At Play In The Archive
I’m stepping out of chronological order here, but ’tis the season, so I must. There are many things that whisper, “It’s Christmas time!” to my senses, but nothing trumps the arrival of the Winkies at our house. The Winkies make Christmas, People.
A Lessiack family tradition since 1935, here is the story of the Winkies in my grandfather Robert Lessiack’s own words:
“During the 1930’s, the Lessiacks virtually commuted to Germany, courtesy of Leo’s employers, the Hamburg American Line. In 1934, as an elementary school graduation treat, I was signed up with a student group from the midwest and with them spent the summer touring Germany with a brief sidetrip into Switzerland. In 1935, my parents and I spent a month or so visiting in Germany, returning home via Belgium and France. In 1936 we toured in the United States. In the summer of 1937, I went solo once again and spent the summer visiting with a family in Hannover, Germany whom we had met earlier on our 1935 trip. That summer was divided between a driving tour through Germany and a cruise ship with stops in Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. The year 1938 saw another family trip. Leo took his car (1937 Buick) on this one and we drove here and there visiting friends and relatives in north Germany.
Back to the 1935 trip. The eastbound leg was travelled aboard the S.S. DEUTSCHLAND, under the command of Captain Friedrich Buch. Captain Buch was a good friend of the family’s, the friendship stemming from the Hamburg American Line association of Leo and Captain Buch who usually encountered each other on the DEUTSCHLAND’s monthly visits to New York. We frequently went aboard the ship while she was in port and dined with the Captain while he, with equal frequency, came to visit us at our home in Bogota, N.J. On the 1935 voyage there was of course a Winkie Dinner on board attended by the Lessiack family. My mother, Margaret, received one of the Winkie dolls as a favor and let it be known that she was much smitten with the dolls generally. Leo passed word of this to Captain Buch, and next thing you know she had a set of all five.
I can’t recall for sure, but in all probability I first set up the Winkies as a Christmas display for the 1935 holiday season and, except perhaps for the World War II years, they’ve been so displayed by some member of the family most Christmases since.”
I was incredibly fortunate to find a signed photograph of Captain Buch among my great-grandpa Leo’s things. Here he is, the founder of our Winkie tradition.
Captain Buch had a long and distinguished career with the Hamburg-Amerika line which lasted until the Nazis took over all German shipping in the early part of WWII. I will tell that story at a later time, but suffice to say that Captain Buch was on the right side of history and refused to cooperate with the Nazis, an act of defiance that caused him to be stripped of his rank and forcibly removed from the ship he was commanding at the time (which happened to be the St. Louis, later of Voyage of the Damned fame. More on all that in another post.)
Here is Captain Buch with my great-grandma Margaret Spielmann Lessiack, possibly on the same journey on which she first encountered the Winkies.
Here he is again with both great-grandma Margaret and my grandfather, Robert Lessiack, the author of the Winkie history shown above.
I’m pretty sure Captain Buch had no idea what he started.
I did a little searching around for Winkie ephemera (I myself have nothing but the dolls themselves and my grandfather’s account), and I came across two fun finds. First, here is a menu from an actual Winkie dinner held aboard the S.S. Reliance.
And, here are some illustrated pages from a sweet little story book that was likely also a party favor from the Winkie dinners. Both these items had already been sold, or you can be sure I would have snapped them up.
The gist of the storybook is that the Winkies originated in Germany’s Black Forest, but hard times forced them to seek warmth, food, and shelter on board the ships of the Hamburg-Amerika line. There they lived in secret, doing good deeds anonymously to earn their keep. They kept all the brass on board sparkling, and generally made life better for both passengers and crew.
(My mom, Sue Lessiack Stabler, a long-time reporter for the Panama Canal Spillway newspaper recounted a much more eloquent version for the paper sometime in the early 1980’s, but I’ve been unable to lay hands on a copy. If I find it, I’ll let you know, People).
The Winkies were not entirely anonymous, oh no — each guy had a name that several generations of children in my family have delighted in memorizing. Here they are, in my grandfather’s handwriting.
And here they are, by name.
Early in our marriage my Jewish husband, a master of gallows humor, made up some names for them inspired by various villains of the SS. They are sooooo not funny, but given that he puts up with all my Christmas hullabaloo, I can’t be too offended. I will not share those names with you here because you have good imaginations and can probably come up with them all by yourselves (but, I wish you wouldn’t, because it hurts the Winkies’ feelings).
Here are Mikado, Eulenspiegel, Puck, Romeo, and Rinaldo in a parade of images taken across the years. As my grandpa said, they’ve been set up somewhere–barring the WWII years–just about every year since 1935. I’m pretty sure that I’ll find more Winkie pictures as I continue to scrounge through my many unexplored boxes, and if I do, I’ll add them for next year.
See that campfire? My grandpa Bob taught me how to build the very same kind out of little twigs set over orange Christmas lights (surrounded by tin foil, of course, so as not to scorch the faux snow underneath). The Winkies themselves hold blue lights as lanterns. God help you if you messed with this canonical approach to Winkie setup when I was a child.
The Winkies got separated at some point — needless to say, there was hot competition for them in the family — but that resulted in lonely displays like the one above. Sometime in the 1970’s, my grandparents had several replicas of each doll made by a skilled doll-maker, and my grandmother, Katherine Adams Lessiack, who was a master seamstress, created perfect new clothes for them all, but absolutely true in design to the originals. Each of her children received a full set of dolls, with each set containing one of the original Winkies. Now I have one of these sets. I cannot tell which of the original dolls I have, so excellent are the replicas.
(An update from my mom via email:
“Re your set of Winkies, I think the reason you can’t tell original ones from doll maker ones is that I think all of yours are from the doll maker. When the first five were split up, I kept three and sent two to John, feeling like it wasn’t fair that I had them all, so I think John and I have the only originals I kept three because I’m the oldest, and rank doth have it’s privilege. Later, when my mom and dad had the new sets made, John got three new ones to round out his set, and I got the other two to round out mine. I think doll maker sets went to you, Polly and Jenny, and I always thought a set stayed in Kerrville, but we never found one there. SOMEWHERE there are photos of the new sets all newly outfitted by my mom. We didn’t come across them in the Kerrville dismantlement, though, so I don’t know where they are. It’s possible I have them, but I haven’t come across them, either. Anyway, that adds another little “chapter” to your Winkie story.”
Well, that would explain why I can’t tell the copies from the originals!)
When I began discovering my great-grandpa Leo’s Hamburg-Amerika ephemera, I incorporated that into my display one year. There’s Grandpa Bob’s story in the frame above.
And finally, here are the Winkies this year on my mantle. I never, ever get tired of these guys.
If you celebrate it, I hope that Christmas is brightening up your homes by now. We will be having Hanukkah latkes (my mother-in-law’s most excellent recipe) by the light of the Winkies one of these evening very soon, because that is how we roll at my house.
Until next time, People.