The Frankfurt Goetheturm was built 90 years ago, financed by the Jewish merchant Gustav Gerst. The Nazis forced him and his relatives to flee to the USA. Our FR reporter went to look for them there – the dramatic story of a family
The first story that Bill Rudolf thinks of about his hometown Frankfurt is that of his grandfather. In the 1910s, long before Bill was born as Wolfgang Ephraim am Main in 1928, his grandfather Martin, a respected Frankfurt lawyer, had the ambition to enter the civil service. But Martin Ephraim never became a Frankfurt judge. Because the city of Frankfurt gave him to understand that he had to give up his Jewish faith in order to exercise the office of judge. There is a reason why William, called Bill, now 93 years old, wants to get this anecdote off his mind when we first contact him. He doesn’t want to make it too easy for the journalists from Frankfurt to build bridges again after all these years. His relationship to the city, from which he had to flee at the age of two and which has taken everything from him and his family, Bill would like to clarify, remains complicated.
But he’s still curious. When we contact him through his daughter Margaret, an established psychiatrist in New Haven, New England, he responds immediately. A few weeks later we are all sitting together in the living room of his spacious house in a settlement on the outskirts of the city.
In search of traces of Gustav Gerst: Descendants of the “tower father” live in the USA
Finding Bill and his family hadn’t been difficult, a few clicks, a few calls and we were there. The trigger for the search was a large article in the FR about the “tower father” Gustav Gerst – the generous Frankfurt merchant who donated the Goethe Tower in 1931. A little more than ten years later, Gerst and his wife Ella, who had previously lived in a villa on Niederräder Landstrasse, had to flee Germany with nothing but a suitcase. Their trail was lost in Sweden, all you knew was that they had made it to the USA sometime after the war. What exactly became of them and their family was not known.
The story touched me and grabbed my reporter ambition. So I started doing a little research from my apartment in upper Manhattan, which was once called “Frankfurt on the Hudson” because of the many German-Jewish refugees. It turned out that Gustav and Ella Gerst had ended up in an apartment at 706 Riverside Drive in 1946 – less than a five-minute walk from me. The obituaries in the German-Jewish New York newspaper “Forward” revealed that Gustav died in 1948, but Ella lived alone in New York until 1974.
The advertisements also led me to the close family and thus finally to Bill Rudolf’s living room. On Ella’s death, Max Rudolf and his son William, among others, had condoled in “Forward”. Another William Rudolf was found as the retired founder and director of an international diplomatic consulting firm in New York. And his daughter Margaret’s practice immediately popped up on the screen with a simple search engine query.
Founder of the Goethe Tower: The legacy of Gustav Gerst
Alex Coffey, Margaret’s son and filmmaker himself, has prepared a stack of photo albums for our visit. It is a treasure and, apart from diaries and letters, everything that is left of a life in another time on another continent. Now William, weakened by a recent fall, but wide awake at the same time, bends over the albums that have survived an adventurous escape around the world. He begins to leaf through the pages, lets his thoughts wander, his memories speak.
It all starts at number 10 Niederräder Landstrasse. It is the late 1920s. The family is sitting around a large table on the porch for coffee and cake. They are all there – Gustav and Ella, William’s father Max, then a young conductor at the Hessian State Theater in Darmstadt, his wife Liese, his brother Friedrich and Williams’ beloved grandmother Toni.
These are happy times, you live as a wealthy and well-to-do Jewish family in Frankfurt. How history will scatter them into the world in the years to come is not even a vague premonition. Williams’ father Max alone had doubts at the time. “He had read ‘Mein Kampf'”, reports William in clean High German, which was also cultivated in his family in exile. “That’s why he decided early on to take the first job in a non-German country that was open to him.
“Tower Father” Gustav Gerst: The founder of the Goethe Tower fled to the USA during National Socialism
This came in 1930 at the Prague Opera. As the first part of the family, the young Max Rudolf, who at that time had not given up the Jewish-sounding surname Ephraim, left Germany with his wife and young son, even though they still came to Frankfurt regularly until 1937. In 1935 the family moved on to Sweden. Even three years before the Reichspogromnacht, the far-sighted Max did not want to take the risk of ending up as a Jewish family in an area occupied by the Nazis. Next, Max’s brother Fritz, who later called himself Frederic, left Germany – less out of fear than out of a thirst for adventure. “He was the exact opposite of my father in many ways,” says William. “He was a real daredevil.”
