Tuesday, October 22, 2013

November 28, 1938: A Home Feeling

 Original Letter from Tom (Opa) to Anni and Gis

Translated by Rose
Amstelveen, Nov.28th, 1938
Dear Gis, dear Anni,

Your letter took a little detour through Belgium, so I just got it today.  My father was in Brussels for business, and his office forwarded his mail.  Now the letter arrived with my father, and I want to reply right away.

So your plans will lead to Australia?  That is so dreadfully (horribly) far away!  What would your prospect be there?  Perhaps to start a farm with several thousand sheep?  I imagine Reinhard (brother of Anni and Gis) as a shepherd, or Anni felling trees, or Gis butchering chickens… 
Well, they say Australia is the newer world, with the same unlimited possibilities like the once new one (USA).  Who knows?

Anni, now you have the same boring work as I, typing is not too bad, but I think shorthand is deadly dull.  Every day I have to force myself to start, and I think I am not making any progress. How much must a decent (good) stenographer be able to write per minute?  How is that actually counted?  I have many different results, when I write for ½ hours I achieve 50 syllables or the same sentence 10 times, which at least accomplishes 70 to 80 syllables.  How many can you write?  Are you actually not going to school anymore?  What are you planning to do?  Why not become an interpreter, German, English, French, and Italian?

Gis, your work seems to give you joy, I also think it is the right occupation for you.  Do you have any practical prospects for that?  In Australia will they have many cheap black Nannies as in America?  Or am I wrong about that?  Here in Holland you would have good prospects.  There are many foreign employees despite the great unemployment, which does not include female work.

Everybody here was also very touched by the events of these last days.  Still today the papers are full about the refugee situation.  With all the misery there it is a consolation that it does not affect too many people.  The position of all foreign countries is unanimous.  Every day I read in the papers of families offering their houses, taking in 4 or 5 or more children, about petitions to the justice ministry to open the borders.  An organization was founded, called “Help-Organization” for people persecuted because of Faith or Race, and they are doing great things. Within one week the refugee camp received more than I million Guldens in donations, every youth organization in Holland organized a street and building collection on December 3rd, there are street demonstrations in front of the ministries telling them to let in as many  as possible. When one considers that Holland has almost one million unemployed people, one can truly appreciate what that means.  

Well, all that is a just an intermediate stage.  What should really happen to these hundred thousands, hunted and driven from one country to another, and can also not get into their own homeland, which is also much too small?

Yesterday I went to a prayer meeting at Pollatz (Quaker family).  It is strange, earlier I never believed what power a prayer meeting can have.  Perhaps it was only the memory, a little piece of home, the feeling that home is not only a geographic or language concept, that home consists of  habits, and if one understand to  find these in other people, one has a piece of home  everywhere.  Yesterday  I was thinking of these last years  I spent with the Friends, and how these years have influenced me, and that I can think of all that when I am with the Friends again.  One might call the suggestive, one can call it the  joining spirit, which  lies over such a prayer meeting, one can also speak of imagination, it’s all the same, the feeling is present, perhaps just imagined, but it is beautiful in its’ present.  As I said, it gave me a home feeling…

Now I will stop philosophizing, or you will say that during his travels, somebody ran over that guy’s brain (got hit by a truck, might be better).  I honestly worry that it (the brain) is on the way to dry out, because all machines have to run once in a while, or they get rusty.  Sadly I am missing the necessary running cost, which is converted into guldens in Holland, and one year of studies in Delft, the only T. H. (must be a school) costs more than 400 Guldens.  In addition there are the cost of living expenses in Delft, in short it is impossible.  My French visa is lying around in some ministry for 2 weeks now, waiting to be signed.  God knows, I can write my name faster.  Even without shorthand.  First I thought the Signature was just a formality, but it seems to be different.  Who knows how much longer it will take?  But even if I get the visa, there are difficulties, because how should it be actually stamped? I applied for a foreign (or tourist) passport (ID card) here, but the justice ministry has so much to deal with about the refugee problem, so things like that will have to lie without action. In addition I now see another chance to get to America.  A few days ago an American of the United Press was here and told that students get in easier, especially since my father can support me and receives his salary from America.  Since one does not need a work permit in America, I can find employment in addition and earn part of the study costs myself. I wonder where I will land next year.

Do you do only crafts with the group or do you also find time for discussions?  Or do you combine both?  In which group do you actually go, Anni?  When will be the Christmas party this year?  And how will it be arranged (planned, organized)?

I am enclosing a few stamps, no idea if they are worth it, but I can’t witness how almost every day, wonderful stamps end up in the waste can.

Are we ever going to see each other in this lifetime?  Perhaps everything will happen much different than one thinks.  Loving greetings to all of you

August (even though it was written by Tom)

Handwritten note from August in the margin

Please tell Mrs. Ella, that I don’t understand why she wonders about not getting any mail from me.  She knows that I myself suffer about that, but it really cannot be done now.  She receives all facts through Brigitte, but personally I cannot write to her, it wouldn’t make any sense. (Really would not help)  We just have to wait til we can talk, please tell her that, when you see her.

This letter has so so much in it. I’m just going to read right through it with you... the letter from Anni and Gis traveled with August on his business trip, so Opa got it later than usual and seems to have tried to respond as quickly as possible. The thought just occurred to me that Opa may have written several of his friends from the Quaker group. Anni, Gisela, and Bern didn’t give me names of people that Opa was close with, probably because I didn’t think to ask! He was close with Anni and Gis, and friends with Bern... but who knows who else he wrote back and forth with.  Maybe it was just the Halle girls.

