To recap where we left off at the end of Act 1, Lily’s recent return from her six week sabbatical back home to Hannover was not a happy one. First she was greeted with the news that Kurt had lost what remained of their savings because of some bad investments he’d made.
Then she learned that her trip back to Hannover did not sit well with her mother-in-law, Gertrude, who accused her of turning her back on her favorite son, just when he needed her support the most.
Then another stinging rebuke: During her absence, Gertrude began a letter writing campaign to my father, urging him to come back home to Germany, because she was not well and needed him by her side. To make it worthwhile, she promised to have his brother, Willi, create a new position for him in the family business.
Playing on Kurt’s frustrations with his career and the economy in America, Gertrude continued to correspond with her son long after Lily returned from her vacation, driving another wedge into the breach between mother and daughter-in-law.
Ultimately fate intervened. Kentucky Needlecraft was no longer able to sustain itself in the luxury bedding business, finally closing its doors forever. At that point it didn’t take much for Kurt to make the fateful decision to accept his mother’s invitation and return to Hannover, hoping to gain a fresh start in the Weinlaub’s family business.
But Lily protested vehemently, fearing the power that his mother held over him, while asking the obvious question, “How could the market for luxury bedding be any better in Germany than it was in America?” But Kurt prevailed, and so they returned home to Hannover.
Act 2, Scene 1 – Hannover, Germany, June 1, 1932
While Gertrude is overjoyed having her favorite son back, brother Willi is far less enthusiastic, considering the desperate state of the economy and the fact that he has little choice in overriding his mother’s decision.
To further exacerbate the relationship, Kurt and Lily accept Gertrude’s warm invitation, and upon their arrival immediately move in with his parents at Goebenstrasse #3.
Not a wise choice because living with his parents proves to be untenable. Both of them are unhappy with the way Lily is being treated by Kurt’s family. It takes less than a month before they move out. and into their own apartment in another part of town.
Although out from under his family’s immediate scrutiny, the damage is done.
Meanwhile, at the Weinlaub’s factory, Kurt is totally dissatisfied with the position his brother has given him, finding it menial to the point of being insulting. Meager scraps after his lofty experience running the Los Angeles sales office of Kentucky Needle Craft.
Finally the inevitable. After barely seven moths since Kurt and Lily arrived back in Hannover; Kurt makes another fateful decision, this time to walk away from his father’s business all together.
Act 2, Scene 2 – Berlin, December 24, 1932
On the day before Christmas, Kurt and Lily leave Hannover behind and move to Berlin.
Kurt immediately moves into a new business of his own, as a manufacturer’s sales rep, with an office in the Mariendorf section of Berlin. Obviously this has been planned for sometime with the help of Lily’s influential uncle Siegfried Baruch,
Lily is ecstatic because not only is she away from the scorn of her Mother-in-Law, but she’s back with her favorite uncle and his family – the family with whom she lived six years earlier, when she was in nursing school in Berlin.
Siegfried is a very successful publisher in Berlin, along with his son, Bari. His wife, Kaete, is a well known actress in Berlin theater, while young Eva is destined to become a successful actress with her own career and an incredible story to tell years later.
But Kurt’s rapid departure devastates Gertrude, who is now under a doctor’s care complaining of migraine headaches.
Then barely a month later in January, 1933, Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany, followed in rapid succession at the end of February with the burning of the Reichstag; then the Enabling Act in March, allowing Hitler sole authority to change the Constitution and rule by decree; followed a week later when the Nazis organize a national boycott of Jewish businesses, allowing NS thugs to beat up Jews on the street and for universities to fire Jewish professors without provocation.
But then the biggest shock of all comes four days later, on April 4, 1933, when Gertrude ends her own life – committing suicide by taking poison.
The repercussions within the Weinlaub family are enormous and immediate, with much finger pointing, and accusations upon counter accusations. But the brunt of it comes down on my parents. For Kurt choosing to depart from his family after such a short time, and for Lily having been the cause of it in the first place.
I’m sure Willi resented his brother’s return as an intrusion into his domain, and a potential threat to his authority, since Kurt had already rejected the business six years earlier. But when his mother committed suicide, he must have lost his composure, accusing Kurt of being the major cause of it by coming back from America in the first place. And with the German economy in a rapid decline, Kurt was an un-necessary drain on the firms shrinking profits. So, I don’t think Kurt’s departure bothered Willi very much. But the death of his mother was another matter.
