Friday, 27 May 2016


It was a couple of years ago that I traced descendants of Ernest Wilton Schiff living in Italy. Public records showed me that his daughter Esmé had married and had three children, and fortunately one of those three daughters had married in England which gave me these relations' surname. A search on the internet brought up a request for information from a Julian Pio concerning his mother's work at Bletchley during the Second World War, and I was able to contact him. He kindly replied, and put me in touch with his older sister Rosalynd in Florence, whom he saw as the family historian, and over the past two years she and I have corresponded and become friends. I considered her as family, and she very kindly reciprocated, and we had great fun with our messages, culminating in her kind invitation to visit her in Florence and stay with her. Precisely a week ago I did just that, and I had a most wonderful experience meeting her and members of her family.
My involvement in this story goes back really to three years before my birth, to my mother's arrival in England in June 1946 to marry my father, recently demobbed from the British army. My mother is a Schiff, and Rosalynd's maternal grandmother was also a Schiff. Before my mother arrived in England her father, Giulio Cesare Schiff, wrote letters of introduction for her to a couple of addresses in England of some Schiff relations. One letter was returned, and one was never answered. I still have the letter he wrote to my mother explaining this to her. Over forty years ago I attempted to trace these elusive relations, using telephone directories to write to and phone various people in London with the surname Schiff, but none were able to help me. I only knew that my great great grandfather was Friedrich Schiff, that he had a half brother Wilhelm whose two unmarried daughters died in Trieste about fifty years ago, and that Friedrich and Wilhelm's father, Samson Schiff, was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Milan.
All this changed suddenly two years ago when Dr Ruth Nattermann wrote to me from Florence where she was researching the life of a Paolina Schiff, and, having seen what I had placed on the internet, wondered if I had any information about her. I knew absolutely nothing, but the leads she gave me opened up a whole new world, a window on the past, with all my mother's relations suddenly clearly visible. Fresh and determined internet searches revealed huge amounts of information, in archives, newspapers, public records and personal accounts. These also showed the simple reason why my mother and her father had failed to make contact with their lost relations. Not only was there in one case a change of surname, there was also the loss of two sons, Schiff cousins, in the First World War, the deaths of all the male members of the family bearing the Schiff surname, but also the disruption of World War Two, the curious coincidence of the return to Italy of members of the family, and also the natural passing of time.
Last Monday evening, after a tediously long and delayed train journey from Trieste to Florence taking six hours, I was met at Santa Maria Novella by my wonderfully generous and welcoming fifth cousin Rosalynd Pio. We returned to her home, the garden flat of a beautiful villa in a wooded part of Florence, a home full of the relics of the past and of the present, walls covered in books, family portraits and photographs, treasures from grandparents and great grandparents. Soon after we had dinner, together with her brother Julian, my first contact with the family, and his wife Anna. I enjoyed their company, and getting to know them.
I spent Tuesday in the company of a seventeenth century English oak bible box that Rosalynd placed on the table for me. It contained family papers, that I sorted for her. The main piles were a handful of old letters related to her grandmother Esmé Cooke, née Schiff, whom I knew of only through some literary work she had done with her aunt Violet Schiff; a pile of uninteresting legal correspondence and papers concerning the complex will of Sir Ernest Schiff and his legacy to his niece Esmé; and the letters and other papers of Esmé's daughter Rosemary, detailing her successful career as a young woman practised in singing, dancing and acting, acquainted with such luminaries as Sir John Gielgud and Ivor Novello. Also in the box were typewritten works by Esmé Cooke, usually written under her pen name of Ruth Stone, some of which had been published - and paid for - by various newspapers, but some appeared to be novels that never made the press. Glancing over these items gave me a totally new perspective on Esmé, as an intelligent, confident, capable and talented person, who was able to override preconceptions and prejudices. I wish I had known her. There were also a few interesting items concerning Esmé's mother's family, the Borlases, of New Zealand, but originally of Penzance in  Cornwall.
