My mother’s father, Franz Fischer, for whom I am named, was born on a pig farm in the village of Küingdorf, Germany in 1868, 3 1/2 weeks after his parents married. Located on the border between Westphalia and Hanover ( now Niedersachsen or Lower Saxony ), the landscape around Küingdorf is reminiscent of parts of Vermont or central Pennsylvania. The farm had sufficient land to raise grain to feed the pigs as well as a productive and profitable forest area. The farm was prosperous and well-maintained, but a pig farm all the same,
Franz was the oldest of nine children and in other another area of Germany would have been the heir apparent. It was a peculiarity of the traditional law in the Küingdorf area, however, that a farm was inherited by the youngest son, not the oldest. Thus, Franz knew early on that he would have to find another way than farming to earn his living. So while still a very young man he became interested in that most modern of conveyances, the bicycle.
In 1902, Franz met Clara Schallenberg, a city girl. She was the daughter of a successful retail and wholesale merchant dealing in household china and kitchen ware. Franz and Clara married in 1903.
One of the first things Franz and Clara did when they married was to register as Konfessionslos — without religious affiliation — in the local registry office. This registration would exempt them from church taxes. My mother wrote later of Franz and Clara, “I grew up in a pleasant, peaceful family in which I was taught to have deep disrespect for organized religion and great respect for fundamental ethical principles that none of us would ever abandon. Our father’s principles were rather simple: we do the right things, not to appeal to some figure ‘up there’ in the sky, but simply to do the right thing.” It was a powerful moral rectitude grounded in principled atheism.
Although Franz was born a farm boy, in the city of Dusseldorf he made himself into a gentleman in a time when social mobility was more limited than it is today. While industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century brought substantial migration from farm to city, Franz and Clara took things a step further and entered the Bildungsbuergertum, the literate and cultured middle class. I remember the proud, respectful tone in my grandmother Clara’s voice when she told me Franz was ein richtiger Herr, a genuine gentleman. Clearly one of the things that made Franz a gentleman is that he dressed the part.
As Franz’ business prospered, he and Clara attended concerts and plays, kept a large library and read extensively. Clara could recite long passages from Goethe and other German classics as well as Shakespeare and the Bible, her atheism notwithstanding. Franz and Clara sent their daughter, my mother Elfriede, to the university preparatory school (Gymnasium) and supported her through her PhD. at Heidelberg. Franz embellished his considerable library by pasting a handsome book plate, designed by a friend who was a graphic artist, inside each cover.
Franz and Clara remained committed to bicycling throughout their lives.
Franz died in 1937, well before I was born, but his photographs have made him very real to me. From my mother’s stories about him, he was an easy person to like and was admired by those who knew him.
Although Johannes and Elfriede Höber succeeded in escaping from Germany with their nine-year-old daughter Susanne before War War II, Elfriede’s mother, Clara Fischer, and her three brothers remained behind. In 1943, Düsseldorf, where Clara lived, was heavily bombed by United States and allied forces. This photograph was taken from the ruins of Clara’s apartment, showing the destruction of the city. Having lost everything, Clara fled with her two grandchildren to the comparative safety of a small town in the Alps, where she lived out the rest of the War.