Posts Tagged ‘the Goldschmidt family’

I went to Thomas Nelson Page Junior High School in the same old limestone buildings that mother had gone to the German-English School in the 90s. My chief remembrances of it are sitting in the far corner of the miserable grounds exchanging dirty – mostly scatological – stories with other pubescent boys and tearing open my hand on a broken drain-pipe. Whatever I might have learned in class must be stored in some part of the brain that is not accessible to me as I concentrate on my personal history.

We were to move to a newly built school for the last semester of our senior year and I recall asking to see the drawings of what it was to be like and this was met with a pleasant, somewhat surprised response for I was apparently the only student with such curiosity. I had a vague desire to be an architect. In grammar school there had been an assignment to “plan” a house, using pictures cut out of magazines. I liked doing it and I think it evoked a secret desire to be an architect. As a child I liked to drive through neighborhoods to look at new domestic styles. Among the many talents that I lack, along with limited math skill is drawing; I feel that I wanted to make houses what we now call more “user friendly,” that is, more sensitive to social uses. Whenever I passed the architecture school at Austin, I wistfully reflected on that old ambition, yet realized that for me it was a road well not taken.

A signal failure capped this last semester in the old stone school. For reasons unknown, I had been chosen to give the farewell speech to the departing class at the banquet at the Mexican restaurant. When I got up to give it, none of the words that I had so carefully memorized found their way to my tongue, reminiscent of those embarrassing silences when I was supposed to recite a poem on Christmas Eve. Finally I sat down, vowing never to memorize a speech again and now I wonder that I had the temerity to enter a profession that demands public performance. I kept that vow; fortunately extempore works for me.

I was also named editor of the school paper. When I announced this at home with some pride, Buntz laughed at the idea with a “what, you?” sort of comment, to which Thea responded with a more accepting, “Well, why not?”  When school started in our new building, mother had been given a permanent appointment as a teacher there (where she spent the rest of her working life) and was assigned to supervise the paper. She and I put the little mimeographed paper together each month, but I think that it was a mistake for us to have confounded her roles as teacher and mother. At any rate, I did a lousy job that falsely presaged the future, for as you will see, I take pride in my capability as editor.

Allowances were unheard of; we didn’t even get paid for the fairly onerous chores like mowing the extensive lawn with the old hand mower and other yard work; it was simply expected. Whether this policy was based on moral or on economic grounds, I can’t say. We never even heard about the tooth fairy, who also never visited my children. We appreciated our big yard for games there, but the chores were hard and time-consuming. I used to dream up labor-saving devices (many of which have since come into being) and fantasized becoming an inventor. I think I have the imagination to be one, but the talents appropriate for engineering were not in my repertoire and this dream ultimately faded into the more generic desire to be creative – the beginning of the urge to become a scholar, a “scientist” of some kind.

There was one recurrent chore that I did feel obliged to perform. As happens in yard-side ball games, balls often find a window, so I learned at an early age to replace the glass. When Tex and I visited San Antonio about ten years ago, I looked to see if the poorly troweled putty was still there and pleased to feel it. But now I wonder that, as a teenager or younger, I was permitted to bicycle the mile to the local glaziers and back with a pane, naked save for a sheet of newspaper tied around it, under my arm. As I survived without incident, I am glad that mother had such a relaxed attitude, for I think it is a healthy one — but I couldn’t muster it when I became a parent. Of course, the traffic was lighter and slower in the twenties; still, they were not the horse and buggy days.

Dad’s middle-class German background rendered him totally unsuited to any household task beyond replacing a light bulb and couldn’t teach us anything practical. Taking high school “shop” was infra-dig for us college-bound snobs, so Buntz and I learned to do things on our own and I benefited from his pioneering efforts. Both of us have taken pride throughout our lives in our amateurish efforts to fix things around the house and my yard is now a showcase of the crooked concrete steps and brick walls as proof of my having passed that way, like my early glazing accomplishments.

