On the Track of Family History

There are some documents that, as a conscientious writer, I am glad to have read only after the publication of a novel, even though they are extremely interesting and contain potentially useful information. In the first part of this decade, when I was researching the first half of the twentieth- century for the history of the time and of my family, and reading the literature of the period, I did not know that my maternal grandmother had an uncle called Carl Ludwig Franck. (My grandmother’s maiden name was Inge Franck; because of the racial laws of the Nazis, she had been unable to marry; my mother herself, born out of wedlock, considered marriage unnecessary in the late sixties, and so today I bear the maiden name of my maternal grandmother.) I discovered only a few weeks ago that the woman who was to be Carl Ludwig Franck’s wife was called Hanni Grau, and she was an assistant in the production department of the newly founded publishing house of S. Fischer Verlag — the very same publisher under whose imprint my books appear in Germany today. Before Carl Ludwig Franck died in London in the 1980s, he wrote a very well constructed memoir, and dedicated it to his Hanni. All his days, and in this work too, he calls his wife his ‘beloved’, his ‘companion’, his ‘lioness’, the ‘sun’ of his life. She was a Jewish girl from Stettin, not particularly well off, but very beautiful and well educated. The couple had met at one of the many fancy dress balls in 1920s Berlin and fell in love at first sight. They lived, unmarried, under his parents’ roof for four years, and did not decide to marry until their only son was born in 1931, and they were going to Rome to spend a year at the German Academy Villa Massimo because Carl Ludwig had been awarded the Rome Prize. After 1933 there were no more architectural commissions for ‘Carllutz’,  as he was known, no teaching posts were open to him, and he had hardly any other way of earning a living. On 1 February 1937, he received a letter from the Reich Chamber of the Visual Arts, officially excluding him from the Chamber and forbidding him to practise his profession. During those months he repeatedly applied for permission to emigrate to England, and succeeded only after several attempts. If he was to emigrate, he had to be able to show that there was a post waiting for him. In Berlin Carllutz had met a man called Carl Eduard Friedmann, who happened to mention to him in passing that he himself was soon leaving for England, where he had found a job in an advertising agency. With several recommendations from German architects for whom he had worked, Carllutz set off for England in April. He had never before heard of one Mr Goldfinger, apparently also an architect, but he was sure that recommendations from such names as those of Walter Gropius and Erich Mendelssohn would impress him. Mr Goldfinger sent him on to Mr Labetkin of the architectural group Tecton, 57 Haymarket, where Carllutz finally found a post as a designer. He was to begin work at once. Until he had a work permit that was as much of a problem as his uncertainty over his chances of bringing his beloved Hanni and their little son Jacob over from Germany. He and Hanni had agreed on code-words, and corresponded through the Turkish diplomatic courier, but the code-words led to misunderstandings. At Tecton, Carllutz began work on designs for modern apartment blocks in Finsbury, he saved money and lived thriftily so that he could bring his family over to join him, and at last, on 15 January 1938, he was able to clasp his ‘two dear ones’ to his heart at Waterloo Station. The family rented a flat in Danes Court, Finsbury Park. They found that they had to describe themselves as ‘refugees’, and it struck them that at this point England’s attitude to Hitler and Germany was not especially hostile. By their efforts, all the same, they succeeded in bringing Hanni’s mother and her best friend to England. At Tecton, Carllutz was now designing huge, spiral concrete shelters to protect the people of Finsbury from air raids; the idea was that they could be converted to garages in peacetime. However, the client who had commissioned the designs for these fortified structures thought them too expensive, and they were never built. Instead, the British government decided on corrugated iron huts buried in private gardens where provisions could be stored when peace returned. Brick air raid shelters were also to be built above the ground. ‘Both methods were cheap, and were said to offer complete safety except in the case of a direct hit. To the question of what constituted a direct hit, the answer was: a hit that destroys the shelter.’
If I had read this memoir of some 150 pages in 2005, I would have written not The Blind Side of the Heart but a different novel. I might perhaps have felt intrigued enough to include an outside perspective in the book. How did German refugees see their country, how did the English see it? What made a German Jew into an English Catholic? How did the immigrants’ view of the Germans change?
‘When the war finally did break out, in September 1939, Hanni and I believed that as soon as the Germans had weapons in their hands they would turn against the Nazis. We had seen such bitter opposition to the regime in Berlin. How little we knew our countrymen!’ A sense of insecurity spread among the foreigners now living in England, and not only because they were known as ‘friendly-disposed enemy aliens’. To find out just how friendly their dispositions really were, all cases were investigated by tribunals set up for the purpose, and in all cases the ‘friendly-disposed enemy aliens’ were subject to certain provisional restrictions: they could not own street plans and maps that might fall into the hands of invading enemies, and they must not travel more than five miles from their place of residence. For an architect, provisional security measures of this kind were rather inconvenient. After an English colleague guaranteed to the chairman of the tribunal that Carllutz was doing ‘useful’ work by designing and building air raid shelters, he was granted Refugee Status A, which was to free him from all restrictions. But only for a short time. When Poland was invaded and overrun, when the famous Maginot Line proved to be a line only on paper, when Paris fell and the French army surrendered, the Germans rolled on towards the coast of the English Channel. ‘As the government had no enemy prisoners from the battlefields in its hands, it decided at least to take a few prisoners of its own at home,’ remembers Uncle Carllutz. ‘The friendly-disposed enemy aliens were rounded up, put on trucks and driven to internment camps hastily prepared for them’. The transport with which Carllutz travelled went by rail to Liverpool, from where it was taken, aboard a disused minesweeper, to Douglas on the Isle of Man. The transport was reasonably well organised, but no one had thought to provide any food, and my interned uncle complains that they were all starving when they arrived at the internment camp. ‘After the initial confusion, it turned out that the general opinion among us was far from happy with the treatment we had received.’ At least he himself had decidedly privileged treatment, since he was allowed to design a hut containing ‘shower-baths’ for the camp — his first entirely independent commission in England, as Carllutz Franck proudly writes. He also designed the building for a ‘Hutchinson Camp University’, and the flag for the car used by the general inspector of the internment camp on the island. There were no regular courses at this improvised camp university, but plenty of lectures, delivered to the audience by the many professors among the internees, who included ‘two Nobel prize-winners’. My great-uncle, as he describes it, shares his room with the lawyer, painter and writer Fred Uhlmann — the two make friends and teach each other drawing and painting. The Dadaist Kurt Schwitters is another internee in the camp, and they laugh at him a little, but still, he is appreciated as the inventor of ‘spoken music’. Although it is said in the outside world that the internees are ‘happy and content’ in the camp, the atmosphere is really one of ill humour and insecurity. They are cut off from international news and news of the war, and can write a letter only once a week. Incoming letters are subject to censorship and delay. The inmates of the camp express their displeasure by wearing little rosettes made of barbed wire in their buttonholes, baptising this decoration the ‘Order of British Hospitality’. As a result of several efforts and applications on his behalf made by English colleagues and friends, Carllutz is released, but only after four and a half months.
His nine-year-old son made an application to the Home Secretary on his own initiative. As every such communication received an answer, one day a letter with an official seal arrived for little Jacob: ‘I am instructed by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in reply to your letter of […], to inform you that Dr Franck is released from internment with effect from […]. I am, Sir, your obedient servant …’. Jacob was proud to think that he had obtained the release of his father, who did indeed return to his family and his work. Immediately after his release, Finsbury Council appointed Carllutz architect in charge of work on its air raid shelters, which he designed, also supervising their construction. In the chapter that Carllutz devotes to the post-war world, he notes: ‘The war was over. All who survived it came back with the hopeful desire to build a better world, now that oppression and senseless persecution had been driven out of the old one — or at least, so we believed with all our hearts. And yet there was no evidence of any liberated creative force, such as we saw in Berlin after the last war. It was more of a dogged determination to deal with problems as they came up.’ However, Carllutz does not seem to feel that this state of affairs calls for his return to Germany; he thinks he should stay in England. The war has made him an Englishman; his views are no longer those of a German, he does not identify himself with Germany; and he regrets the damage done by the war to British society and European society as a whole. He does not spare himself, but writes both critically and humorously of the many small human and professional mistakes he has made, demonstrating his own fallibility — and not in order to appear the hero of the story in the end, but to help others to learn from his example. I think that no one in the German branch of my family had, or developed such a sense of humour as Carllutz, who had genuinely become an Englishman. (And incidentally, yes, as I must admit, first a Buddhist and finally a Catholic. He obviously felt more at home in the Latin language on English soil than under the table that served as an air raid shelter inside his flat.)
Why would my novel The Blind Side of the Heart have been different if I had found out about this branch of the family and researched it before I wrote the book? As I see it, reading and research before beginning a novel are the foundations of its construction. The writer works from the depths of his experience, moving inner images around, giving his subjective reality a face by arranging characters, places and the story so as to allow the greatest possible intensification of what he knows about his themes, and what he does not know although it interests him fervently. I was interested in investigating the female body as the site of its owner’s experiences, the location where her story takes place, the way the ego forms in relation to human society, and among other things I was also interested in human instinct for destruction — as both the cause and the consequence of the war. I was interested in human fallibility, particularly our dependence on humanist ideology and what happens when it is humiliated, the devastation of what we assume to be the ‘most natural’ of relationships: bonds within the family. I also focused on the psychological and social inheritance of all who had managed to survive the Second World War passively. What price must individuals pay over generations? How do wrecked and scattered families bear the burden of their experiences and their own survival? Finally I wanted to move on to the question of whether or not it is possible to forge an identity of one’s own, or something like it, in the face of all outward circumstances, going against the history of the time and even bringing a positive influence to bear. These questions entice me and lure me on, although there is no clear answer to them. But the branch of my surviving family that became English shows how much better it may have been to make an early decision to emigrate when they had the chance. In England, it was surely easier for them to develop their helpful sense of humour and their determination to live than in hiding in Berlin, let alone in a labour camp or a concentration camp. At the heart of my novel, despite all its doubts of God, lies the conviction that a very complex set of diverse intertwining, interdependent factors determines the individual’s place in history. That place clearly questions the existence and effect of free will and of free decision-making, which appears to work only in homeopathic doses. Knowing in advance about this branch of my family, which perhaps suffered less from those destructive times than the rest of my maternal relations, might possibly have tempted me to present a less bleak view of the destruction not just of the Jews but of humanity itself in the 20th century. Who did not become a perpetrator of crimes? Who was not a victim? Who got away unscathed? Reading my uncle’s memoir makes me smile and encourages me to believe in happiness and escape, in the prospect of them, in principle, out of a sense of good fortune, even if I have hardly ever seen and known such things at close quarters.

Translated by Anthea Bell

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Julia Franck

Julia Franck

Julia Franck was born in Berlin in 1970. She studied the anthropology of Native Americans, philosophy, and German language and literature at the Free University of Berlin. The Blind Side of the Heart won the German Book Prize, Germany’s most prestigious literary award. She lives in Berlin.

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