Karl Maramorosch may be best known for his accomplishments as a top scientist, but the story of how he became such a success has never been told-until now.
Born in Vienna in 1915, his family moved to Poland, and he fled with his wife, Irene, to Romania in September 1939.
They spent four years in Polish refugee camps and were in Soviet-occupied Romania until October 1946, before coming to the United States in January 1947 on an immigration visa.
But they did not arrive unscathed: Maramorosch's father died in the gas chamber in Belzec in 1942, and his mother also died at the camp. His brother died in the Kolomyya jail on Yom Kippur in 1942. His wife's closest relatives died in Treblinka in 1942.
The inseparable couple refused to let any of that stop them from forging ahead: He began a scientific career that spanned more than sixty years, and she became a librarian at the New York Public Library, where she worked thirty years.
Maramorosch recalls the painful losses of the past and the brutalities of war, but he also celebrates his love for his wife and life in The Thorny Road to Success.
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The Thorny Road to Success
By Karl Maramorosch
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 Karl Maramorosch
All rights reserved.
Childhood in Vienna, 1915–18
I have no recollections of my first three years. I was conceived in 1914 in Soroki, my family's eight-hundred-acre estate twenty-eight kilometers from Kolomyya and twelve kilometers from Horodenka.
In 1914, when World War I broke out and the Russian front approached Kolomyya, my father decided to leave Soroki. He left with my mother; six-year-old brother, Alfred; and five-year-old sister, Karla Bronia, for the capital city, Vienna. My grandfather Salomon left for Baden, near Vienna.
My parents told me I was born on January 16, 1915, in the Sanatorium Loew in Vienna. Dr. Eckstein performed my circumcision. I was fed a formula containing condensed milk. A nanny took me every day in the summer to the park for strolls. One day, a woman came to my mother and reported that I had fallen out of the baby carriage. The woman inquired about whether the nanny had reported the accident. Since this was the first my mother had heard about it, she immediately fired the nanny.
A few days later, in the same park, my mother spotted the nanny with another baby and its mother — the woman who had reported the alleged accident. In those days, it was difficult to find a good nanny, and the story about my falling out of the carriage was a trick by the other mother to get the nanny fired so that she could immediately hire her.
Emperor Franz Joseph died in 1916, and Emperor Karl became his successor.
My first recollection was our return to Kolomyya in 1918.CHAPTER 2
Childhood in Kolomyya
In November 1918, I returned from Vienna with my family. I vividly recall how I went from the home on Franz Josef Strasse 7 (later named Ulica Aleja Wolnosci) to the nearby Herman restaurant. I was dragging my only toy, a small wooden engine on a string. Before turning the corner, I saw a boy who gasped with amazement at my toy. My mother told me to give my toy to the boy, which I did, but parting with it was painful, and that event remained in my memory.
Around the corner, at the Herman restaurant, I greatly enjoyed eating, for the first time in my life, wild strawberries with whipped cream. This dessert remained my favorite.
My memories of my first years are limited. Only years later did I realize that the southeastern part of Poland was still in great turmoil when we returned there. The Ukrainian ataman (general) Petlura tried to create an independent Ukraine and occupied the area, including the town of Kolomyya. I clearly remember how the Romanian army "liberated" Kolomyya when they came to the town for four days and permanently expelled Petlura's soldiers. During the time of the Ukrainian rule, my father traveled to the farm every week. The representative of Petlura, a peasant by the name Marusyk, mistreated and humiliated him. Marusyk took Father's keys away; handed out the wheat, rye, corn, and potatoes; and sold them, but my father declined to denounce Marusyk to the Polish authorities when the occupation ended. Marusyk reciprocated this when, again, he took over the farm in 1939.
During 1924–28, I attended the nearby public school (Szkola Powszechna im. Mickiewicza). I liked my teacher, Mr. Ohanowicz (the name seemed to indicate he was perhaps of Polish Armenian background). I had great respect for him, but a few years later, I heard from a girlfriend of our maid, Anna Arneth, that — what a terrible thing — Mr. Ohanowicz had slept with the girlfriend. My warm feeling vanished, and I felt hurt by my former teacher's behavior. I did not know whether he was married or a bachelor, but how could he have done this?
My First Childhood Friend, Antek Zebracki
My best friend in the early days of my childhood was Antek Zebracki. His sister, Ela Zebracka, attended the same class in high school as my sister. Both went to the gimnazjum (high school) for girls at the Ursuline Cloister in Kolomyya. This high school had been so poorly rated a couple of years earlier that the supervising high-school board in Lviv had threatened to close it unless the level of the student body drastically improved. The sisters in the cloister school decided to improve the level by admitting, for the first time, a few bright Jewish girls. One of them was my sister, and the other two were Donia Kantor and Mila Schaerf. Only years later did my sister tell me how she suffered because of anti-Semitic remarks made by some of the teaching Ursuline sisters. I remember only three of her Christian colleagues: Ela Zebracka, Bialowasowna, and Ada. The latter always kissed me whenever she came to visit Karla Bronia. She also kissed my brother, Alfred, and she seemed boy-hungry to me, a six- or seven-year-old child.
