Wednesday, December 19, 2012

September, 1938: Something's Happening Here


Report on our work in Haarlem.

The situation has deeply influence our whole work lately. The new laws for strangers seemed to make our educational work more difficult, as most of the children staying with us have no valid passports. But the fact that the police in Haarlem is on very friendly terms with us and appreciates our work has helped us very much, the information they sent on to the governmental officials were very favourable and we have thus no difficulties. The fact, that we are not achieving Dutch education, that we are a German school with an international outlook convinced the Government that the children staying with us would not remain in Holland later on. Only on this condition we shall be able to take other children from Germany and the former Austria when places are vacant.

The question of the Austrian children was also a concern of course. And as two of the older children of ours are about to join their parents shortly we applied for four Austrian children. But as others had also tried to get in Austrian children without satisfying the demands the government makes: that is without being able to give a satisfying guarantee as to the children's future, the whole question has been adjourned and is to be decided principally. But as we had several very urgent cases Manfred succeeded in getting the special permit for two Austrian children to come immediately who will be with us in a few days if nothing interferes. Only the information of the police here and the impression the Attorney-General got with whom Manfred had several talks made this permit possible. These are the first Austrian children to be allowed to come in.

But beside this educational work it is the work with German refugees that took most of our interest and strength lately. The existing Committees coped with this problem but have not altogether always worked practically. They often failed to see the personal problem that the refugees represent. Just this personal work proved to fall to our lot, the cases that came to us increased with the time. Manfred was several times in the Hague discussing the problem the refugees represent with several higher officials. He had a long talk with the representatives of the Evian-Conference who were very interested in his views and asked him to send in a report on this question. We succeeded in getting permission to stay prolonged in some cases.

We succeeded in getting some families over to South America. Five other families are trying to get their visas to U.S.A.

Two Men we helped to come out of the concentration camp and succeeded to get warrants of 200 dollars for the crossing to Columba in each case. 

We got Gerhard Friedrich out of the Danish prison through our wires to the prison. French Friends and Swiss Friends had written to us on his behalf and he had wired to us in his calamity.

We helped a Berlin Young Friend over the frontiers these last days. He does not feel able to enlist. His father lives here and as the boy is only 18 years old his father wanted him to leave Germany in this situation. But the boy has no passport being an half-Aryan, the question was thus not quite simple but had to be done in a smoother way than Gerh. Friedrich did. In this last case some Berlin Friend asked us to help.

We want to stress the point that in nearly all cases personal talks which touched more than the practical calamities developed.

The compass which this activity has reached may be best seen is some figures: From the second half of August til now we had 160 callers who all wanted advise or help or came to speak on more spiritual questions. And more than a hundred letters came in and had to be answered.

We actually have become a Friends Centre and often have to do some bits of work that is in a way similar to that which Friends are doing in their International Centres. The fact that we are the only German Friends here and the only not Dutch Friends living here gives us some possibilities of working also with officials of the state which Dutch Friends have not just in this time when here too a more conservative and military spirit begins to rule. Such more discrete cases connected with Concentration camps and COs as well as so many people in somewhat difficult family situations seem to feel more confidence in us as German Friends than in persons of another people. The Dutch in general have not yet undergone so much suffering as we and Woolman is right in saying: only those who "have the heart of the strangers" can feel with the miserable.

Considering this situation that has actually arisen and our work as we thought it right to ask you, if you feel inclined to acknowledge this state of affairs and our work done in the spirit of and for the Society for which you could share the responsibility. It would of course be of considerable help for some of our work if we  could feel entitled to speak not only as personal Friends but for the ends of the Society feeling to be a "Centre of Good will" that you support with your sympathy and spiritual help.

The expenses for our small "Centre" would not be high, we should only like to have some cash for the increased expenses for postage that forced us to cut down our expenses for our living quite considerably lately.

A sum of 5 Dollars from the American Friends Committee and some small contribution from Friends Service Counsel for this special work would help us financially and give us at the same time the feeling that Friends are willing to take part in our work.

We certainly would not ask you for that if we did not feel sure that our being here and the fact that our whole family shares in this work is of some importance. Often the feeling of opposition to the Germans as such is corrected, we were happy to experience in these last days of political tension the friendship, that has arisen between us and Jewish as well as Non Jewish persons.

