Growing up in the Auerbach Orphanage

Second Episode of our blog series: “Remembrances of the life of Walter Frankenstein”

Jesse Owens – this name means something to most people, even today. The black athlete from the U.S. national team decided in 1936, disregarding the expectations and fears of his family, friends, and a large number of Americans, to compete in the Olympics in Berlin. In light of the political climate prevailing in the place where the Olympics were to be held – where Antisemitism, propaganda, and violence against minorities were routine aspects of life, international opinion placed little stock in the chances of a fair competition among the athletes.

The photo shows the orphanage seen from Schönhauser Allee. In the upper part is a pointed gable with windows (black and white photo)

Exterior view of the Auerbach Jewish Orphanage, Berlin, around 1940–1944; Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Leonie and Walter Frankenstein

For Walter Frankenstein, the name Owens was closely tied to the experience of moving from his home town of Flatow (today Złotów) in what was then West Prussia to Berlin. When he arrived by train at the Alexanderplatz station on 27 July 1936, preparations for the Summer Olympics to be held in the German capital were in full swing. Walter attended the event with an uncle on his mother’s side and thus had the opportunity to see Jesse Owens competing live in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. Owens was the most successful male athlete of the Games, winning four gold medals.

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A Childhood in Flatow

The first episode in our blog series: “Memories from the Life of Walter Frankenstein”

Walter Frankenstein in a baby carriage at the age of 7 ½ months, Flatow, February 1925; Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Leonie and Walter Frankenstein

When I look at the picture of the infant in his baby carriage, it’s difficult for me to believe that it’s the same person who sat across from me just a few weeks ago in Stockholm at the age of nearly ninety-three years. It’s even harder for me to imagine the eventful life that lay between these two moments, which was shaped by a variety of sudden and in some cases tragic developments, as well as bold new starts.

I’m referring to the life of Walter Frankenstein, who donated more than 1,100 photographs to the Jewish Museum Berlin. Photos that depict his entire life from the earliest days of his childhood into old age. The picture of the baby carriage is the oldest photo among them. It shows Walter in February 1925 at the age of 7-1/2 months on a sidewalk in his hometown of Flatow (today known as Złotów), where he was born on June 30, 1924. His father, Max Frankenstein, owned a country shop and an inn there, which he had inherited from the parents of his first wife, Emma Frankenstein. After Emma died of sepsis in 1917, he married Walter’s mother, Martha Frankenstein née Fein.

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An Unsolvable Mystery?

A Photo Collection Found Hiding in Berlin-Friedrichshain

Black and white photograph of a girl standing in front of a door

A girl standing in front of a door, presumably Berlin, about 1918–1922; Jewish Museum Berlin

Every time I open a new folder of photos, I can’t know what’s waiting for me – what faces I’ll find or fates will be revealed. Images are often part of a larger collection, consisting of documents, everyday articles and artwork, for which we already know the biographies of those pictured or can further research. Such was the case, for example, of the cabaret artist, Olga Irén Fröhlich, whom I’ve written about before on this blog. This time, however, the people in the photographs will remain unknown to me; I won’t be able to attach names or histories to them. Perhaps you can!

It’s not out of the ordinary to work with collections that have been in the Museum’s possession for decades.  continue reading