When I was seven or eight, Mom told me in very hushed tones that Dad had a brother, Willi, who lived in England. But because he didn’t like his brother, he never spoke of him, nor wanted anything to do with him.
With a child’s logic, I assumed that Willi was a very bad person. Otherwise why would Dad dislike him so much? So, from then on, I carried a picture in my mind of Willi as a shadowy figure, skulking around the back alleys of London, scavenging food out of trashcans.
That all changed in 1988, when I learned that Willi not only had a family, but two grand daughters, one of whom was coming to L.A. to meet my folks. That’s when I first met Dad’s niece, Helen Shapiro.
It came as great surprise to me that Dad had a niece in the first placed. But then I was surprised again when Helen told me that she had only learned that her grandfather had a brother shortly before she left England for her visit here.
The two of us had a brief opportunity to discuss our family’s secrets before she returned to home, but we couldn’t get much beyond confirming that her grandfather, Willi Weinlaub had never talked about his brother, Kurt, just like my father had refused to talk about his brother, Willi.
Now I really had to find out what took place between them that could fuel so much animosity for such a long time.
But family secrets being what they are, it took a matter of years for me to learn what I now believe to be the real story behind their feud and how it began.
It probably started around the time they began their apprenticeships, preparing to enter their father’s business.
Adolph Weinlaub was the successful owner and operator of the Oppenheimer Co., G.m.b.H. Daunensteppinfabrik, in Hannover, Germany. His company manufactured luxury eider down quilts, pillows and other expensive bedding items.
The Weinlaubs lived in a comfortable three story house on Goebenstrasse, an upper middle class Hannover neighborhood. Adolph’s modest three story brick factory building just happened to be in the Weinlaub’s back yard.
Adolph’s wife was the former Gertrude Blumenthal. Her father, Emil, originally bought the business from the Oppenheimer family, and hired Adolph as his assistant. Then Adolph married the bosses daughter, and later bought out his father in law.
It was customary in Germany for the eldest – Willi in this case – to take over the business from his father. But both Willi and my father were expected to work for Adolph. However, to do so meant that both had to become apprentices first, and then spend two years learning the luxury bedding business. Back in the day, long apprenticeships were expected in Germany.
Unfortunately for my father, all Willi had to do was step out the back door to go to work, since his workplace was in the backyard. But, Kurt was forced to endure his long apprenticeship 275 miles away in the city of Stettin, then on the eastern border of Germany, working for Adolph’s cousin Max, in a similar business.
The separation from his family must have been a galling reminder that it was Willi and not Kurt who would take over Adolph’s luxury bedding business. My mother once told me that Dad also resented Willi because he felt he (Dad) was better qualified.
Finally, in 1926, my father was sufficiently fed up that he totally gave up his stake in his father’s business, and set off to make it on his own in America.
It didn’t take long for him to get hired by a New York firm in the same line of business as Adolph’s. As a salesman for them, Dad was an overnight success, and within two years was rewarded with a promotion to the job of manager for the company’s brand new Los Angeles sales office.
But before making the move, Kurt returned to Hannover to marry my mother. Then as newlyweds, they sailed back to New York and spent the next couple of weeks driving across country to their new home in Hollywood.
They lived quite comfortably, but it was only for four months, because on October 29, 1929 the stock market crashed, and the country slid into the Depression. As jobs disappeared, the money for luxury goods dried up and within a short time Kurt’s company had to close its new L.A. office, transferring him back to New York.
Meanwhile, Lily had become terribly homesick, and within days of their return to New York, made a solo voyage back home to Germany for an extended two month vacation.
When she did return to Kurt, he greeted her with the news he had lost what remained of their savings as a result of some bad investments. But she also learned from Kurt that her trip back to Hannover did not sit well with her mother in law.
Gertrude blamed my mother for turning her back on her favorite son, leaving him for a Hannover vacation, just when he needed her support the most.
Then another stinging rebuke. During my mother’s absence, Gertrude had started a letter writing campaign, urging Kurt to come back home to Germany and enter the family business. She would have Willi create a new position for him when he arrived.
It didn’t take long, because Dad’s New York employer ultimately went belly up. As a result, he felt he had no other choice. So, against my mother’s vehement pleas not to do it, they returned once again to Hannover.
End of Part 1.