My great great grandfather: the adventurous Prussian soldier who loved a drink


This is a picture of my great great grandfather Heinrich Gimkiewicz  (with impressive beard) and his wife Helene taken in Berlin in 1881.

I have come to know a little about Heinrich through a self-published book by a cousin, Keith Kaye, a urologist who lives in Minneapolis.

Keith translated and published the diary Heinrich kept while serving as a non-commissioned officer during the Franco-Prussian war, a largely forgotten but bloody dispute that took place in Western Europe between July 1870 and May 1871, won by Prussia thus unifying the various German states.

The diary was bequeathed to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg by Heinrich’s granddaughter Helga, It was here that I studied various degrees between 1992 and 1998, emerging, finally with a Bachelor of Arts in 1996 and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Management in 1998.

All that time, I had no idea a diary was kept by the University library detailing the daily marches, battles and ruminations of my distant paternal descendent.

When I began reading the translated diary entries I was at first bored. Heinrich details his movements from one town to the next, the long marches or train rides, complaints about the cold, waiting around for orders and details of the various civilian billets where he stayed in occupied French towns.

The names of towns and army commanders meant very little to me.

But as I read and persevered, I found Heinrich to grow more interesting and to see things in his personality that reminded me of myself.

It became apparent to me that my great great grandfather enjoyed a drink, preferably an alcoholic one (as I do) and sometimes drank until he was “tipsy”.

He writes of a stay in Rheims on November 12, 1870:

We stay here today, and so we try to get to know the town. Provisions are quite bad here, but there is lots of wine…

On November 16, in the hamlet of Coucy la Ville between La Fere and  Soissons:

It is quite nice here, there are lots of apples; the people make a pleasant drink out of them. It is available in quantity, and we like it very much, there being no wine.

And later, in Roumare on December 28:

I go and get my baggage, we prepare our meals and sit together until 10pm, having a good time. There is enough cider, each day we drink a considerable amount.

He was also fond of exploring the towns that he visited and had an appreciation of architecture, food and the hospitality and the customs of local French people, even if they were the ‘enemy’. However, unruly Frenchmen are not tolerated and one, he reluctantly admits to slapping.

He is also more than a little mischievous and I surmise – not always that honest  – with his diary entries – particularly when he visits a Rouen brothel:

It happens on February 16, towards the end of the war when he is billeted in the home of a cotton manufacturer. Heinrich writes that at 6.30pm he eats dinner with his landlord, “who is a very friendly man” then goes out again “this time on a less moral path”.

We want to have a look at a French brothel. There are many here. The first one is the Maison Stephan, which is high-class. The second one is a normal one. We return at 11pm.

No description is given of what he did for four hours, but we can guess. His fondness for the ladies reveals itself on a number of occasions with glowing descriptions of local landladys (one is”an aristocratic woman called Madam de Savers” who is “very friendly”) and the daughter of one of his landlords.

Rouen was a special place for Heinrich in the war. He writes of its bustling life after the armistice is declared and that “in all the places and in all the cafes it now becomes obvious  that this beautiful city belongs among the greatest in France”.

I would whole heartedly agree. My wife and I visited Rouen in the summer of 2010, staying in a little shoebox apartment above shops on the main road. Our landlord was a small, dark-skinned moustached man, who spoke not a word of English. We cooked tinned Cassoulet on a portable gas burner in the evening after exploring the exquisite, historic town in the day.

Now, I wonder, if I tread on the same cobbled stones as Heinrich did all those years ago as he explored the various districts and drunk in its cafes and restaurants.

Heinrich also writes intriguingly of the Yom Kippur service for Jewish soldiers, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

A proud Prussian man willing to die for his country, Heinrich could not have known that this war, which unified Germany, would create some of the circumstances that led to the First World War in 1914 and later the Second World War, where German Jews were betrayed and murdered in their millions by their homeland.

He writes of the Yom Kippur service in St Barbe on October 6:

…all in all there were 400 men of our denomination there.  It was Rabbi Blumenstein who came especially from Mannheim…it was moving. Most of us had probably never prayed as intensely as we did today.

My favourite extract – and where I feel a strong connection with my great great grand father – comes towards the end of the campaign, when Heinrich’s regiment reaches the town of Fecamp, on the Atlantic Ocean:

Now we are to see the ocean. We are led there one platoon after the other, it is a gorgeous view…with its huge waves…a clear difference from our eastern sea. This mighty sea with its waves which exist in such height only here, surrounded by high white chalk cliffs is really indescribable and unforgettable. This great view truly compensates for all our strains of the last days and we are grateful to our captain who kept his promise.

With the war over, Heinrich returned Berlin and married Helene 10 years later. They had four children.

The family move to South Africa in 1899 was most likely sparked by a wave of anti-Semitism surging through Europe at the time and the prospect of making one’s fortune amid the gold fields of the Witwatersrand.

Heinrich’s daughter Else would later marry an Austrian-born geologist and mining engineer called Bruno Schlesinger in 1907 and I would emerge into the world in 1973, a chubby child with a curly mop of hair to carry on the Schlesinger name.