With friendly greetings

Manfred and Lili Pollatz
Haarlem, Westerhoutpark 14
September 1938

This is the first letter that we share on this blog, and it seems fitting that it is written by German Quakers who are living in a Holland suburb of Amsterdam, to English-speaking Friends in Britain and America. This is typical of my story as we move forward from the beginnings here. The amazing part of this story (outside the story itself) is that I have this incredible collection of letters to help me tell it. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think we would find so many documents that would tell us details that even Opa didn't know about his story.

This letter was actually found in the case file for the Pollatz’s from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) archives- that is now in the Holocaust museum. That sentence was a lot of information. Let me unpack it. The AFSC has a vast archive selection, primarily because these folks have made it their mission from the beginning of their group’s formation to help people in need. Effectively helping people in need requires a lot of communication and diligent paperwork- creating these lovely case files. A portion of the AFSC archives were donated to the Holocaust Museum located in Washington, DC, because they contain information pertinent to refugees from Hitler’s regime in Germany. The Holocaust Museum is an excellent place to donate your archives because they effectively curate and share the files with the public. In fact, they shared these AFSC case files with me- connecting me to some of the most compelling and informative documents I have found in my research. I have my grandfather’s case file, but as many research projects go- the deeper you dig, the more places you find to dig.

This letter was actually in the case file documenting the journey of Manfred and Lilli Pollatz. We learned about this couple through Opa's AFSC file, and when we dug into their case file, we found this gem of a letter that sort of starts Opa's story.

This letter not only gives us a glimpse into the beginning of what was a grass-roots movement by the Pollatz’s to help refugees, but it even tells us specifically about my Opa. That Berlin Young Friend that is mentioned: that’s my Opa. And by the sound of this letter- the Pollatz’s had an instrumental part Opa’s being smuggled out of Germany. Oh I wish I had those details from the other side! Was it the Pollatz’s that orchestrated the whole thing? Did they “know” people? If nothing else, I think this letter is at least evidence that they had a hand in my Opa’s first escape: Germany into Holland. I wonder how August (Opa's father) knew to contact them? I’m guessing he asked the Berlin Friends, or that the Friends contacted August with the Pollatz’s in mind.

It’s just mind boggling to me that a story I grew up hearing about: Opa being smuggled out of Holland by some unnamed group of people- these Pollatz’s are a piece of that puzzle. And I found that piece in an old letter in an archive that hadn’t seen the light of day until just a few years ago when the Holocaust Museum started looking through them.

I never thought I would say this, but: research is fun.

The last thought I have about this amazing letter is the feeling that comes with it. The Pollatz’s know that something is happening here. They’ve received numerous calls, letters, and visits about this movement- exodus out of Germany and her captured lands. The Pollatz’s have unwittingly become a sort of refugee center themselves by being available and surprisingly good at addressing the concerns brought to them. This is basically a call to the Quaker community to support them as the “Friends Center” that they are becoming. Just $5 for postage and some extra support- that’s all they need. Amazing.

It shows you what amazing things can happen if we just allow ourselves to be available when someone asks for help, and ask for help ourselves when we find our work to have increasing meaning in the community.

The Pollatz’s are officially added to my list of people to thank.

Hurry Up and Wait

My Dad has said the expression “hurry up and wait” as long as I can remember.  He, being of German descent, was quite an expert at arriving someplace early and then waiting. Opa’s roller coaster ride to escape from Germany and then wait in his father’s house in Holland must have felt like he was hurrying up to wait. Let’s pick up where we left off, with Opa’s father driving the car behind him, giving Opa instant relief in recognition. All italicized quotes in this blog post are from Opa’s memoirs “From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom.”
A current google map of the house where August
lived and Opa stayed during this time.
We had a pleasant drive to Amsterdam, but my father told me I would have to stay hidden in his house for awhile, in order for him to apply for my temporary residence permit. (Dutch police were checking foreigners on the streets for papers. The German threat was already so great, that the Dutch wouldn’t take any chances: for all they knew, I might have been a “German spy.”)
This actually makes me think about the people who helped Opa escape. They did it for a hefty fee, but I wonder if they thought they were smuggling in a spy or a refugee? 
For a long time, we had no idea what happened in Opa's life during this time. When I originally finished this blog entry in Dec. of 2012, it covered his whole time in Holland since we had only a little information from his memoir. However, in July/August of 2013, we found two sources of new documents that give more information about that “transition” year when Opa lived in Holland before he emigrated to the USA. The first set of documents are from Opa’s friend, Gisela, who was in the Quaker youth group with him. Opa corresponded with her and her sister, Anni, and Gisela kept Opa’s letters for over 70 years (wow!). When I met with Gisela in Berlin, she was so generous in giving us copies of these letters. These letters are so fantastic because they are written by Opa to Gisela and Anni, in a time period where we had no details of his personal life and thoughts. Now we have insight! The second source of information has been the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) files that we were able to copy from the archives of the Holocaust Museum in D.C.. These files contain all the documents exchanged within the AFSC pertaining to Opa’s immigration case. This gives us a much better idea of just how Opa was able to successfully emigrate to the US.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Escape

