Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mein gutes, geliebtes Schätzele

The other night I realized I had nothing to blog about. Not a noteworthy thought in my head. Somewhat sobering to think I'd subtitled my blog "What's On My Mind" only to find in month #3 of blogging my mind has gone blank.

So in this trolling-for-ideas mood, I glanced to the left of my computer to see a familiar water-stained cardboard box, teeming with letters from Paul to Dr. Erika Oppenheimer, in Apeldoorn, Holland. Since acquiring this box of letters in the spring of 2006, I have been both intrigued and stumped to identify the people involved in the correspondence.
The intrigue stems from a number of sources:
  • the dates on the letters (1936 - 1937)
  • the language (German)
  • the handwriting (distinctive, long, thin letters)
  • the volume of letters (written almost daily)
  • the content (those that I have been able to decipher, mostly typewritten, are love letters, written no matter how tired the scribe)
  • the various locales from which the letters are sent (all the old European capitals - Brussels, Copenhagen, Berlin, towns in Poland)
  • the letters are written on either N. Fromm Weinbau postcards (showing an extensive wine operation with rows of wine barrels, modern equipment, loading vehicles, along with a full view of the entire building -- three or four stories tall, anchored on the bank of the Rhein, surrounded by vineyards)
  • or N. Fromm letterhead (with a list of international banking and telecommunication information)
  • or letterhead from what seem to be rather exclusive hotels (Hotel Metropole, Berlin)
  • A few letters are from others but they know Paul, too. I'd estimate one is a sister, another a family friend.
All of the letters are written to Erika Oppenheimer in Apeldoorn, Holland.

Now you must be thinking "Google". And so did I. So over the last two years I have googled all sorts of combinations. Two of my nieces, both fluent in German, even checked From those searches, we did piece together that Paul (no last name) was working for the N. Fromm Weinbau, a large wine distributor, producer and/or wholesaler based in Bingen on the Rhein in Germany. The wine business had an extensive distribution network throughout middle Europe. I concluded that initially he was writing from the wine distributorship in Germany (1936) and then Paul was traveling, selling wine across the region to top hotels and restaurants (1937).

Wherever he was, he wrote to Erika.

The Web search did turn up information about Max Fromm, (son of N. Fromm? grandson?) identified as a leading Jewish businessman in another wine town, Kitzingen. In this town, there was a large Jewish population involved in the wine business. There wasn't much detail as to what happened but given the time period, my next thought was that the family business must have been taken over by the Nazis. Did the family face the Nazi takeover of Germany, the horror of the Holocaust? The names and dates point in that direction but there's nothing to explain it, to fill in the blanks.

And at that point I have been stumped. But stubbornly so. How can an entire brick building clearly identified "N. Fromm ..." simply disappear without a trace? What happened to all the people in the postcards? The letters stop in 1938. Did Paul get out alive? Did he ever get reunited with Erika Oppenheimer?

But on this night of blog-theme trolling, I looked through the box again. My eye stopped on one letter addressed not to Erika Oppenheimer but Erika Fromm. That rang a bell ... and a new search thread on Google. Suddenly all the pieces started coming together. One quick Google search popped up her obituary and identified Paul as her husband.

(An aside: My loyal Blog readers may recall I referenced Erika Fromm in my other blog about the butterfly and spider -- and you know how much I am intrigued by seeming coincidences and signs, i.e. car kindness. So now I am pondering whether the one letter with "Fromm" stuck out because I had, at some level, become familiar with her name. )

Now I am clicking and have become, well, obsessed. I feel as though there is so much to learn about Erika and Paul Fromm -- and how their letters ended up in the alley near my house on a rainy morning two years ago.

Many of the connections are touched upon in Erika Fromm's obituary in the University of Chicago's Chronicle: “Fromm, challenged Freud, helped pioneer hypnosis." Turns out she passed away in 2003 at the age of 93 in her Hyde Park home. She was described as "one of the nation's leading scholars of hypnosis".

The obituary also tells about her life as a teen-ager growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, to her emigration to Chicago:

As a teen-ager growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, Erika Oppenheimer developed an interest in psychoanalysis and read books by Freud in her parents' library. She decided to pursue a life in academia as a child.

"When I was 17 or 18, the Nazis began to gain great influence, and it became clear that, being a Jew, I either would get a Ph.D. very fast, or I would not be able to become a professional at all," she wrote in her memoirs. She corresponded with Freud and Albert Einstein on a graduate project on scientific creativity.

She received her Ph.D. in 1933 from the University of Frankfurt just a few days before her 24th birthday. At Frankfurt, she studied with Max Wertheimer, known as the father of Gestalt Theory.

She spent the next four years in the Netherlands as a research associate and director of a psychology laboratory. She became engaged in 1936 to Paul Fromm, a wine merchant with a deep interest in contemporary music. The couple married and came to the United States in 1938, as the Nazis increased their persecution of the Jews. Her husband died in 1987.

