Uncle Franz's Legacy
A personal history of two Germanies.
April 1, 1999
Apr 1, 1999
22 Min read time
A personal history of two Germanies.
Just outside the bedroom window, in a sheltered alcove of my California backyard, sits a three-foot-high bronze Buddha. This was the one item "of sentimental value only" I was allowed to choose from my uncle Franz's art-filled home after he died. The ancient Venetian glass collection, eighteenth- century tankards, and pre-Columbian figurines were left to the County Art Museum; the Renoir oil to Hadassah. Antique books and other valuables were sold for cash, and the furniture and household items were to be distributed among three named beneficiaries.
After searching for an object with some depth of feeling or emotional significance, I landed on the most impractical thing of all—a 350-pound Burmese Buddha. His expression is tranquil and serene; elongated earlobes suggest royalty; graceful hands rest gently atop crossed legs. I like to imagine that Uncle Franz brought the holy figure from abroad to bring himself and those around him some inner peace.
When my sister and I were children, my mother would dress us up for periodic audiences with Uncle Franz in his luxurious canyon home. He would welcome us at the door with a formal handshake and his German maid would serve us delicate portions of black bread, sharp cheese, and sliced sausage. While we listened politely Franz would talk at us endlessly about the stock market, international politics, the shortcomings of one friend or another. At some point he and Anya, his stunning but poorly educated Russian wife, would get into a loud disagreement about something or other. After an awkward interval, the monologue would resume. During an entire afternoon there would seldom be a question about my mother's life or how we kids were doing. We'd leave with my mother grumbling under her breath about another cold and disappointing visit.
The few exceptions to these distant encounters included a Sunday afternoon when Franz asked me to stand on his stomach to demonstrate his superior physical conditioning. Though I felt the self-conscious embarrassment of an overweight preteen, I could not refuse his request. I balanced precariously on his belly to prove his point, scared to death that one of my feet would accidentally land between his legs. It was the most physical contact we ever had.
Another evening, when I was barely fifteen, Franz plied me with Cherry Heering. I got a little drunk and had the nerve to disagree with him about my cousin Willie's decision to get married and drop out of graduate school. The argument went down in family history as a major violation, even though at the time it seemed I was doing exactly what Franz said he wanted—speaking my mind when others were afraid to.
Realizing I had done something out of line, I wrote him: "Mother has told me many times not to argue with you. She has said it is hopeless. I am not trying to argue. I just wanted you to hear my views. That's all. You don't have to accept them. I don't expect that. Just hear them." Franz wrote back:
We were not arguing the other day, but rather discussing. Your mother is very much mistaken if she believes one cannot argue or discuss with me. My way of discussing a matter may be from time to time a bit aggressive, as I cannot stand illogical or incorrect arguments (especially about facts, which can be considered as accepted in life and consequently, should not be discussed at all). . . .
You said one does not need money to be happy. This is only partly true. You have never seen misery, never seen how the life of poor people is [sic], who do not earn enough money to pay for food, doctor bills, clothes, etc. . . . Could you imagine people who lived in concentration camps (of which no doubt you have heard) or underground were happy?
William's life, though he has a fair income, is by far a struggle, but I believe that his happiness (to say it mildly) is curbed by lack of sufficient money to please his want for luxury ... though he may not admit that this causes him some unhappiness, I know it does. His letters give him away.... For the time being keep your ideals. Life will melt them away anyway.
• • •
Uncle Franz and my mother grew up in a comfortable, upper-middle- class Jewish household in the Charlottenburg section of Berlin. Their parents, the six children, and two live-in German maids shared a spacious apartment with a central hall long enough for the kids to roller-skate through.
One of the three brothers perished in his early twenties from the deadly Spanish flu shortly after World War I; a second shot himself to death at 21 after contracting syphilis, for which there was then no cure.
Franz, the only surviving brother, studied law and economics at a university in Berlin. By his early twenties, he was an extremely successful financier for one of the wealthiest Jewish bankers in Germany and enjoyed the lively social life of an affluent Berliner. Old photos show him dressed to the nines, driving fancy cars, piloting his own plane, and skiing the Swiss Alps. He partied with actors Siegfried Arno and Marlene Dietrich, and often had a beautiful woman on his arm.
