Biographies & Memoirs



JULIUS FROMM OFTEN CLAIMED that he was born in Poznan, Prussia, and that his parents chose the name Julius for him. Neither statement is true. He was actually born—on March 4, 1883—in the small town of Konin, seventy-five miles east of Poznan, in what was then Russia. At his bris, his name was entered into the synagogue register as Israel From. The birth of his father, Baruch, had been recorded in the same register, on October 10, 1854. At that time, Konin had 5,147 inhabitants, 2,006 of them Jews, the others Polish Catholics and German Protestants.10 In the Middle Ages, the Jews had fled to the East from France, the Rhineland, and Bohemia to escape discrimination and Christian bloodlust. Konin was among the first twelve Polish communities in which Jews were permitted to settle.

The descendants of the people driven from their homelands spoke Yiddish, and most of them lived near the Warta River, in their own quarter surrounding the Tepper Marik (Pot Market). In 1766 the Jewish community completed the construction of a magnificent synagogue, and later added a beit midrash as a place of study and prayer. The modest dwellings in this neighborhood were typically made of wood. The unpaved streets turned to mud whenever it rained or the Warta overflowed.

The Jews of Konin set great store by tradition. The men wore beards and, at least on religious holidays, black caftans. The married women wore sheitls (wigs). They observed the Sabbath and kept strict kosher households, and the rabbi settled disputes. Contraception was considered a grave sin, tantamount to bloodshed. Even so, strict orthodoxy barely gained a toehold in this small town at the extreme western end of tsarist Russia.

The surviving members of the Fromm family have no information concerning Baruch Fromm’s childhood, background, parents, or other ancestors, but the Poznan Voivodeship (province) Archives has the Konin synagogue register in its holdings. This book contains a Russian-language entry in the Cyrillic alphabet for the wedding of Baruch Fromm and Sara Rifka Riegel, which reads:

In the town of Konin, on the 19th of February/2nd of March 1880, at four after midnight, Rabbi Hirsch Auerbach of Konin entered the building, together with Boruch From, merchant, twenty-five years old, son of the married couple Moschka and Bluma From, residing here in Konin, and Sura Rifka Riegel, maiden, twenty-two years old, daughter of the married couple Sondra and Esther Riegel, residing in the town of Konin, along with the parents of the groom and bride. In the presence of witnesses Moschka Buchner, forty-nine years old, and Abraham Bock, forty-three years old, Hirsch Auerbach declared that Boruch From and Sura Rifka had entered into the holy bond of matrimony. This marriage was preceded by three blessings over the Torah readings before the congregation in the Konin synagogue. The newlyweds declared that their prenuptial contract had been signed in the presence of Serafim Gurski, the notary in Konin, on the 19th of February/2nd of March of this year. A dowry was paid. The parents’ consent was declared orally. This act will be signed after it is read aloud by the rabbi, the witnesses, and all others present.

This entry shows that the newlyweds were not from the lowest class of the Konin ghetto, since they were able to afford the services of a notary, and their possessions were valuable enough to warrant a prenuptial agreement. The double wedding date reflects the difference between the Julian calendar—which was still in use by the Russian Orthodox Church—and the Gregorian calendar, in effect in the Polish Catholic western regions.

The synagogue register also contains entries for the births of the Fromms’ first three sons. The notation for the second son, Israel (who later went by Julius), reads as follows:

In the town of Konin, on the 1st of March/13th of March 1883, at ten after midnight, Boruch From, merchant, twenty-eight years old, residing here in the town of Konin, appeared in the presence of witnesses Israel-Gersch Parschinski, scribe of the synagogue, thirty-five years old, and Moschka Singerman, member of the community, sixty-three years old, both residing in the town of Konin. From produced an infant of the male gender who was born on the 20th of February/4th of March of the current year at three after midnight here in the town of Konin to his legitimate wife Rifka, née Riegel, twenty-five years old. This infant was named Israel From at his bris. After the document was read aloud, it was signed by us, as witnesses, and by the child’s father.11

Szlama had been born two and a half years earlier, in late November 1880. Mosziek, Helene, Siegmund, Esther, Sander, and Bernhard followed over the years to come.

Postcard view of the shtetl in Konin during the tsarist period

Tsarist Russia, of which Konin had been a part since 1815, had no compulsory schooling. Most Jewish boys attended small, private religious schools called cheder (Hebrew for “room”). They learned Hebrew from the age of four, and later studied the Bible. They memorized Torah passages and other religious scriptures. A little arithmetic was the only curricular concession to modernity.