This vague if-it-can-be-done-I-can-do-it attitude is a kind of watered-down version of Yankee ingenuity that has been so important to the American ethos. I think the Model T Ford did a lot to carry this essentially rural virtue into early urban life, for many of my generation of town boys took one apart and rebuilt it. I remember that Buntz helped on one that older boys were putting together in our spacious yard, but I was too young to do more than hand them tools. Three Fifteen Adams Street was a social entity that we all felt keenly and others sensed. It was an informal gathering place for our friends. Other kids would come over just to hang out – mother often among us, as she had rapport with children because she liked them.

We were expected to earn our spending money but never had to share it, as with real poverty. Thea became a page at the Carnegie Library while in high school and Tex followed suit. He turned over to me the Saturday Evening Post route he had established at some effort. I am not sure I appreciated this generosity, for it was a task that I hated and it gave Thursday a bad name in my horoscope. Its one virtue was that I learned early in life that I wanted no part in being a salesman. Every Thursday after school I picked up my load of magazines and bicycled around the city to sell them for 5¢ each. Of this, I kept 1¼¢. I netted less than fifty cents a week. I never tried to build up the route because I was too shy to ask people to buy things. On days when the magazines were thin and the weather good, it was a relatively small chore, but it gets hot, cold and rainy even in sunny San Antonio, and as Christmas ads build up the load really got heavy.

I took this as the burden of childhood, but in retrospect it seems a dangerous and uneconomic activity. I am sure that it was chock-a-block full of moral fiber, but it has left emotional scars. The one I am sure of is a strange and irrational penuriousness. It is not that I “learned the value of money,” however, for it grabs me on the little things. I still hate to use stamps and acquired an electric razor early because razor blades chafed my skin, for I always thought I should get another use out of the one I was using. And I still find it difficult to buy myself small treats, though I try, with some difficulty, not to be quite so stingy with others. After some years I had a paper route, which I found more “dignified” but not much more to my taste.

Mother didn’t have her heart in housework, but could get enthusiastic about cooking. Yet when at college, I’d tease that if I was hungry for home-cooked food I went to the delicatessen. She liked to read and was lost in Moby Dick and Magic Mountain for a long time. We had the humor magazines, Life and Judge, and the early Vanity Fair and were early subscribers to the New Yorker – to which I credit such writing skills as I have, for I have taken it throughout my adult life.

There was a time when she would read to the three of us, but it was when I was far too young to follow the fare she chose. They reflected her interests and were barely appropriate to the age of the others. She seemed to go in for social dissidents rather than utopians or radicals: Mencken, Thomas Paine, Holmes’ Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, Upton Sinclair, and Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. I have only a vague memory of this, brought out by some comments from Tex several years ago, though I think some of Veblen stuck, for it seemed familiar when I picked it up and from time to time I have an eerie déjà vu feeling that some of the others got into my implicit memory as well.


