Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Julius Meinl Connection

Our today's Guest Blogger is Kent Ford

In Walker Percy's novel, The Last Gentleman, a young man, Williston Bibb Barrett, haunted by the historical drama of the American Civil War, lapses into spells which launch him wandering across the great battlefields of that conflict. Less sensitive souls today join organized outings to visit and memorialize great events, making tourist destinations of battlegrounds, homes, camps, and notorious buildings. Families pack into minivans to drive to Concord Bridge, or they make their way to Verdun. In contrast, I am certainly no longer young, nor am I given to tourist groups seeking the markers and relics of great historical dramas. Just the same, the artifacts of one of these events the genocide of Europe's Jews known as the Holocaust, are so prolific that they frequently manage to track me down - and sometimes in the most unexpected ways and places. Yes, some cataclysms, their reverberations so widespread, in time and space, are impossible to escape; these things seem to follow certain people like wraiths, never quite absent from their lives, surprising them like death showing up in Samarra.

So it is that my wife and I often meet our son halfway between the university where he studies and the neighborhood in which my wife and I reside, in a German neighborhood, actually nearby to his apartment, for tea and conversation, at a coffee house called Julius Meinl, advertised innocuously as "Vienna's leading coffee roaster for 145 years." The corporate positioning is more or less as a high-end, continental Starbucks. We don't actually like the place much, always commenting that seating is not comfortable, the pastries don't taste as good as they look, and the wait for a table is often too long. Still, not quite able to put our finger on why, we meet there.

But the case of Meinl is not entirely free of entanglements, so to speak.

 And so yesterday I was reading Adam Czerniakow's journal. Czerniakow, you will recall, was chairman of the Jewish Council in Warsaw, an administrative body made up of the city's prominent Jews and appointed by the German occupiers to administer affairs, starting September 1939 in the city's Jewish neighborhoods and finally in November 1940 in the ghetto. Czerniakow, whose leadership had its adherents and detractors, was a conscientious man who worked long days, without break, yet still managed to make personal daily notes on the Council, great events, and daily life amongst Warsaw's Jews during 1939 to 1942. These notes were made in nine little notebooks of which eight survived the war; the journal was discovered in the 1960s and, subsequently, an English edition was prepared by Raul Hilberg for publication in 1979. The journals break off on 23 July 1942, at the outset of the Great Deportation of Warsaw's Jews mostly to Treblinka, the day on which when Czerniakow took his own life rather than continue as chairman of the Jewish Council.

Studying the entries of the journal for 1941, then, I stumbled upon this: During fall, as so often occurred in Warsaw, "parcels [were being] requisitioned at the post office" [entry for 8 October]. In short, food and goodies mailed to Warsaw ghetto residents were stolen from them at their point of entry into the ghetto, the police confiscating in September, for example, 15,000 parcels valued at several millions of zlotys. Parcels with > 6 pounds of goods were stolen by the authorities for leather goods, flour, fats and < 4 pounds in cases of several packages to one addressee were taken as well. Fair enough: as a denier would say, there was a war on. On October 8 Bischof of the Transferstelle scolded Czerniakow that in the matter of these thefts "like all Jews I am not accurate." Czerniakow finally, concluding his entry for the 8th, noted that "They say that the parcels go to Meinl's chain store," a comment footnoted by Hilberg as follows: "The firm Julius Meinl, a grocery chain acted as middle-man in distribution of confiscated food to canteens and other favored German users. A few months later, the food went directly to Order Police Battalion 61."

But the Meinls have world-famous anti-Nazi credentials and the patina that comes with opposition to the Führer and his band of grim idiots. A branch of the Meinl family were indeed anti-Nazi, Meinl III married to a Jewish woman and having fled Austria in 1938-1939 for the UK, where his son (Meinl IV) became a pilot in the RAF during the war. (Today, the family have both retail and banking interests, and Meinl V was famously arrested this year in a Madoff-like scheme.)

According to the Meinl corporate history, "By the 1930s, the Meinl retail empire had grown to more than 600 company-owned stores, and some 400 franchised stores, making the leading retailer in all of Europe and a mainstay of daily life throughout most of Central Europe. The company also had built a strong string of food processing plants, enabling it to produce foods and other items under the Meinl brand. . . . The outbreak of World War II, however, brought an end to the Meinl family's expansion. The company's bank was shut down in 1943; meanwhile, the country's Central European holdings were ravaged by the war. With the end of hostilities, most of Meinl's former retail empire had fallen within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union."

What the corporate PR machine doesn't mention, however, is that whilst Meinl III hunkered down in London to wait out the war, Meinl II stayed home and ran the commercial empire, as noted by Czerniakow, only to see his bet lose and the firm nearly collapse as the Third Reich came undone. Meinl III returned after the war and rebuilt the Meinl empire from the "good guy" lineage, the empire headed subsequently by more Meinls with roman numerals after their surname. In 1998 the family sold all but one landmark store (in Vienna) and extensive property holdings throughout Europe. Julius V focused on banking only to become during the world economic meltdown, it would seem, a Madoff wannabe.

I have no idea whether the Meinl brews are as good as claimed, since I notoriously don't do coffee. The tea is decent, but it rankles that a simple cup of tea can nest in such a complex moral and structural nexus.