I sometimes misbehaved badly. Once, I was standing on one of the stone columns in front of the house and urinating, when Mr. Julian Urbanowski, chief of police and father of my school colleague Adam Urbanowski, passed by. A couple of days later, he met with my father (there were no phones yet in Kolomyya) and told him what I had been doing. My father severely punished me, and I never dared to do it again. He also once punished me by having me stand in the doorway of our living room for one hour. Guests were coming, and my parents were sitting with them in the large living room while I was standing in the doorway and crying.
Thanks to my strict father, I slowly changed my mischievous behavior and tried to emulate my well-behaved older brother and sister, who never misbehaved. When I was five years old, as Passover was being celebrated, Antek Zebracki asked me whether I was eating matza instead of bread, which I confirmed. Antek told me that the blood of Christian children was added to the matza, and I asked my father about it. He told me that this anti-Semitic story was invented in the Middle Ages and caused pogroms in France, Germany, and other countries. The following day, I explained to Antek that the story of the use of Christian children's blood was invented in the Middle Ages and was not true. A day later, Antek told me he'd asked his mother, and she'd told him the story was definitely true, because she'd heard it directly from the Catholic priest, or z ambony, during a sermon in the local church.
The nearby house on Aleja Wolnosci 3 was badly damaged during World War I. While it was being rebuilt, the shattered terra-cotta stoves were discarded. I collected pieces of the tiles in various colors and hid them under the front terrace of our house. My other hiding place was in the huge acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia) next to the entrance of the house. When I came to Kolomyya in 1989, I went through the house, which had been confiscated by the Communist government and now was serving as the town's public library. The hole under the front terrace was still there, and for a moment, I thought of crawling into the place under the terrace to retrieve the precious tiles. I did not dare to do this, because I was illegal in Kolomyya and had only a visa for Cernivtze.
When I was six, Antek and I started primary school at Szkola Powszechna Kopernika, only a few steps from our home. When I learned the alphabet, I was disappointed that Antek's name had to be at the end and not at the beginning, because it was not A for Antek but was Z for Zebracki.
In 1921, when I was six years old, I went with my mother and siblings to Vienna, and we needed not only Polish passports but also Czech and Austrian visas. We obtained one set in Lviv, where we stayed overnight in a hotel, and we obtained the others in Warsaw. There, we met, for the first time, with relatives of my parental grandmother, two brothers named Rall-Shapiro. I met the two brothers for the second and last time in 1935, when I came to Warsaw to study at the University of Biological Studies (Szkola Glowna Gospodarstwa Wiejskiego, or SGGW). The Rall-Shapiro brothers lived on Twarda Street 15.
I was naughty as a child. If not for the strict attitude of my father, whom I feared, I would have become a juvenile delinquent. Among the minor things I often did, I would wait for Ela Zebracka to slowly pull her dress so that it would not wrinkle when she was just about to sit down in a chair. At the last moment, I would remove the chair, and the poor girl would fall to the floor, often hurting herself badly. I thought this trick was fun, but I only did it when my father was on the farm — that is, on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. He returned on Fridays and stayed until Monday morning.
An epidemic of scarlet fever occurred when I was approximately eight years old. My brother was the first in our family to contract it, but he only noticed it afterward, when he started peeling. My sister had a mild fever but also hardly noticed it. I had a severe case. Dr. Levicki injected a large dose of some fluid into my stomach with a twenty-centimeter syringe, and it hurt terribly. My sister spent long hours with me, telling me stories and playing with me.
Anna came to Kolomyya as a girlfriend of some Austrian officer toward the end of the war and was hired as our maid. She was intelligent and fast, cooked well, and took care of the house and the three children. Not everything was clear about her. Once, a gold ring disappeared. My mother told Anna to continue looking for it until she found the ring. The following day, the ring reappeared, found by Anna. After ten years, she decided to leave, hoping to get married to someone in or near Zakopane. She told Mother that if everything went well, she would write, but if not, she would remain silent. We never heard from her, so unfortunately, her hopes did not materialize, and things did not go well for her after she left our household.
Anna had a boyfriend, a policeman named Mr. Rozalski from Stanislawow (Ivanfrankovsk). He was a good painter, I thought, and I liked him. After a few years, he "borrowed" all of the savings Anna had accumulated from tips from our relatives, often in US dollars, and disappeared forever.
I started piano lessons when I was seven years old and knew how to read. My first teacher was Miss Wanda Bienkiewicz in Kolomyya. She was the daughter of the arts professor of the high school, who himself was a former student of Poland's greatest painter, Matejko. Although I liked my piano teacher, I did not like practicing, and my progress was slow. At the end of each year, the students of Wanda Bienkiewicz and the advanced students of Mrs. Teresa Malinowska had to perform at a popis, or concert, in front of invited parents. During the first three years, I was the youngest pupil in the music school, and I played together with my teacher some easy four-hand compositions. The real advantage of it was that I did not have — or perhaps early in my life lost — any stage fright, and I started to like these public performances.
