Saturday, March 14, 2015

A letter from Berlin from 1923

At the height of the German hyperinflation (October 1923),  my grandfather was in Berlin trying to enroll in the technical school there to become an engineer. He had sent this postcard to his younger brother. The stamps on the postcard added up to 9 million Deutschmarks. He writes:

"Beloved Brother!!
Today I have to pack to move to another room, where I will stay until I leave Berlin. My host has already left. I remain with her old mother for the next few days until I receive the money from home. I want to get a passport to go to America. I have no interest in returning to Romania. There is no place for me there. In America I will make my own money.

This serious decision of departing for America was written on the back of a painting of two little girls fighting over their potty. The question under painting is "Whose is the victory?"

Grandpa - many years later
 In another letter he sent to his parents, he was so optimistic and so certain he will succeed in becoming an engineer that he signed with "Student Engineer Iulian". The picture he paints of Berlin is fairly bleak.  The factories were closing without being able to pay their employees.  A bread was 18 million Deutschmarks, and the value of the Deutschmark was changing from hour to hour by factors of 100. Initially he pays $11 (6 million Deutschmarks) for a coat, and by the end of the paragraph he had spent 23 millions on bread and 175 millions, which is now only $1, for a hat.  Since the Deutschmark was so volatile, in order to not lose his money overnight, he would keep them in US dollars. So, when he wrote home, he also mentioned the US dollar equivalent of his purchases.

At almost the same age as grandpa, Mihai left Romania to study in Berlin. He took this letter and the postcard above with him, and has been carrying them around the world since. They are still in comparatively good shape. I have scanned them to have them in a more permanent form.

The letter says:

"Beloved Parents,

By the grace of God I find myself healthy and in the same time at peace, and I believe that God also holds you healthy and in peace. Here in Germany I was not received in any factory. No factories function properly. There are two that are not closed, but even there people only work part time: 2-3 days per week.
Page 1
I have met an engineer who promised to help me here in Berlin. He will enroll me in the Technical School and in the Factory. I saw him on Thursday, which was today.  He wrote the request for my admission in the Technical School in Köln in Rhein, where I will certainly be admitted, and I sent it immediately. The engineer has purchased a society in Bucharest, and two mines in Banat [the western part of Romania]. He is now wanting to buy an Iron mine in Banat. He advised me to learn English. Without knowing both German and English, you cannot live. Everyone will step over you. He told me to study the mines, and get my degree in engineering. Then he said I could join his society and we could work together. He has a brother in America, who is professor at a university there, and a friend who is professor at the Technische Hochschule from Berlin. In April he promised to enroll me in the Technical School if I remind him with a letter in January or February.

Page 2
From Köln, I will reach Paris in 8 hours by train*.

I have paid to have a winter coat made, and one set of clothes with two pairs of pants. The coat was $11 (6 million Deutschmarks), and the pants another $10. The barber cut my hair for 11 million Deutschmarks. I did not pay for shaving.  Before I had borrowed a razor from my host, but I saw her mother did not like it. So instead for $2 I bought my own razor and also purchased some soap, a mirror, a small plate for shaving, and a belt. I have also bought bread (23 million Deutschmarks) and a hat for 175 million Deutschmarks, which was $1. Then yesterday I bought a lamp for 210 million Deutschmarks, which last night was a dollar and a half ($1.5), and a liter of petrol for 18 million Deutschmarks. I can send you my whole accounting if you want it. This evening I will register in the students' society.
Page 3
In 8 days I will receive an answer from Köln. Then I will leave immediately.

The weather is not favorable. It's foggy and cold. Tell Ghedeon [his oldest brother] to take his heavy coat when he leaves home. He must not leave in light clothes as if [he was] going to a wedding. I would not have had the winter coat made if it could be avoided, but it is so cold that it is hard to walk.
Page 4
Today in Berlin the factory called Stock has thanked the people working there instead of paying them because they had no money to pay them with. The businessman Wolf** said that he was leaving Berlin for Czechoslovakia because he can no longer live here.

Did you gather the grapes? How much money did you get for them? I have not eaten grapes since I left home. I have eaten plums given by my host. Today I had a soup with potatoes and carrots without meat or fat in it. It is a sad life here in Berlin. For a small piece of sausage, one pays 25 million  Deutschmarks.

What does Octavia [his youngest sister] say about school? Does she like to study?

I kiss you all thousands of times,

Student Engineer"
*His older brother Teodor was studying law in Paris at the time. The distance from Köln to Paris is now covered in 3 hours and 18 minutes by direct train, and in a little over 4 hours with a non-direct connection. So, trains 100 years ago, were twice as slow as they are today.
**He may mean Wilhelm Wolf, a businessman who died in November 1923 as part of the Hitlerputsch, but I cannot be sure; if it's the same person, he did not made it to Czechoslovakia.

