Mein Großvater stand vorm Fenster und trank Tee Nr. 12 Naomi Schenck Günther Schenck und seine Enkelin Naomi Gartenlabor Günther Schenck mit Prof. Karl Ziegler im Labor, Halle 1940 Grundsteinlegung Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim a.d.Ruhr Schattenseiten eines Lichtspezialisten
MEIN GROSSVATER STAND VORM FENSTER UND TRANK TEE NR.12

320 Seiten erschienen im Februar 2016 bei Hanser Berlin

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My grandfather had been carefully preparing for his death ever since the mid-60s, when he started coming to terms with his mortality, as he put it, on account of a late-stage diagnosis of autoimmune disease. The details of his funeral had therefore been decided on for some time: For the public viewing, he was to be clothed in his smoking jacket, and after the burial, all the staff members from the institute should, on his behalf, eat and drink as long as they wanted to.

Later he had additional thoughts. He noticed I liked the red tea service with the margarete pattern and told me I could have it. On another occasion, he’d confided in me casually, but also a bit solemnly, that he wanted to bequeath to me the rights to write his biography. Accordingly, a note to this effect was included in the safe. As the oldest granddaughter, my name stood at the very top of the list: Naomi, Biography G.O. Schenck.

As an eight-year-old, I’d already begun to write about his life. My Grandpa Günther, the book would be called, and be about a scientist who played the clarinet and the cello, always had orange- colored shoes in the trunk of his car, and saved the dolphins at our big local zoo. Whenever his handkerchief was pulled out of his breast pocket more than usual, it meant he was currently thinking over something important and could absolutely not be spoken to in those moments. Moreover, it was not advisable to close your eyes when behind him, for he had a black belt in karate, and at times when someone emerged from behind him, he’d grab them with both arms and fling them over the table. When dinner guests came over, he’d often disappear and my grandmother would eventually discover him in the bathtub.

There were many such anecdotes, besides the sheer span of his life, which stretched from the eve of World War I to shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center. It occurred to me that at some point, with vague intentions, I’d set up a Schenck chest in which I’d stored his Christmas letters, photos, professional cassettes and photocopied publications with plenty of those formulas that meant nothing to me. Although my father was likewise a chemist, I never did well in chemistry and dropped the subject as soon as I could. Later, I’d studied art and eventually became a production designer. In addition, I’ve written short stories and radio plays. That probably had much to do with why Günther had assigned me the task of writing his biography—even though he knew that I barely understood anything about his scientific legacy.

My siblings also were given tasks corresponding to their education and training. Jost, the lawyer, would become responsible for the legal issues of the companies (if any) that might yet be established as a result of Günther’s patents; Toby, who has his own software company, would be on the board of directors (if any such boards came into being) looking out for the family’s interests. Both of them could muster only a kind of weary smile in response to their supposed legacies

My grandfather had been carefully preparing for his death ever since the mid-60s, when he started coming to terms with his mortality, as he put it, on account of a late-stage diagnosis of autoimmune disease. The details of his funeral had therefore been decided on for some time: For the public viewing, he was to be clothed in his smoking jacket, and after the burial, all the staff members from the institute should, on his behalf, eat and drink as long as they wanted to.

Later he had additional thoughts. He noticed I liked the red tea service with the margarete pattern and told me I could have it. On another occasion, he’d confided in me casually, but also a bit solemnly, that he wanted to bequeath to me the rights to write his biography. Accordingly, a note to this effect was included in the safe. As the oldest granddaughter, my name stood at the very top of the list: Naomi, Biography G.O. Schenck.

As an eight-year-old, I’d already begun to write about his life. My Grandpa Günther, the book would be called, and be about a scientist who played the clarinet and the cello, always had orange- colored shoes in the trunk of his car, and saved the dolphins at our big local zoo. Whenever his handkerchief was pulled out of his breast pocket more than usual, it meant he was currently thinking over something important and could absolutely not be spoken to in those moments. Moreover, it was not advisable to close your eyes when behind him, for he had a black belt in karate, and at times when someone emerged from behind him, he’d grab them with both arms and fling them over the table. When dinner guests came over, he’d often disappear and my grandmother would eventually discover him in the bathtub.

There were many such anecdotes, besides the sheer span of his life, which stretched from the eve of World War I to shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center. It occurred to me that at some point, with vague intentions, I’d set up a Schenck chest in which I’d stored his Christmas letters, photos, professional cassettes and photocopied publications with plenty of those formulas that meant nothing to me. Although my father was likewise a chemist, I never did well in chemistry and dropped the subject as soon as I could. Later, I’d studied art and eventually became a production designer. In addition, I’ve written short stories and radio plays. That probably had much to do with why Günther had assigned me the task of writing his biography—even though he knew that I barely understood anything about his scientific legacy.

3

My siblings also were given tasks corresponding to their education and training. Jost, the lawyer, would become responsible for the legal issues of the companies (if any) that might yet be established as a result of Günther’s patents; Toby, who has his own software company, would be on the board of directors (if any such boards came into being) looking out for the family’s interests. Both of them could muster only a kind of weary smile in response to their supposed legacies

“And what did Günther leave to you?” I asked my sister Hanna, who studied philosophy.
“I should look into further developing his approaches to the philosophy of science.”
She sounded somewhat irritated. “At one time he’d made a list of ways to avoid faulty reasoning in scientific matters,” she said. “I’ll probably find it again somewhere. Although I didn’t find it so incredibly original.”