Opa's Journey
When I was a freshman in High School, Opa gave a talk to my older sister’s European History class. I remember getting to skip out of my class and see his talk. I remember feeling kind of like a rock star afterwards because everyone was so amazed at his story. Sadly, as I was about 13, I didn’t remember a huge amount of what he said until I could read it in his memoirs. Opa included his manuscript of his talk in his memoirs; it details his escape from Nazi Germany. Each step I take deeper into this story, I recognize the incredible miracle it is that my little life exists at all.

Opa remembered the day his father announced the news: Hitler was elected Reich Chancellor. He remembered the day his passport was stamped “for identification only.”  He remembered the day he tried to leave Germany.  All italicized quotes in this post are from Opa’s memoirs, “From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom.”

An attempt to trace Opa's smuggle across the border
It was about July 1938 when I packed a suitcase and took a train to a town close to the Holland/German border. Naively, I walked toward the border, mostly open field with some haystacks but all I saw was Nazi blackshirts marching up and down, guarding the border. So I hiked about ten miles south toward the Belgian/Dutch border. No guards in sight, so, with great apprehension, I walked across a wooded area, and it was a pleasure to see the Belgian road signs. I walked on until I found the German/Dutch border station, and told my story to the Dutch border control. They listened but told me that they had strict orders to refuse entry to anyone who didn’t have valid papers... they said they would help me get back to Germany without the Nazis catching me. They took me close to the German border, where a streetcar crossed the border. We waited until the streetcar was in no-man’s land, to take on passengers to Aachen, Germany. At the Dutch guards’ signal, I ran toward the streetcar, flashed my German passport to the Nazi guard, who waved me on- I was back in Germany. Now what?

I’m going to be quoting a lot in this blog because the story is best told in the first person. 

We left off with Opa as he snuck safely back into Germany with no plan.  He checked into a cheap hotel in Aachen, Germany, and wrote his father, hoping.
Postcard from Aachen, Germany
A long week passed; I spent my time in the library, reading mostly math books, and learned German shorthand (which I never used), to have something to concentrate on- and waited.

An aside- Opa mentioned the uselessness of learning shorthand until very late in his life. He must have wasted a lot of time learning it. I kind of laugh thinking about how annoyed he was about it.
Finally, when I returned to my hotel one day, there was a Dutchman who asked me in broken German whether I was Tom Doeppner. He then showed me an old picture of my sister and myself, and on the back, in my father’s handwriting, it said, “This man is a friend of mine; trust him.” What I learned later was that my father- at quite some expense- had hired a smuggling organization that smuggled refugees across the border.
That’s when Opa took the first step towards freedom.  Was he scared? Was he excited? Did he trust the man?  Did he worry about his mother? Whatever was behind him must have been real enough to invoke enough fear or courage (or the mingling of the two) to push him forward.  
I checked out of the hotel, and we took off. First, by train to some place near the border. There my father’s “friend” left me, and told me that a motorcycle with Dutch license plates would pick me up and take me close to the border. I was to wait there for a “farmer with a wide-brimmed black hat” who would take me across the border to a place in Holland where the motorcycle would pick me up. The motorcycle would also take my suitcase. Indeed, it wasn’t long until the motorcycle arrived and we rode a few miles. I got off, and soon the farmer appeared. He was an older man who walked very slowly and never uttered a word. Possibly he didn’t want to give away his nationality in case I was captured. (He probably was anything but a farmer.) We walked on for what seemed like an eternity to me- but was probably only twenty minutes or so- until we came to the border. We saw the German guards marching slowly along the border. We waited for I-don’t-know-what, when the “farmer” motioned for us to go on. I was going to run, but he slowed me down; we slowly just walked across the border into some woods. I imagine some German guard or guards were in on the scheme, but of course I didn’t know that then. The “farmer” showed me where to wait (a crossroads deep in the woods) and left. Soon the motorcycle showed up with my suitcase, and we left. Back on some highway, I was transferred into a car, and we headed for Maastricht, in Holland.  As we drove into the city, I suddenly realized we were being followed by another car. I paled and told the driver. He smiled, and said, “look who is driving the car.” It was my father...
I don’t know about you- but I get knots in my stomach reading that. For some perspective: he had just turned 18. Do you remember being 18? Opa’s ability to walk across that border at the guidance of the calm, slow “farmer” is nothing short of a miracle. I bet the man seemed slow because Opa could hear his heartbeat four times in every step he took. Can you imagine the emotional roller coaster that ensued when he feels the freedom of being contained in a car in a foreign country, only to notice a car following you? Then to reveal: Dad. August’s shortcomings as a father aside- he literally saved Opa’s life with his costly plan.

