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.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Today I’m going to tell you about Ella. Ella is my great-grandmother, Opa’s mother. She was born in 1888, and had one sister, Martha, and two brothers, Kurt and Walter. I have always held an image of her in my mind as a quiet, timid soul. I have it both right and wrong.  In his memoirs, Opa describes his mother as shy and quiet. (All italicized quotes in this blog post are from Opa’s memoirs “From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom.”) 

I know very little about my mother’s childhood and youth, because my mother was a basically shy person who didn’t like to talk about herself... My mother was a very quiet and studious person. She was born in the small town of Ottensen in the northwestern part of Germany, and educated in a fashionable Jewish school for girls. She became a school teacher, teaching primary languages (French and English, both of which she learned to speak and write fluently and correctly).
Helene, Ella’s granddaughter, reminisced with my Dad during my Grandmother’s funeral last year. He jotted down some notes about what she said and sent it to my sisters and I, giving us some more insight into our German roots, especially Ella. Most of the conversation was around Ella and Patti. Patti was Helene’s mother, Opa’s sister. Helene remembered that Ella taught world religion in the equivalent of high school for the Germans. I wonder if she taught that in addition to the language classes, or if Opa and Helene just have different memories of what she taught. I wonder if she taught religion in the schools and tutored in the languages. I wonder what that was like, being a Jewish woman teaching religion in a time of rising anti-semitism.

The words that I had often used to describe Ella in my mind are shy, timid. I thought of Ella as sort of a victim- of war, divorce, and prejudice. Opa described himself as a bit of a Mama’s boy, and now that I’ve learned more about Ella, I think Opa was very much like his mother: infinitely determined. As I allow Opa’s memories of his mother continue to massage into my mind, I think of how strong she was. I am amazed by Ella. She does not play the victim. She is ridiculously strong. She was sort of cast aside by her husband, August for the more fun-loving Emma. She was the primary care-giver for her children while holding down multiple teaching jobs to make up for the loss in income in the divorce.  

Another person who chimed in with memories of Ella is Renate. Renate is Ella’s niece, the daughter of Ella’s younger brother Kurt. Renate remembers Ella fondly as the only aunt who knew that she belonged to her father. Renate’s father was Ella’s brother, and therefore Jewish, and Renate’s mother was Aryan. It was a crime for Jews and Aryans to marry (although I am confused by this since Ella married August- an Aryan. I’m wondering if the law was not around when Ella and August were married).

Renate says she has only vague memories of Ella (she was young) but they are full of “very loving, tender, and warm feelings.” Apparently Ella was Renate’s father’s favorite sister as she would share her chocolate with him but their older sister Martha would not. Renate tells a funny story of Martha’s habit of hiding her chocolate in her mattress and then forgetting about it and finding the chocolate smeared traces.

I just keep getting more and more amazed by Ella. She seems like the center of her family. She shares, and takes care of her siblings at a young age. She instills a passion for education in her children, which continued into my generation, Opa and Grandmother paid for my college education. Ella was the aunt who knew the secrets and could be trusted to be loving and kind. Ella sounds like a matriarch. She should have had hordes of family and students, but rather lost them all in the Nazi regime. In another world, she would have grown old and grandchildren and students would be milling around within her strong and loving reach. In that other world I would not exist, but I wish for Ella a better story.

She lived a genuinely hard life. Sure, there was goodness, she had good friends, children, and a talent for teaching. But she lost so much. Her life was one great loss after another, crashing in with the predictability of a wave crashing to shore.  

She lost her older brother Walter in the first World War. I have a few clues about the importance of Walter to Ella. Opa’s middle name was Walter. Ella followed the tradition of Jahrzeit to honor the day of Walter’s death.  

My mother was not basically a religious person, but there are two Jewish customs which she maintained: The first is that she would not do any sewing on the Sabbath (for which we usually kidded her), and the second is that she always lit a candle on the anniversary of the day her brother Walter died (a Jewish tradition called “Jahrzeit”).
Jahrzeit Candle
From what I learned about the tradition of Jahrzeit in the Jewish faith, it was typically reserved for the honoring of parents (more commonly fathers) and important teachers.  If any of you have experience with this tradition, please comment and let me know.  I’d love some insight.  I’ve also seen an alternative spelling: Yahrzeit.  Ella observed this particular ritual in a life lightly sprinkled with religious practice.  Maybe Walter was more like a dad than a brother, or maybe he taught her great things. I don't know, but I do know that she chose honoring him as part of her spiritual life and it made an impact great enough that my Opa remembered it years later.  

