Monday, 6 February 2012

Tales of War and Conflict - The Maths Master

Manfred Frankel appeared at Ted’s school one day during the freezing early days of 1942. Mr Carmichael, the headmaster of St Matthews Taunton introduced the tall, thin man in his forties with a slight stoop and wispy dark hair to the boys at assembly as their new maths master.

“Mr Frankel comes to us highly recommended from the University of Freiburg” he announced. “We are very fortunate indeed to have him. He will be taking the upper fourth, fifth and sixth starting tomorrow and I’m sure we would all like to extend to him a very warm welcome.”

Mr Frankel smiled timidly at the sea of faces and it was only their fear of the headmaster’s strong views on discipline that kept them all quiet until they had been dismissed. Outside the hall there were loud eruptions from the older boys.

“What’s a Kraut doing here? One of them shot my brother down”.

“Are we going to have maths in German?”

“I bet he’s a spy”…. And so on.

At fourteen Ted’s world and those of his contemporaries was confined to boarding school, but there had been enough upheaval in their young lives to make them sense that this was an unusual situation both for the school and for the new master. For this was not their school.

Fourteen months’ earlier he had found himself part of a group of 100 boys which had been evacuated from Hurstfield College in Lamberhurst, Kent, when France had fallen and the Battle of Britain was at its height. Ted’s parents in Gravesend supported the decision to send the children away for safety to the West Country, and St Matthews had enough space to welcome them as boarders. It had represented a difficult period of adjustment for them all, far from their homes, unable to visit or be visited by their families.

The degree of smugness felt by the evacuees over the St Matthews boys because they knew all about Messerschmitts and Junkers and were fond of discussing it in front of them in loud voices, was balanced by the fact that secretly they feared to hear those very sounds again. But it was always Hurstfield versus the local boys, the 'war wise' versus the country bumpkins.

However the fact was that they all felt unsettled, and now here was the enemy in their midst, or so it seemed to them at first.

The lessons had an uneasy start, and Mr Frankel’s gentle and quiet disposition did little to inspire respect in the early days. The rowdier elements found a way to test the master’s mettle by making loud remarks in the back row in fake German accents and imitating the sound of planes flying low. This Mr Frankel ignored, until he was asked one day how one said trigonometry in German.

“I don’t wish to even remember that I speak German”, he said quietly in his halting English, “or that I have ever lived anywhere but in Taunton”.

He went to all the inter-school rugby matches on a Saturday, whatever the weather, and would stand on the touchline by himself, muffled up, watching the boys running and tackling as he tried to pick up the finer points of the game. He was always on hand after hours to struggling pupils for further explanations on the complicated aspects of his subject, or to those aspiring to scholarships, and whatever the circumstance he was never heard to raise his voice.

Mr Carmichael and the other masters noticed that he would smile occasionally, but no one ever heard him laugh. Above all, in his mild way he declined to answer any questions about himself, and there was something about him that made pupil and master alike stop short of asking him about his past life.

It wasn’t merely his quiet air of mystery that brought even the most recalcitrant elements into line; it was the fact that he was a brilliant mathematician with a gift for communicating facts at all levels. As his English improved, a potentially dry aspect was brought to life by his ability to apply it to everyday life. Not for him the automatic recourse to the grinding of geometrical shapes in chalk on the blackboard; he preferred to produce a rugby or cricket ball to make his point; with his vivid imagination he could transport the boys to a hot climate with warm breezes and had them gazing at an imaginary turquoise swimming pool with a waterfall casting so many gallons a second into its crystal depths. What if the pool had just been cleaned and emptied - how long would it take to fill it up again and avoid it overflowing...?

He was not a handsome figure of a man in the conventional sense – no sporting hero he - but his gentle dignity and charisma gradually transmitted itself to the boys and he commanded a quiet respect and real affection. His air of sadness intrigued them, but it was not until 1944 that they were to learn more about their favourite master.

On the sultry morning of Tuesday 6th June 1944 Ted’s class had Maths straight after breakfast. At 9 o’clock sharp Mr Frankel burst into the classroom with flushed cheeks, beaming from ear to ear – in itself a rare occurrence which made everybody sit up at their desks.

Joyfully pounding the air with his fists he cried “Have you heard ze news? Ze Allies have landed in Normandy!” It was a wonderful moment and cheering broke out in the classroom and was taken up by the others as the news spread. There were no lessons that afternoon.

After supper when the older boys were allowed to stay up a little later than usual they were sitting round Mr Frankel on a bench in the playground, and one of them said “So what happens now Mr Frankel? Is the war over?”

“Not yet, no. We must be patient for a little longer. But soon it will come and you will be able to go home” he replied, and then his elation seemed to ebb away when Ted said “What will you do after the war Mr Frankel?”

“I will stay here Ted. I have no home except this school, no country, no family.” He hesitated, and as if the momentous news of the day deserved a bit more from him, he continued.