The journey was not over yet. He hid inside his father’s house until he could become a legal, if temporary, resident. It was imperative he obtained these papers. They would enable him to take the next step: crossing the Atlantic ocean to freedom. He also had the task of getting a scholarship in some American college... Find out in the next blog how he managed to move from an escape to a journey towards freedom!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Nazis

I read some information from Opa’s book and just some online stuff about the Nazis. My reaction was a short, yet censored one. I’m trying to keep this blog appropriate. But yeah, my feelings and gut, knee-jerk reaction- pretty close to a verbal vomit. History is astonishing. Opa wrote in his memoirs about the history of what was happening in the world, particularly Germany, around the time of his birth and into his high school years. All italicized quotes in this blog post are from Opa’s book, “From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom.”
Paris Peace Conference where
the Treaty was signed

President Wilson’s Versailles Peace Treaty with Germany was signed on June 28, 1919. His main objectives were to create the League of Nations, and to achieve disarmament of all nations. It turned out, however, in spite of President Wilson’s opposition, that the practical demands of the French and the British became the chief architects of the peace. Germany, by now defeated and demoralized, was forced to pay reparations at a level that was impossible for Germany to afford. Hunger, starvation and complete demoralization resulted.

Opa was very lucky to have lived in the relative wealth that he did. Germany was crippled after World War 1 by a peace treaty that seemed to be more about revenge than peace. In Opa’s perspective, President Woodrow Wilson hoped for better but could not stop the French and British governments from their unrealistic requests for reparations. Germany not only lost the past war, but they also lost any hope for their future. Inflation was a plague to the German people... 

One of the early, devastating results was inflation. The new conversion rates were announced every Tuesday; I believe it was at noon. My father, as all other employees, was paid in paper money. The old German Mark was replaced with printed currency of such values as thousands, millions, and billions of marks. My mother would meet my father at the office when he was paid, and would immediately buy whatever food was available before the value of the money would go down even more.

Kids making kites out of useless currency
I remember in my Senior year of High School, I had a history teacher that was actually quite good. (I say this surprisingly because my Senior year was a bit of a twilight zone, I moved to a new town before my senior year and went through the motions of school to graduate so I could skip on to college. I don’t remember a huge amount from this school because it was pretty bad. The history guy was refreshingly good. I even tried to google him so I could tell him that, but I found nothing because I don’t remember his first name. Oh well.) Back to history- my teacher taught us that the crippling peace treaty left a nation of hopelessness and created a space for someone like Hitler to wield his power. The Germans were looking for hope, leadership, someone who cared about Germany and wanted it to thrive. They wanted someone who would fight for their survival. They wanted someone to blame. Hitler provided all of that. And so much devastatingly more. Germany was torn by the chaos of competing political parties, (Opa named three dominant parties: Nazis, Nationalists, and Communists) each militant in their endeavor to take Germany to a higher level. Everyone had a different idea of how Germany could be better, stronger, and WIN. Hitler’s idea seemed to make the most sense and feel the strongest.

Opa remembered the day Hitler was elected, he was 12.  