"It was clear to me by mid-1931," Franz explained many years later, in his former employers' claim for reparations from the German government:
I would have to be prepared to leave Germany. Although the Nazis had not yet come to power formally, their influence and popularity with the masses were continually increasing, as were the systematic harassment and persecution of Jews.... I recall renting a hot air balloon and flying over Berlin and its surrounding countryside. My purpose was to say farewell to my homeland before I was compelled to leave.
I also started keeping 2,000 marks on hand as an emergency fund for emigration and began to transfer some of my personal funds out of Germany to Switzerland and the United States for safekeeping.
Nazi attacks on Jews had become a common occurrence by 1931, and such attacks were reported in the press at the time. A friend of mine of Greek heritage, but who had some Semitic features, was attacked by Nazis who mistook him for a Jew. By late 1931, many Jews did not venture alone into the streets of Berlin.
On the Thursday before Christmas 1931 I was walking [in central Berlin] with some friends, including the woman who would become my fiancée. I noticed three camouflaged Nazi teenage youths following us. I warned my companions to be prepared to run and that I would attempt to ward off the Nazi attackers. The Nazi youths began calling us derogatory names. As we were being attacked, I turned and hit two of the[m].... I then slipped on the icy street, and they ... put a coat over my head and began to beat me, using brass knuckles, breaking my hand. A bystander helped free me from the hold of the Nazis ... who were then arrested by the police.
On the following Saturday, a special court session was held to try the youths who had attacked me. The[y] were convicted and sentenced to a little under three months imprisonment.... Around 1:00 a.m. that night, I went to my mother's apartment where I discovered seven boys in Nazi uniform at the delivery entrance who were waiting for me to seek revenge for the conviction of their compatriots.... I warded them off by pretending to have a gun in my coat pocket and slipped in the building through the main entrance. Around 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning, after the Nazi youths had tired of waiting for me and departed, I left the apartment house and proceeded directly to the local train station."
By Franz's account, he left Germany that morning and settled in the Hague before coming to the United States in 1936. All the while he continued his successful business endeavors, the specifics of which we were never told.
As anti-Jewish repression in Germany grew, Franz used his money to provide urgent help to family members and many friends in escaping the Nazi terror, settling in Holland or elsewhere, establishing new lives. He paid the boat fare for others, sometimes establishing deposit funds through relief agencies to make possible international passage for stranded refugees.
My parents emigrated to Amsterdam in 1933 to manage a relative's window display business only to discover the neophyte Dutch Nazi Party in the office next to their store. As time went on and the Nazis grew more powerful, my mother insisted they leave Holland. But immigrants to the United States needed someone who would take ultimate financial responsibility for them. It was only with Franz's backing they were able to enter America in 1937; Jewish friends who lingered in Holland never got out.
In 1939 my mother's oldest sister, Ella, fled to Palestine with her daughter and husband, a disabled World War I Luftwaffe pilot. Franz paid for their exit visas from Germany and provided the family sporadic financial help. PLEASE CABLE WHY MONEY TILL NOW NOT RECEIVED OUR SITUATION IS FRIGHTENING, reads a telegram the family sent from Tel Aviv.
For many years Franz also sent money to the Dutch family that hid my grandmother and looked after my aunt Jenny and her half-Jewish son Wilhelm during the Nazi occupation in southern Holland. A letter updating Franz in 1944 on the whereabouts of these relatives explained.
Up until July 1943 your sister [Jenny] was at work at the Philips' factories. As the Jews were not allowed to mix with other people, all the Jewish workers had to work together in a separate building.... Previous[ly] ... your sister had already been thrown out of her house and her furniture had been seized by the Gestapo but otherwise she had suffered no hardships. In the beginning of July 1943 the Germans decided that this [unit of Jewish workers] was to be moved to the concentration camp in Vught.... When the war proceeded to go against them and invasion came in sight the Germans, I think the Gestapo, decided to remove all Jews from Vught to Germany.... Where they have gone to and how they are treated nobody has been able to find out, though it is generally believed that they have not been sent to Poland but to some camp inside Germany proper.
When the [Jewish workers were] seized and moved to Vught the members of their families were ordered to register a few days later in order also to be taken to the concentration camp. Most of them did not do so but found a shelter amongst the population of our city. Since then your mother has been staying with us for more than a year.
