As a poignant symbol for a loss in fortunes it’s hard to beat: this strange-looking mansion was the first Jugendstil (art nouveau) house to be built in Görlitz, when my great-grandfather Martin Ephraim (1860–1944) purchased land in Goethestrasse in 1905. He commissioned the architect Hugo Behr, who later was responsible for the city’s museum, the Oberlausitzer Ruhmeshalle, which Ephraim also funded in 1905.
An extravagant basket of cherries
My grandmother Vera Ephraim grew up here with her two sisters (Dora and Marianne) and brother Herbert. The family were here until 1920, when they moved to their house in the mountains in Schreiberhau.
Too bad they sold off the Görlitz villa at the height of the German hyper-inflation: by the time the money came through it was, as family legend recounts, just enough to buy a basket of cherries. I remember as a small child my great aunt Marianne (‘Tante Janni’) recounting the story and reminiscing with great fondness of this place called Görlitz, wherever that was.
That astronomically costly basket of cherries always represented to me the point of no return: the spectacular blowing of a fortune amassed by shrewd Jewish businessman Martin Ephraim and his father Lesser Ephraim. They made railway components, bridges, agricultural products and more in the nearby factory, just a few minutes’ walk away, and still extant.
Martin’s wife Hildegard died shortly before the Nazis came to power. Martin, alas, did not – and the last eleven years of his life everything in his life imploded. He gave my mother a photo of him signed as ‘a souvenir of your grandpa’ the month she emigrated to England on the Kindertransport, and ended his days in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt.
The most beautiful hostel in the DDR
I made my first visit to Görlitz in 2001 and sought out the Ephraim villa. In the 1970s it became ‘the most beautiful hostel in the DDR’, also remembered as ‘the house of a capitalist’. Later on it became known as ‘the house of a Holocaust victim’. Happily it’s still a hostel, open to all, and known simply as the Alte Herberge.
I was pleasantly startled by how little the interior must have changed over the years. The woodwork, stained glass, mosaic-inlaid columns, inlaid wood and twirly Jugendstil lamp fittings are all there. A copy of the portrait of Martin Ephraim (original painting now in the city’s main museum within the Kaisertrutz) gazed down benevolently on our family reunion party as we tucked into coffee and cakes in our revisit in 2014.
The stained-glass panels depict the Ruhmeshalle (far left) as well as the former Ephraim residence (still standing, and now providing very characterful holiday apartments) in the centre of town.
It’s quite a surprise still seeing ‘ME’ – Martin Ephraim’s initials (pictured here) – in the door of the house where the Stadtkommandant of the German Army was based from 20 March to 7 May 1945 and which the Russians took over from 30 September in the same year. The three graces in the glass over the main staircase – I wonder if the Ephraims put them up with reference to their three daughters?
The warden, Herr Usemann, compiled a huge scrapbook of photos, articles and archival information about the Ephraim story, and we have a lot to thank him for keeping this story alive and telling it to thousands of young people who have stayed here and enjoyed the legacy of the Ephraims over the years.
Words and photos © Tim Locke