My grandfather Erich trained as a doctor and then as a dental surgeon, as was the custom of the time. Erich was intelligent, creative and charming but also quick tempered and an inveterate womaniser. Before World War I he became an assistant dental surgeon in Silesia where he fell in love with a girl who had a Prussian officer, a friend of his, as her lover. He fought over her with the lieutenant in an illegal ‘American duel’. In such duels, lots were drawn to decide which of the duellers should kill himself before a given date! The officer got the ‘short straw’ and shot himself; it is not known if this was fatal. Erich was court martialled but pronounced innocent. Ultimately, Erich did not marry the girl, after some research into her reputation found it wanting.
His businessman father Bernhardt, unimpressed by his behaviour, refused to help him professionally. With an eye to the constant flow of travellers westward, Erich took out a bank loan and opened a surgery in Eydtkuhnen. Here he met Sofie, a distant relative on his father’s side. This stylish, headstrong couple(top right, seated) were married in a Jewish ceremony in Eydtkuhnen on 26th April 1914 (marriage certificate bottom left). Isidor, Sofie’s father, offered a considerable dowry on their
marriage and her new husband gave Sofie this necklace (bottom left). Erich’s marriage to my grandmother was always stormy, marked by infidelity and only saved by convention and the level of adversity they faced together. After the outbreak of World War I, the couple moved to Tilsit (now known as Sovetsk), where Erich had lived as a teenager and he again set up a dental practice.
In early 1915 Erich was called up and served at Metz and Verdun as a medical orderly (centre right). Later he served on the Western Front, where he specialised in fractures of the jaw. In diaries he described in detail an outbreak of ‘Spanish flu’ which killed one of his brothers, and wrote of giving injections, for which per 100 soldiers they had 4 syringes and 10 needles. As he did not see active combat, he was not decorated but did receive recognition and compensation for his war service.
In the early 20th century Tilsit was thriving. An elegant town with 34,500 inhabitants; it had electric tramways, a direct railway line to Königsberg and steamers docked daily close to the famous Queen Louise bridge, which spanned the Memel river. Like Eydtkuhnen, Tilsit was a city of transit, thronging with those fleeing poverty, persecution or both. In Tilsit, travellers bought tickets for their onward journey or collected the coveted vouchers already paid for by relatives. Tilsit itself was chiefly made up of Germans, who lived alongside minority Lithuanians and Jews. There was, however, a Prussian policy of deportation which regularly required the permanent Jewish citizens of town to make hazardous life decisions: either move on or fight for their existence in the city. Those like my grandfather, who were able with professional expertise and influence to stay there, came to completely identify themselves with the Imperial Empire and were active in their community and as soldiers.
My mother, Hannalore, always known as Lore (centre), their only child, was born on 15th July 1915 (birth certificate above) at the height of the Great War. An anxious and timid child, she was hurt by some older boys in an anti-Semitic attack at the age of 5. This led her father and his male relatives ‘to form a queue at the school exit and hit every boy who could not give an alibi, in the same way they hit my daughter’. The mounting political tension and rise of anti-Semitism, coupled with the beginning of the hyperinflation of the period, led the family to leave Tilsit in 1924. They made the 1000km journey to Dresden, where Sofie’s brother, also a dental surgeon, and his family had settled.