Ella’s next loss was the loss of her mother, who she had been caring for through a long illness. All I know about this is that she suffered through a deep depression as a result. I suffered through depression brought on by grief after my Memaush died (my Mom’s mom). I don’t want to conceive of what it is to lose a mother. A good friend of mine lost her mother unexpectedly last summer. She was pregnant and had her baby this fall. All I could think about is how much she must want her mother. There is something very special about the bond between a girl and her mother. To lose a mother is to lose a part of your foundation.

After this loss, and maybe because of her depression, Ella’s next loss is the loss of her marriage. From Opa’s perspective, Ella was surprised and did not wish to divorce August. However, Ella granted August the divorce and maintained care of her children, even taking extra work when the promised alimony did not come in.  

Things didn’t work out financially; my father apparently did not live up to providing all the alimony the divorce agreement had specified, so my mother had to go back to work again. She took a job teaching German at the Russian embassy in Berlin, riding the streetcar to work five times a week; most of the time, she didn't return home until about six p.m. She was away so much that I remember as a little boy hiding under the table when she was teaching one of her students at home, just to be close to her.

Russian Embassy in Berlin
I couldn’t help but see a different side of August in this account- thinking him to be kind of a dead-beat dad. Ella could have easily spoken ill of him, kept his children away or any other typical response. I sense from Opa’s close relationship with August and fond memories of him, that Ella remained positive or at least quiet on the matter. That would be so hard. She showed amazing strength by picking up the pieces and moving forward. Where would Opa have gone if she had allowed a barrier between father and son? August was the main instrument in helping Opa emigrate. Would he have been forced to fight for the Nazi’s? Escaped without success? Ella kept plowing on.  

Another crushing loss would be the more abstract loss of security when Hitler rose to power. I don’t know that Ella ever felt the ignorance of blissful security, but Hitler’s reign certainly took away any hopes for safety. As the Nazi’s gained power, Ella’s family, both immediate and extended, began to disperse. Ella lost her family members to distance, separated by oceans of worry. She lost many of her family to crushing prejudice- her extended family perishing in the hands of hate without any power to stop it. I don’t know how she did it.

I want to give up on her behalf. Beat my chest and yell “STOP!!!  NO!!! UNFAIR!” Did she ever do that? She was strong, but for what? A short, hard life? No one lights a candle for her, and they should. Yet, my little niece is named Ella after her. My family is here because of her. I struggle to write this because the emotions I have are anger, sadness, despair at the human condition. She inspires me because she lived in a truly horrible time and place and made goodness out of madness. She was a good mother, one that Opa longed to be near, even if at her feet. I mourn for her life, her being forced to live in fear, loss, and worry. But she did endure, even if I think she should have given up. She loved.  Beyond everything she never lost her ability to fiercely love, and perhaps that is the reason she lived.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Let's Start at the Very Beginning...

I’m starting my journey with some background information obtained from my grandfather, Tom Doeppner’s memoirs. (From here on out, I will refer to him by the name my sisters and I called him, the German term: Opa). I want to set the backdrop of who Opa was and then go into detail about some of his family members in the coming weeks. Then I will delve into some of those letters I mentioned in my first blog. I welcome comments, thoughts, anything that this story stirs in your heart. I am using this blog as my motivator as I write a book.  Your comments may be included (with your permission of course) and help contextualize this story.

Opa wrote a book of memoirs called “From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom” in 1997 before Alzheimer’s drained too much of his memory.  All italicized quotes in this blog post are from this memoir.  I have read this book a few times over the years; it is short and easy to read through.  Every time I read it, a new detail pops out that I hadn’t noticed or appreciated before.  Opa’s recollection of his childhood in war-torn Germany is surprisingly candid and sweet.  It lacks bitterness. It is, admittedly, a rose-colored memory of life set against a dark backdrop, but Opa’s life turned out pretty rosy in spite of his obstacles.  I admire his optimism.  He tells the truth as well as he knows it, based on his limited memory and his hindsight knowledge of the future.  It is interesting to look at his memoirs, not just as facts, but also as clues to what details remained important enough to remember, to put on paper.  What memories did he hand-pick for this short book of his life?  Who are the most revered characters of his life?  

Opa was the second child, born in 1920 to August and Ella in Berlin, Germany just after the end of World War 1.  His older sister Brigitte, who was called Patti (pronounced Putty) was just two years older.  The family lived in the heart of a broken and humiliated Germany, the losers of the Great War to end all wars.  Despite the war, Opa’s childhood memories are familiar stories of school, ear infections, and yucky girls.

