Home Contact

You are here: Home: Memoirs: Chapter 2

Heinz's Memoirs

Chapter 2

My father, Alfred, and the Vogel family

My father Alfred was the only child of Adolf and Henriette Vogel, both born in the 1870's. Like me, Alfred was born in the borough of Mährisch Ostrau, in the district of Vítkovice, on January 6th 1899, then, clearly, still in the Habspurg Empire.

Alfred's father, Adolf, in turn originated from Troppau/Opava, in German/Moravian Silesia, about 30 kilometres to the west, where he had three brothers. These four brothers came from what, at the time, was considered to be a fairly liberal Jewish household. That meant that the entire regular, major, activities in the synagogue and Jewish traditions were observed - including the kosher dietary rules - but not to the finest degrees of detail practised by the orthodox Jews.

Observing these traditions meant attending the synagogue on the big holidays, that is Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and Pesach (Passover) with its Seder evening meal. Bar Mitzvahs were also celebrated, but not the regular Friday Shabbes (Sabbath) attendance at the synagogue, though a special evening meal would be served and traditional candles lit and the customary blessings recited. The dietary, Kosher, rules were observed in so far as no pork or bacon would ever be eaten. In fact, most Jews at that time had not developed a taste for pork and positively disliked the thought of actually eating the flesh of the pig - so it was no great hardship to do without. On the other hand, the separation of kitchen utensils and crockery for use with 'milky', dairy products, and 'non-milky', animal products, was largely ignored.

The Ten Commandments also require that no work be undertaken over the Shabbes. The strict interpretation of this rule dictated, for example, that the lighting of fires was not to be carried out. This was carried over to apply to their equivalents of turning on gas or electric lighting, which was thus also forbidden. Orthodox Jews would therefore employ gentiles to turn on the lights on a Friday evening, whereas the more liberal Jews took that with a pinch of salt and took the risk. Similarly travel was out, as coupling up horses or donkeys to the cart and driving them entailed work. Consequently the only mode of transport was on foot, the effort of doing this apparently being acceptable. This accounts for why, in the olden days, Jewish communities were largely concentrated within walking distance of their local synagogue.

All of Alfred's father's brothers lived in the small, historic, town of Troppau - latterly Opava. One lived on his own when I knew him. I don't think that he ever married or had any other family, for my picture of him is of an old bachelor. Another, a businessman, was married with two daughters, one of whom was Suzie ('a pretty girl', as described by a much later acquaintance of mine - fellow Czechoslovak philatelist, Ernst Gorge from Opava and now living in Blackheath). The third of my great uncles was a partner of Troppau's second largest department store - Hermann und Vogel.

Alfred's mother Henriette, Omama (grandmother) Vogel, a Kürschner by birth, came from a truly practising Jewish home in Oswieczim in Polish Silesia. This, then little, town is nowadays universally known by its German name of Auschwitz, notorious for the Nazi extermination camp operated there during the Second World War. Omama Vogel's parental home, whilst not of the most rigid, orthodox, Jewish order, was nevertheless run on proper traditional Kosher lines. This did involve having these quite separate kitchen utensils for meat and milky food - for never were these two to be mixed in or with the same implements. Of her relations I knew virtually nothing, other than that she still had some living at Biala Bielsko, in Poland, at the time - something we would come to appreciate in due course.

In spite of the traditional, observing, background and upbringing of both his parents, Alfred - with his then popular, advanced, Marxist, not to say communist, views - never could come to grips with 'organised religion' as he called it. Although he never denied his Jewishness he became a true agnostic - not so much denying God, but being quite ambivalent about His concept and objecting to His organisation on earth. He was quite single-minded on this matter to the bitter end, and insisted all along that his funeral was not to be run on religious lines, conducted by a rabbi. Having held these views strongly throughout his life, he was to make sure long before the moment actually arrived, that it would be conducted on humanist lines by joining the British Secular/Humanist Society.

By the time I came along, my father was, I suppose, a relatively successful insurance executive. He was the manager of the Moravská Ostrava branch of the Anglo Ellementar Insurance Company - which had some distant connection with the British Commercial Union. His main business was with the heavy industries of the area - the coal mines of the Ostrava district, the steel works at Vitkovice and a whole range of smaller manufacturing industries and businesses. Personal, domestic and life insurance did not feature in his sphere of activities. Although the company had an office in the middle of the town, his relationships with clients and, indeed the business itself, would seem to have been developed and conducted primarily from the coffee houses in central Ostrava. The modern Palace Hotel in particular, and the older 19th century Imperial Hotel, seemed to be the centre of Alfred's 'on-site' activities. As was common at the time, both of these hostelries entertained their regular customers and others with the full range of daily newspapers as well as offering endless supplies of coffee and alcoholic beverages, and comfortable facilities for card and chess players.