Helene Fromm later told her nephews and nieces that her father, Baruch, had owned a large estate in Konin, but this is one of those embellished stories that tend to arise in families who work their way up from rags to riches, and attain community prestige within a generation. In the nineteenth century, there was only a single Jewish landowner in the vicinity of Konin, a man named Kaplan. In 1890 one Jewish doctor and one lawyer had their practices in town. The other Jews worked as blacksmiths, stonemasons, saddlers, tailors, and shoemakers; many were merchants.

Shtetl life had been imposed upon the Jews by society at large, yet to some degree it was also a self-chosen oasis of safety and autonomy. Many progressive-minded young Jews disdained these quarters, regarding them as nothing more than overpopulated places of poverty and sanctimoniousness. The radiant haze of nostalgia settled over shtetls only after their devastation by the Germans.

By the 1880s, the Jews constituted over half of Konin’s population. They had great difficulty finding work to keep them afloat, so an increasing number of them moved westward. For many of the Jewish emigrants, the desire for a better and more prosperous life meant relocating to Germany. Baruch and Sara Fromm and their children joined the ranks of Jews heading to Berlin. A later family story had the parents fleeing pogroms in Konin, but this appears unlikely in light of the information contained in Theo Richmond’s thorough and affectionate chronicle of this community, Konin: A Quest. Richmond’s meticulous research reveals that while many of the Christians in Konin—both Catholic Poles and Protestant Germans—were united in their anti-Semitism and ranted about “the dirty Jews,” there was no systematic violence here in the late nineteenth century. Notwithstanding their religious and linguistic differences, the people of Konin lived in reasonably peaceful coexistence.

In 1893, the Fromms left their homeland. Baruch looked forward to the prospect of a decent life and better opportunities for his children. The economic vitality of the rapidly expanding city of Berlin became their beacon of hope. A community of Eastern European Jewish immigrants was already well established there, thus paving the way for the fresh start they were seeking. Germany offered the Jewish immigrants a measure of legal security, freedom of movement, and liberty to choose their own profession, all of which seemed idyllic in comparison with tsarist Russia.

Mulackstrasse 9, ground floor, was the first German address recorded for Baruch Fromm. It is listed in the 1894 edition of the Address Book for Berlin and Its Suburbs. The family of seven appears to have shared a single room in this area of Berlin, which was notorious for its criminality. Mulackstrasse runs through the Scheunenviertel area, situated northwest of Alexanderplatz. This quarter, with its dilapidated houses and narrow streets, was the first destination for most Jews who had immigrated from the east. Rents were low. Old buildings just two or three stories high stood adjacent to stables and ramshackle sheds. In many ways, this neighborhood resembled the homelands these newcomers had just left. In the late nineteenth century, investors avoided the area. Elsewhere, they were constructing the five-story tenements that would come to typify Berlin. These buildings were shooting up throughout the city—everywhere, that is, but here.

“Stores with Hebrew signs and the oddest names instantly reveal the foreign nature of the area. In the summer there is a lively bustle of the sort you would find at an open market in Galicia or Poland,” wrote the novelist Adolf Sommerfeld in describing the Scheunenviertel. Immigrants like the Fromms were not responsible for giving this neighborhood its bad reputation. The crowd that dragged the area down consisted of “felons and prostitutes and their work-averse hangers-on living here, as parasites of the nonviolent Eastern European Jews.” The Mulackritze Pub became a favorite haunt for the Berlin underworld. It attracted criminals, whores, hustlers, alcoholics, and stool pigeons. Two gangs of ex-convicts, Immertreu (ever-devoted) and Felsenfest (solid as a rock), were among the regulars. A small brothel in the attic, furnished with several cots, turned a brisk business.12

After a year, the Fromms found a new place to live, just a few hundred yards down the street, at Kleine Rosenthaler Strasse 12. Soon thereafter they moved about a hundred yards south, to Steinstrasse 24, and then to Gormannstrasse 21. Most likely they did not have much in the way of personal belongings to move. The buildings on Kleine Rosenthaler Strasse and Steinstrasse are long since gone, as is the house at Mulackstrasse 9, which is now the site of a pristine playground. However, Gormannstrasse 21 still conveys a sense of how people lived in the Scheunenviertel at that time. This three-story house with a converted attic has a steep staircase leading upstairs from the courtyard entrance. The staircase is too narrow to accommodate two people at a time. On each floor a dark hallway leads to four small apartments and a shared toilet. When the Fromms moved onto Gormannstrasse, there were twenty-three tenants listed in the address book for this building. The men worked as masons, carriage drivers, sign painters, tailors, glove makers, and waiters.

