(a document I discovered in my father's papers after his death, written in his own hand, tells of a trip to Poland and Germany during the rise of the Nazis)
I want to take you back 55 years to Feb. 1934. I was 19 and had been employed for 15 months in a Kid Tannery in Bermondsey. This tannery was run by two brothers named Preston: Arthur Preston ,who was M.D. and looked after tannage and production, and his younger brother George, who was responsible for the sorting of the leather and for Sales, a large part of which was exported.
One of the reasons why I had got a job with them when I left school was that I had had fairly good results in Schools Certificate in French, German and Spanish. After a brief period working through various departments I was working in the finished leather warehouse learning to sort and generally assisting George Preston with Sales. My first job each morning was to work out complete costings on all the leathers which had been graded the previous day and these had to be completed ready for the M.D. to see by 9a.m.
One morning at the beginning of Feb., I was rushing to complete these at about 10 to 9 when the door opened and in came the M.D. I immediately said ‘They’re almost ready Mr. Preston – another couple of minutes’. He said ‘Never mind them, how’s your German?’ ‘Alright I think’ I replied, ‘I’m still going to Evening School once a week’ .’Well’ he said, ‘my brother’s due to go to Austria and Poland in 10 days time and he’s been taken ill. We’ve promised faithfully for a long time that someone will go to see the customers. How would you like to go? Mr Konig, our agent will be with you all the time and do any selling. What you will have to do is to see what each customer wants & when you come back you can select their orders for them. Just you talk to them & convince them that you’ll do that. Do you think that you can do that?' Well I couldn’t believe my ears but it didn’t take me long to say snap.
The next few days were hectic, getting myself a passport, getting measured for a new suit ( £5 & the firm paid for it ) and a new leather suitcase. In just over a week I was catching a train to Dover & Calais, where I caught a connection to Vienna. You can imagine how excited I was. I’d got a first class Sleeping compartment on a wagon lit going to Vienna, dream city of the waltz, Johann Strauss, all that. Was I looking forward to that? After a good dinner, I settled down to a nights sleep, interrupted occasionally by a bit of shunting, coupling and uncoupling. The whole journey took over 30 hours and I’ll never forget waking up in the morning, letting up the blind & seeing the snow covered pine trees – we were running through the Black Forest area.
I was met at Vienna by Emil Konig – a wonderful old man – he must have been about 50, and he broke the news to me: no night life – no waltzing in Vienna. A curfew was in operation. A couple of days before there had been a minor revolution in Austria – what became known as the Sozi Putsch. The government under Dr. Dolfuss had called out the army and they put down the revolt very effectively and quickly by putting a cannon ball through the prestige block of Workers Flats – the Karl Marx Hof. It was a cracking good shot about a yard over the centre of the front portico.
It is interesting to note here that Dr. Dolfuss , who was the strong man of Austrian politics, was assassinated about 5 months later in July by 6 members of the Austrian SS. They burst into the Chancellory, shot him and left him to expire slowly for 3 hours, denying him the attendance of either a doctor or a priest which he asked for. Hitler disavowed any connection, but, 4 days after the Anschluss with Austria in March 1938, Himmler laid wreaths on the graves of Otto Planetta, the chief assassin, and of the 6 others who had been executed for the murder.
I spent a couple of days visiting customers in Vienna. I managed a quick trip around the Ringstrasse to see the Opera House, a bit of the Wienerwald and, of course, the Karl Marx Hof. And then by train to Krakow, the wonderful ancient capital of Poland, a mediaeval City with a wonderful old castle, formerly the home of the Polish Kings. Here it snowed. I remember running across a square about a third of the size of our Market Square ( Northampton?) and by the time I got across there was 3 inches of snow on my hat.
One of our largest customers here , a family called Mandelberger , had their own tannery in Krakow which produced calf and very fine deerskin Suede. Years later, after the war, I met up with both the father and one of the sons, Henry Mandl, who had managed to get out of Poland in time and Henry was then the Manager of one of Kohnstam’s Tanneries in England, Meyers of Leeds. The traffic in Krakow consisted mainly of horse drawn droskies.
Then,on by train to Warsaw. – known then as the Paris of the north, a lovely city as I remember it: wonderful parks, tree lined avenues, beautiful old churches and other buildings. Most of the day, however, was spent in the old town to the north of the city , which had become the Jewish quarter, the famous or infamous Warsaw Ghetto. There was one long street called Franzishanza which had narrow archways in the buildings with alleys leading into squares, all around which were 3 or 4 storied buildings with iron staircases leading up to the different floors. Well, I’d worked in Bermondsey and Tower Bridge Road with it’s market stalls wasn’t very salubrious, but some of these squares were terrible, with all the refuse from the surrounding buildings dumped in the middle.