On the other hand, Kurt, in his frustration over his menial new role in the company, is known to have called Willi an imbecile and not fit to run the Weinlaub’s business in the first place.
The hostility between Kurt and his brother began almost from time he arrived back in Hannover. Add to it Gertrude’s relentless level of disdain toward Lily for her solo trip home a year earlier, and Kurt’s sudden departure from the family’s business made it impossible to heal the ever widening breach between them.
We’ll never know how much Gertrude’s health and her inability to deal with the turmoil within her family played a part in her demise – much of which she brought on herself.
Or, how much of it was actually driven by the fear that Hitler’s swift domination of Germany created, with Nazi thugs blocking entrances to Jewish business and Jewish blood splattered on the streets, creating a growing threat to their very lives and their livelihood.
With all these events happening almost simultaneously, more than likely it was both.
But the scars left on Lily’s psyche were severe. Despite all the conflicting evidence, she never felt free from the accusations aimed at her, and continued to carry the burden of guilt for Gertrude’s death, for the rest of her life.
In the meantime, with the Nazi’s vicious assault on the Jews, it took no further prodding for Kurt to see how dangerous it was to remain in Germany. Fortunately he kept his return visa to the U.S. which was still valid. But there were only a few days left on it before it would become void and he had to act quickly.
Yet ever the pragmatist, he knew that before he could happily return to America, his first order of business was to patch-up the shattered remnants of a relationship between him and his family. To do this he had to show his loyalty to the them by defusing the intense anger that remained between him and his brother
So, on the way to the port of Bremen, and the ship that would take my parents back to the U.S., he made a quick detour to Hannover, in an attempt to salvage his standing within his family.
By making an appearance and offering to do what he could for his departed mother, I’m certain that he was also hoping to protect his future share of his inheritance from the Weinlaub estate – a conclusion I drew from finding his old letters, years later,
Scene 3: Sherman Oaks, CA, circa 2001.
Learning from my cousins, Helen and Linda, that the brothers had denied each others’ existence to all of us for all these years, what came later was a total shock when I found the ultimate irony within his effects, after my father died,
While going through his letters, I discovered that Willi and Kurt had been secretly corresponding to one another as far back as 1938. That means they began writing barely five years after all the family bitterness surrounding their mother’s suicide. Yet for whatever reasons, they chose to keep each other’s identity secret from their children/grand-children.
The letters were extremely cordial and very business-like, as if they were business associates, not brothers. And oddly enough, they always wrote in English.
The earlier ones were simply updates about wives, children and life in their adopted countries. Willi, his wife, Liesel and daughter Edith fled to England in 1935, one year after I was born, and two years after my parents returned to America.
But their lives and ours were far different. While we were safe in America, Willy and his family were living in London, truly in the middle of a ravaged war zone. First Willi had to live through a period internment in a British prison camp for German nationals. Then the three of them had to live through the “London Blitz”. .
There were no letters during the war years, but in 1945, all of them having survived, they began writing again. But now it was updates relating the tragic loss of many friends and close relatives. Yet considering that the war had only ended seven months earlier, I found it very disturbing to read how dispassionate my father’s responses were.
Ever the master of the understatement, my father seemed to show little regard for Willi’s wife and daughter having survived the Blitz, while they continued living in a bombed out city. And then how carefully he slipped in the question of whether or not his brother had filed a claim for the Weinlaub’s estate. It was both his tone and his timing that has always bothered me.
I have to assume through his dispassionate and business like demeanor that the old bitterness was still there. But necessity required that he remain civil to protect his inheritance.
Then as time went on they continued to write one another, mainly reviewing the progress of the lawyers, or the lack thereof, while their claim was moving through the courts. The legal wrangling went on for fourteen years, with the inevitable result that the lawyers got the all proceeds and the brothers got nothing.
While they continued to write sporadically, Willi’s later letters spoke of their travels around the world, even visiting the U.S. on one occasion. But Willi never asked to see my father again, nor did my father ever invite him to do so.
The last time they saw one another was in 1933, when my father made that detour to his parents home, before his final trip back to America.
The final letter my father received was in 1981 from Willi’s wife Liesel, informing him that his brother had succumbed after a long illness. And so it was that the two brothers continued their long term resentment and never saw one another again.