NOTE: This Blog post will mark the beginning of a series of articles dealing with the Bruck family’s indelible connection to Berlin. My grandfather, his five siblings, along with my father, his two siblings and most of his cousins, as well as many extended family members lived in Berlin during the 19th or 20th centuries. A good starting point for this conversation begins with two of my great-aunts, their links to Berlin, and their eventual fates.
On multiple occasions over the years, I have ordered from the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, the three rolls of microfilm records for the town of Ratibor, Germany, where my father, Dr. Otto Bruck, was born in 1907. These rolls, once only available on temporary loan to local Mormon Family History Centers, are now accessible on-line through familysearch.org. One microfilm roll includes Jewish birth records covering the period from roughly 1817 through 1874. Here, I discovered that my paternal great-grandparents, Fedor Bruck (Figure 1) and Friederike Bruck, née Mockrauer (Figure 2), had seven children born in Ratibor, although I was aware of an eighth child whose birth record I eventually located in the Polish State Archives in Raciborz, as discussed in an earlier post. The oldest child was my grandfather, Felix Bruck, born in 1864, followed by Charlotte (born 1865), Franziska (born 1866), Elise (born 1868), Hedwig (born 1870), Robert Samuel (born 1871), Wilhelm (1872), and, finally, Elsbeth (born 1874). (Figure 3) Growing up, I rarely heard my father mention any of these great-aunts and-uncles, but I most definitely never heard Elise and Robert mentioned and have found no documentary evidence to suggest they survived into adulthood, so presume they died young.
Many years ago, my now-deceased German cousin told me the personal things, mostly papers, of two of my renowned great-aunts, Franziska and Elsbeth Bruck, are archived at the Stadtmuseum (Figure 4), then located in Berlin. It wasn’t until 2014 that the museum, by then moved to Spandau on the outskirts of Berlin, had organized my great-aunts’ papers and that I could thoroughly review them. (Figure 5) Being particularly interested in my paternal grandfather and his five surviving siblings, as well as their respective offspring, my great-aunts’ documents provided an ideal point of departure for learning more about these relatives and beginning to unravel my family’s diaspora.
The family items at the Statdtmuseum include academic papers, diaries, numerous professional and personal letters, family photographs, awards, and miscellaneous belongings. The articles of primary interest to me were naturally the family letters and photographs, particularly those from and showing people I had encountered growing up or had learned about from my father. The letters came in several forms: handwritten in Sütterlin; handwritten in standard German; typewritten in standard German; or occasionally hand-or-typewritten in English. My wife and I took high resolution photographs of all the letters and pictures for future reference, although, to this day, most have not been translated. However, I have transcribed a few of the typewritten letters written by one of my father’s first cousins using Google Translate, and, while the translations are horrid, I can understand the gist of the letters. The matters discussed are often mundane in nature, although on occasion I’ve uncovered a real gem, some of which will be the topics of future Blog posts.
It goes without saying that Franziska and Elsbeth’s personal papers are the basis of some of what I learned about them, but as relatively prominent personages, I have been able to supplement, albeit limitedly, their bios from other sources. Below I provide a succinct summary of their lives, inasmuch as I’ve uncovered, illustrated with items from the Stadtmuseum or places associated with them.
Franziska Bruck (1866-1942) (Figure 6)
Franziska, born on December 29, 1866 in Ratibor, Germany, was the second daughter of the owners of Bruck’s “Prinz von Preußen” Hotel, Fedor and Friederike Bruck (the Bruck’s Hotel has been the subject of a previous post). Little is known of Franziska’s early years in Ratibor. Her father, Fedor Bruck, passed away in 1892 when she was 26 years old, so as one of the three oldest children, it is likely that along with her mother, and older brother and sister, they together ran the Bruck’s Hotel in Ratibor for a time.
Regardless, Franziska, along with her mother Friederike and her youngest sister Elsbeth, eventually left for Berlin in 1902, leaving the Bruck’s “Prinz von Preußen” Hotel in Ratibor to be managed by my grandfather and his wife, Felix and Else Bruck. (Figure 7) A February 1915 article, in a German journal entitled “Die Bindekunst,” featured Franziska and mentioned she had gotten her start in Berlin 10 years earlier, so roughly in 1905. She introduced into Germany a form of Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, that was not initially taken seriously. It wasn’t until her first public show in 1907 at a special flower exhibition that her artistry and excellent taste began to be appreciated. And, in fact, a 1907 Berlin Address Book shows she was already in the flower business, first at Lützowstraße 27, and, no later than 1914, at nearby Potsdamer Str. 31a, both prestigious locations in central Berlin. By 1915, the Berlin Address Book shows she had both a “Blumenbinderei,” a flower shop, as well as a “Schule für Blumenschmuck,”
a school where she taught her unique form of flower decoration. (Figure 8) By 1929, Franziska appears to have moved her flower shop and school to Charlottenburg in Berlin’s Westend, eventually running her shop from my aunt and uncle’s private home as the Nuremberg Laws took effect.
Family lore says the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia, who ruled until November 1918, was one of my great-aunt’s clients. There can be no arguing that Franziska had an illustrious cadre of clients. One of the pictures taken in her flower shop shows the last Crown Princess of Germany and Prussia, Princess Cecilie, touring her school. (Figures 9-10) Lyrical thank you letters (front & back of envelope, Page 1, Page 2, Translation) to Franziska from the renowned German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, also survive indicating he too was an enthusiastic client of my great-aunt. My great-aunt wrote two beautifully illustrated books, one in 1919, entitled “Blumen and Ranken,” the second in 1927, called “Blumenschmuck,” that eloquently speak to her artistry and skill as a proponent of Ikebana.