On that fateful day my father was late coming home from work. My mother had supper ready, so when he finally came, she asked, “What kept you?”- “Haven’t you listened to the radio?” He replied, “Hitler has been appointed Reich Chancellor.” (That was a position in the German government equivalent to President in the U.S.) My sister started to cry; my mother left the room. I asked my father, “What does that mean?” He looked at me as sternly as I had ever seen him and said, “Son, that means another World War!”
Hitler being appointed Reich Chancellor
After a quiet dinner, Opa had a long conversation with his father that night.  Opa remembers his conversation being interrupted by the Nazis marching down his street, celebrating the victory.  If you remember, he lived on a main street in Berlin, a common street for parades and demonstrations.
We were interrupted by music from the street. We looked out, and here came a torch parade of Nazi Brownshirts and Blackshirts (SS) marching down the street, celebrating the Nazi victory. They had a band, and they were singing. Among the songs they were singing was the “Horst Wessel Song,” that translates into something like this: “When the Storm Soldiers march to battle, they march with high morale; but when Jewish blood will squirt from our knives, things will go twice as well.”
It’s like watching an historical depiction of Lord of the Flies and realizing it actually happened, and worse, and horrifyingly accurate. How did this happen? Opa struggled with this question and made it a point to study the holocaust and the Nazi’s rise to power.

Opa remembers the schools closing after Hitler was elected FOR TWO MONTHS. Can you imagine? Teachers just had to deal. Students probably were fine with it. But when they arrived back to school it was to brand new curriculum, brand new books jam-packed with not-so-subtle Nazi propaganda. 

When they opened again, there were major changes in the curricula; primarily, there were entirely new textbooks. One new course was added in most schools: Genetics, with the aim of showing the “superiority” of the Aryan race over all other races; particularly, of course, Jews, Gypsies, Negroes, etc. Even songbooks were changed. One very popular German song is the “Lorelei,” which is based on an old German folktale. The song was written by Heinriche Heine (one of my favored authors) who was a Jew, and the music was composed by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdi, also a Jew. The new songbook stated, “Author unknown, composer F.M. Bartholdi” (Bartholdi is not considered a Jewish name, but “Mendelssohn” most certainly is.)

5th Grade Biology Nazi Book
I read a selection from a German biology book that was reprinted during this time for 5th graders. I found it at the link under the picture. It was listed as an archive of Nazi propaganda.. Keep in mind 5th graders are around 10 years old. It basically covers survival of the fittest and applies it to humanity (specifically German Aryans) and comes up with these principles that can be learned from the truths of nature: 1) Those who survive must fight to do it, and must fight for the species, even if it means sacrificing themselves.  2) Marriage, whatever- it’s all about babies, the more babies you have, the better chances your species has of surviving, 3) The weak and unhelpful get eliminated (and should be), 4) Life can be summed up in the phrase: fight to survive. SO- basically 5th grade German boys and girls were taught to grow up, get married, have lots of babies and be prepared to fight for your country or be punished. But only if you care about your people. Because if you don’t do any of these, then you are making the statement that you do not wish for your people to survive.  This do-or-die mentality was very relevant to a nation of people who were starving under the heel of debts to be repaid to other nations. The information was written in such a way that it felt logical. Jason and I did the math, and realized that it was possible to have been in school from Kindergarten through graduation and had nothing but Nazi curriculum. How astonishingly scary. Who stands a chance under such indoctrination?

I wonder if Opa’s ability to see past this propaganda was in part because he was not so desperate and impoverished like many of his fellow Germans. Or perhaps having a mother who was Jewish and clearly not vermin helped his perspective. I think it was largely due to the education and world-knowledge that he was exposed to with a teacher for a mother and a newspaper editor for a father. Or maybe, even more important, was the courage necessary to resist.

It is not a new or uncommon idea that if you work hard enough, fight hard enough, struggle hard enough, you will be successful. The problem begins when you must push weaker people aside, or under, in order to come out on top. The Nazis had no concern for the weak, the goal was to rise up despite all costs. You might be standing on skulls, but you will be the epic evolutionary winner. And according to the Nazis, this is something to be proud of, that nature INTENDED. And when you’ve been at the bottom, the idea that you are destined to be the best is hard to resist.

Opa resisted.  And I thank him for that legacy.  