“What kinds of things were in it?”
“Above all else, he warned against epidemics of mental disorders.”
“You mean like National Socialism?”
“Exactly, but other things too, like anything to do with a hysteria that somehow completely takes hold of people. He wanted one to first review a list of questions before professing a point of view.” “Did he include the topic of atmospheric pollution?”
I was thinking about his tirades against politicians who talk about stuff without any empirical basis. His anger with the Greens, who debated the effects of pollution on the forests but had no real understanding of it. But then it turned out they were the only political party taking his unorthodox theories seriously when he published on the topic in the European trade papers in the mid-80s.

Translated by Michael Gillespie

 

 

 

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The dark sides of a light specialist

Silence is a crime, too: Naomi Schenck reconstructs a biography in „My grandfather stood in front of the window and drank tea no. 12“ (published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 23, 2016)

 

This book is not a biography, not a family chronicle, not a case history about German ambivalence, not a novel. And yet it is all of the above. Naomi Schenck is a set designer; she scouts and builds sets for film and television. Some of the noteworthy habitats she has found all around the world were presented in the travel section of this newspaper under the title „Can I see your home, please?“: miniature narratives of peoples‘ lives accompanied by photography. Schenck‘s interest lies in individual stories, a feeling for private moods. Her attention to the purely suggestive now also distinguishes her recent book about her grandfather. But the journalistic discretion she has easily granted towards strangers now becomes a challenge. The subject is a close relative and, moreover, a problematic individual, who could even be suitable for the hero of a novel — according to the literary standards of classical modernism.

When Günther Otto Schenck (1913-2003) died in Mülheim an der Ruhr, instead of a material inheritance, he left one last task to his granddaughter: to write his biography. This legacy is fulfilled with the present book, although perhaps not as he might have expected. Naomi Schenck doesn’t just tell the life of an influential professor of organic chemistry. Rather, she writes about the writing process itself — about her curiosity, her research in archives and life stages, her elaborate interviews with relatives, friends, companions. And also about internal oppositions and the numberless difficulties of dealing with a subject as complex as an entire life between the two covers of a book and doing it justice. Including not only the light, but also the dark sides.

Light is initially the major interest of this scientist. Schenck, who was born and raised in Lörrach, received his PhD and joined the faculty at Halle/Saale. In 1950, he became an associate professor at Göttingen and was a pioneer in photochemistry. Among other achievements, he developed synthetic light methods for a contact insecticide and a medication for use against roundworms, which he manufactured and commercially produced himself in his private garden laboratory in Heidelberg after the war. Later, he was the founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Radiation Chemistry in Mülheim and developed, for example, an effective method for treating drinking water with ionized rays instead of conventional disinfectants such as chlorine. The “New German Biography” mentions these accomplishments and others but omits what Wikipedia includes and what poses a disturbing conundrum for the scientist‘s granddaughter: Schenck entered the „SA“ [Storm Troopers] in 1933 and became a member of the NSDAP [Nazi Party] in 1937.

This dark side is the main theme of the book and can be summarized in a single word: Why? On the one hand, a dissertation in 1939, a qualification as professor in 1943 and deferment from military service for his indispensible scientific work was scarcely conceivable without cooperating with the system. But on the other hand, did he have to sign up with the SA for that reason? Did the early date at which he entered seem rather to exculpate than incriminate him? Is scientifically motivated, tactical behavior automatically indicative of political convictions? These are tremendously agonizing questions for a family that always considered itself clearly distanced from Nazism and whose Protestant academic family history dates back to the time of the Reformation.

Naomi Schenck accomplishes this difficult task with flying colors. It almost seems as if the grandfather had not expected a success story with his legacy, but was very aware of and recognized the need for a reconciliation, a cleansing, a clarification in the telling of his story. Schenck‘s research draws upon an ever widening circle: starting by getting complete and detailed information from her own father, then interviewing more and more relatives, friends of the family, former colleagues and staff of her grandfather‘s. This is often irritating and contradicts natural and acquired inhibitions. The understandable instinct to protect the man whom one revered and loved as a child contradicts the role of the incorruptible investigator who perhaps has to uncover unpleasant truths, resulting in a productive tension. Schenck labors as far as possible to eliminate all biases in liberating the chemist specializing in light from the darkness of history. Throughout the book she critically reflects on the lurking risks of distortion, false perceptions, whitewashing.

It‘s not Schenck’s case that makes this book great, because there are no sensitive or shocking disclosures. More important is the exemplary story of a German family that belonged to the educated elite bu which after the war—like countless others—didn’t feel the urge for unreserved self-enlightenment. Naomi Schenck bears the discomfort of this literary reportage, demonstrating that even three generations after National Socialism, Germany has not reached normality in this area. Illuminating in this context is one of Schenck’s columns printed in this newspaper, which now appears anew in her book. It concerns a German-American who randomly cites Hannah Arendt’s words from a movie where she refers to the notion of a necessary inner moral compass. He tells her how it hurts him to witness the abuse of power and says: „Instead of keeping still, I prefer to make a racket.“

This is what the young woman, who wants to see his home for a journalistic flash, should remember: „Silence is the greatest crime.“ Yet, this obligation to ask questions (and ultimately to accuse), is—ironically—articulated by the son of the multiply-convicted National Socialist Dr. Werner Best, whom Naomi Schenck interviews. He talks of a „secondary guilt of the descendants,“ who never posed the uncomfortable but necessary questions. This complex, which lies beyond all legal categories, is introduced anew by Naomi Schenck with her book. Half a century after the 68-Movement, this challenge confronts society more or less unexpectedly but with undiminished force.

My grandfather stood in front of the window and drank tea No. 12 Naomi Schenck

 

 

Release Date: 22.02.2016
320 pages
Hanser Berlin
Hard cover
ISBN 978-3-446-25078-9
eBook, ePUB
ISBN 978-3-446-25220-2

 

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