Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Point of Brew: Dr. Kulka’s cardboard box

From page A9 | September 26, 2013 |


This may well be a photo of Dr. Dora Kulka though we cannot be certain. Her sister Hedwig immigrated to New York and married about the same time (late ‘30s early ‘40s) as Dora came to Britain, so Dora has family somewhere in these United States who must surely be interested in this story. Courtesy photo

About 30 years ago, a fond mom bought a box full of old postcards for her son who collected them (and other things).

It turned out that the box was a personal archive of one Dr. Dora Kulka that contained, in addition to perhaps 1,000 postcards, many family photographs and letters dating from 1910 to 1974. The teenager, in the 1980s, learned that Dr. Kulka was a Jewish refugee from Austria who had found her way to the University of Birmingham; but he discovered little else, and soon the box graduated to the attic (as these things do).

Last month, that teenager, now Dr. Paul Minton, a scientist at the British Patent Office, had the file thrust upon him by parents clearing out the attic. Now, with the Internet available, he quickly reached two sources of information:

First he found Dr. Susan Cohen of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at Southampton University (UK) whose 2008 paper “How the British Federation of University Women helped to rebuild the lives of academic refugee women who wanted to leave Austria in the 1930s and 1940s” used Dr. Kulka’s experience as an example of the federation’s work: Their specially formed Emergency Refugee Committee resettled women with suitable skills in appropriate jobs in Britain.

In the late 1930s, Dr. Kulka was interviewed in Vienna by a Miss Cadbury of the Society of Friends; Miss Cadbury was doubtless one of the chocolate Cadburys. Their enormous factory and the residential model village they built nearby, called Bourneville, was close to the University of Birmingham and that could account for Dr. Kulka’s eventual arrival there. Being Quakers, Bourneville was built without pubs, of course, and still does not have any. Some model!

Dr. Minton’s second source, gleaned from the Internet, was a Point of Brew column that I wrote three years ago titled “Of Horses and Metaphors” that was available on The Davis Enterprise website ( My column pointed out that despite human contacts with horses and alcoholic beverages that go back to earliest times, there are many metaphors about horses and few about beer.

In comments about how metaphors enrich our language but also make it much more difficult to learn and understand, I reminisced about Dr. Dora Kulka. Her name and the following words about her were buried deep in the text of the column and it is mind-boggling to me that Dr. Minton was able to find such an obscure reference in such a small corner of the world and so far from home.

These are the relevant words I wrote:

“Of course, metaphoric use of words that have a literal meaning help to illuminate our wonderful language to make it more vivid and gives those of us who grew up with the language a vastly complex lexicon of words and usages to play with. It also makes English difficult to learn and to speak well and to understand, especially when the language is used at its most adventurous and the author is galloping along at full tilt and even riding for a fall.

“This idea sends my mind off at another tangent that leads to an instructor of mine when I was at University who spoke English very badly. She taught me brewing microbiology laboratory practices. Of all my instructors I perhaps learned the most from Dr. Dora Kulka and I remember her teaching best; some years later at UC Davis I based my own laboratory instruction methods on hers.

“Dora brought her students many working samples from the brewing industry and told us stories that were intended to make us better brewers. She was often called to breweries to solve microbiological problems that were common in those small old-traditional British ale breweries of that time. Most breweries in that era sold their beer locally through the tied house system of pubs, that is, through retail outlets that the breweries themselves owned. In this way drinkers at their local hostelry really had access only to the beers of the brewery that owned the pub. Therefore, to a significant degree, the brewery that owned the most pubs defined the local taste in beers. Dora memorably told a story to bring that idea home: she told us of one brewery she cleaned up where-upon beer sales plummeted; predictably the brewery demanded its old problems be returned. Don’t change horses in midstream.

“Dora was a demanding instructor and frankly, at the time, my class-mates and I did not much appreciate her intensity and rigor and the complexity of the things she made us do; to our embarrassment we always seemed to fall short of her high expectations of us. She rode us hard.

“Dr. Kulka was a refugee from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. What her other history is I have no idea nor do I know how she came to teach laboratory practice to the likes of me and that unwashed cohort of brewing and biochemistry students of those days (1950s) at the Department of Applied Biochemistry and the British School of Malting and Brewing at the University of Birmingham. But there she most memorably was, intensely shy and speaking poor heavily accented German-English. She lamented to us often that the English language was impossibly difficult for her and I suppose that was the reason she could not deliver formal lectures. Dora told us that she learned French and Italian in three years to fluency but thought she would never master English. For her, English was a horse of a different color.”

I was able to provide Dr. Minton with other contacts, one of whom, Dr. B.J.B. (Brian) Wood did a post-doctorate in Davis and has returned here from time to time; he had excellent recall of those undergraduate days of 60 years ago and, because he has remained in touch with our classmates, he could magnify the information base.

He recalls Dr. Kulka, whom he called Auntie Dora, would request assistance with “Hulp me Peebles.” She called the inoculating needle we used to transfer organisms aseptically from place to place a “tool”; so memorable double entendres would emerge that occasionally asphyxiated her students with life-threatening paroxysms of laughter: “You haff an infected tool” and “Pliss put chour tools on zer tible for inspection.” Such are the risks inherent in our English language.

Part of her family immigrated to New York; on the off chance of identification I’ve appended a photograph that could be Dr. Kulka (it is from a time before we knew her).

Dr. Minton has written up his experience with that file of old papers with the title “Dr. Kulka’s Cardboard Box”; I have shamelessly stolen his title for my headline. His record is much more complete than this column, but it is not yet published. The research writings of Dr. Cohen about the British Federation of University Women are fascinating. If any reader is intrigued by this story of that era, wishes to learn more or can add to it, I will be happy to make the necessary contacts.

— Reach Michael Lewis at Comment on this column at





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