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Hermann and Gretchen were married in 1904. After a luxurious honeymoon in Mexico visiting with papa’s former business associates, they bought a house at 315 Adams Street, on the fringes of the prosperous German neighborhood not far from the house mother had grown up in.1 This was my place of birth, and was home for each of us children until we successively left for college and the pursuit of our careers, and mother’s home until she sold it in 1962. Papa had died in 1938. Built in the 1880s, it fit the mold of the German American community, a broad front porch with a gingerbread banister, behind which were floor-to-ceiling windows, true brick construction in the front part, Germanic, substantial, but not fancy or, for that matter, not really adequate for a family of five. Its best feature was a lot 110` x 120` that extended to the street behind, which was back alley to us but not to the residents there. The well-heeled newlyweds furnished it with a heavy “mission style” dining room set, an 8-piece bird’s eye maple bedroom set, glass-fronted bookshelves with Das Grosse Brockhaus, the collected works of Shakespeare along with modern books in the parlor we always called the library. There was bric-a-brac from Germany that included miniature busts of literary figures and, in the dining room, some oils on wood painted by a Mexican artist. The front part had a kind of Germanic Victorian (shouldn’t it be called Bismarckian?) elegance that deteriorated as one moved to the back. When I was a boy the Mission-style sideboard contained the remnants of the refinement with which it had once been filled, such as fine German hand-painted fish plates and platters, and the matching glass Schrank that held elegant tinted long-stemmed Bohemian (Czechoslovakian) wine glasses and gold-inlaid liquor glasses and carafe.
These artifacts speak of middle-class opulence with a German accent that was long gone by the time I was a sentient member of the ménage. They bespeak entertaining the families of the old L.U.C. crowd and new business associates. There was a gardener-butler of English descent who probably also doubled as syce. Old Balderson was the hero of one of my mother’s stories; one that amused us as children but now tells me as much about mother as it does about papa. One day she came home to find a big pile of dirt right in front of the front door. Mother called him and said something that would now be rendered as “What the hell goes here?” to which he replied, “Well, ma’am, the master will find something to complain about when he comes home and he might as well be done with it right away.”
This prosperous life was interrupted by the death at birth of their first child in 1906. They went on what was always referred to as a second honeymoon, which netted more grainy fading pictures of Mexican scenes and friends in the family album. The boy had been named Hans, as in Hansel and Gretel and my sister, Dorothea, after Hermann and Dorothea (though always called Thea), born in1908, bespeaking both their Germanic and their literary slant. Arthur, who had the nickname, Buntz1, the etymology of which is unknown, was born in 1910, just as a disaster befell. A large shipment of coffee from Mexico that had been signed off on in error was waylaid by insurgents during the Diaz uprising in that year and the loss was devastating. This was followed with another tragedy, coincident with my birth in 1913, the fire of an uninsured lumber mill in Louisiana; a loss that apparently was the final blow to papa’s San Antonio business venture, for soon afterward they rented out the house and moved to Fredericksburg, where we remained until 1918. I never heard papa mention these matters once, having learned them only from mother. She once told me how the loss in Mexico happened. As it was in revolutionary times, I thought it just one of those things that happen, but it seems that she had signed off on the bill of lading herself, and she assured me most insistently that papa had insisted that she do that. I can’t entirely rid myself of the feeling that “methinks the lady doth protest too much.” We will never know and inasmuch as I now find that this loss was, to me, a blessing, however well it was disguised, there are no recriminations in my heart.
The response to the second disaster was a move to the little town of Fredericksburg, a community that had been settled in the ‘fifties, I think by peasants, lying some 80 miles west of San Antonio, a distance that was a full day’s trip even then because of the terrain and the roads, though now it is an hour’s drive. Fredericksburg is a story in itself, a cultural enclave that seems to have been taken from Europe peasant by peasant, like Hearst castles were taken brick by brick. Though now but an hour’s drive and a tourist attraction, it was then a remote village of German peasantry, a full day’s travel from San Antonio, in which most businesses as well as the schools, were conducted in German. Whether this move had been made, as my brother says, for papa’s health (Fredericksburg is in the cooler “hill country”) or because he needed work, or both, I don’t know. He went as a wholesaler of grocery supplies, a kind of internal importer, I presume, and moved into an old stone mansion that could have been the set for The Addams Family. I arrived as a child in arms and left at five and have few memories of life there, but it served as a rich source of family stories. The tone of these memories is one of pleasant bemusement at the local peasantry, I think it was a relatively happy time for them, who, being more urbane and more educated than the natives, took on leadership roles from the outset. There was the story of papa’s Solomonic solution of a troublesome local issue. There were two moieties in Fredericksburg, die Oberstadt and die Unterstadt, each with its own public services, including the very essential water wagon to wet down the broad, dusty main street. The town square with the post office was neutral territory and neither moiety would operate its water wagon on it (to universal discomfort). Papa, the neutral, supplied the solution: alternating days.
But the favorite story gave us a quote from Lena, mother’s peasant Dienstmẩdchen, who replied to mother’s asking if she had had a good time at the party, saying: “Ach ja, Ich war die shaenste und die shmartzte und konnt auch die beste tanze” (I was the prettiest and the smartest and could also dance the best). Forever after, when any of us came home feeling satisfied with some social or academic performance, we would quote Lena. Then there was Buntz’s brag that he spoke three languages, English, German and “Katolisch,” referring to the local Bauerndeutsch. The subliminal message is one of class superiority without disdain for the less educated. Mother, the only woman with a college degree having children in school, was immediately elected president of the PTA, and initiated an institution that remains today. Fredericksburg was known to world travelers since early in the 19th century for having the best food anywhere in the Texas culinary desert. Mother established a project for the school girls to record the recipes of their German peasant mothers. It was not an easy task, as the women never considered measured amounts, but used handfuls, pinches, bunches and the like so the girls had to stop them to measure the amount. They took to the task and the Fredericksburg Cookbook was born. Mother was honored at the 50th anniversary, when a new edition was published, along with a facsimile of the original. It is now something for the tourists to buy.