One short story was in the vein of her uncle Sydney's romans à clef in his 'A True Story'. It is a remarkable account of a family conference between the children of Charles Schiff and the children of Alfred Schiff, beautifully observed by Esmé who attended this tense meeting, concerning the legacies left by Sir Ernest Schiff to his sisters in Germany and their heir and descendant Richard Nöhring. I knew already the facts of the case, and more, but this short story superbly brought to life the real life tensions between the two branches of the family. Having read the various editions of 'A True Story', I was aware that Sydney Schiff must have caused offence to some of his relations, as is the likely effect of any autobiographical writing, but Esmé perceptively described this and other issues and put them in context.
Related to this was a tantalising and fascinating find: corrections and addenda to a history of the Schiff family evidently produced in the 1980s by one of Charles Schiff's descendants. I do not know where there are now copies of this history but of course I would dearly like to see it.
On the Wednesday as a thank you to Rosalynd I started using my well practised skills as an archivist to attempt to sort out a very large metal trunk she pulled out from under her bed, where it had rested undisturbed for decades. Painted white, it was a former arms case dated 1943. It contained the correspondence of her parents, Gioia Cooke and Oscar Pio, from 1943 to 1947. There was a vast quantity of letters, and the box was in some disorder, so I carefully lifted out the letters and started to sort them into date order, a huge task in the limited time I had available. I already knew the outline of their story, from the correspondence I had studied in the Tate Archive in London, some of which I had transcribed and shared with Rosalynd a couple of months ago. Now I worked fast, sorting into years, using postmarks where possible, occasionally having to unfold the letter to find a date, and sometimes failing to find a date. Some years I sorted completely into date order, but the early years from 1943 to 1945 are massive, as they sometimes wrote more than once a day, and certainly daily, and that is a task I need to complete.
I had a break on Wednesday. I had had a break already on Tuesday too, when Rosalynd kindly donned her official guide's hat and took me to San Miniato al Monte and opened closed doors for me as she knows absolutely everybody and has irresistible powers of persuasion. I was extremely happy with the fresco of St Benedict flinging himself naked into a bed of nettles. The break on Wednesday morning was a visit to churches, certainly Santa Maria Novella and I think another - yes, Santa Maria Maggiore. My problematic neck spoiled some of my pleasure, and I gave Rosalynd a hard time with my unintended naughtiness and interruptions, but I think she'd be pleased how much I have retained. I am also reminded how little time I actually had to sort out her family archive, as Wednesday lunchtime I had the treat of meeting Dr Ruth Nattermann for lunch, in a break from her work in the Florentine Archives researching the early history of Italian feminism, the work that had led her to Paolina Schiff, my great great great aunt, and to me. That was a very special hour, when we were able to share, and I was able to thank her. I have met many very special people who have helped me to make live again these remarkable people from the past who also just happen to be my relations. After lunch I walked back to Rosalynd's and spent the next seven hours working intensively on sorting the letters, finally eating our supper at almost 9pm. I was lucky that Rosalynd was a generous cook.
Thursday last week was also my last day in Florence, a chance to glance through family photograph albums, and see people I knew of by name. Then Rosalynd's sister Camilla, and her husband Fabio, arrived, together with their guest Sybille Haynes, a renowned Etruscologist, and we were swept off to lunch at Il Bargello, a restaurant in the Piazza della Signoria. Rosalynd did her wonderful trick of outrageously driving through the complex medieval streets of Florence, to actually park in the piazza next to the restaurant. I have never visited the piazza, I have never stood before David or Neptune or any of the other statues and marvelled, which I now did, hopefully not too much like a contadino. Getting to know Camilla and Fabio was wonderful, sharing stories from the past, as we also enjoyed Sybille's company and conversation. They were so welcoming, inviting me to see them in Lucca, and hopefully this year when they come to Bristol for a nephew's graduation. I felt honoured to be taken into their confidence and welcomed by them, and hope to meet them soon.
