Monday, 5 May 2008

Old desk, new thoughts


Israel Grandpa's family left Frankfurt for England in 1936. He was 17, the youngest of three siblings, and had been working as a junior banking clerk since he left school. Life had become increasingly restricted since the Nazis came to power in 1933, and the family business (selling flour and sugar to bakers and catering establishments) had been losing custom. His father had lived in London between 1900 and 1906, working in his uncles' art dealing business, and he naturally looked to England as the place to resettle his family.

My great-grandparents (Putzi, of the cinnamon matzah), and their three grown-up children made the crossing from Hook van Holland to Dover on 7 October 1936. My great-grandfather set up an agency importing canned food from Palestine in his new home (I know all this from Israel Grandpa's memoirs, written before he died two years ago). Since they had not had to leave Germany in the rush that later emigrants (including Israel Grandma's family) felt, they were able to ship much of their furniture over. Within this shipment was a big wooden desk with drawers on either side of it, and a 'secret compartment' which slid underneath.

I remember that desk sitting in the window of Putzi's sitting room in London. She also had a massive, solid display cabinet where she kept the decorated playing cards we used to play with when we visited, and a similarly impressive mirrored wardrobe in the bedroom. When she died, aged nearly 101, Munchkin Granny inherited the desk and the wardrobe. The desk became Munchkin Gramps', and later on, sat in the bay window of Munchkin Granny's own house. When she moved to London about six years ago, it was just too big to fit in her new flat, and she had to face selling it. I was still a student at the time with no room to take it, but I couldn't bear the thought that such an old piece of furniture with so much family history could be lost, and so I asked Munchkin Gramps if he could store it for me until such as time as I had a house I could fit it in. He's kept it for me all that time, and this weekend we hired a van and moved it down here.

I am now sitting at a desk which my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents had in their houses, in Leeds, London, and Frankfurt. I don't even know how old it is, but it's weathered a sea-crossing, a change of nationality, and years of family and domestic business. I can hardly even describe how emotional I feel to have it here. Its smell reminds me of Israel Grandpa, although it never lived in my grandparents' house. He and Israel Grandma ran their family business until they were well into their 80s though (his memoirs are called 'Retiring at 85'!), so I saw him working at his own desk often. It's by far the most solid piece of furniture I own - it took Munchkin Gramps and The Scientist considerable effort to get it down two flights of stairs in Leeds, and quite some huffing and puffing and logistical planning at this end, too. But now it's here, and I plan to write my next academic book at it. I dare say there will be some blog posts written here too, and I am pleased to say that there is just enough room for Mausel to fit under it on my lap.

I think that Putzi would be happy that her desk had found a new place to live with one of her many great-grandchildren. I know it was in her spirit to look forwards, as Israel Grandpa says so in his memoirs, of their farewell to their Frankfurt life: 'I remember Mutti quoting a fashionable German song “Ein neues Leben faengt an, ein neuer Tag bricht heran …..man muss vergessen was war” (A new life starts, a new day commences…..One must forget what was )...'

3 comments:

Johanna said...

what a gorgeous desk - makes me wonder why we lose some of this old lovingly-crafted furniture and replace it with cheap tat. Glad you can continue to cherish something that is full of special memories.

LisaRene said...

Just lovely! It looks to be in wonderful condition and certain to get tender loving care from you :)

May it inspire you in your writing.

Lysy said...

Thank you for the nice thoughts, Lisa and Johanna! We had the same thoughts as you on cheap tat at the weekend as my previous desk (from Ikea) broke apart on its move into The Scientist's office cubby hole in the spare room! We fixed it again but I feel a bit bad at the contrast between my magnificent antique and his chipboard, nailed and glued together version!