Alfred's adult education started with national service in the Imperial Austrian army during the final year of the First World War. Even at that age he was a solid pacifist - though he never aspired to being a conscientious objector. That concept was certainly not even considered a possibility in the Austria of the day, or anywhere else outside Britain. Luckily, however, Alfred was not required to distinguish himself in any auspicious manner. His military service took on something of the character of The Good Soldier Schweik. As far as one can tell, his greatest claim to fame on active service had been to guard a particularly important railway line and railway crossing in Silesia. This could have offered great opportunities for bravery in defending a major railway junction in the face of an enemy. The situation did not, however, lend itself to such heroism. The fact was that the crossing was on a line that had long ago been closed down and abandoned, Beeching fashion, and not a single train was ever seen to pass by during the whole of his time there.

The conclusion of the war and the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 took him on to Commercial College. This was not exactly a highlight in his overall education, though doubtless as later events would show, it must have come in most useful.

His subsequent training, which he greatly enjoyed, was actually as a dental technician, with a happy apprenticeship period spent in a (then) well-known dental practice in Vienna. This was the time when inflation was rampant in Austria, as it was in Germany, and having access to the stable currency of Czechoslovakia meant that he could live very comfortably, not to say extravagantly, in the Vienna of the early 1920's. It sounds as if all the best coffee-houses and night clubs were within reach of his meagre (by Czechoslovak standards) resources and in later years he used to look back fondly to those days. Visits to the Vienna Opera for performances of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, and the Silvester, New Year's Eve, all night celebrations were other highlights on which he came to look back nostalgically with happy memories.

Dental surgeons in Austria in those days, and indeed in Czechoslovakia, employed their own dental technicians/dentists on site to produce the crowns, bridges and dentures for their patients, in the dentists' own laboratories. After gaining due experience, and having completed their apprenticeship, these dental technicians were able to go into practise on their own and perform treatments on patients like dental surgeons. Other things being equal, Alfred could have gone on to do just that and become a dentist. Insurance was his father's (Adolf 's) business, which was not something that Alfred seemed to have given great consideration to as his future career. However, following Adolf's, relatively early and unexpected, death from a heart attack in 1926, it was left to Alfred to sort out the estate and his father's business.

Alfred took his father's early death quite badly and, in spite of his disdain for 'organised religion' he respected the age-old Jewish tradition of reciting the Kaddish prayer for the statutory period following his father's death. The recitation of Kaddish, a prayer in Aramaic, which was the vernacular spoken by Jews in their Babylonian exile and during the days of the Second Temple, arises from the belief that the praises of God in the Kaddish would help the souls of the dead find lasting peace. The prayer became known as the Mourner's Prayer, even though it contains not one single reference to death or resurrection. The Kaddish is normally recited at the grave, for eleven months after death, by the children of the deceased, and each year on the anniversary, yortzeit, of death. Alfred considered it his duty to follow this tradition on his father's behalf. Interestingly, following this early, unexpected, death of her husband, my grandmother 'fell out' with God slightly and decided to give up the culinary rules relating to separate sets of kitchen equipment and resorted to the more convenient way of household management. My father's disregard for religious organisation could thus be seen, perhaps, as having its roots in his mother's inner self.

At the time of his death, Adolf had somehow managed to leave his business affairs in anything but tidy condition and it was left to Alfred to sort things out. It was here that his Commercial College training would have come into its own. Taking over his father's business affairs, he managed by sheer hard work and perseverance to turn it round and discharge all his father's debts and liabilities within a relatively short period of a couple of years or so. Exactly how these debts had come about and how Alfred discharged them I never registered.

After that, returning to the dentistry for which he had been training was no longer a sensible option, particularly as he was now running a pretty successful insurance business; and so it was to be until March 1939.


Front page
Ostrava: A Brief History
The Vogel Family
The Slatner Family
The Times of Peace
The Shadows of War
A Polish Interlude
A 'Transient' Refuge in England
Alfred Goes to War

Send Your Comments
Click here
Return to top Next >>

© 2002 Heinz Vogel