I don’t know why we left Fredericksburg. We had moved out of the big house some time before, perhaps as an economy measure or because an earlier effort to move had aborted. I don’t think mother and papa were unhappy there for they reminisced about Fredericksburg with pleasure and visited there frequently. Perhaps they saw no future for them there. Earlier plans to move back had been frustrated because papa was an “enemy alien,” never having finished his citizenship application, and this forbade them from living within a mile of the arsenal. A re-measurement at 315 determined that the bedroom was beyond the one-mile line and the refusal was rescinded. A tale of misplaced wartime fanaticism. The anti-German propaganda during the war was atrocious, as I could see when I leafed through the scrapbook my father had masochistically made, and Tex says in his oral history that he had nightmares over the fear of the knock on the door. I did not have such memories.
All of what has been said so far is background – my cultural heritage. Those first five years of my life in Fredericksburg are really as mythical to me as my great grandmother’s vilification of the “blackbirds” or my grandfather’s Horatio Alger beginning.  I have very little memory of Fredericksburg, just fleeting scenes cut into my mind: when I found the dog our neighbor had poisoned; the hot afternoon we chased after a plane people thought was coming down, the nightmare that drove me into my parents’ bedroom and a vague scene or two at the Charles Addams house. That is why I have included this section with my ancestral beginnings rather than with the life that I knew after we got back to San Antonio.

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I have treated the Rochs family story as if it were clan history, believing that its mythic value was more important to my development than the facts themselves. My father’s taciturnity with respect to his more prominent social background makes such a line of reasoning tenuous with respect to his side — but the facts are of interest and they still have relevance to uncovering the domestic culture of the household I grew up in. Papa was as taciturn about his background as my mother had been exuberant and most of what I know came through her or have learned later in life. I don’t know why this silence but I suspect that his youth had been unhappy and, by the time I knew him, his own career was a great disappointment. It may also be in part that he did not want to continue the stigma of being Jewish, inasmuch as he had been baptized as a Christian and had none of the public aspects of Judaic culture. There were no yarmulkes or mezuzahs, bar mitzvahs nor visits to the temple, and only much later did I learn that such artifacts existed. I do think some of the covert attributes of Judaic culture were there, such as the imperative for being successful and respect for learning, and were part of my cultural heritage. It is not that papa denied this Jewish background, for there is no ambiguity about this heritage in the fragment of memoir that he wrote, which I saw only after Tex died, which Tex had himself never seen.1 It is a fascinating, beautifully written 18 pages that demonstrates an erudite, sentimental German, with words in German, Spanish, Latin and some French and references to current literature and 19th century music. It also reveals a man who is painfully aware of not having fulfilled what he thinks his parents wanted of him, and certainly not what he wanted to have become. This I had been aware of, yet it was painful to read and feel his pain.
Mother had never met any of his family until she visited Germany in 1929, long after all of papa’s generation were dead and only some nieces remained. I met these first cousins when in Germany in 1954 and was delighted to learn of kindred whose nobility was inspiring. One was the widow of a World War I casualty and the other her old maid sister, the daughters of a medical doctor. Descendants of apostate Jews, they were involved in the underground during the Hitler era until they were arrested by the Polizei. The officer recognized the name of Preetorius and discovered that these were the daughters of the doctor who had saved his life as a child. He let them go with the admonishment that he could not do it a second time. Much later, I met another member of my paternal clan, a second cousin whose father had immigrated to Belgium and taken on the hyphenated name of Goldschmidt-Clermont. This cousin Paul was an engineer with special professional interests in welding. He had been a member of a group of men who were secretly planning for the social welfare protection for Belgian youths who had been taken off to Germany by the Nazis. What was to become of them when they were to return after the war? There is a plaque on the church in the village where they met in Paul’s summer home to hammer out post-occupation policies without Nazi knowledge – it was not on his house because his wife did not want the place to be a museum.  Because of my father’s silence about his background, these stories had no direct influence on my psyche as a youth. They do give me a sense of pride now, bespeaking an old family tradition of moral probity and social conscience.
Some of the Goldschmidt ancestry is discussed in papa’s memoirs. He gives genealogical data that starts with the recognition of knowing nothing prior to his grandparents’ generation, saying he supposes their parents had been “itinerant Jewish trades people, socially and politically beyond the pale of the law.” His grandfather was Hyem or Heyman, born in 1802 and married to Jeannette Hernsheim, the daughter of a well-to-do family from Alzey, a small town near Mainz. Papa describes them as struggling with a small lumberyard in this small town, failing to note that his grandmother belonged to a large and prosperous family that had become Protestant. They had eight sons, among whom my grandfather Max was the eldest. I have a lovely pastel portrait on paper painted in 1837 when he was but three years old, done by an accomplished artist, I judge, and not by an itinerant amateur. I dare not take it from its frame, as it is badly cracked, but a carefully left window in back gives dates and other information. Papa also tells of his father’s description of a rather idyllic childhood, with classical music and reading Goethe and other classics aloud in the parlor or garden, depending on the season. All this does not square with the neediness that inspires the grandparental Horatio Alger myth that follows.

