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October 14, 2009

Shelley Frisch: A Story Stranger than Fiction

Posted by webmaster
Shelley Frisch has translated books on a wide array of topics into English. But one in particular, she reveals in today's post, is a true-life tale stranger than fiction. Fromms: How Julius Fromm's Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis, written by Gotz Aly and Michael Sontheimer, unfolds the story of a Jewish entrepreneur who made a fortune manufacturing condoms for nearly two decades --- until, during World War II, he was forced to sell the business for a fraction of its worth and flee Germany.

"Waaait a minute.... Are you saying this book isn't fiction?"

The question came from a novelist at a recent writers' reception in Manhattan, as I recounted the story of Julius Fromm, the subject of my latest translation project from the German. And could I really blame him? Here I was discussing a non-fiction book titled Fromms: How Julius Fromm's Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis, the strange-but-true story of Germany's most prominent manufacturer of condoms and the state-fueled greed and pernicious ideology that unraveled his life's work and the moral fiber of an entire society.

Right from my first published translation --- a piece in Simon Wiesenthal's now-classic volume The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness --- I have, for some reason, gravitated to subjects whose societies push them to the margins. The themes in these books span history to histrionics, psychology to physics, pre-Socratic philosophy to pilgrimages, marooned refugees from Hitler's Germany to Maroon colonies in Jamaica, castrati to concentration camps to Communism and now --- to round out an alliterative set, I suppose --- condoms. I've "worked on" atomic clocks and atomic bombs, and when I translated a biography of Einstein in 2007, I learned that after Einstein's brain had been stolen from his corpse during his autopsy at our local hospital --- two blocks from my house, as eerie luck would have it --- it was stored on the street where I live, then zigzagged across the country in a beer cooler by its abductor. His eyes, similarly plucked from his head, wound up in a safe deposit box.

A translator becomes a quasi-expert, however superficially and temporarily, on the subject of the translation-in-progress. From the Fromms manuscript --- now relegated by several more recent projects to the deep crevices of my memory, even though it is appearing just this month in print --- I recall especially the intriguing information about the emerging field of "sexology" in Weimar Germany, the global history of condoms (I now know that Casanova's were made of sheep intestine and fish bladder, and that he referred to them as "English riding coats"), the condom manufacturing process, brothel etiquette and aesthetics and, so poignantly, the agony of expropriation and exile from Hitler's Germany.

There are moments of levity, such as Peter Lorre's first encounter with Alfred Hitchcock (Peter Lorre was a friend of Julius Fromm's son Max), interspersed with harrowing stories, notably the scandalous journey of the Dunera, a British ship that imprisoned Jewish and other refugees as "enemy aliens" --- among them Julius Fromm's son Edgar --- and brought them to Australia under concentration camp-like conditions. Most memorable of all to me was Hermann Goering's seizure of Fromm's condom factory so he could swap it for two castles his godmother owned, while the Fromms fled to England, stripped of their possessions, their company, their adopted homeland, and even the right to continue using the family name when they rebuilt the business in London.

In the early days, though, when business boomed and a future under Hitler was still unthinkable, Fromms Act took the country by storm, and entered the popular imagination well beyond the bedroom or bordello. Here's a peek into the text:

By the end of the 1920s, Fromm's products were so popular that beer hall cabarettists and piano-bar comedians in Berlin were incorporating Fromms Act condoms into their routines, singing lines like "Fromms with your girl --- give it a whirl," "When the urge grabs you, grab Fromms Act," and "Just like a Fromm --- I'm ready to come." Fromm had made it. He did not have to pitch his condoms. Customers read the name and got the picture.

---Shelley Frisch