StartUps: Breaking Through Three Cultures, by Alexander Kaufman

Part One

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Alexander Kaufman’s Startups: Breaking Through Three Cultures may look like a biography at first glance, but it really is the story of a distinctively 20th century man, and in that sense it is also a story of the 20th century itself.

It is the tale of the trip that my father took across that great century and around the globe itself; the story of how a life spent in three very different places, through war and genocide and the building of a new nation and finally, as an immigrant to America, the “Land of Opportunity,” created a specific and unique person, who more than anyone I know is emblematic of that specific, unique, and remarkable time. And as more and more of his generation leave us, we who remain and find ourselves facing times that are both troubling and uncertain, have much to learn from their experience and example.

I edited Startups for my father and wrote the Introduction. To follow, in three installments, will be excerpts from the book’s three chapters. The full book can be found on Amazon.

–Dan Kaufman

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From GERMANY

I was born in Germany from which I was chased out at the age of five. The country, synonymous with culture, enlightenment, and every aspect of civilization, was the envy of many; a fragmented land patched together by Otto von Bismarck in the 19th century. Bismarck was a strong leader who built a “Reich” into a powerful state, harnessing its talent, organization, and discipline. In my first twenty-five years, I made every effort to distance myself from being called a “German.” But, being born German sticks to you: the attitudes, the demeanor, the righteousness, the culture, the decorum, and the excellence in every imaginable field of endeavor, from car-manufacturing and all manner of mechanical production to medicine, music, philosophy, literature, art, sports, and film.

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Determined to escape the abject poverty in Ulanov, his place of birth, a village in the Galicia region of southern Poland during the second part of the 19th century, my grandfather had said “goodbye” to his mother and trekked over the Carpathian mountain range into Hungary, looking for opportunities to earn money so he could travel to America. Though he had never been a horseman, he ferried horses for dealers to the French Atlantic. Unbeknownst to him, it turned out that the horses were stolen but he managed to deliver them nonetheless and felt prepared for America’s Wild West, where knowledge of horses was essential. He arrived in the US late in the 19th century and settled in Wilmington Delaware, probably because of cousins who had come there earlier. But after several years, he decided to return to Poland to find a wife. Passing through Mannheim, Germany, another relative introduced him to a coterie of young ladies and their families, so he stayed, married, had children, and established a business, all of which would last until the outbreak of WWII, on September 1, 1939, when he went back with grandma to Le Havre and boarded a ship to New York in order to return to Wilmington, where he and my grandmother remained until they died.

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Jews were given permission to settle in the Mannheim-Ludwigshafen around 1620, when 78 families arrived. By 1680, there were approximately 5000 Jews in town. The community was divided between the German Jews – the earlier arrivals and the locally born – and those Jews who arrived at the “Ostbahnhof” from Poland and lands to the East. The German Jews – the “Echte Deutsche Juden” – were wealthier and better educated, while the “Ostjuden” – the Jews from the East – were strivers, trying to catch up. Both, however, were imbued with German culture in all its aspects. The difference was mainly discernable by the arrogance of the Echte Deutsche Juden, a well-recognized and deep-seated trait. The word ‘Echte’, after all, means genuine, the implication being that the German Jews were the real deal, unlike those “others.” And undoubtedly, the community was thriving, as they founded and owned the first major commercial retail department stores, and were involved in business and finance, as well as academia, art, and every other precinct of high culture.

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Mannheim, the city, founded in 1606, straddles two rivers: the Rhine and the Neckar. Across the Rhine was the city of Ludwigshafen, practically owned by BASF – The Badische Anilin & Seifen Fabrik/ IG FARBEN, Interessen Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie (Dye Industry Syndicate) – that made everything, from soap to Aspirins, sulpha drugs, explosives, the WWI gas on the Western front as well as the Zyklon B gas for Auschwitz.

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A walk down the landing, and one would enter into the Mann’s living room. On the right, over their sofa was a big picture of Hindenburg, who impressed me immediately. I could not take my eyes off him: the moustache; the hair on his head; and the medals! Boy did he have medals and staring at them afforded me my first opportunity to learn to count. (I would carefully count the layers and layers of medals on his chest.) Indeed, I was so taken with this picture that Tante Annel bought me one. I felt that I knew Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg better than many Germans. However, one day, upon entering their living room, I discovered that Hindenburg was gone and in his place had been put a drab, brown picture of Adolf Hitler, who had no medals except for a single Iron Cross. What a disappointment!

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Except for the older members of the family, Anne, the Mann’s daughter, Fritz and his girlfriend Emma, and Ludwig (when he was on furlough from the army) would engage in sports, both as practitioners and spectators. I was part of the gang and held my own, as best a 4-year-old can. We would go to the local stadium, where I was entrusted with holding the ball and tossing it into play when the action began.