As for Paul, my previous Google searches for "Paul Fromm" had only turned up information about a Canadian Neo-Nazi and far-right leader. (How ironic.) However, with the Erika Fromm link, finally, another Paul Fromm came to light.

Born in Kitzingen, Germany to a prominent family of vintners, Fromm was an early supporter of contemporary classical music in that country. . . A Jew, he was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938 and immigrated to the United States where he settled in Chicago where he co-founded a wine importing firm, the Geeting and Fromm Corporation in 1939 and then founded the Great Lakes Wine Company in 1943.

By 1952, his business was established enough for him to focus to establish the Fromm Music Foundation, financially supporting young composers through grants awarded on the recommendation of its staff of musicians and experts.

An annual "Paul Fromm Concert" of contemporary classical music is performed annually at the University of Chicago in his memory. The Paul Fromm Award is given annually by the Tanglewood Music Center in his name.

Tonight I could not find information about the 2008 Paul Fromm Concert, which I would love to attend. It would be a small way to connect to Erika and Paul.


Jenny said...


This is a fascinating post. I love the way you burrow into the mystery of people. When makes me think of a post I've been meaning to write but haven't been able to manage . . .

My kids are both sick with the flu and I'm just barely hanging in there. I miss my good neighbors back there in Hyde Park!


Nancy said...

This is totally fascinating. Sounds like the beginnings of a good biography, actually. It is a great combination of love story/war drama, and more surprising, a woman who was a scholar at a time when that scholarship was rarely rewarded.

Ser said...


This whole description is so interesting. It does have the ring of a really good historical novel. A new project, perhaps?

marji said...

Jenny, Nancy, Ser,
When I started figuring these letters out, it felt like a caffeine buzz of possibilities. Your affirmations make me think maybe it wasn't just the 3rd cup of coffee. But then, like Ser's post on being a writer, I immediately feel overwhelmed by the details. Is this what it feels like to be flying solo in the writing world? -- Marji

Nancy said...

You don't have to write the whole book right now! figure out some chapters/sections, and give them short descriptions. Do an easy one or two as freestanding essays. See where it takes you, but at that point, you have a book proposal.

If someone described to you, at this time last year, all you would have to do this year, you would have flipped out. Besides the fact that much of it was painful, the details would have been overwhelming. And yet, here you are, still standing! and you got through and did it all. This box of letters seems like it was destined for you: how many German speaking, interested-in-psychology writers and thinkers ARE there who might have found that box?

marji said...

I was so happy when you found my blog as I find your clear thinking so motivating. Still standing. Indeed. My entire definition of worse-case scenario is much different now. At times it is a relief to realize how much in an average day really doesn't have to turn into a big deal. It has made room for smaller moments that have a big impact. Much like the topics on your blog ...

Celulite said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

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giftofgod4 said...

Hi, I just happened upon your blog and this story is wonderful! You should turn it into an article for your local paper or see if her relatives would be interested in her love letters.

Dan Greenstone said...

I was researching my grandparents, and came across your fascinating post on Erika and Paul Fromm. Yes, I am indeed their grandson. I have no idea how you came across those that box of letters. What a find. Of course, I would like to see them. I wonder if I could touch base with you about them. I live in Oak Park. My name is Daniel Greenstone, and I teach high school history. You can reach me at

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Miss Elissa said...

Hello! I'm a grad student studying the history of psychology and I was just compiling a bio on Erika Fromm for a profile on a website highlighting the contributions of women in psychology ( I noticed your post, and thought I should mention that your letters might be of interest to historians of psychology.

Erika Fromm's papers are housed in the Archives of the History of American Psychology ( so they might be interested in your letters. I suppose they might be less interested in simple love letters, but it seems that Erika Fromm was working at a psychiatric clinic at the time you mention, so if she discusses her work in the letters, that could be quite useful to historians.

The Feminists Voices site is still under construction but if you check back within a month or so, there should be a bio on Erika Fromm that will have more info about her background and contribution to psychology.

Congratulations on such an interesting historical find!

Rachel Vandagriff said...

Hi there,
My name is Rachel and I am doing a PhD dissertation about Paul Fromm's music foundation. I have looked at all of the records of the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard (where they are now housed) and am in the writing process. I was wondering if you would be able to talk to me more about how you came to have this box of Paul and Erika's letters? And if you have been in touch with Daniel or Michael Greenstone, their grandchildren?
Thank you so much. What a find!
Rachel S. Vandagriff

Anne C. Shreffler said...

I am a professor in the Music Department at Harvard, where the Fromm Music Foundation has been located for 40 years. The Foundation continues Paul Fromm's legacy of commissioning new works, producing concerts, and supporting contemporary music across the country. Your letters sound fascinating; Paul and Erika Fromm were highly accomplished and creative people, and it would be wonderful to have their letters made more widely available (with the permission of the heirs, of course).
Anne Shreffler