I never met Pops, my maternal grandfather. He passed away when I was one year old. The picture of him I have in my head is of a smiling man in his mid-twenties with a large round head, glasses, and a cigarette in hand, wearing three-piece suits thus always looking dapper. I have two heirlooms of his. The first is a ring; the second is his travel diary.
This year for Christmas for my mother I decided to transcribe his travel diary. In 1936 when he was 19 he accompanied his father to Zirndorf at Nürnberg, Germany to visit his father’s family and friends. Coincidentally, his father bought him the ring while on that trip.
The whole experience of transcribing this little book was fascinating to me on several levels. I loved learning about my grandfather’s personality and what he perceived important to note. Not only did I get to know him as a young man, but I also caught a glimpse of life pre-World War II in central Germany.
My grandfather captured some economic markers. He commented on how high prices were compared to in Cleveland, Ohio, his home. A liter of gasoline cost 83 pfennings (33 cents in 1936), and a Ford cost 6800 marks (2742 dollars in 1936). He said how many hours a day the workers worked (48 per week) and how much they were paid (24 marks). The list of occupations of people he met includes butchers, a pencil factory worker, and a Zimmermann (metal work) factory worker.
Cultural items and events, both German and American, were referenced. I learned about the Max Schmeling/Joe Louis fight of 1936 and its place in boxing history, something he was eager to hear details about in a letter from home. Shortly after he saw pictures of the fight in town. He also mentioned going to two films, one being Der Junge Graf or The Young Count starring Anny Ondra, who happened to be married to Max Schmeling.
On a more historical cultural note, my grandfather mentioned seeing signs all over Nürnberg that read “Juden Unerwünscht” or “Jews are unwanted.”
One thing that caught me off guard while doing this project was how some things he said seemed to be universal of a 19 year old on holiday, from the frivolous to the true. For example, he tallied up the number of glasses of water he had for the entire trip – two half glasses. Everything else was beer. I did a similar thing when I went to Ireland (age 20). I had a tally at the end of each day’s journal entry of how many beers or Jamesons I’d had.
My grandfather also wrote about something that is very common to the traveling experience. He described how he felt he was constantly stared at by the Germans, mostly the children. People often feel they stand out from their host culture for one reason or another be it their dress, their race, their body language, or their speech. His dress drew some stares one particular day while he was visiting a relative’s slaughterhouse. He was wearing white shoes and a light grey suit while walking through the blood puddles. This was apparently not the typical uniform worn in a slaughterhouse.
This project of transcribing my grandfather’s travel diary was an awesome experience for me. I love to read travel memoirs and here I was able to learn about my grandfather at the same time as reading about his journey. Seeing how much has changed and how little was intriguing and, in parts, unexpected.