At some point Baruch Fromm changed his Hebrew first name to Bernhard. His wife, Sara Rifka, became Regina; Szlama, the eldest son, went by Salomon. The second-eldest, Israel, opted for Julius; his sister Esther was now called Else; and Mosziek (Moses) became Max.

Bernhard Fromm found work selling cigarettes. In the address book entry for 1894, he listed himself as a “cigarette dealer,” and a year later as a “cigarette manufacturer.” This new branch of industry—the cigarette as a cigar for the masses—had been initiated by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Klara Eschelbacher described the circumstances that resulted in their interest in the cigarette business in her 1920 dissertation “The Eastern European Jewish Immigrant Population of the City of Berlin”: “At that time Russian-Polish Jews, who had brought little more than their manual dexterity, tried to earn a living by rolling cigarettes during the day and selling them one by one in cafés at night.” The author of this dissertation was seeking to establish the extent to which Eastern European Jews aimed to integrate into mainstream society and advance their position in Berlin, or, in her words, “whether and how Eastern European Jews were able to settle in and adapt here under normal circumstances.”

In 1894 the Tobacco Professional Association in Berlin comprised twenty-one cigarette factories with 111 workers, plus approximately seven hundred family businesses making cigarettes for the local market. The Fromms had one of the latter businesses. The tobacco products were made by hand; blending the tobacco and rolling it into the cigarette papers required skill. This line of work lent itself to impoverished immigrants, because it required virtually no start-up capital. Paper that cost twenty pfennigs and tobacco ninety-five pfennigs would yield about a thousand cigarettes.

This cottage industry enabled Jews to observe the Sabbath. But “the greatest benefit,” according to Eschelbacher, “was the prospect of autonomy it offered.” “With a wife and children pitching in, cigarettes were often rolled until two in the morning. A deft worker with several older children sometimes reached an output of as many as 3,000 cigarettes.”13 Bernhard Fromm began by selling cigarettes for other companies, then manufactured and sold the product himself. Naturally the whole family had to help out.

Bernhard Fromm died on June 18, 1898, at the age of only forty-two, quite possibly as a direct result of working under poor conditions, inhaling tobacco particles, and living in wretched housing.

At the time of Bernhard’s death, the Fromms had been living in Berlin for five years, and the widow and her children found themselves in desperate straits. The family lacked a breadwinner, but fortunately Gormannstrasse had a cooking school belonging to the Jewish community that supplied inexpensive food to the needy. Moreover, Regina Fromm was in the third trimester of her latest pregnancy. At the end of her rope, she felt she had no choice but to place her youngest sons, Siegmund and Alexander, in the Baruch-Auerbach Orphans Educational Institute at Schönhauser Allee 162. In July 1898, just one month after the death of her husband, she gave birth to her sixth son, and named him Bernhard in memory of her deceased husband.

Fromm family, ca. 1904; standing from left: Max, Else, Siegmund, Helene,

Julius; seated from left: Alexander, Regina (mother), Bernhard

Since his older brother, Salomon, had emigrated to London, and remained there for several years, fifteen-year-old Julius had to take care of his mother and siblings. The family continued making cigarettes at home—for the years 1899 to 1907, “R[egina] Fromm, W[i]d[ow]” was listed in the address book as Cigarettenmanu. Later on, Julius became an employee of Josetti Cigarettes, where he quickly worked his way up in the business. A photograph taken circa 1904 shows Regina Fromm with seven of her children in festive outfits and earnest expressions.

When Julius started his own family in 1907, at the age of twenty-four, he and his wife and their newborn son (whom they had named Max, like many assimilationist Jews of the time) moved to the nearby Bötzow area in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin, which had fairly decent Wilhelmine-style tenements. His mother and younger siblings soon moved into a neighboring apartment. They were now living at Allensteiner Strasse 40. The street has since been renamed Liselotte Hermann Strasse in honor of a communist student executed in 1938. Their neighbors included a postal worker, a jeweler, and a furrier. The Fromms were coming up in the world.

