My father had but one hobby. It was collecting letters by famous authors, famous painters and famous
composers. What he treasured about the letters was the contact it seemed to give him to the artists he admired especially. That and also the beauty of some of the handwriting. Not all of course were beautiful but the overall appearance of a letter was important to my father. As important as its contents. Whilst we were neither rich nor poor we were reasonably well off in Berlin. This of course played a significant part in building up my father’s collection. My mother was not especially interested in the letters and so, being an only child, they formed a bond between my father and me. Strangely, I do not recall his mentioning them to other people. Not even to close friends.
There was a loud knock on the door. Outside stood two Nazi officers. My mother opened the door. They said that they had come for my father. He was a publisher, a socialist and also Jewish. The officers searched the house thinking my father might be found in hiding. Meanwhile my mother was packing a small suitcase for herself and a small rucksack for me.
The officers were surprisingly polite and they invited me to go up to my father’s study at the top of the house. There, they said I could take one object. The room was filled with books and framed photographs. I chose a long and fat crayon with red lead at one end and blue lead at the other. The soldiers waited whilst my mother packed. Then they asked her to hand over the keys to our house. And that was that. It was goodbye to Schlumberger Strasse. For that was the name of our street. The officers saw us out and double locked the front door. This was Berlin 1938.
I have said that my father was a publisher and so he was. But for many years he worked as a book salesman. And then, shortly before the war, he had saved enough money to buy a small publishing house. It had one especially important author.
His name was Erich Kästner. He wrote mainly for children including one especially famous book ‘Emil and the Detectives’, this had been translated all over the world.
Kästner was not Jewish but he was a socialist and his books were banned and burned in Germany. Unlike my father Kästner was a “bon vivant”. He adored champagne and whenever the two of them met in a favourite “Kneipe” (pub) several bottles would be consumed. Occasionally I was present and I could sense the pained look on my father’s face. But since Kästner was one of the most valuable authors in Germany, he felt obliged to bite his tongue. I must confess I did not get the impression that Kästner especially liked children, at least not this one.
On the eve of the war my father decided to move his office to Vienna. Six months later, Hitler marched into Austria. The day after the occupation, as he arrived in his office, my father was greeted with a “Heil Hitler!”. After Austria we moved to Amsterdam. Again not a good choice. Although he was constantly on the run, my father managed to obtain tickets for my mother and me to get a boat from Stockholm to America. Our boat from Amsterdam to Stockholm was delayed and so we missed the last boat to leave for America before the start of the war. My father found a way to change the tickets for a boat to London. That was where my mother’s brother had settled several years previously. My father transferred his publishing assets to Switzerland which had remained neutral. From Switzerland he shipped books to Austria and Germany. This was not simply brave but even fool-hardy. My grandparents were transported to concentration camps and never heard from again.
My father was born in 1898 which made him 41 at the beginning of the war. Too young to have achieved much in pre-war Germany, and too old to start up again in England. To make a living he began to produce Christmas cards. And he did so with considerable success. Although my parents had long been divorced my mother became his ‘sales lady’ and she continued in this career for many years. Even at the age of 70 she was proud of the fact that she covered thirty thousand miles annually. The boot of her car was filled with sample Christmas cards and on the roof she carried her skis in the winter. She would take weekends off whilst ‘doing’ Scotland.
To escape the Blitz in London my mother managed to get a job as ‘lady cook’ in an English country mansion. I went to the local village school which was known by Sir Cecil and Lady de Salis, my mother’s employers, as the ‘street kid school’. My father meanwhile found a job in London as an air-raid warden. Ideal for someone who could not speak any English.
Later, after the war, I remember my delight in accompanying my father on visits to Paris. There, on the left bank, in the Rue de Seine, he had found a small shop that specialized in letters from writers and artists. They issued a catalogue of their wares. But the most exciting part was leafing through those letters which had not yet been catalogued. Here my father made all kinds of discoveries including letters by Thomas Mann, Henri Matisse, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, Sigmund Freud, John Galsworthy, André Gide, Ivan Turgenev and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
I hope these letters will come to mean as much to the next generation of collectors as they did to my father.
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