According to papa’s document, after finishing his schooling, his father went to seek his fortune, vowing to help his impoverished parents educate his young siblings, and landed his first miserable apprenticeship as a result of an incident that seems stolen directly out of Horatio Alger. It goes like this: walking away after being rudely dismissed by the distant relative from whom he was seeking employment, he stooped to pick up a pen he saw on the floor and put it on a nearby desk. This display of virtue led the bluntly dismissive relative to reconsider, and gave Grandfather Max his first miserable apprenticeship. After similar acts of virtue and gentle derring do, he got to Monterrey, Mexico, where he was taken on as the leader of an itinerant trading convoy in the backwoods of northern Mexico by other distant relatives. His rise over the next fifteen years in the business world was spectacular and he turned over a thriving corporation of which he was sole owner to some of his brothers and returned to Germany to retire as a wealthy man. He had, earlier, returned to Germany and picked up a bride belonging to the very large and prosperous and aformentioned Hernsheim family and my father was the middle of their three children, born in Mexico. Max and his bride were cousins, for papa’s maternal grandmother was also a Hernsheim.
Let us look briefly at these double ancestors. Papa lists and identifies most of this ancestry; it is studded with enough prominent names of the day to make a boy want to brag about his background, had he only known it. Papa starts with a Mendez who he identifies as “an immensely wealthy banker in Amsterdam and Frankfurt am Main” who married “a Venetian girl of an old family” named de Texeira. Among the 18 children she bore was a daughter named Sophie who married a Jurist in Mainz named Ludwig Hernsheim, whose daughter, Julia was papa’s mother. Ludwig also had a sister named Jeannette who had married Max’s mother, as already noted. As I was not told these stories as a child but learned them only after I had spent a lifetime examining social behavior, they do not form part of my mythology and I find them useful only in illuminating the man who was my father, who was so enigmatic to me and who I will later discuss in some detail.
Meanwhile, Julia had two brothers, who were both prominent pioneers in South Seas exploration. I have in my files a manuscript copy of a memoir written by the younger brother, Eduard, whose tale also has a bit of Horatio Alger in it.1 I learned by happy accident that it has, along with other papers, been published in English.2 On the first page he says: “My parents had joined the Protestant church and my father was one of the foundation members of the first Lutheran congregation in Mainz, a Catholic town.” It was in speaking of this at a symposium on Boas that I learned from Paula Rubel and Arthur Rosman, who were participants, of the English version. (I had mentioned this ancestry to demonstrate my personal awareness of the dynamics of the apostate Jewish culture for I was saying that to understand the special genius of Boas, you had to appreciate this cultural background. Having done research in Melanesia, Paula and Arthur had a copy of the book.) Papa, of course, knew about this Christian involvement; indeed, I have learned from some of Tex’s reminiscences that papa was himself christened as a Lutheran and therefore the family was heavily assimilated to Christianity. Significantly, papa says his father wanted to name him after his grandfather with the traditional Jewish Hyem but was dissuaded by his Lutheran-Jewish wife and accepted the phonetically similar German, Hermann.
Eduard’s older brother, Fritz, came out to the South Seas and served as German consul in Jaluit and wrote, and illustrated with hand-tinted steel engravings, a beautiful little book about the culture of the Micronesian islands.1 Both brothers retired with wealth and proselytized for the development of colonies in the South Pacific, resulting in The Bismarck Archipelago getting that name. In Eduard’s memoir there are some off-hand comments about the Goldschmidt who married their cousin, along with fascinating discussions of the trade with the natives as well as the rivalry among the traders. The bit that both interested and appalled me was that tobacco was introduced to make up for the disinterest the natives had developed in trading for the redundant pots and trinkets. Eduard set up schools to teach the Islanders how to smoke to instill a motive for producing more copra. That game started a lot sooner than I realized and to an anthropologist this is a little like finding a horse thief in the family tree.
Max Goldschmidt had brought his family back to Germany when papa was about four years old and so he was raised in Germany and went through Gymnasium. He had an unhappy childhood and felt he was an unwanted child, for he had been sent, for reasons I don’t know, to live with Tante Binche in Darmstadt and later, when in Gymnasium, was overshadowed by a younger brother who apparently excelled in academic studies and later become a doctor. Papa claimed to have been an indifferent student but he was well educated in the then excellent German Gymnasium. He had mastery of four languages and his fluency in writing English — the third language he had mastered – is impressive. His self-effacing remarks seem as exaggerated as his flowery descriptions of his father’s exploits. At any rate, while his brother, Eduard, became a successful doctor, papa went into business in emulation of his father. He started several enterprises both in Germany and in Mexico, none of which seemed to have taken hold despite his apparent nepotistic advantages. His last move in the entrepreneurial world was to come to San Antonio at the age of 35 or 36 to establish an importing enterprise.

