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The German Empire was founded in 1871, a complex coming together of previously separate states. Prussia occupied more than three-fifths of the area of this new empire, had approximately three-fifths of the population and became the dominant force in the nation until after World War I.

My maternal grandfather, Erich Max Isakowitz, was born in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), the capital of Eastern Prussia, in February 1891. A fortified city with a bustling port, Königsberg (top right and map) was a university city and important intellectual and cultural centre. Its most famous son was the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who taught at the Albertina University.

Jews have been subject to a wide range of restrictions throughout European history. Königsberg had been home to Jews since the mid-16th century, but the small numbers had led severely constrained lives. The emancipation of Prussian Jews in 1812 improved the situation, but they were still restricted from most military and government professions. Full emancipation came in 1869 and by 1900 the city had a flourishing and diverse Jewish community with three synagogues.

Erich, the 10th child of Bernhard and Johanna (Kosminsky) Isakowitz, prosperous observant Jews, attended the prestigious Collegium Fridericianum school in the city. His mother died in 1905 and he recalled ‘attending synagogue thrice daily after her death to say the mourners, Kaddish’. His beleaguered father sent him as a boarder to a medical family in Tilsit (top left). Inspired by his generous hosts, Erich fixed upon medicine as his future profession and in 1909 began a drawn-out academic education at the Albertina Universität Königsberg and the University of Munich.

My grandmother, Sofie Berlowitz, was born in 1893 in Eydtkuhnen (now called Chernyshevkoye), a small town on the Prussian-Russian border. Eydtkuhnen (bottom left) was the easternmost terminus of the Prussian Eastern Railway, connecting Berlin and other German cities with the St. Petersburg–Warsaw Railway in the Russian Empire. To continue their voyages west all passengers and goods had to change trains in Eydtkuhnen to the German gauge railway. The several prosperous Berlowitz family businesses included moving goods and passengers from one set of trains to another.

Between 1881 and 1914 about two million Jews fleeing poverty and pogroms emigrated from the Russian Empire via routes like this through Germany, heading for Hamburg or Bremen to board ships for America. This westward migration, entailing compulsory health checks, intensified in the 1880s and continued until the beginning of World War I. An Eydtkuhnen-based committee started by the Jewish communities of East Prussia supported the often-destitute emigrants. Eydtkuhnen had its own small but prosperous Jewish community and a synagogue was built on the town square in 1872. The town was severely damaged by the Russians in World War I (bottom right).

Sofie, the second of four children of Isidor and Fanny Berlowitz, was tall, intelligent, strong willed, well-educated and well-travelled. Sofie had visited England, which was unusual for those times and there is some indication of flirtation with an Englishman. This is suggested by the silver card holder (centre), with her name engraved on it and the English hallmark. That she spoke good English was a factor that would eventually help her family leave Germany in 1936 with permission to settle in Britain.