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Kitchen table history

MOST SURVIVORS DIDN'T TALK ABOUT IT, at least not to their children.

But my Dad wasn’t a survivor, or anyway he never called himself that. He was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany – not that he ever used the word ‘refugee’ to describe himself either.

He saw himself as simply a lucky man, at a time when luck was in short supply.

Dad was a master at weaving the threads of his direct experience – before, during and after his flight from Hitler’s Germany at age 28 -- into the stories that nourished my childhood imagination. He was born in 1910, so his early childhood evoked a distant time and place that had nothing to do with Nazis.

Some of his earliest memories were Dickensian:  From age 5, he had to carry heavy buckets of coal from the cellar up four flights of stairs, twice a day, to feed the stove that warmed the family’s Mannheim apartment. In school he feared the strict teachers who punished students who came to school with dirty hands, whipping their knuckles so that they’d remember to clean their hands next time.


Max Sonnemann with Matilda's parrot, Munich, A8 (Portraits)-002.jpg

But my father also held onto sweet memories: summers spent on his uncle’s farm in the village of Freudental, milking cows, helping with the harvest of wheat and hay, loading an ox-drawn wagon with unbaked breads and pies to take to the village bake house for the Sabbath meal.

Picnics, hikes and bicycle rides with friends in the countryside; the science museum and the English Garden in Munich when he visited his grandparents, aunts and uncles there. His grandmother’s irreverent parrot who called some of the visitors fressers, big eaters.

MY FATHER'S BROTHER, Max, with their grandmother's parrot.

AS MY FATHER RECOUNTED THESE STORIES, personal and political life intersected more and more as he grew up.  During the First World War, he told us, food was so scarce that sawdust replaced the flour in bread. Sawdust! How many times my father told us about the sawdust as he indulged his passionate appreciation for unadulterated bread: a light rye with caraway seeds or crisp white rolls fresh from a bakery; my mother’s double-braided challah on a Friday night.

Butter also had a connection to the impoverished diet of Germany during World War I. Salt disguised the taste of rancid butter, Dad told us, and therefore, unsalted -- or "sweet" -- butter was unavailable. Thus, in our house we had only unsalted butter on our bread—and then only if it was not a meat meal in our kosher household.

BREAD ENTERED DAD'S HISTORY in a more positive way soon after the end of World War 1. "A real wonderful thing happened in grammar school,” Dad told me. “The principal told us we were going to get our first good meal, provided by the American people: some cocoa and some real white rolls. Dad paused for emphasis. “Real. White. Rolls!”


This food was provided to school children once a week by a hunger relief program founded by Herbert Hoover under President Wilson. “Well, the cocoa was really something; it tasted so wonderful,” my father recounted of that first ‘American’ meal.'  “And the white rolls -- I took one bite, and I knew my parents hadn’t had anything like this in four years. So, I took half the roll and put it in my pocket and brought it home to my parents. The first ‘Hoover roll,’ they used to call it.”

Hoover small.jpg

HERBERT HOOVER (left) was an important part of a hunger relief program after World War I to benefit starving children in Europe, including Germany.

SCHOOL CHILDREN IN POLAND in 1919 (below) hold plates in anticipation of a meal. My father remembers receiving hot chocolate and a white roll, nicknamed a "Hoover roll."

Photos courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library

Food program 1919.jpg

A PAGE OF MY FATHER'S STAMP ALBUM shows the hyper-inflation of stamps

STARTLING AND BIZZARE TALES  emerged from Germany’s hyperinflation of the early 1920s, as the Weimar Republic kept printing paper money until it was devoid of value. In 1922, you could buy a loaf of bread in Germany for 3 Reichsmarks, but by November of 1923, a loaf of bread cost 80 billion Reichsmarks. Eighty billion!

“When you went to the post office to send a letter, first it was 20 pennies and then it was 20 marks and then it was 200 marks and then 2,000 marks and then 20,000 marks,” Dad said. “We never had much money, but my father always played the lottery. One time he won 20,000 marks, and he ran to a haberdashery and bought himself a Borsalino hat, a special hat from Italy. He paid 20,000 marks for it.” It was a sum that would have bought a house the week before.


By the following day, those 20,000 marks wouldn’t have even bought a hatband for his father’s hat, Dad said. “That’s how bad it was.”

“They overprinted the money so the marks were a thousand and then a hundred thousand and then a million," Dad told me. "I plastered our bathroom wall with one-billion-mark notes as a memory. And all of it put together wasn’t worth a thing.”


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