There are some interesting parallels between the Rochs and Goldschmidt clans. One is the odd religious symmetry. Just as mother had come from an apostate Lutheran family, so my father had come from an apostate Jewish family. But while mother flaunted her anti-religious sentiments, my father’s attitude could be summarized in his one comment on the matter “everybody’s religion is his own business.” I remember no instance in which he expressed anything about what he himself believed. There were neither religious artifacts from either side in our home nor any visit to a church, unless you count a few abortive efforts to go to the Unitarian church for the sake of socialization. The fragment of papa’s memoir speaks of the Jewish past but makes no reference to the conversion, which I learned about from his uncle’s memoir, nor of his own baptism – but then his memoir stops short at the time of his birth. I did not find it surprising that he could not face the ignominies he felt about his childhood.
Another parallel of interest is that they each had an involvement with what one might call the edges of anthropology: Opa Rochs with his philology doctorate; my father’s uncles Franz and Eduard Hernsheim in their involvement with the South Seas, as well as his father’s pioneering involvement in Mexico and my father’s continuing fondness for things Mexican. There was a tradition of cultural relativism on both sides.
Amusingly, my wife Gale’s family shows the same predilections. Her father was mustered out of the army at the close of the Spanish-American war while in the Philippines and stayed to become a lawyer and later a judge there. Her mother had gone to the Islands as one of a group of teachers organized by Colonel Barrows to introduce American educational practice into the Filipino schools. They married there and Gale was born there and they left only after her father was passed over for Governor of the Islands when Taft was defeated by Wilson in 1912. Gale added, with understandable pride, that her father tried to apply native laws to cases he tried as a circuit judge in the Philippines.

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