Remembering Alfred Gottschalk
The late Alfred Gottschalk was a commanding and dominating presence throughout my career at the College-Institute. He clearly relished such occasions as Opening Ceremonies, Founders' Day, Graduation, and Ordination-Investiture. But it was on Founders' Day here at the New York School that he waxed truly eloquent about Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Jewish Institute of Religion, where Dr. Gottschalk attended classes while still a student at Boys' High School in Brooklyn. With Founders' Day approaching, and the six month anniversary of his death, I find myself thinking about Fred and our personal interactions over the decades.
One incident stands out above all that I would like to share with you, dear Readers, an incident where I saw him at a moment of deep sorrow, but a moment that encapsulated who he was and how he came to be.
During the summer, almost six years ago, Ardon Bar-Hama, a specialist in digital photography, was working at the Klau Library, New York, digitizing manuscripts sent from the Klau Library, Cincinnati. One afternoon Fred came to my office with several worn and tattered prayer books. "Can you arrange to have these rebound?" he asked. I examined each and saw that these Roedelheim prayer books from the mid-nineteenth century, were beyond rebinding, for the paper was brittle and the bindings were shot. There was no way they could survive the process.
I explained to him what the problem was and suggested that mylar encapsulation was one possibility, but that it was costly. I jokingly asked if he did not have newer prayer books to pray from.
Fred carefully opened the books and showed me inscriptions on the fly-leaves written in Hebrew, German in Hebrew characters, and German. Among these inscriptions were recorded the dates of birth and death of several generations of the Gerson family.
I knew that Gerson was his mother's maiden name and understood how precious these data were to him. These prayer books had belonged to his grandfather, his great-grandfather, and his great-great grandfather.
The only thing I could suggest was that he tie them with string or a ribbon and place them on a shelf to pass on to the next generation at the appropriate occasion/
He then extracted from one of the volumes a single piece of paper that measured perhaps four by six inches. It was thicker than paper but lighter than what we call "paper-board." This piece of paper was indeed so worn and fragile that it was translucent. Near the upper edge of one corner I saw the words, "Feld-Karte ___, 191-."
It was a "post card" provided to German soldiers during World War I upon which to send messages home. One could not read the writing on it that was in pencil, for the writing was so faded.
"But what can I do with this?" Fred asked. He explained it was the last message his grandfather has received from one of his sons who died in action during the War.
In a moment I can only call "inspired," I brought the slip of paper over to Mr. Bar Hama and asked if his camera could recover any writing on this piece of paper. It took only a matter of seconds, and handwriting in the "chicken scratch" cursive used in Germany before World War I flashed on the screen. Mr. Bar-Hama slipped a blank CD into his computer and copied the text. In less than twenty seconds from start to finish, Fred had the CD in his hand. He looked at me in utter amazement. "Who know such things existed?!" he said.
A day or two later I saw Dr. Gottschalk sitting on the Conference Level, drinking a cup of coffee. He waved me over, so I drew myself a cup from the urn and sat down. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked if he had had the opportunity to read his uncle's message.
For a moment he looked as if someone had punched him in the solar plexus, as his eyes became rimmed in red. Pausing to blow his nose, he regained his composure. His normally robust voice, however, became a mere whisper. He said that the message was dated only a few days before his uncle had died and the message was two lines written twice.
"I am so cold and hungry. Please food. I am so cold and hungry. Please food."
Gustav Gerson, Alfred Gottschalk's grandfather, had three children: twin sons, Alfred and Berthold (born October 9, 1895) and one daughter. Alfred Gerson died on October 21, 1915 and Berthold Gerson on October 26, 1915.
After a few sips of coffee in silence, Fred went on. It was by the merits of these uncles that his mother and he escaped from Nazi Germany. His father had succeeded in leaving in 1938, but his mother was unable to obtain the necessary permits to emigrate.
Gustav Gerson went to town's chief of police, who was an old acquaintance, but also a card-carrying Nazi. Gerson pleaded with the police chief, that his two sons had died fighting for the Fatherland. All he was asking was that his daughter and grandson be allowed to leave. With the prospect of having two fewer Jews on his hands, the police chief agreed and issued the exit papers.
The memory of those uncles, both of whom had died fourteen years before Fred was born and for one of whom he was named, was especially precious to Fred Gottschalk, for he was ever mindful of them, their sacrifice, and how their role in his survival.
I enjoyed a warm relationship with Dr. Gottschalk, especially after he settled in New York in 1996, but it became especially close after that conversation over cups on coffee on that morning in August in 2004. I can only conclude by saying how honored I was that he chose to share this story with me. And I hope that you come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of him.