As we entered school, there was a teacher at the main gate, and we were required to give the Nazi salute (outstretch the right arm and say “Heil Hitler”). I couldn’t bring myself to do that, and normally found a way to enter through another door (which we really weren’t supposed to do), or go early. One time my head teacher was at the entrance. It was too late to back out, so I just walked in and ignored him. He called me into his office and chewed me out. He said, “Doeppner, I understand your feelings, but I don’t like being ignored. The least you can do is give me an old-fashioned “good Morning” when you come in.” The next day, when I went through the door, I said, “Good morning, Dr. Widder.” He said “Heil Hitler,” and winked at me. (It took a tremendous amount of courage for him not to report me!)
German boys giving the Nazi Salute, Sept 1933
He also refused to reciprocate the Heil Hitler salute in rallies that he and his classmates were made to attend.  He refused to believe the lies Hitler produced, even when he was forced as a high school student to attend a rally with Hitler standing four rows away with Mussolini, Goering, and Goebbels.   
One time, there was an outdoor meeting attended by the “bigwigs:” There were Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and, as guest of honor, Mussolini. The first two rows were occupied by the SS (“Schutzstaffel,” the infamous Nazi organization responsible, among other crimes, for most of the Holocaust murders). Then came two or three rows of us high school students, and then the public. During all these speeches, which seemed to last forever, I had only one thought: Wouldn’t this be an excellent time for France or England to drop a bomb on this place? No such thing happened, of course, and we were bused back to our schools.
He refused ultimately to be in the service to Hitler’s regime, dodging the draft into Hitler’s army.
After graduation from high school, I was called to the police, where my passport was stamped “for identification only; not valid for foreign travel.” The reason: I was about to be drafted into the German Army!! I decided right then to leave Germany illegally...

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Quakers

Just the other night I was having a discussion with Jason about the church. Yes, scintillating topic. If you’re a pair of seminary grads and church nerds (like my husband and I are), then yes it is exciting to talk about church, or ecclesiology: the study of church. (See? Nerds.) I read a portion of Opa’s memoirs that introduces his relationship with the Quaker tradition. All italicized quotes (except the last one) in this blog post are from Opa’s memoirs: “From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom.” Opa thought a lot like my Dad thinks when it comes to religion: it’s not a bad idea. I don’t think that Opa was a particularly spiritual person or even a person who professed a certain faith as his own. He would probably be best described as agnostic, or perhaps a believer in a greater being. His spirituality was more of an intellectual path. And one that he didn’t share much about.

Regardless of Opa’s hesitance to embrace a particular faith, he was certainly drawn to faith groups. Opa’s mother was Jewish, and Opa enjoyed the Jewish version of boy scouts as a young boy. The Jewish groups were abolished and replaced by the “Hitler Youth” groups, just another venue for propaganda and brainwashing. Opa declined membership. Later Opa enjoyed meeting with a group sponsored by the Quakers. This group was for intellectual discussion only- avoiding political and religious discussion for the sake of keeping the group open and focused on learning and enjoying each other. Here is Opa’s description of his experience:
A Quaker Meeting House in Guben, Germany, 1934
...I got restless for some intellectual (spiritual?) activity. Through a friend, I was introduced to a Quaker “Young Friends” group that met monthly... We met every third Tuesday at the Quakers’ Meeting House, where we had our own “round table.” Normally, there were about fifteen to twenty of us, both boys and girls.Mr. Wohlrabe was our mentor, a remarkable man, compassionate, well educated, a good leader. We stayed away from political or strictly religious topics as there were both Christians and Jews, and even some “agnostics” in the group. We took turns getting “assignments” for presenting next month’s subject; all of us took pride in making well-prepared presentations when our turns came up. I remember spending hours planning my presentations; the others did too. We gave book reviews, talked about the lives of interesting people (such as Mahatma Gandhi), the racial situation in South Africa... at one time, I wrote a stage play on “the Fourth Wise Man,” which we acted out before the adults at the Quaker Meeting House...
As an aside- I really wish I could tell you I had a copy of that play- but alas- I do not.  

I read a collection of experiences by one Quaker couple who were in Germany through the two world wars.  You can read it here:
If you google “Quakers in Nazi Germany”, you will find a wealth of information on all that the Quakers accomplished in working to help others. The site I read documented the story of this Quaker couple risking their entire lives just to BE there for the people of Germany. Not Quakers, not Jews, not the rich or poor. ANYONE that showed up and needed them, and that included the Nazis. It took a group effort; people were all-in. Opa even mentions in his memoirs that the Quakers’ penchant for nondiscrimination helped them out in the beginnings of Nazi Germany.

"Quakerspeisung" (Quaker feedings) food relief program
after WWI with particular concern for children
Many of the Germans, including the Nazi’s, benefitted from the food programs the Quakers provided in the early twenties, and thus considered them “harmless” and did not interfere with their meetings.

For the Quakers, their core purpose in existing is to love others. To be the hands and feet of God to a hurting world. Loving others for the Quakers meant helping people. Any people. The kind of help that might involve risk. The kind of help that has no agenda. In the stories I read about the Quakers during war time, their agenda is love. Period. There is something different about that. Something risky. Something divine.

