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.


  1. Hi there, I wanted to reach out and say how happy I am that you wrote this post. I'm Michelle and I'm Virgil Pinkley's great granddaughter. I've started to do some research into him and found the article about him ( that referenced your blog. I never knew this story about Nono (what we affectionately called him) and I'm so glad that he was able to give your great grandfather a chance at life.

    I love your statement about having the power to do good things for other people - it is so true. If we were to focus only on doing that... how powerful of a world we would have.

    Sending you all my love.


    1. Michelle-

      I am so touched by your comment and would love to get in touch with you and chat more about your Nono! If you by chance see this - please email me (my email is on the blog). Thanks again for coming to read and sharing your story!


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