My father liked to name things. Our cars had names like Vinnie and Eric. Our second home had a name, Shoestring. Even our clocks had names, something that seemed perfectly normal to me at the time.
“The Witch,” a table clock with a rotating pendulum, got her name because she was a pain to keep running, and my dad always fussed over her. “Uncle Adolf,” a wall clock, was named for a real person, my grandfather’s older brother. Perhaps he gave the clock to my grandfather as a gift.
When I was growing up in the suburbs of New York, Uncle Adolf hung above the mantelpiece in our living room. An old-fashioned wooden clock, he was only the size of a basketball net but he commanded the room like a grandfather clock.
He had a wide pendulum that ticked noisily and a bell that chimed loudly and majestically every half-hour, day and night.
My dad wound Uncle Adolf faithfully every weekend, twisting the key in his tarnished brass face, and joking about him in a friendly way. To me Uncle Adolf seemed half-clock, half-person.
I met the real Uncle Adolf only once, in his beautiful home in Starnberg, Germany, near Munich, when I was 13 years old. He was about 80 then, and like his namesake, smaller in size than in voice. I remember him as a confident man, what you might expect in a well-educated physician, the eldest of five. I didn’t know at 13 that his life was the subject of family mystery.
Unlike his three brothers and one sister who all left Germany and wound up in America, Uncle Adolf and his wife remained in Germany throughout World War II.
The puzzle of this only struck me years later, when I realized that he was Jewish, although he had not been raised in the faith. His wife was Christian, reportedly a forceful woman in her youth, charming but imperative.
In 1942 Uncle Adolf, then in his 60s, was forced to give over his beautiful house to Nazis, but he stayed in nearby Munich, performing menial jobs at a work camp. After the war, Uncle Adolf and his wife moved back in.
In recent decades, a couple of my American cousins traveled to Starnberg to visit our relatives and perhaps to unravel the mystery of Uncle Adolf’s survival in Germany.
One cousin heard that Uncle Adolf’s wife was friends with Himmler’s wife. That’s possible, I suppose. Or total rumor. My dad already suffered from memory loss when that theory surfaced, so I didn’t ask him, and I might not have asked anyway.
He didn’t talk about the war.
In his later years, Uncle Adolf the clock developed a cold. He cleared his throat before he chimed — a hoarse buzzing sound that was a bit unpleasant. More seriously, he had trouble keeping time.
His ticking had always been loud, but now it drove me slightly crazy because I had to sleep in “his” room when visiting my dad.
“Should we get him fixed?” I asked. “We could send him somewhere.”
“No, Marion, he’s just a little slow.”
In the last year of my dad’s life, Uncle Adolf stopped chiming. He kept time better, not even losing a minute, and he still ticked loudly, but with his chime gone, I felt as if his heart had been cut out.
When my dad died in 2005, my brother and I divided up the mementos we considered most precious. I don’t remember what I bartered in order to get Uncle Adolf, but I wanted him pretty badly.
This was a mistake.
From the moment Uncle Adolf came to my house, I knew he could hang nowhere. Our house is modern; he is old-fashioned. Our house is quiet; he makes a lot of noise. My husband could never get used to the chime every half hour.
I put Uncle Adolf into a closet, telling myself I would have him repaired and find the right place for him to hang. He’s still there, almost 10 years later, lying on his back, waiting.
I remember Uncle Adolf the clock as he used to be, strong-voiced and accurate, just as I remember my father, vigorous and athletic, liking nothing better than a long walk and talk with me. This was long ago.
My data-seeking cousins are getting older. No one plans to visit Germany.
Relatives still live there, including Uncle Adolf’s granddaughter who is 10 years older than I. I wrote to her several years ago, trying gently to pose a question or two, but she replied that she was tired of all the fuss about the Holocaust. “We hear of it in this country ad nauseum,” she wrote.
Put off by her word choice, I went silent.
This week I unwrapped Uncle Adolf the clock to look at him again. He is much smaller than I remember, tarnished and in need of repair. “Not now,” I said to myself, and I laid him back on a shelf in the closet.
Uncle Adolf the clock is no closer to working, just as the mystery of his namesake is no closer to being solved.
Perhaps some energetic family member will figure out the mystery someday before all the knowledgeable people are gone.
The issue is time.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org