The meetings that Opa was involved with was an answer to a desperate need for the youth of Nazi-held Germany: intellectual stimulation that reached beyond the propaganda and grabbed the soul. The Quakers provided a space for that. At risk.  

In the research that my husband provided me (I know- he does it for me!), I learned some of the basic tenants of the Quakers. One that is exhibited in Opa’s story, and in the story I happened upon online, is the idea that LOVE WINS. The group that exhibited this principle so well is called The American Friends Service Committee. It is an organization within the Quaker tradition that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, as shown on the Nobel Prize website (spoiler alert- they helped Opa!):

Quaker delegates of the American Friends Service Committee who set up a relief operation in Toulouse, France, January 1941. 
(From US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was founded in 1917 by members of the Religious Society of Friends in the United States in order to provide young Quakers and other conscientious objectors to war with an opportunity to perform a service of love in wartime. In the ensuing years, the Committee has continued to serve as a channel for Quaker concerns growing out of the basic Quaker belief that «there is that of God in every man» and the basic Quaker faith that the power of love can «take away the occasion for all wars». Though the Religious Society of Friends itself is small, the work of the Committee is supported by thousands of like-minded men and women of many races, creeds, and nationalities, who serve on its staff or make contributions, both financial and spiritual, to its ongoing programs.  (

That’s what saved Opa: love. I believe this each time I read more of his story. That’s what can save all of us. I believe this more each day I live.

Friday, December 7, 2012


Opa’s older sister was Brigitte, but her family called her Patti (pronounced “Putty”). I asked her daughter where the name Patti came from and she told me: “It was a child’s (Tom’s?) corruption of Spatzi, an endearment of Spatz which means sparrow, because when my mother was very little she was a picky eater who didn’t eat much (“ate like a sparrow”).” I thought this was such a fun story to remember, and so funny how little nicknames stick! The way Opa describes Patti, despite eating like a sparrow, she seems like a person who filled a room with her presence.  
She was a most remarkable person: a linguist at an early age. I must admit when we were young, she dominated me completely, but for some reason I didn’t mind; it just seemed natural. One of her traits: she would not, could not, stretch the truth. As an example, when someone asked for my mother on the phone, my sister would find my mother and tell her; when my mother didn’t want to talk to whoever it was at that time, my mother would lie down on a couch immediately, so my sister could truthfully say, “she is resting right now." (From Opa's autobiography "From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom")
She was unashamedly honest- a little fact that I find really endearing. I think I would have really enjoyed her. I have always been drawn to people who were a little more abrupt or rough around the edges. These are the type of people who can’t help but be themselves, so they give up trying to be someone else. They lack pretense, and you can trust them.

Opa wrote about a makeshift radio he made in order to get access to foreign stations that wouldn’t be filled with Nazi propaganda or signal jammed by Nazi censoring (listening to foreign stations was against the law). He and Patti found a couple stations and got their news from these foreign sources. One station was a Russian station that was fairly good but included some propaganda about the good life in the Soviet Union.   
My sister got so enthused about the broadcasts, she decided she wanted to emigrate to Russia. Both my mother and I tried to talk her out of it, but she was insistent. She actually went to the Russian embassy and obtained the paperwork. When my father heard about it, he just laughed and said, “There is no way the Russians will ever accept her.” And sure enough, almost by return mail, she received a letter to that effect from the Russian embassy, without any explanation. (From Opa's autobiography "From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom")
Patti actually reminds me a little of my older sister when we were growing up- slightly dominating, passionately caring, and even a little naive in her quest for what is good and right. I always thought my sister could have been a lawyer- she could fervently argue any case once she was sure it was the right one. Maybe there is some genetic strand for this brand of passion.  

Friday, November 30, 2012


August Doeppner
Today, we're going to learn a little about August. August was my great-Grandfather, and a suave one. I'm still digging in the treasure trove of Opa's memoirs to set the background before we get into the letters. All italicized quotes in his blog post are from Opa's memoirs, "From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom." Opa writes of his Dad, August, in his memoirs with respect and awe. He mentions an interesting story from August's childhood that bears retelling here.

My father, whom I loved dearly, was a brilliant man and an excellent writer. When he was about 13 years old, he had a sled accident which broke his left leg. The doctor treated the fracture by putting the leg into a cast, which my father had to wear for about a year and a half. During this period, the right leg grew normally, the left leg not at all. One of his school 
teachers brought him books and homework, and my father even did some of his own writing...The end result was a well-educated person and writer, with his left leg an inch-and-a-half or so shorter than the right one. The only good thing about this accident was that it kept him out of World War 1.