No one paid heed to the large sign at the entrance to the stadium that declared Juden Und Hunde Unerwuenchecht (“Jews and Dogs not Desired”).

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Across the street from my grandfather’s house was a six-story corner building, painted a grey-green color, serving as the editorial offices for a socialist paper. Then one day, it must have been around 1933, a team of painters painted the entire building over in brown, drew a red ribbon across the face with white circles and black swastikas on each end and the words ‘Das Braune Haus’ across it. The display cases showing the daily paper was painted in red, and on the top beam across, it said in white Der Jude ist ein Teufel in Menschengestalt. (“The Jew is a Satan-devil in a human disguise.”)

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The pomp and circumstance were very appealing to a young boy. Certain evenings, groups would assemble in front of the Braune Haus forming cadres to march up to the Planken and Die Breite Strasse, joining the torchlit marches of the Sturmabteilung (SA). There were glittering, marching brass bands and horses, and everyone wore the blazing red armbands with the swastikas in the white circle. It was so colorful and cheerful, and people on both sides of the sidewalk celebrated with unbound enthusiasm. The Manns – sometimes Fritz but mostly Annel, the daughter – would take me there, and I would stand and watch, holding the buckle of my belt in Hitler fashion, hand outstretched in the Nazi salute. Annel would buy me long hot dogs from the street vendor. When the marches were over, a small gaggle of policemen would always walk behind, making sure that everything was in place and no drunks were lying in the streets.

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One day my father was accosted by two teenagers whose families we knew. They ripped off his glasses, threw them to the ground and stumped on them, grabbed his fedora and threw it into the gutter all the while calling him a dirty Jew. He was flabbergasted. Germany was a country where elders were treated with great respect by young people, who would surrender seats in busses and tramways, the moment an older person came on board. The society prized politeness and respect. For this to happen out in the middle of the street, bordered on the unbelievable, as it negated an entire way of life; a code of behavior.

My father’s reaction was immediate and resolute: We would be leaving, immediately. As the shouting and yelling grew, an ad-hoc assembly materialized in Grandma Klara’s kitchen. She became incredulous and kept saying over and over again, in her heavy Bavarian accent, “Bei uns in Bayern kann so was nie geschehen.” (This can never happen to us in Bavaria.) Little did she or the rest of us know that indeed, it could.

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My mother could not conceive of leaving Germany. She loved the country, the people, the culture and the way of life. It was all she knew. But my father was adamant. He had come to Germany as an 18-year-old. He had witnessed the pogroms that had raged across Galicia, from which he originally hailed. He had friends and a relative in Strasbourg and Paris. Strasbourg was preferred, as German was spoken there too, Paris less so. A few days after his encounter with Hitler Youth on the Mannheim street, my father was on a scouting trip in Strasbourg and Paris. Upon his return, we learned that the French trip had been unsuccessful. Obtaining papers was difficult and unreliable, and antisemitism was raging through the country, albeit not yet in a violent form. The search then began in earnest to find a suitable country for us. The trouble is that no one, no country, wanted to accept Jews, no matter how clean one’s teeth or how well-stuffed one’s Swiss bank account was.

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Palestine, which was under British mandate at the time, was the obvious target. Immigration quotas for Jews were set by the mandate government, and were designed to placate the Arabs, due to their sitting on a good portion of the world’s oil. The Jews, in contrast, had nothing but skills and the desire for a country of our own. Entry into Palestine for Jews was mainly achieved via the Jewish Agency for Palestine, a semi-official body that assisted the British in its rule of the Jewish portion of the mandate. There were two ways to get certificates of immigration to enter Palestine: the first was as a trained agricultural worker – one of the chalutzim — and the other was as a capitalist. The former were young people in their late teens and early twenties, while the latter were more advanced in age and had to deposit at least 1,000 Pounds sterling in a Palestinian bank in order to enter as investors.

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I was breathless with excitement as I climbed up the gangplank to enter this mammoth ship, the biggest thing that I had ever seen. Mussolini and his field commander, Marshall Graziani, had just initiated the Abyssinian campaign against spear-wielding tribesmen. My excitement watching the Italian army loading its equipment onto ships, with canons, trucks, tanks and airplanes, dangling like toys over the port got me searching for a fellow enthusiast whom I could share all this with. A friendly Arab, dressed in a white gown and keffiyeh (traditional Arabian headdress), with a dagger stuck in his belt, stood with me and pointed out more equipment floating in the air. I was beside myself. It like being in a gigantic toy store, overwhelmed with the thrill of the unknown. My parents, contrastingly, waited in a state of high anxiety, biting their fingernails, as they wondered what awaited us.