Heinrich ran a toy shop in  the centre of Johannesburg with merchandise imported from Germany. A photo outside the store shows him to be a dapper dresser in three-piece suit and hat, bearded with fob chain dangling from waist coat.

Heinrich, top left, in front of his Johannesburg toy shop

Heinrich, top left, in front of his Johannesburg toy shop

Sadly, anti-German feeling in 1915 following the sinking of the British ocean liner the Lusitania  forced Heinrich and his family into veritable hiding as mobs attacked anyone of German descent. Being unable to import German goods, he lost most of his customers.

Heinrich died in 1922 aged 75, 10 days after his wife Helene apparently of a broken heart. They are both buried in Johannesburg’s Brixton Cemetery.

– I think I would have enjoyed sharing a glass of wine with him. Or maybe some Cider.

An unexpected letter arrives from Spain

A letter arrived in the mail this week affixed with two colourful ‘Espana’ stamps and an two ink marks baring the words “Barcelona” and “Correos La Campania de Todos” (The Spanish post office).

The stamps cost 35 euro cents and 50 euro cents each.

The letter was addressed to “L Schlesinger” with my home address printed on top and began with an apology for this “unsolicited” correspondence.

“My name is Barrister Mateo Pinto of St. Mary of the Head 15, 28045, Madrid Spain. I got your contact information through the Australian public records while searching for the last name similar to my late client.”

His client, now deceased, was ‘Albert Schlesinger’, an oil magnate who lived in Spain for 28 years and who died along with his immediate family in an “auto car accident on the Damascus Highway in Syria in December 2004”.

The letter went on to detail how there was US$9.6 million unclaimed in a vault at the Madrid Central office and that he was seeking out a relative that shared the same last name as his client.

Having found me, he was willing to share the spoils – though 60:40 in his favour.

Still, I’d come out with a cool $5.76 million.

All I had to do to get the ball rolling was send him a fax or email, but he also provided a phone number though he suggested the first two means of correspondence for “time difference and confidentiality reasons”.

But I better hurry because, according to Barrister Mateo Pinto there is only “three months final notice from the safe keeping firm to present a beneficiary to the vault” or the money would be “forfeited to the Spanish authorities” – something that he “forbid happening”.

The letter was signed with an indecipherable signature and clearly a photocopy.

Obviously, this is a scam and not a very convincing one despite the effort to create authenticity with the posted letter and stamps (and perhaps also playing the part of the greedy lawyer by demanding a 60: 40 split in his favour).

I did some Google searches anyway to placate my curiosity.

The street address on the letter does not exist.

The only Albert Schlesinger of note I could locate died in San Francisco in 1993. His New York Times obituary says he was a civic leader and “founder of one of the largest automobile dealerships on the West Coast”.

There is no Damascus Road, in Syria, though there is one mentioned in the Bible.

And as for Barrister Mateo Pinto of St. Mary of the Head, there is an architect of that name residing in New York and a legal case in the Philippines involving a ‘Mateo Pinto’ who leased a fish pond, but that’s it.

Of course even without the help of Google, there are holes in the story as wide as the Grand Canyon.

For instance: why does he say he comes from Madrid, but posts the letter in Barcelona, on the other side of the country?

And what lawyer would look to give 40% of $9.6 million to someone he’d never met just because they shared the surname of their client?

I found many similar examples with almost the identical plot structure, including one on the Australian government’s SCAM watch website from a Spanish lawyer, whose client had died in a car accident with the recipient offered the  chance to share in $22 million, (though in this letter, the lawyer is more generous willing to share the spoils 50:50).

Does anyone actually fall for these silly scams?

Still, it got me thinking about the person who gone to the trouble of buying the stamps and posting this letter half way around the world in the hope that I’d reply and presumably end up handing over my bank details so that he can steal from me.

Somewhere, in Spain, probably Barcelona, there is a guy posting letters to all the Schlesingers he can locate in overseas phone directories.

Why did he pick Schlesinger? Well there are some very wealthy Schlesingers I believe, sadly I am not one of them, so perhaps that’s why he picked the name. Perhaps he’d also considered the more famous Oppenheimer, Getty or Rothschild surnames for the name of his fictitious client.

I imagine the scam artist hunched over a computer in some darkened flat in a non-descript suburb on the outskirts of Barcelona. The printer whirrs and buzzes as it prints out letter after letter. He bends down, picks up each letter and has a cursory look over it to check it’s printed correctly, folds it neatly and slips it into an envelope. He licks the stamps and presses them onto the envelope firmly. Later, when he has a big enough pile, he heads off late at night, walking along quiet streets, a cigarette dangling from his lips (don’t all villains smoke?) and drops the letters into the nearest mail box, looking around suspiciously as he does so in case someone has finally tracked him down. Then he disappears down a narrow lane, finds a cheap bar that stays open late, orders a beer, finds a seat in the corner, where he sips his cerveza, lights up another cigarette, puffs out a cloud of smoke and dreams up his next scam.

Or perhaps he’s some 16 year old nerd with pimples and a computer.