JULIUS FROMM’S SEVEN SIBLINGS were no match for their fabulously successful brother, but they too built up small businesses and earned respectable livelihoods. Only Max (whose name was originally Mosziek) continued to lean on the family for financial support. He eked out a living as a self-employed women’s tailor, and died in 1930 at the age of forty-five.
When Salomon returned to Berlin from London in 1912, he married, and opened an optician’s shop at Siegmundshof in the Tiergarten area of the city. Alexander, who had borrowed money from his brother Julius to set up an optical company on Alexanderstrasse, moved his shop to Memhardstrasse in 1925. Helene took up the same line of work as her two brothers, and opened her store right in the center of the city, at the Spittelmarkt.
Siegmund Fromm and his brother-in-law Willy Brandenburg (his sister Else’s husband) tried their hand at a business similar to the one Julius was running. Their company, which was registered in June 1921 as Fromm & Brandenburg, produced soaps, perfumes, and creams. Bernhard Fromm, the youngest brother, later joined them. Bernhard, Siegmund, and Willy each owned one-third of Fromms Cosmetics Associates. They later gave the company an English name, Fromm Brothers, to appeal to an international market.
The company’s signature cream, Fromms Skin Food, which was used to treat rough, dry, and sunburned skin, became a big moneymaker. Many barbershops and drugstores in Berlin had signs with the advertising jingle “Fromms Act for the bride, Fromms Skin Food for the hide.”
The cosmetics business and the optician’s shops yielded handsome profits. The Fromms were not quite in the lap of luxury, but they lived very comfortably, and had the means to take a summer vacation, which was somewhat out of the ordinary in the 1920s. They and their families lived in the upscale western section of Berlin. On Sundays the family typically gathered in the large garden of Julius’s villa or went for a stroll in the Tiergarten park.
Salomon Fromm’s optician’s
shop in Berlin-Tiergarten,
The immigrants of Julius’s generation were not especially well educated—how could they be?—but their children were expected to learn, learn, and learn some more. They studied the piano or some other instrument, and graduated from high school if at all possible. Salomon began to teach English to his daughter Ruth when she was only three years old. He was exasperated to no end by her older brother Berthold’s limited aptitude.
The Fromm siblings, who were the first generation of the family to grow up in Germany, cast aside the “religious fixation” of their parents. Ruth reports that when the school administration expelled her from the Königstädtisches Gymnasium in 1936 because she was Jewish, the local Jewish high school refused to accept her because her upbringing had not been sufficiently religious. Left with no choice but to attend the Jewish school on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, a school she considered “dreadful,” she balked: “What was I doing learning Hebrew all of a sudden? And all that religion! I didn’t know a word of Yiddish, and there I was with a bunch of ghetto children.” Even so, the new surroundings rubbed off on her, and no sooner did she use Yiddish expressions at home than all hell broke loose: “Not because they were afraid of the Nazis, but because such uneducated blather was not to enter their home. After all, we were now German!” In all the brouhaha about this “Jewish nonsense,” Ruth quit school altogether and began an apprenticeship at Rosenbaum Textile Company, but her stay there was similarly short-lived, since she emigrated to England in 1939. There she became a domestic servant and later an assistant medical technician. Briefly, she returned home and served as a translator for the American armed forces stationed in postwar Germany. More than three decades after she had been robbed of her chance for an education in Germany, Ruth Fromm was awarded a master of social sciences degree at Bryn Mawr College in 1968, and later underwent additional training in child psychology and psychiatry. These days she attends synagogue from time to time: “I meet people there who share similar memories, which makes me feel close to my family.”
“My father was religious,” Edgar Fromm remarked about Julius, “but there was not much discussion about it at home.” They belonged to the Jewish community on Fasanenstrasse and observed the holidays. Julius advised his sons to marry Jewish women because a mixed marriage would make it more difficult to raise children in the Jewish faith. Julius Fromm’s siblings felt the same way. Elsbeth Kuntze, wife of his younger brother Siegmund, was raised as a Christian, but converted to Judaism before the wedding.
On the left: Salomon, Berthold, and Elvira Fromm, ca. 1917
On the right: Ruth Fromm, daughter of Salomon and Elvira
On left: Helene Fromm with unidentified companion, ca. 1915
On right: Else and Willy Brandenburg with their son Bruno, born 1918
“An authoritarian man with a liberal bent” and “a gentle patriarch” are two phrases Edgar Fromm used to describe his father. He was a man of few words, but when he did speak, he was forceful. His circle of friends included both Jews and non-Jews. He was well-regarded in Berlin, but he did not spend much time socializing. The condom manufacturer had both a commanding personality and a progressive outlook. Julius Fromm believed in making condoms a practical means of family planning.