On left: Salomon Fromm, Julius’s older brother, ca. 1907

On right: Helene Fromm, Julius’s younger sister, ca. 1910

Julius’s father had lived to the age of forty-two. His mother passed away when she was fifty-two, on July 13, 1911. Their unadorned double tombstone, at the Jewish cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee, carries this inscription: “Here lie our dearly beloved parents. In their unselfish love for their children, they passed away far too soon.” Klara Eschelbacher observed that “Eastern European Jews who were willing and able to work, even when they had virtually nothing upon entering the country, were able to save up money relatively quickly by living incredibly frugally.” Scrimping and saving opened up new opportunities for “Eastern European Jews … to carve out better futures for themselves and especially for their children. In pursuit of this goal, they are willing to go hungry and live a miserable life.”

Salomon and Julius were now solely responsible for their brothers and sisters. They proved equal to the challenge that lay ahead. Eschelbacher characterized the typical Eastern European Jewish cigarette maker, such as Julius Fromm, as “a quintessential ‘entrepreneurial proletariat’ [who hoped] with some justification to become a manufacturer some day.”14 As the manual assembly of cigarettes gradually gave way to machine production, Julius Fromm sought an alternative career. “Rolling cigarettes forever wasn’t good enough for him anyway,” his son Edgar recalled, “so he started taking evening courses in chemistry in 1912—especially in rubber chemistry—and hit upon the idea of making condoms.”

Max, Julius’s eldest son, with wooden hoop and playmates, in the Bötzow

section of Berlin–Prenzlauer Berg, ca. 1915

Two years later, he founded a one-man company: Israel Fromm, Manufacturing and Sales Company for Perfumes and Rubber Goods. He rented a store at Lippehner Strasse 23, which today bears the name of Käthe Niederkirchner, a communist who was shot at the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944. From this point on, Fromm considered himself a merchant. In 1914 his business was outfitted with a telephone (“Telephone Exchange: Königstadt 431”). He set up an account at Dresdner Bank, and before long he also had a telegram address (“Frommsact Berlin”). The classified directory carried a listing for his “seamless rubber products,” which in 1915 he expanded to read: “rubber products and perfume factory.” In 1916 a highlighted entry announced: “I. Fromm, Special Manufacturing of Rubber Products. Fromms Act.”

Giacomo Casanova had taken to using condoms back in the eighteenth century; in his memoirs he referred to them as “English riding coats.” The early condoms, generally made of sheep intestine and fish bladder, were far from satisfactory. They were used primarily by wealthy people who wanted protection against syphilis, then incurable. These condoms offered only limited protection against infection and interfered with lovemaking so exasperatingly that the Marquise de Sévigné disparaged them as “armor against pleasure, and a cobweb against danger.” A set of instructions issued by the Social Democratic Party public health spokesman Alfred Grotjahn in the 1920s makes it clear that contraceptives made of animal innards left a lot to be desired in their reliability and ease of use: “The condom, pulled over the penis, has to be moistened with water, after which it fits snugly. For added peace of mind, a second condom is pulled over it, and its outer side is lubricated with some fat. After sexual intercourse the condom can be washed out and reused, provided there are no holes.”15

The technical prerequisite for modern condoms was the rubber vulcanization process that Charles Goodyear had invented in 1839. When the sap of the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) is formed into rubber, then treated with sulfur and heated to a high temperature, it forms a mass that is both elastic and durable. Soon the rubber produced in this manner was being made into raincoats and shoes. The major product was, of course, tires. In the United States, condoms were made this way as well, and “rubber” became a synonym for condom. But these early condoms were like bicycle inner tubes with bulging seams, which understandably limited their popularity and sales. A special dipping method that would produce seamless and sheer condoms inexpensively was eventually developed, and sales took off. Engineers at Goodyear appear to have begun manufacturing the first condoms with this method in 1901, but it took quite a while for the product to attain industrial maturity.

Julius Fromm was the one to accomplish this in Germany. A child of a penniless immigrant family, he put the right product on the market at the right time and in the right place. In 1995 his son Edgar summed up his path to success: “Shortly before World War I, my father tried to make reputable brand-name merchandise out of a product that had been regarded as shoddy and virtually taboo. It was designed to provide protection against virulent sexually transmitted diseases and at the same time aid in family planning. He succeeded perfectly. Julius Fromm was endowed with a fabulous knack for business.”

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