The last year in which Franziska’s flower shop is listed in the Berlin Phone Directory is 1936, by which time my aunt Susanne Mueller, nee Bruck, and uncle Dr. Franz Müller had departed Germany. My great-aunt Franziska last lived at Prinzregentenstraße 75 (Figure 11), also in Berlin’s Westend, where she likely committed suicide on January 2, 1942 only days after turning 76 years of age, no doubt after she was told by Nazi officials to report for deportation. She is buried in the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in East Berlin (Figure 12), and a stolpersteine, or a small, cobble-sized memorial (Figure 13), recognizes her as a victim of Nazi oppression at her last known address.
As previously mentioned, my aunt Susanne Mueller, née Bruck, and her husband, Dr. Franz Müller, left Berlin in 1936 in favor of Fiesole, Italy, an Etruscan hill town just above Florence. My aunt and uncle’s 1931 Marriage License states that my aunt was a Managing Director in her aunt Franziska’s flower shop, suggesting my aunt and great-aunt were close to one another. According to family accounts, my aunt and uncle were able to emigrate to Italy through the intercession of the Italian Ambassador to Germany (1932-1935), Vittorio Cerruti. Perhaps, Elisabetta Cerruti (Figure 14), the beautiful Hungarian and Jewish wife of the ambassador, played some role in facilitating Susanne and Franz Müller’s emigration through contact they initiated in Franziska’s flower shop.
Following my aunt and uncle’s departure from Berlin, my great-aunt Franziska Bruck went to visit them in Fiesole, Italy in 1937. I discovered at the “Archivio Comunale Di Fiesole,” that’s to say, the Communal Archive in Fiesole, a document entitled “Soggiorno degli Stranieri in Italia,” or “Stay of Foreigners in Italy,” dated October 11, 1937, granting Franziska a tourist visa good for two months. Given my great-aunt’s ultimate fate, one can only wonder how events might otherwise have played out had she abandoned her life in Berlin and stayed in Italy or emigrated elsewhere.
Elsbeth Bruck (1874-1970) (Figure 15)
On the occasion of my great-aunt’s 95th birthday, the “Berliner Zeitung,” a Berlin daily founded in East Germany in 1945 that continued publication after German reunification, did a feature story on Elsbeth; this article provides some of my great-aunt’s own words to describe her life, which she documented in an unpublished autobiography. By her own admission, Elsbeth was the family’s black sheep, which ultimately lead to her being booted from the house. As the daughter of the owners of the Bruck’s Hotel, she chafed against their middle-class values and became an actress; by 1904, she was employed by the famous German movie director, Max Reinhardt. She had an out-of-wedlock child in 1907, a son that sadly passed away after only two-and-a-half months.
Elsbeth became a peace activist during WWI and joined the pacifist “Bund Neues Vaterland” (New Fatherland League), leading to her being charged with high treason and spying and jailed in 1916 and 1918. During the era of the Weimar Republic between 1918 and 1933, she was involved in many social, cultural and pacifist activities, and by 1931 she was a member of the managing committee of the pacifist “Universal League of Mothers and Educators.” By January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed Germany’s Chancellor, Elsbeth fled first to Heidelberg, then to Stuttgart, and finally in 1934 to Prague. Here, she was supported by a variety of aid organizations, including the Jewish relief committee and a committee set up exclusively to help pacifist refugees, augmented by a small stipend from the latter organization; by 1938, when it became evident that WWII would not come to a quick end, she was offered refuge by an English Quaker settlement and provided an exit visa from Czechoslovakia to England, where she rode out the war.
Elsbeth did not return to Germany until 1946, at which time she settled in East Berlin. While Elsbeth’s ascent into the upper ranks of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) are unknown to me, there are a few clues as to her influence as a Communist apparatchik. One of my cousins accompanied her father to visit Elsbeth in East Berlin in 1969, and clearly remembers my great-aunt describing her role as “logopäde” to Walter Ulbricht (Figure 16), a German Communist politician and the East German head of state until his death in 1973. Having no idea as to the significance of this term, I had to turn to my German relatives to explain it to me. The literal translation is “speech therapist,” although there is no indication Mr. Ulbricht had a speech impediment, akin to the stutter suffered by King George VI of England, made famous in the movie “The King’s Speech.” Rather, Mr. Ulbricht was widely derided in West Germany at the time for his use of Saxonian colloquialisms, expressions no modern-day politician wishing to further his political career would today employ. Possibly, Elsbeth’s role was as advisor on elocution and public speaking. As an aside, Mr. Ulbricht is infamous for his lie, “Niemand hat die Absicht eine Mauer zu bauen,” or “no one has any intention to build a wall (between the East and West halves of Berlin),” uttered only days before construction of the Berlin Wall began overnight on August 13, 1961.
There are two other things that attest to the high esteem with which Elsbeth was regarded within the former GDR. First, she was awarded the “Vaterländischer Verdienstorden in Silber,” the “Patriotic Order of Merit in Silver,” for “special services to the state and to the society.” (Figure 17) Perhaps, equally impressive, Elsbeth is buried in East Berlin’s “Friedrichsfelde Socialist Cemetery” (Figure 18, 19), only feet away from the central obelisk of the “Memorial to the Socialists” (Figure 20); ten graves surround
this central obelisk, including that of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, founders of the German Communist Party, as well as that of the aforementioned Walter Ulbricht. Clearly, in death, Elsbeth is in lofty company.
In upcoming Blog posts, I will often refer to discoveries emanating from a closer examination of my great-aunts’ personal papers and photographs. Some stories will provide telling indications as to the circle of friends and acquaintances with whom family members interacted, while others will chronicle the involved path I followed in uncovering more of my family’s history.