“I am a Jew you see” - he pronounced it Chew – “I taught in a school near Berlin until they told me to go, and then I took whatever job I could to support my wife and two daughters. But it was difficult, and once you wore the yellow star nobody would employ you. I was willing to do anything, and at any time of day, but it wasn’t enough.

"One morning I came home from my night shift cleaning at a hospital and there were guards in our little flat, and my wife was very frightened. They took us away and eventually put us on a train. It was terrible, and after many days we arrived at a prison camp.” He faltered. “I cannot talk about it, but my family died there and I was able to escape to England because one of my professors at the University of Freiburg was British and knew Mr Carmichael many years ago. I won’t ever go back.”

They all stared at him, not knowing what to say. Most of them had suffered personal loss in their families in one way or another during the war, and Ted himself had lost a brother-in-law he hero-worshipped when the young pilot's plane had come down minutes from its base due to an engine malfunction; his two brothers were in ships on the Atlantic somewhere. But to a degree these boys were protected from the outside world and had never before been confronted by evidence of such a deep personal tragedy, and were much subdued by it.

As he had promised, just under a year later VE Day came, Ted passed his final exams and secured his place at Cambridge. The day arrived when the evacuees packed up their things for the train journey back to Kent, and Ted sought out Mr Frankel to say goodbye and to tell him how much he owed his scholarship to him. A modest man, Manfred Frankel brushed aside his praise, and wished him Godspeed.

Ted wrote to him twice more, once when he got home to tell him how much he had admired him as a master and how grateful he was for all he had been taught, and once again at the end of his first year at Cambridge, when his maths papers scored 96%. Mr Frankel replied warmly congratulating him, and telling Ted he had always known he would do well.

In the first few months Ted frequently found himself thinking back to the story the master had told them in D Day back in 1944, for now that the full facts were becoming known about the situation endured by the Jews in Germany, he began to understand more deeply what Mr Frankel had said, and more importantly, what he had not said.

Manfred Frankel stayed on at Taunton school for many years, at first alone yet not alone, for he was surrounded by people and boys who appreciated him. Late in life he married the school’s nurse, and knew happiness once again.

In 1990 when St Matthews Taunton celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the evacuation, they invited all the former evacuees they could find to a grand gala party at the school. Now in his sixties, Ted was a little dismayed not to recognise many of his former companions despite the evidence of their name badges, but all was forgotten several drinks later they settled down to discuss “whatever happened to so-and-so”. It was inevitable that Manfred Frankel’s name should come up at some point, and Ted reminded them of the way he had told them the story of the fate of his wife and two children on D Day.

“Not two children old chap”, said one of them, “he had three. Two daughters and a son.”

“He definitely never mentioned a son” replied Ted, “how do you know?”

“Old Carmichael. I went back to visit a few times, then on one visit I learned that Frankel had died and the old boy had retired, so I invited myself over to his house for a cup of tea and we had a long chat. Apparently Frankel’s daughters were about ten and twelve or so, and they had a much younger son of five – apple of his eye, Carmichael said. When his wife and daughters were gassed he had been able to grab the little boy in time and keep him hidden from the Gestapo while he made urgent plans to escape.

“It was a desperate situation, because the child was too young to be anything but a burden, and on the day they made a run for it with Frankel carrying him the child was unwell and crying, which slowed them down. They were spotted by guards at the last minute and they opened fire against them. Unfortunately the child acted as a shield for his father and was killed instantly. He fell from his arms and Frankel knew he had to make a dreadful decision. There was nothing further he could do for his son, and if he stayed to mourn over his body he too would be dead.

"So he left him and carried on running – and somehow he got away. Terrible business, too awful for him to be able to talk about it for many years, and he only ever told Carmichael shortly before he died. He always felt he had abandoned his little boy.”

The old boys were silent and shocked, as they had been that day back in 1944 when they had heard the first half of the story.

Ted is now in his eighties and has never forgotten Manfred Frankel. He tells me he regrets not having returned to the school to visit him or kept in touch; he knew how much it would have meant to the master to maintain contact with his former pupils.  “There will always be racism and prejudice everywhere, and we’re all guilty of neglecting our friends at some point in our lives," he said, and sighed, adding  "tell the story, perhaps someone else can learn from it.”

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive


Kite Festival, Bristol

The Queen's Bath, The Royal Baths, Bath (!)

At a Latin-American concert in Surrey
(The Anglo-Argentine society's annual 'asado')



Joyful said...

What a sad tale. I'm glad Mr. Frankel found love again with the school nurse.

Lonicera said...

Thanks for reading it Penny. And by the way, "Jennie" arrived today so John will be posting it off to you tomorrow.

Joyful said...

Oh I missed out on your comment here so didn't realize "Jenni" was on the way until it arrived. It arrived in good time :-) Thanks again!

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