Anatomy of a Family Feud – Act 1

feud | fyood |

noun: a state of prolonged mutual hostility, typically between two families

 Take a fistful of jealously, add a  share of resentment, some greed and mistrust, then inject a mother’s suicide, wrap it all in a cloak of secrecy and you have the makings of a full blown family feud. And that’s exactly what I discovered when at age 50, I suddenly learned the truth behind my father’s firmly entrenched secrets, beginning with the fact that our family was Jewish.

This wasn’t a Hatfield vs McCoys kind of feud with guns and shooting and such. Rather it was a full blown feud maintained in total secrecy, where both sides wrapped a cone of absolute silence around themselves, denying each others existence.

But it’s a complicated relationship. So, let me set the scene to make it easier to understand.

Looking at it like a two act play, these were the players:

MY MOTHER……..Lily Weinlaub/Lily Vanlaw ne Rehfisch,the inadvertent protagonist in this drama.

MY FATHER……..Kurt Weinlaub/Curtis Vanlaw

Lily Kurt
Lily                                 Kurt

MY UNCLE……..Wilhelm (Willi) Weinlaub, Dad’s older brother, and his chief source of resentment.

MY AUNT……..Liesel Weinlaub ne Jaeger, Willi’s wife and one time friend of Lily’s.

Willi Liesel
Willi                   Liesel

MY GRANDFATHER……..Adolph Weinlaub, their father and the owner/operator of the Oppenheimer Co., G.m.b.H. Daunensteppinfabrik,.

MY GRANDMOTHER……..Gertrude Weinlaub, Adolph’s wife, their mother and Matriarch.*


Adolph Weinlaub Gertrude Weinlaub
Adolph                           Gertrude

The secondary players:

MY COUSIN……..Helen Shapiro – Willi’s grandaughter

ME……..Peter Vanlaw


The time: circa 1925

The location: Hannover, Germany – A comfortable two story house at #3 Goebenstrasse, an upper middle class neighborhood. Behind the house we see Papa Adolph’s modest three story brick factory building, which just happens to be in the Weinlaub’s back yard.

Weinlaub's Home The Factory
Weinlaub’s Home                The Factory

This is Oppenheimer & Co.; Adolph Weinlaub’s luxury eiderdown bedding business.,

Being the eldest of the two Weinlaub brothers, Willi is being groomed to take over his father’s business.

Long apprenticeships being the norm in Germany in those days, Willi serves his training period working for his father. Getting to work is quite simple and only requires him to walk out the back door of the family’s comfortable home, and take a few steps across the small backyard to Adolph’s three story factory.

Meanwhile, Kurt is also expected to enter the family business, but on a lesser level. However, to learn the business he must endure his long apprenticeship 275 miles away in the city of Stettin, then on the eastern border of Germany, in the Provence of Pomerania near the Baltic Sea.

Two views of Stettin circa 1920
Two views of Stettin circa 1920

He serves his apprenticeship working for a cousin of Adolph’s, Max Weinlaub, who has a similar luxury bedding business in that distant city. Now it’s on the Eastern border of Poland, known as “Szczecin”.

By 1926 Kurt is fed up with his prospects of entering the family business, and the way he’s being treated. He’s essentially living in exile, while his brother just walks out the back door to work.


The time is the early 1940s. The location is California’s San Fernando Valley and the new house of the Vanlaws ne Weinlaub. Kurt Weinlaub has changed his name to Curtis A. Vanlaw, while his son, Peter (me) has grown up only knowing that surname

At this point, the two Weinlaub brothers have already maintained their feud for over a decade, surrounded by their cones of silence.

I’m now about age six when Lily (my mother) speaking in very hushed tones, tells me that Dad has a brother named Willi, who lives in England. But because he doesn’t like his brother, he never mentions him, or wants anything to do with him.

Me and Mom 1943
Me and Mom 1943

With a child’s logic, I believe that Willi is a very bad person. Otherwise why would Dad dislike him so much? So, from then on, I carry a picture in my mind of dad’s brother as a shadowy ne’er-do-well skulking around the back alleys of London, scavenging food out of trashcans.

But in 1988 that all changed when I learned that Willi not only had a successful business, but a family as well with two grand daughters. And one of them was coming to L.A. to meet my folks. That’s when I first met Dad’s niece, Helen Shapiro.

My cousin, Helen.
My cousin, Helen.

Now let’s move on to learn more about the deep, dark family secrets that created the feud in the first place:

It came as great surprise to me that Dad had a niece in the first place.

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. In other words, she grew up never knowing that my father existed.

While Helen and I had a brief opportunity to discuss our family’s secrets before she returned to England, 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 with me.

That really piqued my curiosity. What on earth could fuel so much animosity for such a long time?

Unfortunately, it took a matter of years for me to learn what I now believe to be the real story behind their feud.

When we left Kurt in Scene 1, he was fed up with the prospect of returning to his father’s business in Hannover. The separation from his family is a galling reminder that it is Willi and not Kurt who will take over Adolph’s luxury bedding business.

My mother once told me that Kurt also resented Willi because he felt he was better qualified to run it, but he was a victim of tradition.

Finally, in 1926 Kurt gives up his stake in his father’s business, and sets off to make it on his own in America. It doesn’t take long for him to get hired by a New York firm in the same line of business. The company is called Kentucky Needlecraft. As a salesman for them, Kurt is an overnight success, and within two years is rewarded with a promotion to the job of manager for the company’s brand new Los Angeles sales office.

But before making the move, he returns to Hannover to marry my mother.

Kurt & Lily's wedding July, 1929
Kurt & Lily’s wedding July, 1929

Then as newlyweds, after a brief honeymoon in the Hartz Mountains, they sail back to New York and spend the next couple of weeks driving across country to their new home in Hollywood, California.

They live quite comfortably for the next four months.

Four years before the Feud.
Stylish Kurt & Lily

But on October 29, 1929 the world is stunned by the stock market crash, and the country begins its long slide into the Depression.

Variety headline
Variety headline

As jobs disappear, the money for luxury goods dries up and within a short time Kurt’s company has to close its new L.A. office, transferring him back to New York.

Fortunately, his company allows him six weeks to return to the main office, as long as he does some selling for them along the way.

But Lily is terribly depressed by Kurt’s job loss and their precarious life style . However, by treating their return to New York as a chance to really see America, her optimism seems to revive.

But it doesn’t last. Within days of their return to New York, Lily becomes terribly homesick, and makes a solo voyage back home to Germany for an extended two month vacation.

Lily enjoying her return trip home to Hannover.
Lily enjoying her return trip home to Hannover.

When she finally returns to Kurt, she’s greeted with the news that he has lost what remained of their savings as a result of some bad investment advise. Then she also learns that her trip back to Hannover did not sit well with her mother in law, Gertrude.

Gertrude is blaming my mother for turning her back on her favorite son, by deserting him in order take a trip back home to Hannover, just when he needs her support the most.

Gertrude, my grandmother
Gertrude, my grandmother

Then another stinging rebuke. During my mother’s absence, Gertrude has started a letter writing campaign, urging Kurt to come back home to Germany and enter the family business. She promises that she will urge Willi to create a new position for him, if he returns.

It doesn’t take long, because Kentucky Needlecraft ultimately declares bankruptcy. As a result, Kurt feels that he has no other choice. So, against my mother’s vehement pleas not to do it, they pack up and return once again to Hannover.

End of Act 1. (Look for Act 2 in my next Blog)

*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.


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