Recess, by the way, was far from the way it is in American schools. It was very regimented; we had to walk- not run- along a well-marked circular path; we could talk, but not yell; and there was a teacher in the center of the circle with a whistle, which he used occasionally to keep order. Another circle, with a similar arrangement, was a distance away, for the girls.  We ignored them, called them “Gummipuppen” (rubber dolls).

Opa remembers his childhood in funny details, like the circles he walked in recess, which sounds more like a restrictive PE course than our American version of the recess free-for-all.  He mentions little details in passing, like that his teacher often used the switch but never on him, and he later learned his mother had instructed the teacher not to use corporal punishment.  This endears me to his mother Ella and her quiet strength- deciding how she wanted to raise her children and that she would be in charge of disciplining them in her own way.  

Ella is a very special character in the life story of Opa, one who provided many of the letters that I have yet to read, so I imagine we’ll get to know her very well.  Opa remembers Ella’s grief after losing her mother.  Opa’s gentleness in remembering shows his love of his mother who plunged into the depth of depression offered by such a great loss.  I don’t think I ever noticed this part of the story before.  Now that I have had my own struggles with depression and have seen both of my parents care for and lose their mothers, I recognize this as more than a bump on a timeline.  

August, Ella and Brigitte

Opa’s admiration for his father is clear, and I do believe he must have been very much like his father.  His father August was smart, an excellent writer, with a finger always on the pulse of world news.  His position as a newspaper editor was perfectly suited to his gifts.  He understood the global impact of what might have seemed like local news.  Opa remembered the night that Hitler was elected Reich Chancellor, his father sat him down and explained to him what it meant.  In short: another world war.  Any time I read about August, I feel like he and I would have been kindred spirits, enjoying a philosophical conversation over coffee, or maybe gin. Sometimes I wish we could time travel and meet our ancestors, or even mingle with our parents and grandparents at a different age.  


As noble and wise as August seemed, he was not perfect, but even with his faults, I can tell Opa loved him.

In about 1925, my maternal grandmother, who lived with us, died after a long illness, and my mother became very depressed.  Maybe partly because of that, possibly for other reasons, my father fell in love with a second cousin of my mother’s, named Emma, and asked my mother for a divorce. My mother was completely surprised and crushed, but did not object to the divorce.(My sister and I are convinced that our mother loved our father until the day she died, but she never seemed bitter.)

Opa speaks of his parents’ divorce, a scandalous affair of that time, with so much grace and kindness. Opa gives grace to his father who falls in love with a distant relative and leaves Ella. His love for his father overshadows any bitterness or anger he may have had towards him at this time.  It is kind of amazing that Ella seemed to always love August and not show bitterness.  Either she was the best actress ever or she genuinely loved the man and through some self-imposed fault, felt he was better without her.  Or perhaps Opa was even more oblivious than he lets on.  His parents didn’t tell him they were divorced until he learned the truth on his own later.  You can tell there is a naive-ness about how Opa discovers his parents’ fallen marriage. 
One day, when I was about twelve years old, my father took me with him to a local garage to have his car worked on.  I saw the work order, which stated “Mr. and Mrs. August F. Doeppner” and an address unknown to me. I copied the address and went there on my bike; it was an apartment building, not very far from where we lived, and I saw for myself that one of the apartments listed the same names, Mr. and Mrs. August F. Doeppner. This was a major shock, even more upsetting than when I learned the real truth later.

I can’t believe they kept it from him!  How do you explain that otherwise? “Son, your father will no longer come home every night but rather on the weekends and he will sleep in a separate room.”  I imagine Opa’s sister was much more aware of the situation.  I wonder what her perception of this time was?  Rather, we get the perception of a young boy who remembers that his parents loved him and he loved them.  The simplicity is beautiful.  

Opa’s sweet recollections extend to many parts of his childhood, but something he never emphasized, or at least that I never clued into, was that his father was pretty well-off.  Or at least he didn’t suffer much.  I never really thought about Opa’s beginnings in an extravagant way.  I’m not sure how that affects my view of what I thought the story was.  I guess I assumed he had humble beginnings in America, and that assumption is still correct.  Thanks to his parents’ divorce and Hitler’s power, by the time Opa made it to America, he was very humble indeed. Opa remembered his childhood apartment in great detail, perhaps because it was his original home, packed with comfort and peace, unmarked by trouble. I was struck by the vastness of the place.  Eight rooms, fit with maid’s quarters, balconies, and large furniture.  August must have done very well in the newspaper business as they had such space and even a car, unusual in post-war Germany. Opa’s family vacationed in a nice resort in Kolberg, a beach on the Baltic shores, before the swastikas and fighting ruined it.  It seemed everything about Opa’s early childhood was dreamlike and slowly eroded to nearly nothing by the time he fled to America.  I wonder what part of Opa’s personality allowed him to go through the process of losing everything that was steady without losing his light.  He was always a positive person.  

