Caveat: By no means is this tale to be considered an encouragement to violate any of the rules, regulations or laws of any jurisdiction anywhere. It is for entertainment purposes only and does but constitute a reminiscence of one person. Uncle Timmie
I will recount to you a story, a tale told to me, by one who lived through it. I met him, quite by chance while living in Zurich.
It had been my custom to feed the water fowl of the Limmat River, down by the bridge just below the train station, on a basis of when I went to the Co-op to do my shopping. On this day I took with me a book – “The Consolation of Philosophy”, by Boethius. Had I not been reading Boethius I doubt he would have spoken. As it was we had a, for me, delightful and educational talk.
He was old, in his nineties in the mid-1980’s, and had seen much too much of the world’s foolishness. Empires that disappeared and dictatorships that came and went, economic plans praised to the skies that bankrupted all who participated. Worse, he had seen two great wars – the first, WWI, considered to be the “War to end War”; needless to say, it did not. It was, quickly, followed by the next, WWII – its continuation. Naive and gullible this man was not.
He asked, glancing at my book, if I was familiar with Boethius and I said, “Somewhat”. He then asked if I knew under what conditions the book had been written and I answered “Yes, the expectation of emanate death by the author”. He chuckled and said we should all, always, consider ourselves under such threat – it sharpens the mind and the appreciation of life. We shared some smiles and I thought our conversation at an end.
Then – Ah then, he began to unfold his tale to me and such a tale it was. Perhaps you, too, will find it …instructive?
It begins in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire with the man’s father, a successful merchant beginning to worry about the safety of his nation. Russia was looking hungrily, as was the barely formed Germany, at the Empire and its territory. Not sure how the situation would play out and having had experience with the vagaries of fate before he decided to take drastic action. He went to Switzerland and opened a bank account, in a private bank. A confidential account that he was assured was completely secret. This he wanted because …well, governments have been known to seek out and seize bank accounts and assets of persons declared persona non gratia and one never knows.
He didn’t deposit much in it, when one considers his actual worth – only about 5%. Later he wished it had been more.
WWI occurred and the aftermath was such as to fulfill his wildest fears. With the dissolution of the Empire each of the former members became independent States. Ah, liberty, independence and…the right, by the government, to choose whom it will consider citizens. What, you say: “Some who were born in the, now, state aren’t citizens thereof? People whose families have resided in the same place and often the same house aren’t citizens??” Yes, quite so. Not only this but they would have to leave the State or be granted foreign residence permission to stay. Their businesses, as belonging to non-citizens, were doubtful as concerned the legality of continued operation. Can’t have foreigners controlling “our “economy, eh? So, the gentleman’s father had to take his family and remove them and what little he could get from the forced sale of his prosperous business…somewhere.
Now he found that without the funds he had placed beyond the reach of government he would have been destitute as so many of his former associates were. What once was the cost of a dinner out was now enough to mean the difference between eating and hunger for weeks. The expense of a minor holiday? Enough to ensure a roof and food for months. Formerly wealthy persons were destitute and had no recourse as they were officially stateless. No nation state had concern for them or what was done with/to them – they were citizens of nowhere. So, somewhere had to be found – somewhere to re-establish life, business and a modus vivendi. Where?
This turned out to be Germany. A civilized country and one where business was reasonable to conduct and safe from governmental confiscation. A nation under the Rule of Law, in all respects. America, the USA, was considered…but, well …so far. And to learn English? Ah, perhaps not. Germany was the choice. Some relatives went to the USA and wrote back about how good a place and how easy to do business. But Germany was European and familiar.
Throughout the 1920’s he prospered – hard times, but business was good. He had never, fully, recovered his trust of government so he continued to add a bit, from time to time to his Swiss account. After all it had made possible his forced relocation to Germany – without going through abject poverty. Times had been tight…but no one of the family went hungry or without. Perhaps not with as much or of as high a quality…but never without. A rarity among the refugee population.
So, all was good, again, and Germany was a grand place for business; Prosperity. But the Swiss account was not ignored. In fact his bankers asked if he might be interested in investing in some real estate that had become available. It was in Argentina, but it was also very good grazing land and there was some expectation of resale value. A ranch? In Argentina? Hmmm. Well, if there were a way to set up absentee management and if title could also be protected? After all – one never knows about governments, eh? His bankers nodded sagely and arraigned it all.
