My family tree had many branches - some straight, some crooked, now alas cut back to a few gnarled sticks with a few new twigs beginning to show. But there was a time of teeming family life, an international cousinage spreading from the Black Sea to South America: we could have been the Rothschilds if we had had the money.
What we had in plenty was eccentrics of every hue: revolutionaries, philosophers, serial bankrupts, a medically qualified abortionist to the (English) gentry, a test pilot in the Kaiser’s air corps, and even a midget. He wasn’t really a midget, just my very small great-uncle, a chess prodigy. So good that my grandfather was able to conceal him in a ‘chess automaton’ and use him as a star turn in his variety shows. He was not the first to play the trick of the concealed human inside the machine, but he refined it to such an extent that the Tsar summoned him for a demonstration. Unfortunately, something went wrong just when the court’s best player was about to be check-mated. The official version was that my unfortunate uncle was unable to suppress a cough in his cramped and dusty hideout, forcing my grandfather, a Napoleon of the theatre, to beat a hasty retreat from Moscow. My mother, a supreme realist, told me that a monumental fart issuing from the chess machine, all lights blinking, had given the game away.
Nourishing family quarrels, tended across generations and continents, bound us together: many had to be conducted by correspondence across vast distances - I still treasure letters between warring factions of the family, exchanged by sea mail between Berlin and Buenos Aires, delivered into my hands by a frustrated relative whose life was drained of all meaning when his adversary died after a lifetime of mutual bitterness. Such quarrels ranged from the sublime (was it permissible for a Jew to wallow in Wagner?) to the scandalous (accusations of multiple bastardy bandied about without the very restraint advocated by the parties concerned).
The menfolk in the family were a mixed lot - the only ones who made a reputation and a good living were my two grandfathers, who also happened to be brothers.
They kept the show on the road, in a very real sense, since one of them was a successful theatrical impresario and the other a prominent advocate. Between them, they maintained the philosophers, the eternal students, the gamblers, the bankrupts.
But the stars in our family were always women. They had the brains, they believed in self-improvement, they occupied the moral high ground. There was that great-great-something of mine who had a son fighting in the revolution of 1848. He was taken prisoner and arraigned before a court-martial. Here the accounts diverge. Some say he was condemned to death, others that he received a long prison sentence for treason. But there is no doubt that his mother was determined to save him, by going to the top. Her idea, good Jewess that she was, was to get the Pope to intercede on her son’s behalf. She gathered up her skirts and two weeks’ provisions to travel from Frankfurt to the Vatican, relying for access to the Holy See on being subcontracted to sew buttons on the uniforms of the Pope’s Swiss Guard. Anecdotal ambiguity was a family staple, but there is no doubt that her son was spared. Whether and what the Pope was spared is not on record.
Her grand-daughter was a formidable figure, muse to great thinkers and writers, Rilke and Stefan George among them. A well-known painter committed suicide for unrequited love of her. She was well-read and wrote aphorisms in the style of her day, developing among other ideas a Platonic approach to housework with which she terrorised staff and a circle of young women who came to live and study with her.
She was the only human being of whom my mother, courageous and upright to a fault, confessed herself afraid. So much so that she used to lock herself in the lavatory when Aunt Laura came to visit. I have written about my mother elsewhere, describing how she came to be befriended by the Freud family, became Sigmund’s patient, and led a life that was a beacon to others.
It all started with a rather disreputable cousin of hers. While studying medicine, he had discovered a facility for hypnotism, and realised that he could make more money showing off his extraordinary gifts on the stage rather than in the consulting room. Or preferably a bit of both. My grandfather was delighted to use him as a performer. Uncle changed his name, joined the freemasons, and discovered yet another talent - architecture, although I am not sure whether he ever built anything. But he liked to be addressed as ‘Masterbuilder’ (Herr Baumeister) and I remember that he wore a miniature silver spirit level on his watch chain. He was, of course, quite mad. His face was marked by the obligatory duelling scars (Schmisse) of the Prussian gentleman - which my father claimed were acquired each morning anew, with the help of make-up.
Between exercising his various talents, he used to disappear for long periods. I always imagined it was into prison, but this was strenuously denied by those close to him. During one of his medical phases, he gave a lavish party in one of the grand houses he used to rent on short leases. During the day he had practised hypnotherapy on some of his patients and conducted one particularly sleepy lady into his salon, to allow her to come to slowly. Having forgotten about her, he took his guests to the self-same salon while the patient was still asleep on a sofa under a protective covering until my mother sat on her, with the expected consequences - embarrassment and confusion. As with Freud, the couch and a distrust of therapeutic hypnosis became career-determining factors in my mother’s life, albeit not in identical circumstances. Still, she became a believer, Freud’s patient, disciple and ultimately a skilled practitioner. She was a model of emancipation at a time when this was not yet the norm. She could laugh at family scandals and transgressions, turn a blind eye to outrage. Only one subject was taboo. She hated to be reminded of the fact that her father was the Mr Tussaud of Berlin, owner, among other places of entertainment, of a wax works in the Friedrichstrasse. Ploughing back the money thus earned into hopeless cultural ventures such as putting Hauptmann’s masterworks on the New York stage could never wipe out the shame.