Saturday, February 10, 2007

"Sometimes you have to sacrifice a queen for a pawn."

By Suzanne Pekow
February 9, 2007

The Village Chess Shop on Thompson St. during the blackout of 2003. Borrowed from the Village Chess Shop site.

Though he has faced many conflicts in his life, the one played out on a chess board is the only one that still makes George Frohlinde’s heart race. As a 7-year-old in a little town in pre-World War II Germany, Frohlinde wasn’t allowed to play outside with other boys due to his severe asthma. So his father introduced him to chess. “It occupied the mind,” he says. “It was a mental activity which I could do without getting short of breath.”

Today, at 79, Frohlinde still plays nearly every day at the Village Chess Shop, which he opened with his late wife in 1972, in New York’s Greenwich Village. Though he sold the shop in 2003 to his nephew, Frohlinde is a regular fixture among the diverse group of masterminds and rabble rousers at his old shop on Thompson Street.

On any given day, the shop is abuzz with activity. Baskets of chess pieces and well-loved chessboards are evenly spaced on two rows of 14 formica-topped tables that dominate the space inside the shop. Players of all ages and all walks of life sit and stand, playing and watching, alternately yelling and concentrating like mad as they face each other in passionate games. Many play “blitz,” the timed game enjoyed by hustlers in nearby Washington Square Park, where players race against a stop-clock set to the side of the board that they slap after every move. Others play conventional chess, without a timer.

The shop’s only rules are written in chalk on a blackboard on the wall farthest from the door:
· “Be kind”
· “$1.00 per hour”
· “$3.00 to watch” (this one is never enforced);
· “No taking back moves”
· “$3.00 per profanity”

Above the constant click-clack of the chess pieces, Frohlinde’s gravelly voice is sometimes difficult to understand. He has a friendly, yellow-toothed smile, thick, square glasses, and a soft German accent. But his most distinguishing feature is the shoulder-length, fine gray hair he wears loose beneath a stocking cap. Frohlinde hasn’t had a haircut since his wife, Ruth Nash, died in 2000. Nash was a German Jew who fled to New York in 1939 with her family just three weeks before the start of World War II.

When Frohlinde talks about her, it’s clear from his melancholy smile her absence left a void in the septuagenarian’s life. “She was the spirit of the shop,” he says. “She was not interested in the game, she was interested in the people.” When they opened the shop together, the couple had no employees. He would sell the chess sets — which he ordered from suppliers on credit and eventually paid off — and she would engage the customers, who came to play the game for 15 cents an hour. Frohlinde recalls taking only one day off the entire first year, but according to longtime regulars, it was Nash who really ran the show.

“She was the strong one…and a pillar in his life,” says an 85-year-old Village Chess Shop fixture who identifies himself only as “The Doctor.” No one at the shop, not even Frohlinde, knows the Doctor’s real name, and no one really cares. The Doctor, a Jewish Hungarian by birth, felt a kinship for Nash. According to him, she represented the kind of old world-European genteel he says Americans don’t understand.

It is somewhat unusual that Nash fell for Frohlinde, considering his upbringing. He was a non-Jew in Nazi Germany. For a long time after World War II, many Jews resented Germans. “To all those who lost their loved ones, anything German was taboo,” says the Doctor. In truth, not a day that goes by that Frohlinde doesn’t think about the war. In high school, he was forced to join Hitler Youth and was nearly recruited by the SS. Though he claims to have resisted indoctrination into the Nazi ideology, like most Germans at the time, Frohlinde says he essentially turned a blind eye to the murderous regime. And this still haunts him. “It never leaves you. It’s your life, you know?” he says.

He has written several plays, mostly in German, mostly for his own catharsis. In 1994, Frohlinde wrote a play entitled, “The Third Testament.” It hasn’t yet been performed or published, but Frohlinde doesn’t seem to mind. It’s a minimalist drama about former German soldiers trying to reconcile their participation in the war. In many ways, Frohlinde says, the play is his way of dealing with his own feelings of guilt about the horrors of his country’s past. “This guilt will choke us all,” says Null, a character in the play. “I saw the ruins. Now walls are rebuilt and our souls lie broken under the stones, freezing and wild.” Null is the character with whom Frohlinde says he most closely identifies — a man who can’t seem to forgive himself for his father’s crimes.

Frohlinde’s own father ran an airplane factory in Wismar, a city on Germany’s Baltic coast, during World War II. Because of his high profile job, Frohlinde’s father was a member of the Nazi party. According to Frohlinde, he didn’t really ascribe to the party’s beliefs. “When the war broke out, he said, ‘This is the end of Germany,’” says Frohlinde. “So he knew it, but he went along.” At the war’s end, Frohlinde made sure he and his father left when Russian troops invaded. Wismar was on the border between what would become East and West Germany, and Frohlinde was afraid the Russians would arrest his father. Father and son sought refuge in nearby Hamburg, where Frohlinde worked as a cabinet maker and studied social work at Hamburg University.

Unfortunately for Frohlinde, the end of the war was not the end of conflict. At the university, he says, his fellow students treated him like an outcast because he hadn’t participated in the war. He caught wind of several rumors circulating among his classmates. Behind his back, they called him a Communist, a homosexual, even a Jew — none of which was true. “I was always thinking independently,” he says. “Everyone was always in the rat race and I always protested against things which I thought were not right. And the Germans don’t trust the independent thinker.” When he went to New York in the mid-1950s to visit a friend, Frohlinde was ecstatic to find a place where original thinking was celebrated.

“The first day I came to New York,” Frohlinde says, “I said to myself, ‘I always imagined a city like this. I never knew it existed. ‘Here I’ll stay.’”

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another interesting person & you make him come alive.
I luv u. You r great.
Your biggest fan.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Stacey said...

I like this one. Those old chess shops are craaazy.

12:13 PM  

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