Therefore it was quite a surprise when, having climbed an iron staircase, avoiding en route the odd cabbage leaf, you were admitted into a well appointed warehouse, some with solid mahogany counters. Here you were shown what was wrong with your leather, informed that your competitors were giving a better selection at 2d a pence a foot less, their prices were CIF as opposed to your FOB. And, finally, they didn’t charge 5/- for a wooden packing case as we did! Our customer was in the business of buying leather, not wood!
If you got through this lot safely, you would then be invited into the office to talk business and these offices were quite well furnished. If you were lucky at at the conclusion of business, you could be taken through a door which led into the private living quarters. These were quite sumptuous, beautiful oriental carpets, paintings, wonderful furniture, Bluthner Grand pianos – the lot. These merchants were really wealthy, some of them very cultured – others not so. One was a huge man called Jakob Asy, a brother of Sholem Asy, the great Jewish short story writer. Brother Jakob shouted at you if he couldn’t get his own way – a regular bully.
Of course it was an experience of great value to me to see how old Emil Konig, our agent, dealt with them all, always patient, serious with some, joking with others, jokes most of which I couldn’t understand, but I didn’t let on. He got orders everywhere, but I found myself committed to inspect every skin which would be sent to Poland, and on my head be it if anything was wrong.
Looking back, it was a wonderful experience to have been in the Warsaw Ghetto in view of what the Germans did to it later. In July 1944, when the Russians were advancing rapidly and expected to take Warsaw any minute, the Jewish people rose up against the Germans. Unfortunately the Russians didn’t arrive in time (not until the following January). And the Germans used tanks and planes to destroy the old town completely and massacred practically the entire population.
On a lighter note, until a few years ago when I added the word Solidarosc to it, my entire vocabulary of Polish consisted of 3 words’ Nie Jestem Aniotem ’, the title of a film that was showing in Warsaw and which I wanted to see. The star was Mae West in Nie Jestem Aniotem – I’m no Angel. Old Konig said it was a bad film and wouldn’t allow me to see it. Instead we went to a French film called Tunel, a very futuristic piece about the construction of a tunnel under the Channel – ridiculous of course!
My return to England from Warsaw was via Berlin. Where I arrived on Saturday late afternoon and stayed in a hotel which was just off Unter den Linden, near to the Brandenburgh Tor. The itinerary of course had been arranged for my boss, who was of course a far more experienced traveller than I – hence the Berlin night stop. I spent the evening walking around seeing as much as I could of Berlin, but the whole place was full of brown shirted S.A. – Hitler youth strutting around. My own hotel - I think it was called the Bristol - was full of the top brass of the S.A, including Ernst Roehm, the commander of the S.A who was pointed out to me in the dining room.
On the Sunday morning there was a huge procession in which these Brownshirts took part. I went and watched it and saw an open car with old President Hindenburg in it, followed by another in which Hitler, who had been Chancellor for a year was standing up giving the Nazi salute, while the crowd went mad with their Hoch, Hoch, Hochs for Hindenburg and their Sieg Heils for Hitler. It was quite infectious, I almost joined in.
Coming back to Roehm – he was a very powerful figure, one of the first of Hitler’s lieutenants, one of the first party members in 1919.. Under his command the S.A. between 1931 and 1934 the S.A. expanded enormously. By 1934 it was 4 million strong, forty times the size of the regular army. Roehm was a regular army officer at the time of Hitler’s Beer Cellar Putsch in 1923 and it was he who had supplied Hitler with arms.
At the time I saw him, he had become so powerful that Hitler decided only a few months later to liquidate him. This was at the end of 1934. Accordingly he telephoned him and told him to call a meeting of all the S.A. leaders at Bad Wiessen for 9a.m on June 30th. On Hitler’s instruction, picked units of Himmler’s SS struck at the gathering and elsewhere ,wiping out about 150 people. Roehm himself was shot next day in a Munich prison by Eicke, the Commandant of Dachau concentration camp after refusing to commit suicide.
Photos,1894, of the Hotel Berlin in its former glory.It was bombed during the war and rebuilt as the Kempsinki by 1952. It aimed to 'serve the guest unconditionally' in line with the traditions handed down from its past. The Hotel Bristol Berlin Under dem Linden was one of the prestigious buildings whose names were connected with the Hotelbetriebs-AG.
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