In many respects, the Fromm household was quite permissive—as long as the sons complied with the wishes of the family’s “gentle patriarch.” But the third immigrant generation, the first to be born in Germany, did not simply do what it was told, as one episode related by Edgar about his eldest brother’s choice of profession illustrates.
Max was the most intellectual of the children. After he graduated from Grunewald High School at the age of seventeen, our father said, “So now you’re joining the company.”
“I don’t want to spend my entire life sitting around with the same people from nine to five,” Max replied, “I want to become an actor.” He was given a clipped reply:
“I will not support that.”
The son defiantly headed straight to the renowned theater director Max Reinhardt for an audition, which proved a success.
“You can enroll in the drama school.”
“That would be nice, but I have no money,” Max replied.
“What? You, the son of Julius Fromm, have no money?” Reinhardt wondered.
“My father said he would not pay for this.”
“Then tell him that I have offered you a scholarship and you won’t have to pay anything.” Our father relented, provided that his son would prove to be an “accomplished actor.”
On left: Else Brandenburg, Julius Fromm’s younger sister, ca. 1918
On right: Julius Fromm’s sister Helene Fromm, ca. 1925
Max could not be swayed from his resolve to pursue a career in acting. He attended Reinhardt’s famous drama school from 1928 to 1930, and Julius Fromm brought his younger son Herbert into the business as an apprentice, although Herbert had just finished middle school. Ever true to form, Julius put his son through his paces, making sure that he was assigned the most difficult and unpleasant tasks.
Before long, Max made his theatrical debut, appearing onstage with Max Pallenberg and Fritzi Massary. He also performed in Berlin’s leading cabaret, the Kabarett der Komiker (Cabaret of Comedians), which was established in 1924. The cabaret theater, which had seating for eight hundred, featured a stellar array of artists that included Claire Waldoff, Curt Bois, Ernst Busch, Karl Valentin, and the Comedian Harmonists. Friedrich Hollaender, the renowned composer and pianist, who wrote music for the cabaret, took Max Fromm under his wing, and he was soon offered modest roles in film and the theater, including work with Bertolt Brecht. Julius was impressed by his success. Max acted in a series of entertaining movies produced by UFA, Germany’s largest film company: Eine Freundin so goldig wie du (A Girlfriend as Sweet as You), Der Kongress tanzt (Congress Dances), and Eine Tür geht auf (A Door Opens). However, his performances in the Kabarett der Komiker, which was founded by three Jews, drew a dangerous kind of attention to him, since the skits heaped scorn on the National Socialists.
Fromm family with friends in the garden of the villa, ca. 1928
In the spring of 1933, Julius Fromm received a confidential warning that Max was on a Nazi storm trooper black list. His exasperation knew no bounds; hadn’t he impressed on his son time and again that associations with a political cabaret and with left-wing, or even communist, friends would someday land him in hot water? Now a new danger loomed. Julius gave Max a large sum of money and urged him to leave Germany immediately.
Max Fromm, who had just turned twenty-seven, said goodbye to a few friends and boarded a train to Amsterdam the very same evening. He hid the money behind a bathroom mirror in the train and brought it safely over the border. He stayed in the Netherlands for three months, then traveled on to Paris, where his fiancée, Paulette Fromm (a distant relative), was awaiting him.
The actor Max Fromm, ca. 1930
Max spent the summer of 1933 at Hotel Charleston in Montmartre. For a while he shared a room with the actor Peter Lorre, born László Löwenstein. The two had known each other in Berlin. According to Max’s brother Edgar, Lorre asked Max one day whether he could lend him a hundred francs to spend the night at the Ritz. “Are you crazy?” Max replied. “No, I’m not crazy,” said Lorre. “Alfred Hitchcock is staying there and in the morning I want to come downstairs when he’s eating breakfast and announce to him: ‘I am Peter Lorre, who played the murderer in Fritz Lang’s M. I’m sure you can put me to good use.’”
The rest is history, of course. Hitchcock said little, but did ask for Peter Lorre’s telephone number. At first, nothing came of the encounter, but four weeks later, Lorre got a call from Hitchcock’s secretary, and went for an audition. He got a principal role in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and went on to play unforgettable characters in two films with Humphrey Bogart: Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.
Max did not become as well known. He spoke French fluently, but with a German accent. Lorre called him up ecstatically from Hollywood: “Come over here; the Americans don’t really mind an accent.” But Max was devoted to Paulette, who did not want to leave France or be separated from her widowed mother, so he performed in German-language antifascist cabarets in Paris with Anna Seghers and other émigrés. Paulette and Max supplemented their income by dubbing films.
They married in April 1937. Julius and Selma Fromm came over from Berlin. As a wedding gift they brought a gadget called a View-Master, which contained a rotating disk with thirty-seven little black-and-white images of the new factory in Köpenick. This series of images had been shot in the mid-1930s, and survived the war intact in various attics in Paris. These photographs are the most significant remaining pictorial documents of Fromms Act.