Later, about 1925 or so these same bankers recommended that he buy actual gold and hold it. Not all of his investment capital – just about 20 %. He wondered and asked why. The markets were doing well and his portfolio was , almost , an embarrassment. Why gold? The bankers thought that perhaps the market was doing a trifle too well. Actual values considered. Ah well, with a chuckle he agreed – but no more than 20%, he stated. Didn’t want to lose the profits.
The relatives who had emigrated to America wrote and wrote – they kept asking him to move his family to America. Transfer his business and relocate. America, America!! No, he decided, Germany was much more reasonable a place. More settled and no gangsters. No machineguns on the streets and …, if a man wanted a drink? Of course, he could buy one, legally and not out of some bathtub, eh? No, decidedly not America; Germany was much more civilized and civil a country. So, Germany it stayed.
Then came 1929, stock markets, all over the world, crashed and fortunes incalculable yesterday were non-existent today. However, the stores still had goods and the food markets had food – ??? What was it that had happened? No one knew and everyone knew. But none of that mattered. All was gone, all was devalued or worthless. All, all, that is except the funds in Switzerland, the ranch in Argentina, and the gold in Zurich. Yes, for some all, all was gone – but not for all. So, once again the climb back up. Hard times and harder than anyone had imagined they could be. But, because of the Swiss funds they, unlike so many, were without despair – in reduced circumstances but still among the well-fed, the housed and clothed and with a bit to jingle in the pocket. Delightful condition – in 1930.
The 30’s in Germany were strange and un-settled as well as un-settling times. This Weimar Republic, then this rabble-rouser Hitler, hmmmm. Who could say what the outcome might be? Well, perhaps the relatives were right…America began to look better and better. Yes, there were problems but. But how to effect a move without losing everything or even most again? How? Ah, there again the Swiss bankers could be of assistance he found. There was an American, a devotee of this Hitler, who wanted to emigrate to Germany and desired to buy a going, prosperous concern. He also didn’t mind paying in America or even Switzerland. So, the funds never entered Germany. Better and better. It was researched, due diligence performed and the deal concluded. Off to America. But… a goodly percentage of the funds remained in Switzerland. One never knows about government, eh?
Before too long He was delighted to be an American. No Hitler, no Crystal Night, no Yellow Stars. Yes, the Klu Klux Klan marched in the Municipal Parades and Jews were not welcome in many places…but, business went on. Even when he saw the German-American Bundt marching in the parades he was only grateful that he had removed himself, his family and his fortune from the control of such people.
Then – 1941. A good year all around- until December 7th. Then another war. But still, in America there was sacrifice but not bombs and troops and shooting in the streets. Soon after Japan and the USA were at war Germany, for no known reason, declared war on the USA as well. But business remained good and the funds from Argentina and Switzerland continued to accumulate. Along with some from America which found their way to Switzerland as well. One never knows about governments, eh?
So, 1945 – the war is over, Germany is dismantled and in pieces. Parts of Japan glow in the dark. Europe is devastated and in ruins. The British Empire is no more and England is bankrupt. In America all is well and business is booming. A bit of international business comes the family way and so getting funds to the Swiss accounts (more than one now) becomes easier. Times seem good and because they do the father becomes worried and instructs his son in the ways of accessing and concealing the Swiss funds and other properties from acquisitive hands. The son, my acquaintance, is amazed and chagrined. What does the family own? Where? How much are they worth? Is all of this legal?
His father begins to relate the tale to him and then decides to make plain what he means. What all of this means. So, it’s off to Switzerland. Zurich is a lovely city and very accommodating – if you have money, just as is everywhere else, eh? As they had more than ample funds it was a lovely visit.
The father took his son to meet the bankers, sons themselves of fathers long deceased – but bankers still. The accounts were reviewed and the balances and investments discussed. Approval was given to the son to make decisions and to receive accountings of all banking business on the family’s behalf. All was regularized and transferred. The Argentine property had become properties and were no longer confined only to Argentina. Now from Argentina to Zurich, through various and sundry companies and corporations, nominees and long-term leases, the family had property and businesses in …several countries and more were anticipated. All correct and accounted for.
However, the son asked: “Was all this legal?” Ah, legal? Hmmm, legal according to whose laws? Hitler’s? Stalin’s? USA? Swiss? Or the law that states the family must survive and prosper? The law that states my daughters must never have to consider selling their bodies or my son his soul, for food and shelter? Which “Law” do you refer to my son? The father decided to take his son for a tour. Just a short tour – of Germany, the “American Zone”. It was early evening and they went to see where, as a child the son could remember playing in the park across from the family home. Beautiful trees and lovely well-constructed homes of brick…then, Now? Ah now, well, the Allies had had to bomb the area and now all was in ruins and rubble. The trees in the park had been cut for firewood so those still alive could keep from freezing to death. The animals in the Zoo of his childhood memories? Eaten to avoid starvation. So much gone, so much as though it had never been.