Meanwhile Wilhelm, who is not considered a Jew, has been taken up as a member of one of the Eindhoven families.... They have several boys of his age and he is quite well looked after.
These are the facts ... but after writing this down I once more realize what malicious and dismal brutes the Huns are, especially towards your race. The guns are roaring out all around us and the war is taking its toll of the countryside but I certainly consider it worth the price we have to pay if the world can be freed once and for all of such unworthy creatures.
Yours sincerely, H.C. Hamaker
In the concentration camp Jenny, a highly trained electrical engineer, was forced to produce weapons for the German military. When the Germans were finally defeated and the camp liberated, she contacted Franz through his international cable address for help. He sponsored her entry into the United States along with Wilhelm, the son she had with a gentile man she loved but didn't wish to marry. After all she had endured during the war, and only four years after reaching the United States, Jenny died of a hemorrhage on the operating table of a New York gynecologist during a fairly routine procedure.
After settling in America, Wilhelm changed his first and last names to conceal his German background and out-of-wedlock birth, got his education with Franz's help, married, and had three children whom he raised as non-Jews. Franz made it possible for all three kids to attend expensive, Ivy League colleges. The youngest daughter discovered her family's Jewish heritage only after describing the number tattooed on her grandmother's forearm to a college friend.
• • •
After landing in New York with Franz's sponsorship, my parents started up another window display venture, pasting backdrops and props together in the basement of their rented house. Reestablishing their business in a new country wasn't easy, and my father, like many refugee men, suffered emotionally from his loss of social status. To augment their income my mother took a job at a top Manhattan clothing shop anxious to hire a well-trained German seamstress. She and the other dressmakers peered out from behind the shop's back room curtain as a young Jacqueline Bouvier and other New York sophisticates were fitted with custom-made clothes.
While my parents were struggling in America, the brutality of the Nazi regime continued to take its toll on their families. My father's mother and maiden aunt "disappeared" in Europe along with the houseful of antiques and Persian rugs they had refused to share with fleeing family members. Ultimately they both perished in the Riga concentration camp. On my mother's side, 71 of 72 cousins vanished in the war. My parents' social set was composed entirely of refugees who had suffered family decimation and displacement.
Their handful of surviving friends and relatives from Germany landed in the few countries that would take them—Cuba, England, America, Palestine, Australia. My mother's best friend sent one daughter to Palestine, one to Australia, and kept her favorite in Germany, only to die with her in a concentration camp. For years my mother prepared packages of stockings, soap, hand-me-down children's clothes and other scarce items for the surviving sisters. She often told me I could never understand the pain of losing one's family, friends, and homeland—of forever being a foreigner in a new country.
For twelve years my parents worked to rebuild their lives. They launched a line of artificial flowers and had two children. Shortly after my birth, however, my father became involved with another woman in their refugee community. Devastated, my mother threw him out. She tried at first to hold things together on her own. But then, at Uncle Franz's urging, and in violation of her separation agreement, she moved us secretly from New York to Los Angeles. I seldom saw my father again.
In coming to California my mother gave up support payments from my dad on the promise that her brother would provide financial help and fill the father role for her children. But in this new arrangement my mother's debts to Franz kept piling up. In addition to the free use of a house he owned and the monthly stipend he provided, my mother, who was working part-time, requested additional help, like buying a car, sending my sister and me to camp, or seeing a psychiatrist. Usually he gave, but not always, and often not as much as she needed; Franz always maintained ultimate power and control in the relationship.
In the late 1950s, my aunt Ella was at loose ends in her life and asked to live with us in the house Franz owned. Ella needed the comfort of a family home, and my mother was anxious for help raising her two kids. Inexplicably, Franz denied my mother permission to take in her own sister. Enraged and humiliated, my mother could only speculate that he was retaliating for Ella's refusal to share a tin of sardines with Franz when they were kids during the World War I food shortages. A few months later, heartbroken and alone, Ella killed herself in a New York apartment.
And then there was the matter of his constant criticism—of my mother's child rearing, my cousin's education plans, my sister's lack of interest in music and art, everyone's weight, any relative not in the room at the time. All this might have been tolerable had it been accompanied by some demonstration of love or affection. But that kind of contact was impossible in Franz's emotionally removed, German formality. Any expression of feeling was seen as a personal failing.