That afternoon I returned for a couple of hours to Rosalynd's. Was it then that I chatted to her brother Christopher in Milan? But at 5pm I had to leave to get to the station for the long journey back to Trieste, arriving just before midnight, and with the climb up the hill to San Giusto. Friday I spent collapsed, and Saturday too, but now I can look back on a remarkable few days in Florence where I met remarkable people from a shared remarkable family.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Johanna Wollheim: a Matriarch

As I get older I am increasingly saddened as to how quickly we are forgotten. As a child of nine or ten I was captivated by my great grandfather's notebook, which brought alive ancestors and family members from two hundred years ago and more, and as time went by I was able to read their letters and know them a little better. Understandably those who died in infancy left very little trace: my sister Stella, my aunt Fausta, my great uncle Randle: I knew a little about them. I knew nothing about the many brothers and sisters of my grandmother from Gorizia, many of whom had died in infancy. My great great great grandfather Samson Schiff I knew only from his grave in Milan; it was a tremendously emotional moment when, fifteen years ago, I opened a book I had bought which contained a chapter about him. It was similar with his daughter Paolina, who died at approximately the same time as my mother was born, and who was unknown to my family, even though she is now the subject of research. My great great grandmother died in Genova when I was a toddler, but I don't think anybody knew, not even her beloved grandson, my Italian grandfather. If we are fortunate, most of us will leave behind a mere record of our birth, marriage and death, and very little else. I have attempted over the past two years to piece together some of the history of the Schiff family, and this has gone well, as I have been very fortunate in the help I have been given.
I thought the story of Johanna Schiff was pretty straightforward. Born Johanna Wollheim in 1811 in Lissa, now Leszno in Poland, she married in 1832 Leopold Schiff in Trieste, where her father appeared to have established a shipping business. She gave birth to nine children and some time in the 1860s appears to have died. But two nights ago I discovered some material deposited in 2002 by Hermann de Fonseca Wollheim in the Leo Baeck Institute in New York which astounded me. I have attempted to contact him in Belgium but without success, and it is possible he may have died. In this document he declares that Leopold Schiff was the second husband of Johanna Wollheim, and that she had married Aaron Simonsohn of Dresden on 7th May, 1826. This would make her 15 at the time of her marriage, which is surprising, but not impossible. The document also gives her three children: Nathan, born 29th April, 1829; David, born 15th March, 1831, and a son Simon for whom no date of birth is given. The sources for this information are said to be the archives of the Leszno Jewish Museum, and the Dresden Jewish Community Register.
David Simonsohn became a well known artist, David Simonson-Castelli, and left at least two children, Henriette, and the artist Ernst Oskar, and died in Dresden on 8th February, 1896. His sister was a talented pianist Eugenie Simonson.
But what happened? It appears that Johanna left her husband and children in Dresden, and married Leopold Schiff in November, 1832. Was she divorced by Aaron Simonsohn? I am not sure of the date of his death. Similarly, we have a record of Johanna up until 10th June, 1861 when she received a letter from the explorer Karl von Scherzinger addressed to her in Trieste at the establishment of Schiff & Wollheim. We do not know when she died, but within ten years her husband Leopold Schiff had left Trieste to live with his three daughters in Hamburg, where he died in 1871.
It is surprising that we do not know details of her death. Her daughter Octavia is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Trieste, the sole grave in the very large plot of the Schiff family. Did she return to Dresden to see the children of her first marriage? Had she separated from her husband Leopold Schiff? Or was she visiting her first family. Although it is slightly ambiguous Hermann de Fonseca-Wollheim's research seems to indicate that she died in Dresden on 3rd August, 1869, which seems to match the information we already have. Her son Alfred in London created a shrine in London to his father's memory, but not to the memory of his mother. However, he did name one of his daughters after her. Her family created a charity in her memory in her birthplace of Leszno which survived until the Second World War.