It looks like the Halle family was contemplating moving to Australia. We know that they don’t ultimately make this move, but I wonder what was behind this idea... I know that the Halle family faced an odd and tumultuous relationship with the Nazi regime. The Halles were not Jewish or otherwise “offensive” by their race or creed, in fact they were sort of given some passes because of the great humanitarian work that the Quakers did after WWI. However, the Quaker groups (for all their humanitarianism) were under a watchful Nazi eye, always. The Halle’s (to include Gis and Anni) were routinely questioned by the Nazi SS. I spoke with Gisela on the phone the other day and she reminded me of a story that Anni wrote in her description of the Quaker Youth group... One night while the Quaker groups were camping out for “Family Day” - they were raided by the SS, and all detained for questioning. Opa and the Halle girls were among those detained. Opa was released so late in the night that he ended up spending the night at the Halle house. I need to ask Gisela if she remembers why her family was talking about Australia.... was there something specific, or was emigrating always an entertained option for escaping the Nazi regime? I kind of like the idea of Australia as the “newer world” - one day I will visit!!

I love Opa’s bit about the boring work of a stenographer. I get the feeling that he never got really good at shorthand. Ha.

Gis has been studying to work with children, and it seems to fit her personality well. I will say that when I met Gisela, while being warm and friendly, I was impressed with her “go get it” spirit. She is constantly moving, doing, thinking, connecting. She would probably have been a mix between the Maria of Sound of Music and Mary Poppins... and then throw in a little Dorothy Day and maybe a sprinkle of Mother Teresa. Of course, that is the 90 year old Gisela. At this point in the story, she is younger than Opa by about 3 years, so she is 16 perhaps? A kid. Opa’s observation about the black nannies in America is telling. It’s kind of amazing to read an outsider’s perspective on the cultural or economic situation of another country- especially when that outsider is my Opa and the country is mine.

We did a spotlight before this on Kristallnacht. As this letter is being written, things are starting to happen around the world. Protests, fundraising, petitions, groups, camps for refugees were popping up everywhere... or so it seems. It is really fascinating to hear from Opa’s perspective the optimistic view of the response to the horror of kristallnacht. When I was researching this event and the events afterwards (closing borders, fear, racism, not enough help for refugees) - I had a completely different perspective. And perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle? The people likely WERE horrified, and did try to help. People probably did rally to support refugees. But most of it was short-term and emotionally reactive. Opa asks later... “what should really happen to these hundred thousands...?” He’s right, and perhaps he heard others asking the same question. What happened for many of these folks is that Hitler got smart and hid his heinous crimes as best he could.  He used fear to control the press and his people. What happened was other countries fed off of this fear and in turn were more concerned about their own political status than the lives of other people. The refugees became avoidable, inconvenient, and a nuisance. Then they became victims of the holocaust. I know that is a sharp stab... but it is fear and apathy that keeps us often from making the right choices even today. The immigration law of 1924 has as its base idea the premise that people with money, intellect, and power are far more valuable than those who do not. It’s not surprising that this was a foundation for immigration law... what is surprising is that the people who would defend it would say that it is fair. It is not fair, or just, or moral. It is the survival of the fittest, and that has no place in most faith traditions. We must not kid ourselves.

Opa talks about the prayer meeting with the Pollatz’s- the family that he connected with through the Quakers in Amsterdam. His description of the prayer meeting is beautiful. You have to understand something about my experience of Opa. Opa was a strong, intelligent, German American who was incredibly proud to be American.
Wesley UMC in Alexandria
He was the head usher of Wesley United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia for 25 years. This man may have tried to forget some of his German roots, but order and efficiency were not dropped. He rocked that usher job. He was a strange mix of loving warmth and stoic-ness. Opa never claimed to be a religious person or spoke about hope in God. Opa did his job, loved his children and grandchildren, and swam 2 miles in the ocean every day of our joint week vacations in the summer. I only saw the child-like dreamer in his later years when he suffered from Alzheimers. He talked about the view of trees and birds chirping in a way that children do... delight. So to see Opa expressing that he is homesick, and that a prayer meeting of the Quakers gave him a feeling of home- this is doubly beautiful to me. You can tell it is even out of character for his 19 year old self to talk about. He brushes it aside, saying he’ll stop so they don’t think he’s been run over by a truck. But I want to know more. What were the influences of the Quakers on his life? What did change inside him? And I don’t mean religiously, I mean in his heart- did he see a different way to encounter the world in contrast to the stoic and authoritarian nature of German culture? How did that manifest itself in later years? Did it?

SO it looks like Opa wanted to try to go to school while in Amsterdam, but money and logistics deemed it impossible. I don’t know what all he had going on in the paperwork trail, but he seemed to be going after more than just an American visa. He had a French visa lying around - and his comment about writing his name himself made me giggle. His problem right now is that he is an “illegal” immigrant, or refugee. And as of kristallnacht, he is a dime a dozen. He needs a Holland passport (foreign or tourist) so that he can get to the next place without having to trace back to Nazi Germany. Going back is not an option, now he just needs to figure out where he is moving forward.

A light is lit at the end of the tunnel toward America, and Opa seems hopeful. In the meantime, the future is completely and totally unknown for him and all his friends. Germany and much of Europe is to experience a great diaspora of folks who will never see each other or home again.

Opa signs as August, an attempt to protect himself from Nazi censors who might be looking for him. He writes a sad note trying to pass an explanation to his mother why he cannot write... it is too risky for him. He’s dodged the Nazi draft, and he’s hiding in Amsterdam until he can secure a future for himself. Meanwhile, Ella aches for a direct word from him. The future for everyone is indeed unknown.

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