At the clear-headed age of sixteen I wrote my older sister a letter admonishing her for living in Europe entirely at Franz's expense. I reminded her of the damage our mother's financial dependence on Franz had done to her self respect and suggested she not follow the same path. My sister shared the letter with Franz and Anya who both thereafter despised me. I became an outcast, the outspoken and excluded youngest niece. Everyone thought it unjust to eject me from the family, but no one had the nerve to endanger their access to Franz's approval, and with that his wealth, by standing up for me.
"See all those people in there?" my uncle's old friend whispers to me outside the luxury dining room overlooking the Pacific Ocean. About 50 people are gathered for a sumptuous, five- course French meal as mandated in Uncle Franz's will to mark his death at 90 from an overdose of self-injected drugs. "Your uncle had something bad to say about every one of them."
Yet many in the room owed their very lives and often their livelihood to him. After fleeing Germany, access to Franz's money became the only hope for hard up relations and friends to regain the prosperous lives they lost to the Nazis. Most, it seemed, were willing to do whatever necessary to secure Franz's financial help, even if they ended up disliking him, and themselves, in the process.
The price of whatever largesse Franz provided was acquiescence to his vilifying everyone else, both family and friend, who came to him for help. His contempt seemed to grow exponentially with his generosity. In time it was easy to imagine his harsh criticism of your own life choices and character when absent from the gathered company. Most everyone was willing to endure this abuse, it seemed, as a down payment on the wealth they hoped to enjoy after his death.
• • •
In looking through Franz's papers after his death we discovered a letter to the future beneficiaries of his estate:
Our last wills and trust are pretty clear. There is only one person who might be unknown to the beneficiaries. That is Ilsa Schummer. . . . About 1960 an engineer visited me at my plant (ODAG Werke) and presented his niece, Ms. Schummer, who had fled from East Germany on account of her anti-communistic beliefs. This engineer wanted me to engage Ms. Schummer at ODAG. I had to deny his request as she had no experience or training; she only knew a little English and she really wanted to become an interpreter or teacher of the English language....
I later learned that Ms. Schummer had gone to England, France, Spain and Italy for a total of six or seven years, had learned the respective languages, and had lived and worked in south Italy for three to four years. From Italy she went to Munich and wrote me on or about 1972 a letter asking me to phone or visit if and when I should be in Germany. She mentioned that she had serious problems. On my next visit to Munich, I saw her at her place of employment, a bank, and she was very depressed because she had no money to attend a reputable interpreter's school. I respected her as a serious person and loaned her 1,000 DM (at that time about $350) which she needed as tuition for the school. I realized that she was very ambitious, hard working, and was haunted by the thought that she might end her life as a poor old lady, begging on the street. Incidentally, in the course of the next few years, when I had a chance to see her, she still had this embedded fear.
On one good day I told her that she should not have the fear that her life would end so badly, because I would leave her some money in my last will. I belong to the people who keep their promises....
Ms. Schummer is an attractive woman if she is dressed properly, very ambitious, hardworking, to a certain point, stubborn, self centered, egoistic, asks her many friends (of whom I only know two male friends) for advice and most of the time she does just the opposite. She is quite intelligent, but not as bright as she thinks she is.
On those Sunday afternoons, sitting around his Hollywood Hills home, Uncle Franz would joke about the women he had in Europe whom he'd visit on frequent business trips. His wife Anya always wanted to go along, but Franz said she'd be bored, stuck alone in the hotels while he worked. I never took his male boasting seriously, but evidently he wasn't kidding.
When Franz died and my sister and I learned of his 30 year relationship with Ilsa, we gathered the snapshots of the unidentified younger woman in various European locations from his photo albums and sent them on to her. She replied, no they weren't her, and sent them back.
• • •
Not long after my uncle's death, on a trip to Italy, I had a chance to meet Ilsa for dinner in a lakeside town just outside Milan.
She arrived in a forest green Audi, casually dressed with a small silk scarf tied neatly around her neck, a tasteful diamond necklace peeking out below it. Light rain fell as we crossed the cobblestone piazza to the only Michelin-starred restaurant in town—her treat. It was clear Ilsa had an urgent need to talk, and during the three course meal she paused only briefly to take small bites of food and ask how my companion and I liked the wine.