The shivering men, once soldiers and now without work or pride, begging for something for food. Women, girls really, asking father and son if they wouldn’t enjoy a bit of relaxation…perhaps together? “Two for the price of one – it’s cold and we could be sooo warm.” From their speech it was plain these weren’t children of the poor or even of the working class. These were girls who until recently had been in ignorance of the trade they now were forced to ply. As the son listened in horror his father leaned close to his ear and asked: “Legal? Legal, my son? By whose law? Would you have your sister here, hmm? Perhaps your mother could arrange the appointments? Or, you, yourself, could ‘manage’ their …careers?”
About this time an American serviceman came up and displayed a pack of Camel cigarettes. The girls lost interest in father and son and went off with the G.I. Another sort of “two for one” was obviously being contemplated.
A few more demonstrations were conducted on the tour – women too old for the street or too ugly were seen clearing rubble – plenty of that. Men who had, until recently been shop owners or soldier of rank, begged for work of any kind. Children of 4 to 11 years of age disported themselves to attract pedophiles – for gum or a cigarette. A canned ham could and did buy anything you desired – anything. Coffee? A pound? Who did you want killed?” Each time the father whispered his question to the son: “Legal?” Hmmm.
Before long, a few days only, the son asked to return to Switzerland and sat by the Lake, Lake Zurich – the Zurich Zee. Thoughts and considerations flowed through his mind. Those most terrible of considerations: The “what if’s”.
What if his father had not …. What if their funds had been seized…. What if they had remained in Germany? What would their situation be – right now? Questions of legality and lawfulness?? What did they mean to the children and girls he had seen? A can of ham had meaning – how one came by it, under certain circumstances, did not. This he had seen. And these circumstances…how rare are they? It seemed from history and especially from recent history they were much more common than not.
By this point in the story my new friend and I had moved to a café’ and were have some coffee. He black and I a café’ milch (a personal weakness, I admit). So, he continued only now in the first person:
“We, my father and I, went back to America. Nothing more was said of our Swiss trip up to the day of his death. Father called me in and asked what I had decided to do in regard to our Swiss connections. I had spent much time on this and had ready my answer.” I shall continue as I have to move funds to them and to remain silent concerning it all”. I glanced, from the corner of my eyes at my father and said: ‘After all, one never knows about governments, eh?’ “
“My Father died later that day. But he died knowing that I would continue to protect the family and to see to its financial future and well being. He understood that I had comprehended what had taken him so long and had almost – but for good luck – made our family a statistic, like so many others.”
“During the 1950’, 60’s and all the way through the early 1980’s I watched and saw “my government”, that of the USA, become more and more as those of the Europe of my father’s life and my youth had become. Taxes sky-rocketing and control of the actual money becoming more and more the government’s business. No longer was it “legal and lawful” to take ‘your money’ out of the country without notifying the government of where, when and how much. Then the idea of “too much cash to be legal” came into being. Always and with each of these restrictions the justification(s) were , as they had been in Europe, to restrain the criminals. Ah, but now any who thought the money belonged to them were “criminals”. Hmmm, one never knows about governments, eh?”
“More and more the government in the USA became reminiscent of those in pre-war Europe. Fearful of its own populace, metal detectors everywhere – even in schools. The children were encouraged to become informants against each other and their own parents. Parents against their children. It became a thing I could not abide. So, I retired. To here, To Switzerland and to Zurich. I like the lake and I’ve a house not far down the shore. I will soon cease to trouble the earth with my presence and humanity with my sighs. My son has taken over and will see to the family and all of its needs. He lives in Brazil and manages all of our holdings through the same banking family my father engaged so long ago. “
“When all is said and done – governments come and go; régimes rise and fall; currencies re-value and de-value, are issued and withdrawn. Empires begin and end. But families go on – or they don’t.”
With that he got up paid the bill for us both – he insisted – and left me there to consider his tale. I did and still do. However, I now pass it on to you. I still remember the gleam in his eyes: “One never knows about governments, eh?” Hmmm.
Later that day I called my banker and asked if he would care to be my guest for dinner that evening. Never explained why I was so cordial – never did. But, we both agreed: “One never knows about governments, eh?”
And now you know the tale. Bye the way I never did get my shopping done that day.