Tuesday, January 5, 2021

15 Days to Fresh Start: My Father's Time in Danzig

Almost every morning my breakfast includes a large volume of whipped cream smothering a bowl of fruit and nuts, or topping some dark chocolate mint cookies. Sometimes both. Today, January 5, is an appropriate day to reveal my gastronomic proclivity considering that it is National Whipped Cream Day. 

It also is the day my father, Kopel Fuersetzer, was born in 1911 or 1912 (for an explanation of that uncertainty, link to this blog posting: https://nosocksneededanymore.blogspot.com/2017/01/celebrating-fathers-birthday-with.html). 

I find unity in those two commemorations. Many evenings while I was growing up my father enjoyed Reddi Whip spritzed on top of chocolate pudding my mother made. I did, too. But after leaving my parents’ Brooklyn home for life with Gilda in 1973, I rarely consumed whipped cream. 

Until we embarked on a 10-year Atkins diet regimen in 1995. Atkins permitted whipped cream. I got hooked again and maintained that pleasure post-Atkins. Trips to Costco often revolve around my need to restock a three-pack of Land O Lakes whipped cream. 

My father came to America in January 1939, eventually changing the family name to Forseter. 

He left Poland from Danzig, the German name for the Baltic Sea port now called Gdańsk under Polish sovereignty. He had lived in Danzig since leaving his shtetl hometown of Ottynia when he was 16. Even at such a young age he was driven to be a successful businessman not confined by the constraints of simple, peasant-like life in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains of Galicia. 

Known as the Free City of Danzig because of its status as a protected area under the League of Nations, Danzig was cosmopolitan, with a sizable Jewish population. And very German. In the late 1920s and the 1930s that combination of ethnicities collided, to the detriment of Jews.

Reading up on Danzig in Wikipedia, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Gdańsk) here are relevant passages on the time Kopel spent there.

“In the 1920s and early 1930s anti-Semitism grew and the local Nazi party took power in the Volkstag (parliament) elections of 1933 and 1935. The Nazis took over the government in 1933 and as a result Jews were dismissed from public service and discriminated against in public life… 

“On 23 October 1937 60 shops and several private residences were damaged in a Pogrom which followed a speech of the Nazi Party’s Gauleiter of the city, Albert Forster. This caused the flight of about the half of the Jewish community within a year. In 1938 Forster initiated an official policy of repression against Jews; Jewish businesses were seized and handed over to Gentile Danzigers, Jews were forbidden to attend theaters, cinemas, public baths and swimming pools, or stay in hotels within the city, and, with the approval of the city’s senate, barred from the medical, legal and notary professions… 

“The Kristallnacht riots in Germany were followed by similar riots between 12 and 14 November 1938. The Synagogues in Langfuhr, Mattenbuden, and Zoppot were destroyed and the Great Synagogue was only saved because Jewish war veterans guarded the building.

“Following these riots the Nazi senate (government) introduced the racialist Nuremberg laws in November 1938 and the Jewish community decided to organize its emigration. All property, including the Synagogues and cemeteries, was sold to finance the emigration of the Danzig Jewry. The The Great Synagogue on Reitbahn street was taken over by the municipal administration and torn down in May 1939. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee paid up to $50,000 for the ceremonial objects, books, scrolls, tapestries, textiles and all kind of memorabilia, which arrived at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America on 26 July 1939. The extensive collection of Lesser Giełdziński was also shipped to New York City, where it was placed at the Jewish Museum.”

Kopel Fuersetzer left Danzig barely two months after Kristallnacht overwhelmed Danzig in mid November 1938. After marrying my mother in 1942 the family name was changed, after several iterations, to “Forseter.” 

If you carefully read the Wikipedia text you might be as chilled as I was to discover my family surname is one “e” shy of that of the Nazi tyrant who ruled Danzig and implemented the repression that drove my father to flee his homeland. I can’t tell you how often people I newly encounter mistakenly pronounce my name as “Forster.”  

I never knew of this darkly eerie coincidence during my father’s lifetime. He rarely talked about life in Danzig.