Ilsa left East Germany when she was 23 to live with a relative who managed a West German factory. There she met my Uncle Franz, who was in his early sixties and an investor in the plant and other European businesses. They became lovers. Ilsa soon dropped contact with her parents, and Franz become the controlling figure in her life. He financed five years of her education studying languages in various countries. In return, when Franz was in Europe and wanted her, Ilsa was expected to drop everything and join him. Ilsa felt she could only take work which was flexible enough to meet his unpredictable demands. Her first fiancée told her to drop dead when he became aware of Franz's claim on her time.
In her early forties Ilsa finally met a man Franz liked and who tolerated their relationship. They married; but after only a few years the husband died of cancer. Franz then told Ilsa not to worry about money—he'd take care of her.
Over dinner Ilsa described Franz alternately as her best friend—the love of her life—and as a tyrant who made it impossible for her to have a normal family. Like the rest of us, she knew nothing of how he amassed his considerable wealth. But she did know a lot about our family, down to the boring details of Franz's criticisms of every member, including me.
Ilsa told us that Franz was addicted to drugs—painkillers and maybe amphetamines—which hopped him up and made her afraid of him. As he got older he sometimes became aggressive and hostile, once knocking her down in a hotel lobby when she revealed his age to a concierge. When they traveled together he booked adjoining rooms that locked only from his side, not hers. At one point she became so scared of his outbursts that she moved a dresser in front of the connecting door to keep him out.
In recent years Ilsa had become involved with a 70-year-old banker from Milan whom Franz disliked intensely and felt was untrustworthy. Despite this relationship, Franz continued his demands on her time when he was in Europe, once even calling on Easter Sunday expecting her to drop everything and meet him in Switzerland—which she did. Her allegiance to Franz finally caused the banker to take up with another woman and kick Ilsa out, fulfilling Franz's prediction.
Franz was jealous and controlling and became combative whenever Ilsa challenged his judgment. The last time they were together he lashed out that he had made her—she was nothing without him and would be selling flowers on the street if he hadn't stepped in.
At dinner, Ilsa said she was afraid she has wasted her life; at 54 with no kids, no profession, no husband, she felt as if her life was over. I listened sympathetically, as I would to a friend whose husband I hated but who I knew still loved him—anxious to acknowledge her anguish but not wanting to appear critical of the years she devoted to the man.
We were the last to leave the restaurant, and as we walked out into the damp night Ilsa said, it's so odd meeting with you—you of all people. What if Franz is looking down on us right now? And I said, So what? Maybe it's time to release the hold he has on you.
To the very end Uncle Franz was suspicious of his heirs. He accused my sister of stealing $50,000 shortly before he died; the unjust charge caused her a prolonged and debilitating case of colitis. The executors of his estate were instructed to change the locks on his house immediately upon his death. After an inventory and appraisal were made of the contents, any relative walking through the place had to be accompanied by Franz's lawyer, presumably to prevent family thievery.
Franz's long time, live-in German housekeeper, Gretel, was left more than half a million dollars, his Mercedes Benz, and much of the valuable antique furniture. Yet, like Ilsa, Gretel lamented that she gave up her entire life for my uncle.
A handful of others received sizable gifts, and the remaining property and assets were sold and distributed equally among my sister and two cousins. As my mother had predicted many years earlier, neither I nor my children were included. Nor, despite his promises, was Ilsa. Franz removed her from his will shortly before he died—probably because of the Milan banker.
It has taken me many months to get over the pain I felt being excluded from the final drama of Franz's demise. It wasn't losing out on the money that hurt me so deeply; it was the shattering of our tiny family, which Franz initiated and the chosen beneficiaries accepted. Instead of standing up for each other, the survivors deferred to Franz, the assumed source of whatever was missing in their lives. Uncle Franz may have saved the few damaged remnants of our clan from the Nazis, but he killed off any impulse towards family loyalty or mutual devotion.
After much soul-searching, though, I have come to believe Franz that left me the best he had to give—life itself, a burning drive for financial independence, and this sacred Burmese Buddha.
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
April 01, 1999
22 Min read time