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A Jewish Child’s Memories of his Family’s "Conversion" from Orthodox to Reform Practices (1880s)

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I first realized all of this decades later; nonetheless, on the evening the telegram arrived, it was still powerfully clear to me that it marked a turning point in our lives – clear in the most vivid way possible for a child and perhaps also for most adults. When I accompanied my mother on her shopping, we went regularly to the butcher with the Hebrew lettering on the shop window. It was a large, clean shop. Mrs. Bukofzer, a big, pale young woman with the huge, dark, protruding eyes of someone suffering from heart trouble, always had a friendly smile for me while serving my mother; and Bukofzer’s meat and sausages were delicious. Nevertheless, I associated this shop with an awkward image from the early days in Bromberg that constantly haunted me. Back then, I had coincidentally wandered into the courtyard of the synagogue at the very moment when the official in charge of religious affairs was slaughtering some chickens. He lifted the animals up, quickly cut their throats, then dropped them; they made a few staggering steps, flapping their wings and bleeding, twitched once more with their claws, and then lay there. All this took place in the blink of an eye. Later on, I witnessed a similar kind of chicken slaughtering on a farm; it was often explained to me that kosher butchering did not constitute a crueler type of killing than Christian slaughtering. Nevertheless, from that very first and only sight of ritual slaughtering onwards, the term kosher butchering has had a particularly repulsive ring to me, as a result of which Bukofzer’s business suffered a bit. (Whereas the bloody partridges and rabbits hanging at Emil Mazur’s did not make me shudder at all, nor did the poor lobsters crawling about pitifully). Be that as it may, in the late afternoon of the day of the telegram – it was already dark outside – we did not make our way to Bukofzer as usual but went to an unfamiliar street and to an unfamiliar butcher shop without Hebrew lettering. Mother carefully looked around before she entered the shop; with a somewhat stiff composure, a somewhat agitated and noticeably controlled voice, she asked for “assorted cold cuts, a bit from every variety” and then left the shop proudly and hurriedly. The very moment she unpacked the meats in the kitchen she ate a slice from the packet and gave me a sample as well. It hardly tasted any different: neither better nor worse than the normal sausage. But my mother took the bite in her mouth and underwent a certain transfiguration. “That’s what the others eat,” she said, “and that’s what we are now permitted to eat as well.” There was probably a great deal of sheer curiosity involved, delight in the previous taboo, defiance, and vanity. But underneath, there was certainly something greater that she felt back then as well.

Excerpt from: Victor Klemperer: Curriculum vitae. Erinnerungen 1881-1918 [Victor Kelmperer: Curriculum vitae. Memories 1881-1918] (2 vols; published by Walter Nowojski). © Aufbau-Verlag GmbH: Berlin, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 38-44.

Translation: Erwin Fink

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