In the first world war Romania was part of the "allied powers", which included France and Britain. The Allies won the great war, and citizens of the "Allied" countries were disliked in Germany, where so much suffering arose because they had lost the war.  So, grandpa's stay in Germany soon after the end of the war must have been particularly difficult. Eventually, the hyperinflation ended and grandpa was allowed to work in a factory where he melted iron and other metals. We still have two pig-shaped ashtrays he  made there. However, he was not allowed to enroll in any German engineering program. He also earned too little money to buy proper food, and developed scurvy due to the lack of vitamins in his diet. The scurvy left him with a life-long dislike for potatoes. When I remember him, he was already in his eighties. He would eat potatoes out of respect for my grandmother and my great aunt's cooking, but always in smaller quantities than the rest of us.

Instead of going to America, at his father's insistence, grandfather returned to Romania in 1924. Had they all gone to the US like he wanted, perhaps more of his brothers would have lived to be old and have families of their own.  By sending each of his boys to a different country, and by trying to coordinate their lives from far away, my great-grandfather made it harder for them. Together they would have been stronger, but their father had thought that it was important for each of them to manage on his own. By 1923 he was already sick. He died in 1928, and his desire to bring his sons back to Romania so that he could see them from time to time is not something that I can blame him for.  Furthermore, retrospective judging is always unfair. They each did what they thought was best at the time.

After returning to Romania, grandpa studied in the Technical School in Bucharest and obtained a degree in forest engineering. He wanted to study mechanical engineering. However, a friend enrolled him in the silvic engineering degree program. After that, he had no choice other than to attend. The friend was well intentioned, and had thought that because of his former health problems, it was better for grandpa to be a forest engineer.

He was a very successful engineer, and earned a lot of money. He valued learning all his life, and after coming back from Germany he vowed to always make his living using his intelligence, and not his back. He had found physical labor in factories to be very taxing. The year he married he was earning 30 times the salary of a school teacher every month (99, 000 lei/month). However, he never kept the money he made, and had not owned anything of value beyond the clothes on his back until he was in his sixties. This kept him alive through the various turbulent periods that Romania went through. Working in forests that were close to the Serbian border, he was able to help people escape during the Holocaust. He also moved often - sometimes every year or sometimes every two years, he was assigned a new location where he would start building everything from scratch. He did not marry until after the second world war, when he was already in his 40s. After the war, his salary was always half that of my grandmother, and even his retirement allotment was much less than hers. However, they had enough to live on, and they were close enough that it did not really matter who made what.

Growing up my brother and I believed that grandpa had had the most wonderful job in the world.  We adored him, and we dreamed of becoming forest engineers ourselves.  When I was little he was already very old (78 when I was born, 82 to 89 when I remember him), and even then he was so full of life and energy. He did yoga, cut wood, washed dishes, and, in the beginning, he was able to hold us on his shoulders and walk around the room with both of us (I can now appreciate how hard that is).  He had a very strong personality that shone through, and a strong power of persuasion. He was also never lazy. We found him difficult to disobey, and had to write many letters and do lots of math problems at his suggestion.

Grandpa died at 89 and 1/2. At 89 he had a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, but he found the strength to recover from it and start walking again. Soon after he was well again, he had another stroke and died, but the week before that felt he was dying. So, he thanked my grandmother and told her that he loved her, and told my mother he was sorry he was leaving her fatherless. I remember him saying that one can honestly claim they have done everything they could for their children, and for the world only when they close their eyes. He told us to never be afraid of him or of his memory (we had heard of zombies and vampires at the time) because, wherever he'll be and in whatever shape, he will always love us.  I could not believe his eyes would ever close until the moment it happened. Even dead, his face had relaxed into a smile as if somehow he'd managed to control that. So, I have never been afraid of ghosts.

As children, we planted many trees and enjoyed watching them grow. Our garden became so full of trees that not much grew other than grass. After we grew some more, we brought a lamb into the garden. Ciupi was so pretty and white, and so much fun to play with. She ate everything that had remained in the garden (not the trees), but it no longer mattered much. We were busy studying and soon left home.

Mihai left Romania in 1999, and I left in 2001. My mother has always supported Mihai and me in whatever we decided, and still tries to make our life easier in any way she can. There were times when our parents did not see either of us for years (2-3 years), and they bore the separation without complaint.

Mihai did graduate in Berlin with a German Diplom, and we have PhDs from two of the best universities in the US, but we have never had to face a war-torn Europe. Grandpa had been through both world wars, and the 1989 revolution, which involved facing endless destruction followed by periods of more tragedy when the inflation/hyperinflation was expected. However, like him, we have traveled and became citizens of the world instead of fitting in a given place or country. In the US Mihai and I were 3000+ km apart (I lived on the East Coast and Mihai on the West Coast), and only saw each other once every few years. We have learned that it is hard to be 'alone against/in the world', and understood that it is important to love people more than places or things.  Even though we did not become forest engineers, I think that both Mihai and I have inherited some of grandpa's enthusiasm and love of life, and that we have passed some part of his unbreakable spirit onto the next generation. 

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