I keep telling myself that there were perhaps two Johanna Wollheims, but the evidence from Hermann de Fonseca-Wollheim is quite explicit: Leopold Schiff was her second husband. I expect further evidence will gradually appear.

Trieste, 6th May, 2016

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Proust at the Majestic

Richard Davenport-Hines: Proust at the Majestic

I have both the American and British edition of this book, and the references I make here are to the American edition. It's a good book, an interesting book, and the reviews by the critics are generally good and appreciative. What some pick up on, and what I am concentrating on, is the author's animus against Sydney Schiff, but there there are positive moments too. When I recently reread the book I marked with a pencil in the margin al references to my second cousin Sydney Schiff, and to his wife Violet, and also marked with an exclamation mark all references to Sydney that I considered gratuitously offensive, and in particular antisemitic. There, I have declared my interest at the very beginning. I think that the author betrays middle class English gut reaction antisemitism, something I am well used to, and I shall go through these references.
It is on page 4 of the book that the author introduces us to the Schiffs via a quote from a contribution that T. S. Eliot made to Violet Schiff's obituary in the Times. The reference given by the author is to the Letters of T. S. Eliot, but I can check this. Unfortunately the footnotes to the American edition, which is what I have with me here in Trieste, lack a key to the many abbreviations. I do need to check the references too, as I am suspicious of many of them, some being from Sydney Schiff's novels, which, although autobiographical, are also semifictional.
Clive Bell is several times quoted as a reliable source in this book as he described the evening at the Majestic in his own book 'Old Friends'. However, he is a tainted source, famously antisemitic, not at all friendly to the Schiffs. I need to provide some quotes here in support of this. Davenport-Hines merely says that Bell was "a gregarious, grateful guest who seldom failed to gladden his companions with his infectious social glee." Davenport-Hines nowhere suggests that Bell is other than totally reliable, which is something other writers would dispute.
On page 10 we start meeting the pejorative language concerning the Schiffs that leaves a grimace on the reader's face. Sydney Schiff is accused of having "netted" Diaghilev, and in the same sentence he is accused of "catching" Stravinsky and Picasso. Such distasteful slurs are quite unnecessary. If the host had been Lord Derwent or the Duke of Marlborough, both prominent in Parisian art and cultural circles at the time, such language would never have been used by Davenport-Hines, who reflects the attitude shown by my grandfather, who, meeting Lord Derwent thirty years later whilst walking at Hackness in Yorkshire, reported that he was a born gentleman of great breeding, and quite unaware of Lord Derwent's wild youth in Paris, and the brevity of his noble ancestry.
There is a good and fair account of the Schiffs and the meal on pages 26 onwards, despite the repetition that Sydney was over partial to champagne, which I suspect is based on Proust's letter to Sydney advising him to cut back on his consumption. On page 29 there is a very kind acknowledgement of the role of the Schiffs in Proust's life: "It was a great compliment to the English couple - and an eloquent affirmation of his devotion to them - that he appeared at their Ballet Russes party."
This chapter with the account of the famous meal ends with some more nasty digs at the Schiffs in its final paragraph:
"...the presence of Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso made the Schiffs' evening a unique event in the history of twentieth-century art: it was the sole occasion when the most magnificent exponents of early twentieth-century Modernism gathered in the same room."
Then Davenport-Hines has his digs, reminding me of the digs that were made at the same time against Lady Ottoline Morrell:
"For the Schiffs it was an opportunity to share their famous hospitality but also to show off the celebrated names who would accept their hospitality."
Really? Show off to whom? The author has already told us that they did not send their guest list to the Paris newspapers. There is absolutely no evidence that they showed off. And there is another dig:
"Though the evening was ostensibly in honour of Diaghilev, the great lion whom they most rejoiced to catch was Proust. They used the party as a way to keep him in their social clutches and continued to send him unctuous compliments in the months that followed." What an outrageous and unnecessary slur, a slur that seems contradicted on the very next page at the beginning of the second chapter, where the accidental first meeting of the Schiffs with Proust is described.  Their affection and admiration was mutual, even if both Sydney and Marcel wrote letters that to us can appear over the top.