I remember one of the last conversations that I had with Opa very clearly.  We were sitting on a bench looking at the greens of the assisted living facility he lived in.  It was a gorgeous day and a beautiful view.  Opa spoke of the beauty and had a simple joy in it.  He was happy.  It was mere months from his death; he was struggling with Alzheimers. I remember when we first learned that Opa likely had Alzheimers.  We all worried that he would fall into the typical German stubbornness and grow bitter and frustrated.  Instead, he became like a sweet child, taking in the simplest pleasures and enjoying them.  He fought the disease as best he knew how, by surrendering himself to the National Institute of Health for research so that someone might benefit.  He maintained friendships, surrendered the control of finances, and made plans to be the best patient he could be.  

When I read about his childhood, I think that he became his childhood self again.  As a child, he had the ability to lose the vast apartment, the maids, the steady home with both his parents, his country, his immediate family... all to face life in the United States with optimism, hope, and energy.  In his last years he faced the loss of his deep intellect, control of his own life and brain and body... all to come out in the sun to appreciate the sound of the trees blowing in the wind and the birds singing.  The more I learn about Opa and his family, the more I appreciate and understand the man he was, the Grandfather I remember.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Welcome to the Journey

Welcome to my blog! This is my first post and an introduction to the journey we are about to embark... I plan to post weekly, so check back in soon!

 I have a story to tell.  I’ve always wanted to tell the kind of story that is real, earnest, honest, not rose-colored or censored. I wanted to tell the kind of story that you can’t get in a headline, but rather the secrets you hear on the sidelines. The real, authentic, vulnerable true story that is only shared within the bond of love and trust. I finally found it. It involves war, tragedy, loss.  It radiates hope, courage, and love.  It is a love story above all.  Against the backdrop of hate, my story illuminates with love.

It all starts with a family of four: a boy and a girl and their parents.  The boy is Tom, or as I called him: Opa.  He was my Grandfather, a German immigrant who was stubborn and sweet. He spoke impeccable English in hushed German tones.  Before he became my Grandfather, he was a child in a country haunted by The Great War, or World War 1 as we know it. His family lived in a large apartment in Berlin, Germany and he witnessed the Nazi party’s rise to power.

Opa told me snippets of his family history while I was growing up, and I was always fascinated.  I can still hear his German accent in my memories. As a young girl, I was mesmerized by the love story between him and my Grandmother.  Grandmother grew up in Kansas, the youngest of 4, spoiled as the only girl.  When she and Opa met, she was engaged to another man.  My two sisters and I never heard any details about this story until we spent the night with my Grandmother on the evening after Opa’s funeral.  It was a slumber party to keep her company, and to relive a little of our girlish youth.  Grandmother told us that the “other boy’s” name was Archie and that she certainly had made the right decision to marry Opa. 

Several years later, after being the primary caregiver for my Grandmother who had declined in health, I convinced my parents that she needed to live closer to them. I had a young child with plans to expand my family and we were not guaranteed to always live close to my Grandmother. We needed to move her to the stableness of my parents, so she could be near family, her son is my Dad. We spent hours cleaning and packing for the move. One day my husband and I found a box in Grandmother’s office. It was a box of letters. The letters date as far back as November, 1939 and showcase the correspondence within my Grandfather’s family as he emigrated to the United States, letters of courtship from Opa to Grandmother, letters between the families on either side of the ocean, and letters of news of loved ones near and far. I was enthralled. I read handfuls of letters, crying over the news of those who had died long before I was born as if it was real time.

It turns out that my Grandfather left me a legend. As someone with a writer’s heart, I have always wanted to tell a story, but I never had one that was good enough. Now I did. I had the earnestness, the true love, the vulnerability. These letters slowed the moving process to a crawl before my family evicted me out of the box and promised that we would go through the letters later. Now my Grandmother has joined Opa in heaven and I begin my journey through their story. My blog will share that journey. My husband has volunteered himself as my researcher. I will journey through these letters in chronological order, read documents and articles about the world around that time. I will show you the letters and give you the information I learned, and I’ll share with you how it has moved my soul. You, my reader, have a chance to experience this story of love firsthand. The love that is shown through multiple generations, between strangers and family. It is a story that brings me hope. Light in the darkness. It all starts with a little boy and his sister, his Jewish mother, and agnostic father in Berlin. Somehow broken engagements, true love, Albert Einstein, Nazi’s, the holocaust, the US Army, and even the Quakers- all get involved.

Join me in my journey.