Frisch, née Krakowska


How can anger at the silent mother turn into love ? My path led through the mother of the mother and to her fate. So I learned how the Polish Jewess Klara Krakowska lost her identity in Switzerland – and Max Frisch found his.

Klara Frisch, née Krakowska, died in 1980 in a psychiatric clinic in Kilchberg, where people suffering from dementia were taken at that time.

I remember her outward appearance: she was always well-groomed, with an air of elegance, but at the same time striving to be inconspicuous. In my memory I never see light falling on her, rather I see her hurrying through the dark hallway of her home, always concerned about our physical well-being. Her gaze was lowered, her movements nervous, her fears for us granddaughters all encompassing. The world was a dangerous place and we didn’t know why. Each of her breaths was accompanied by a sigh. This pressed sound sounded like the Yiddish «Oy» and accompanied us when she secretly, as if she were doing something forbidden, waved us children from the table, led us into the hallway, opened a cupboard there, took from it a set of dental instruments and looked into our mouths. This secret ritual was the only thing that connected us.

The fact that Klara, as a result of the Polish numerus clausus for Jews, went to Zurich to study dentistry against her father’s wishes was not something I could relate to my grandmother, who for me was the epitome of the selfless housewife. Klara herself told me nothing at all. I did not understand that my own mother was also absolutely unwilling to answer questions about her mother. Her answer was: «I don’t know. Why do you need to know? Is this the Inquisition?» It was the beginning of our long and hostile silence.

I began to leaf through albums and rummage through archives: Piece by piece, the picture of a family in the 1930s emerged, which was under the influence of the national and anti-Semitic Swiss bourgeoisie: Lina Frisch, Klara’s mother-in-law, was vehemently against the marriage of her son Franz to a Jewess and stayed away from the wedding. The fact that her daughter-in-law was a dentist and earned more than her husband was not appreciated until her salary proved useful in paying off the family debts. And incidentally, Klara gave her brother-in-law Max the opportunity to free himself from his sonly duties and go on a trip. Later, Klara’s wages helped the penniless but ambitious Max, by now an architect, to obtain his first contract in the middle of the war: the construction of a single-family house. That the anti-Semitic-minded mother-in-law would move in at the same time in 1941, and that Klara was helping to finance her own prison, she probably did not know at that time.

When Franz’s employer, the Sandoz company, explicitly prohibited wives to pursue a profession, this was a new blow for Klara: for the rest of her life, she would never again practice the profession she loved. Franz was now on active duty at the border. Meanwhile, Klara bandaged the open legs of her diabetic mother-in-law and cooked for the family in the barred kitchen. It was here that the letters from the Warsaw ghetto reached her, announcing the murder of her relatives.

At the grave of his brother Franz, Max, now a famous writer, finds a few words for Klara:

«I remember the time when I saw you for the first time, and I know now more precisely than I did then what had been very hard for you in that environment. Even in our family.»

To third parties, Max often expresses his surprise at how «uptight» this «wild, fun-loving Polish woman» had become.

In Klara’s estate, I found a little rustle bag with her last belongings: a half-fare card, a certificate of membership in the Reformed Church of Basel, a pin cushion – and a dentist’s mirror.

A woman’s life in the 20th century had come to its end. I would like to tell Klara’s story.

Her name is: Frisch, née Krakowska.