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Suddenly it occurred to me that Germany was really behind us. We would not be returning there. “Ever,” as my mother said. “Take a deep breath,” my father told me, “this is the air you will breathe from now on.” It sunk in slowly. No Manns. No Tante-Annel. No Grandma Klara. But worst of all, no Grandpa. I kept looking at the Jaffa port and became very quiet. It didn’t last long. Uncle Max, Jenny his wife, and his daughter Ruth, who already lived in Tel Aviv, came to welcome us. Waving his arms and with a wide smile, he called out to us “Shalom!” the standard greeting which we would soon learn to use for everything.

I had been thrown out from one place, only to find myself in another place which I liked. Problem solved. Very lucky.

**The photo on the book’s cover is of the author, in 1933, in Germany’s Black Forest.

14 comments

  1. Very interesting, moving and well-written. I’m looking forward to the next installments.

    1. Very kind of you! I’ve been working on this book with my dad for the last year and a half. I am grateful that it has come out, while he is still alive.

  2. My late father rarely talked about the past but, as he recovered from a massive stroke in his late 60s, he got out an old typewriter and started to make notes about childhood memories. He recovered to a large extent but unfortunately didn’t persist with this project. I think a friend had encouraged him to record his memories; it wasn’t something he himself felt driven to do. His small, neat handwriting gradually returned to normal and he wrote many letters to me in his final years but they were in line with his usual preoccupations: his children’s welfare, reactions to current events, the future.

    It’s sad when memories die; but at least we have autobiographies and memoirs and other kinds of documentation from previous generations, cross sections and samples from various times and places which give us some idea of these lost worlds. Accounts which involve world-changing events and radical cultural discontinuities — like your father’s — are particularly interesting of course. It was good you were able to step in when you did and bring the project to fruition.

    You write: “I am grateful that it has come out, while he is still alive.”

    Did you fight about the placement of commas, I wonder?

    [Have just been reading about Karl Kraus and his famous “comma-problems”.]

    1. We didn’t fight about anything, book-wise. There were a few places where my father insisted on keeping what he had originally done, but I have no problem with that. Another issue was all the foreign language in the book. As I don’t know German — and transliteration from Hebrew is sometimes tricky — it was very tough to double-check all the foreign language entries.

      Towards the latter part of the work, my father really began to decline, and it became harder and harder for him to focus. I had to essentially rewrite some of the material.

      I’m still finding errors. I’ll make changes to the Master, before the next printing is done.

  3. A story like so many others but always fascinating.

    Many are of the opinion that the degree of suffering of the Jews was not intrinsically of a magnitude greater than the plights of others and they complain that the repeated telling and obsession with the Holocaust by Jewish writers and cinematographers has outlived its usefulness as a lesson and has become, frankly, a card played by Jews for favored status in the poor me Olympics. Dan, I know you’ve dealt with these obnoxious ninnies on BHtv whenever you would graciously offer a glimpse into your family’s history and private life.

    Today in First World countries, we have to some degree become inured to the plight of Third World immigrants, that many perceive as the economic needy, benighted, poorly dressed and educated with large families and cultures antithetical to our own, fleeing from dictatorships or theocracies that they directly or indirectly deserve. We, perhaps arrogantly, don’t feel empathetic and not able to relate to those we have very little in common with besides the humanity which seems all to easy to sweep under the carpet.

    The world is a tough place but it can’t happen to me , not here, not now. Not in a land of high enlightened culture; education, the arts, at the forefront of science, technology, philosophy and medicine. People in suits and ties with wholesome families and manicured lawns, lived in by patriotic veterans with businesses and degrees like Herr Doktor Edelman or Kaufman. That, … is the relevant message of the Jews. That it can happen anywhere to anyone. One day your darling little daughter is starting 3rd grade and the next day her eyeglasses are thrown onto a pile of spectacles and she has been rendered into a bar of soap and a lampshade.

    Do the Jews own the market on indescribable suffering? Heavens no, but that’s not the point.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

  4. After having been contacted by several people, I have decided to re-open comments. However, given the nature of this series — excerpts from my father’s book about his life — I will not publish politically charged or argumentative posts.

  5. This is great. Thanks for posting. At the age of 95, my dad has decided to write his memoirs. He has a lot of great material, including growing up during the depression, his experiences in the Korean War, his years in the jewelry business, etc.

    He has been resistant to my editorial efforts, so his draft is pretty disjointed. But it has been good for his morale. Talking about his experiences in Korea, and the men in his platoon, has helped take his mind off his chronic pain, his concerns about my mother and her dementia.

    And listening to him reminisce about his boyhood in North Dakota makes me think of a line in one of John Updike’s last poems – “perhaps we meet our heaven not at the end of life, but at the beginning”

  6. Your father has a clear, concise prose styl, and tells a good story and has a good story to tell. Looking forward to next installment.

    (“politically charged or argumentative posts”? – well, I’m not even going to ask about those.)

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