My practicing was curtailed; I could only practice till noon, because during afternoon hours, my grandfather Salomon, who was occupying the upper seven rooms of the house, took his afternoon nap. Neither I nor my sister, Karla Bronia, who took piano lessons with Mrs. Malinowska, were permitted to play the piano in the afternoon hours. The grand piano survived World War I in bad shape, with some keys missing and hammers broken. Mr. Sliwinski, the piano tuner who lived on Kopernika 10, worked for more than two weeks in our house, fixing the grand piano. It was a Czapka-Vienna instrument, and the firm Czapka was owned by Aunt Frieda's family in Austria. Aunt Frieda was the separated wife of Uncle Hugo and the mother of my cousin Fredericke (Fritzi), who became a painter early in her life and died at age one hundred.
I recall how the piano tuner glued parts with a glue (karuk) dissolved in water, heated by his alcohol lamp. After he restored all of the hammers and replaced the missing wires and ivory keys, he tuned the piano for hours. I did not know that plastic would one day replace ivory. When I visited Fritzi, she showed me that for her Czapka grand, she had a supply of spare ivory keys in case one should ever break.
Our Czapka grand was hard, which was an advantage insofar as practicing and developing a good technique were concerned, but I did not know that the old grand no longer could be brought to the exact pitch and was half a tone lower. Not having an absolute pitch, this made no difference to me. My mother, who once was an accomplished pianist, played only rarely in those days when I started my piano lessons. I recall how beautifully she played Chopin's waltzes. She had a chest of drawers filled with piano music. There was no store in Kolomyya where one could purchase sheet music, and the best piano student of Mrs. Malinowska, Mr. Kopystyanski, often came to us to borrow Bach's sheet music. He was in the same high-school class as my brother, Alfred, so he was six years older than me, and he was not only a wonderful pianist but also one of the best high-school students. Unfortunately, at the age of nineteen, he died of tuberculosis.
My piano playing improved vastly when I was around fifteen years old. I started to practice and could do so during afternoon hours after Grandfather Salomon died in May of 1929. But the main reason for my increased interest in piano playing was that I tried to impress a girl who had a lesson after my half hour with Miss Bienkiewicz. Her name was Miss Rozdolska. She was seventeen or eighteen, and I never spoke to her and knew her only from seeing her enter the room and wait for me to finish my lesson. Since I had to start by playing scales, then do an etude, and at the end play a sonata by Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven, the sonata was the piece I practiced most, because Miss Rozdolska would hear part of it. I got so good that several times, the adjacent door would open, and Mrs. Malinowska would come in to find out whether it was me or my teacher playing the part. At the year's end, Miss Rozdolska and her older sister were both performing, and they were not remarkable pianists. They had a younger brother who, some years later, at the final performance of the piano school, played Chopin's military polonaise.
Backyard of the House in Kolomyya
We traveled the twenty kilometers between Kolomyya and Soroki in a carriage with a pair of horses. The horses were kept in a stable in our court. There was also a cow in the stable, so we had fresh milk as well. In the courtyard, we had a well, as there was no running water in the town of forty thousand. Many people bought water from wells behind the city center. This water was called Klasztorna woda, or cloister water, because years earlier, there was a cloister in that location. This water was distributed by a large horse-drawn barrel, but we had our own supply. One year, my father had a large sign posted on our well: "Wode brac wolno az do odwolania" ("One can take the water until no longer permitted"). I asked why this inscription was placed in our courtyard and was told that otherwise, people would acquire the right to take our water forever, even if there would be less water in the well. Placing the inscription was a legal way of assuring that access from other houses could be restricted, if required. When I visited the house in 1989, the well was long gone and the place cemented, because Kolomyya had running water, introduced during the Soviet period, after 1945.
When the rapid inflation became rampant in Poland, my father went one day to Soroki and, while there, sold a large amount of hay. He got the full payment in Polish marks (marki), and when he returned on Friday, he went to town to buy, among other things, two packs of cigarettes. It turned out that the large amount of money received on Monday was sufficient to buy just one pack of cigarettes on Friday of the same week. My father, who until that day had been a heavy smoker, did not purchase the cigarettes at Zimbler's store, next to the city hall, and never smoked a single cigarette. Before that happened, he would sometimes walk with me to Zimbler's, where he waited outside the store while I went in with a twenty-mark paper note. The pack was eighteen cents, and my father let me keep the two cents in change as pocket money. All this changed soon, when Wladyslaw Grabski became Polish prime minister. He changed the currency to the Polish zloty, and five zloty equaled one US dollar. Ever since, my father only sold wheat, rye, maize, barley, or potatoes for US dollars. In 1936, when Uncle Robert came to Kolomyya with Aunt Hansi and Roberta, Robert asked my father about the prices of wheat. My father immediately told him the price of a bushel in dollars. Uncle Robert was amazed how my father was able to make the conversion so fast, only to be told that there was no need for a conversion, as all transactions were made in US currency.
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