The character of Frederic is so dazzling that William’s grandson Alex is working on a screenplay for the filming of his life. In 1933 Frederic moved from Heidelberg to the Sorbonne as a philosophy student. Until the German invasion he lived a bohemian life in Paris, interrupted only by adventurous train journeys to Nazi Germany, during which he smuggled the fortunes of friends and acquaintances into France. “He put on his World War I uniform and a monocle and looked like a Prussian officer,” says William. He often took gold bars with him and covered them with chocolate. “If a German official wanted to search him, he simply saluted with the Hitler salute. You always left him alone. “
With the invasion, however, Frederic disappeared without a trace in North Africa. As it turned out later, he had volunteered for the Foreign Legion. He fought side by side with the Allies until the end of the war, after wearing a German uniform in World War I. In 1945 he was one of the first troops to invade Paris. The US Army awarded him the Bronze Star, the top medal for bravery, for single-handedly digging a German machine gun nest and rescuing an entire US company. Frederic is rarely seen in the family photos, and the adventurer was probably only occasionally present at the joint meetings in Niederrad. Unlike his brother, the charismatic, outrageously good-looking musician who always seemed to be at the center of family events. It was Max Rudolf who ultimately brought the family safely to the USA with his foresight. Except for his brother Frederic, who settled in Switzerland after the war. “He thought the Americans were barbarians,” jokes Bill about his uncle, whom he visited regularly in his villa in Lugano until the 1970s.
He was very formal, dignified. And one never heard a complaint about his fate from his mouth.
When Max Rudolf and his family moved from Prague to Gothenburg in 1935, he also urged Gustav and Ella Gerst to leave Frankfurt. “But Gustav didn’t want to,” recalls Bill. Like so many Jewish German citizens, he was certain that nothing would happen to him. At least Max was able to convince Gustav not to invest all his money in his department store company Tietz, but to move at least part of his assets to Switzerland.
It was not until 1938, after the Nazis had also taken their villa on Niederräder Landstrasse, that Gustav and Ella Gerst narrowly escaped. She saved Ella’s friendship with the wife of an SS officer; she had warned the family that deportation was imminent.
From Frankfurt to the USA: In search of Gustav Gerst’s descendants
For a short time the two families, the Gersts and the Rudolfs, lived together in Gothenburg. Bill, then twelve years old, remembers Gustav Gerst as a gentleman through and through. “He couldn’t let it go.” Even if he had lost everything, he put on his three-piece suit every day, his manners were flawless: “He was very formal, dignified. And you never heard a complaint about his fate from his mouth ”.
The Rudolf family emigrated to the USA in 1940, not directly, but by train across Russia and then by ship to San Francisco. “We landed in the USA exactly a year before Pearl Harbor,” recalls Bill, who recorded the entire trip in a diary. After just under four months, they finally ended up with relatives in Cleveland.
It all seemed like an adventure for little Bill. In letters to his grandmother, who still lived in Sweden, he wrote about steak dinners in Cleveland, his experiences with the American scouts and how much he enjoyed the entirely new game of baseball. The letters are written in English, which the 13-year-old learned in no time at all. The journeys’ diaries were still written in Swedish. Only after the war did the family get together again in New York. Max Rudolf had found a job at the New York Opera on the recommendation of the great Austro-Hungarian conductor George Szell. As always, little Bill found his way around in no time. In his letters he reports that he is top of the class in Spanish, raves about the wonderful view of the Hudson River from his apartment and about the wonder of the subway that goes to every corner of the city.
Memories of the founder of the Goethe Tower Gustav Gerst
Gustav and Ella Gerst finally took the steamer “Drottingholm” from Gothenburg to New York on October 10, 1946. Gustav was already seriously ill with cancer at that time. The two found shelter in the apartment on Riverside Drive, which was above that of the Rudolfs. Gustav Gerst succumbed to cancer two years later, Ella Gerst then moved to a residential hotel on 72nd Street. “It was a simple but comfortable apartment,” remembers Margaret, who visited Aunt Ella there every weekend until her death in 1974. But Aunt Ella, like Gustav Gerst, never complained about her fate. However, she always raved about Frankfurt, about the villa on the edge of the city forest, the horses, about the life that from her room in New York seemed like a fairy tale to her. “She always had a certain sadness,” says Margaret, “she could never shake it.”
Meanwhile, Max Rudolf made a great career as a conductor in the USA. He directed the symphony orchestras of Cincinnati and Dallas for decades and wrote a standard work on the art of conducting. His son Bill became a successful international management consultant and diplomat.
After three hours of remembering and telling, Bill is a little tired and withdraws. Margaret invites us to the veranda to end a wonderfully mild New England spring day. Frankfurt is far away and yet so present at this moment.