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Eating the Piano: ‘Four Friends’

A Family’s True Story of Surviving the Nazis and World War II

My grandmother Ilse was one of the few surviving Jews wealthy and prescient enough to escape Nazi Germany in the 1930s. This story grows out of letters from friends and family written to her during the Second World War.

Before the Lang family left Berlin, Dr. Ernst Lang was a physician with a busy and lucrative practice. In 1935 they arrived in New York, moving into a modest neighborhood. Because Dr. Lang spoke English poorly, he could only open a small medical office within their apartment. Their living quarters were squeezed between his office and my grandmother’s massage office.

Ilse, sons Peter and Kurt, Dr. Ernst Lang. Photo courtesy of Karen Lang-McNabb.

Back in Germany my grandparent’s home had been the gathering place to discuss psychology, literature, and politics, such as Germany’s slide into totalitarianism. As friends left Germany, some wrote to say they were doing well. Ilse wrote back to ask: would they like to send money to help others get out of Nazi Germany?

At the time, no one had heard of a Final Solution, but they worked from a sense of imminent danger. Not everyone had that sense – when my grandparents invited Ilse’s father to join them in New York, he declined: One doesn’t transplant old trees, he said. [Lena’s Reminiscence]

As I opened each letter, I found unexpected surprises. During the Pandemic lockdown I had time to unfold each page to find meaning within.

As I read these fragile letters, I realized I am now the same age my grandmother was when I got to know her as a child. I was half-way down the stack, unfolding pages thin as a dragonfly wing when I realized how many there were and how often she received them. War-time letters arrived every few days. None were from Ilse, all were from family and friends, but it was like listening to a one-sided phone call – I could figure it out.

Lena wrote the most often, and added details in her 1987 memoir, Lena’s Reminiscence.

Lena was my grandmother’s sister, but the others in the Four Friends are not related. Their fortunes are at the heart of this story, with politics and war driving the events of their lives.

Lena & Hans Schottlaender. Photo courtesy of Karen Lang-McNabb.

When this story begins, Ilse’s sister Lena was married to Hans.

The First World War and the inflation were still felt so deeply that people regarded the future as generally dismal. Fritz was not the only one.

When I was three months pregnant, I was invited with Hans to a… famous restaurant…The celebration was in the private rooms, of course, especially posh, a long beautifully laid table, all in evening dress. [LR]

Lena was seated next to Fritz Rosenberg, and between the endless courses he began to explain his point of view: In these days one should not bring children into the world. [LR]

Did Lena feel like squirming? Hans and Lena’s marriage had been turbulent, but her pregnancy brought joy. Fritz was married to Ollie with no children.

Fritz & Ollie Rosenberg. Photo courtesy of Karen Lang-McNabb.

These four became close friends. A bond developed, something that happens when we are young and share intense experiences together.

But this soon began to wobble, because between Fritz and me something developed which was to accompany us all our lives – we fell in love. [LR]

The bond wobbled but did not break – it grew stronger. Hans and Lena’s marriage ended, as did Ollie and Fritz’s, but they were careful of Ollie’s feelings, protecting the friendship. They all began to consider leaving Germany:

…One lived in Berlin at that time, in the famous twenties – on a powder keg. On the surface all was glitter and glory, but deep underneath, Hitler lay in the air. One knew that something dreadful was to happen, one just didn’t know how and when. One ought to have known more, since Hitler’s book ‘Mein Kampf’ had already appeared… [But] there were so many incomprehensible matters in this book, that one just couldn’t grasp them.

Hans’s friend, Walter Landauer, was one of the few who realized what might come. It followed him when awake and, in his dreams, and he warned us incessantly, so that Hans and I decided in Sept. 1932 to go abroad…[LR]

After Ollie divorced Fritz, she remarried, and the new couple left for the U.S. promising to keep in touch. The other three – Hans, Lena, and Fritz – packed the car and left Germany together, along with Lena’s now-2-year-old daughter, Marianne.

It took only a few days of driving from Berlin to get to the little town of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Staying there proved to be much more difficult.

This is an excerpt from a book, Eating the Piano, that I plan to publish shortly.

Copyright: Karen Lang-McNabb 10.14.2021.

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