My Wieliczka grandparents had four children: my mother, Giza, born in 1895; son, Roman, 1887; daughter Ida, 1900; and son Izak, 1907.

After the Great War, Eliahu Friedman died, leaving the firm in the hands of a family committee presided over by my maternal grandfather. The war and his death marked the beginning of the firm's decline. The committee was no substitute for his single-minded talents and strong hand. My mother remembered her father complaining that everyone looked to his own interest instead of that of the firm which, in the long run, was the best garantee of the former. The war disrupted some of the firm's business, and the emergence of Poland as an independent - and strongly antisemitic - state further crippled it. In spite of this decline, my mother grew up in a prosperous and well-ordered home. It was also a rigidly conventional one where one conformed strictly to what was and was not done. My mother went to school and took piano lessons. Afterwards she enroled at the Cracow University, transferring later to that of Vienna (lodging, of course, with relatives) and returning in due course with a doctorate (an equivalent of today's B.A.) in history and ethnology.

The student years in Vienna remained in my mother's memory as the most exciting ones of her youth. There was, I am quite sure, no drinking, drugs, premarital sex, or revolutionary activities. But she did buy a pair of stout hiking boots and went hill-walking with her student friends, and she must have caught a whiff of the new winds blowing through the world. After the universities of Cracow and Vienna, Wieliczka felt provincial and stuffy. My mother took frequent trips to the library of the Cracow University, half an hour away by train, but it was obvious that the next major step, now that she was grown up and educated, would be marriage, and that in the meantime her place was at home. When she thought of a teaching post at a school in Cracow, another father might have said "No daughter of mine is going to work for her living", or "You might be exposed to all sorts of influences I don't want you to be exposed to"; but my grandfather listened gently, considered the idea for a while, and then said, in a kind compassionate voice:

"Little Giza; why should you take away a modest salary from someone who needs it more than you do?"

And, of course, there could be no answer to that, and my mother stayed in Wieliczka. Her marriage was not to be rushed into lightly; she was Sigmund Rozenzweig's daughter. The son of the chief accountant who was in love with her stood no chance whatsoever. The local "shadkhen", a Jewish marriage broker, was very active on her behalf (in spite of the firm's decline she would still get a considerable dowry, and he, a handsome present). This was the time-honoured and respectable way of arranging a marriage, although times were changing and the last word would be my mother's. The war, the provinciality of Wieliczka, the onset of her father's heart disease, and perhaps also her own choosiness or indecision, combined to keep her an eligible young lady into her mid-twenties.

My mother had retained a warm affection for the old Emperor who had bestowed the title of Kaiser's Councillor upon her father, and sympathized with him in the loss, by suicide, of his son the Crown Prince Rudolf, with Maria Vecera, in Mayerling, although that was before her time; in the murder, by an anarchist with a sharpened file, of his beautiful wife, the Empress Sisi; much earlier, the execution of his brother Maximillian in Mexico; and finally the assassination of his nephew, the Archduke Ferdinand, which had sparked the war. She told me that in his final years Franz Josef took to saying: "Nothing has been spared me".

There was also the death, at the Russian front, of the young son of Jozef, the family coachman, who lived in a small hut at the back of the family house. His parents got the customary letter and sum of money. (I asked my mother whether the letter, or its envelope, were black-edged, and whether the money was the backpay or some sort of compensation, but she did not know.) A few days later, she walked at dusk into the kitchen and found Jozef 's wife sitting in the dark by the stove. "You know, Miss Giza," she told her, sadly but without tears, "I am thinking and thinking about all this, and I think it would have been better if he had come back instead of us getting the money." My mother was to remain puzzled and disturbed by this remark forever after. Jozef's wife was a simple and uneducated woman, but neither heartless nor greedy. It may have been a case of some deep fatalism, a conviction that things were preordained, and Jozef's wife may have been voicing a mild protest against fate, without really believing that it counted for much in the greater scheme of things.

One day, struck by nostalgia for her student days and mountain hikes, mother went to the attic and rummaged in an old trunk for her hiking boots, to grease them so that the leather should not dry out. They were not there. It transpired that some weeks before, an old beggar knocked on the door, asking for money or old clothes, and someone in the family remembered a pair of heavy hobnailed boots in the attic, obviously of use to a laborer only, and gave them away.

And now a new suitor appeared who met with everyone's, including my mother's, approval. He was Dr. Leon Fränkel, a tall, handsome (though slightly narrow-shouldered), and prosperous lawyer from Lvov, eleven years my mother's senior; and in due course they were engaged and married.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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