There is so much to unpack in this story! First, it seems writing is in the family! In all seriousness, this story is THE story of how August became who he was, the smart man with the ability to use his time to think and write. The story tells us how he got out of being an army-man and perhaps how his life was saved. The story also reveals something about August’s personality. A regular 13 year old who broke his leg might pout, or at best - whittle away the hours laid up with leisure. August learned, and wrote; he cultivated his talent. That’s one good German boy. I see much of these determined intellectual characteristics in my memories of Opa. Grandmother and Opa had a lovely home that we often visited as children growing up. Something that always impressed me was Opa’s books in the basement. That was where his office was. Opa had physics books, history books, and other things I didn’t even know what they were. I felt smarter just standing next to the books. It turns out the apple didn’t fall far from the tree:

My father read a lot, and developed special interests in what Professor Einstein did- including some early work on cosmology. He also built his own radiosets, and fortunately, when I was about 12 years old, he involved me in helping him. I of course, was delighted, and from that time on there was no question in my mind, but that I was going to find some way to become an electrical engineer.

August instilled in Opa an appreciation for learning, just like Ella did. August was a well read and informed man, which created the perfect mixture of gift for his job as a newspaper editor. When Opa was growing up, August worked for the "Ullstein" Concern, a major publishing house as well as the owner of several Berlin newspapers.

Jason did some research into the publishing house that August worked for - Ullstein Concern - it seems they were the big business bookstore before their time. They not only owned multiple newspapers in Berlin, but had publications worldwide, and additional products that helped them stay afloat during the tumultuous war time. One little tid-bit of information states that the company owned their own fleet of airplanes and during war time would fly the latest newspapers to their employees who were on vacation so that they could stay updated.
When the Nazis came to power, all newspaper editors, including my father, were forced to join a Nazi newspaper guild, which involved signing the Nazi loyalty oath. This included wording that my father would not sign. He was placed on the Nazi's "black list," which meant that he could not work on any German newspaper anymore.
So Opa's father lost his job out of his integrity in refusing to sign a document he did not agree with. This took tremendous courage. August had the ability to read the writing on the wall and wanted nothing to do with the Nazi party. The problem was now he was unemployed.

Virgil Pinkley
One of the accounts that my father had at Ullstein was with the United Press, even then a major American News Agency. Its European manager was a Mr. Virgil Pinkley, with whom my father had worked for many years. When Mr. Pinkley heard about my father's plight, he came immediately to Berlin and offered my father a plum: to open and run a United Press Office for Holland, Belgium, and Luxemburg, with headquarters in Amsterdam.

The man that Opa mentions, Mr. Virgil Pinkley, was kind of a big deal. I love that Opa remembers him specifically as "Mr." Virgil Pinkley. Mr. Virgil Pinkley was the manager of the European division of United Press and was an accomplished war correspondent. Pinkley developed relationships with people like Walter Cronkite and President Eisenhower, and apparently, my great-grandfather. He heard about August's trouble with the Nazi's and gives him a ticket out of the newly formed hell in Germany. This single job offer put August in a position that would later enable him to smuggle Opa out of Germany. It likely rescued Emma, August’s second wife who was Jewish (also Ella’s second cousin- we’ll get to that later), from a concentration camp. Mr. Pinkley also helped Opa obtain his American visa. We did a quick search of Virgil Pinkley, and a lot of his writings and accomplishments come up. There is nothing about how he helped Germans seek refuge outside the confines of censorship, or how he helped German refugees immigrate to America. Maybe my family was his only gig at philanthropy, but I have a feeling he did a lot of things like this in his life. I wish I could thank him, and I wish the world knew about it.

It makes me think about the expression “It’s all who you know.”  It really is. In seminary, there was a joke we threw around about the fact that we basically agreed that everything boiled down to one thing: “It’s all about relationship.” I think that might be the redeemed version of “it’s all who you know.” I’m learning more and more that we have a lot of power to do good things for other people. Jason and I have been catching a show on PBS, “Finding Your Roots.” In this show, professional ancestry researchers dig up the juice on the roots of various famous people. I just keep getting struck with the fact that one person can really help someone or screw them up- for generations. Mr. Virgil Pinkley did not need to give August a job. But he sought him out because he heard he was in a Hitler-pickle. This one act of kindness changed lifetimes of events. Someone with a little power, a little influence, opened a door.