On page 64 there is a good account of the Jewishness of Proust, and of Schiff's shared half-Jewish ancestry, and I give the author full credit for this.
Page 124 gives due credit to Sydney Schiff for his account of the relationship between Schiff and his housekeeper, but chapter 5 on page 134 begins gratingly "When the Jewish playboy and patron of the arts Sydney Schiff began reading 'Du côté de chez Swann' in 1916..." I have never found evidence that Sydney Schiff was ever, in any way, a playboy. The author continues: "Schiff... moved among purely moneyed people, talked too much, was self-indulgent about his nerves and prone to whine." This is mostly quite untrue. Although he inherited wealth, Schiff supported artists and poets from humble backgrounds. His correspondence with Isaac Rosenberg, for example, is touching. Artists, writers and poets enjoyed his and Violet's company and encouragement. Certainly outrageously awful people like Wyndham Lewis were more than happy to bite the hand that not only fed him but believed in him and his work. Davenport-Hines gives the misanthropic Wyndham Lewis his due on page 231.
We are back with the pejoratives concerning the Schiffs in the opening words of Chapter 8, where the author says "Violet and Sydney Schiff oozed through Proust's life during the early summer of 1922 like pigment colouring a fabric. For two months they seemed to commandeer his social energies." The author continues "In a self-serving memoir published in 1924..." And "...they were too possessive." On page 248 the aurora continues "In London, between the wars, the Schiffs were known as gracious if persistent lionisers; but in Paris their fixation with Proust became obsessive, raw and unveneered."  No evidence is offered for the first claim. And a reading of Proust's letters to the Schiffs suggests the relation and the feelings were mutual. The comparison by Davenport-Hines between Schiff, and Proust's character Nissim Bernard, is loathsome and objectionable, though on the following page the author redeems himself with a much better account of the Schiffs on page 249. Interestingly, the author points out that "Ezra Pound, for one, was relieved to have avoided them during their visit to Paris in 1922." Is this the Ezra Pound noted for his antisemitism?
The author mentions on page 251 that Schiff's grandfather was Frankfurt-born and a banker in Trieste, with no sources, but both are incorrect. The first is no doubt attributable to Theophilous Boll. His grandfather Leopold was a merchant with widespread shipping interests. There were no connections with Bonn, though, that I am aware of, and wonder where this comes from. Perhaps he means Hamburg. And Alfred Schiff had no funeral at Brookwood Cemetery: his will requested a cremation with no ceremony or service whatsoever.
Sydney Schiff, despite his Christian belief, also requested cremation with no ceremony or service. He and his wife left no personal papers or diaries. He seems to have sought no personal aggrandisement, no fame or glory. Although Wyndham Lewis reluctantly painted a portrait of Violet, Sydney never had his own portrait painted. Although privileged, he was generous. He had no children, but his creative urges were satisfied through his writings, and especially through the support he gave to others. I am at present transcribing the correspondence between him and the artist Richard Eurich. Unusually both sides of the correspondence survive, and they present a different picture, of friendship, of encouragement and belief in the younger artist like a father for his son. There is no pretentiousness, no ownership, no patronage, but much humanity, belief and admiration.
The account of the English translation of Proust's masterpiece is interesting, and Davenport-Hines gives a fair and balanced version of the story, one in which surprisingly Schiff comes out well. Schiff's translation of the final volume has often been derided, and quickly supplanted, to be forgotten. In his final acknowledgement at the very end of the book Davenport-Hines gives primacy to Schiff's translation, rejecting the "high-handed re-writing or slop-shod approximations to which several other translators have resorted." Traduttore traditore. Sydney Schiff could have wished for no greater recognition than this.

Trieste, 3rd May, 2016