Sunday, November 10, 2013

December 13, 1938: Study in America

Original Letter from Tom (Opa) to Mr. Martin

Thomas Döppner

Amstelveen N.A.
Emmakade 8.

Dear Mr Martin,

I am writing to you today with a question, the answer to which may be of crucial importance to me. I know that I am one of a great many asking this question, but I believe that in my case there are various circumstances that will make assistance easier.

During the international crisis in September, in fact just a few days before the Munich Conference, I crossed the border illegally and without a passport, and am now living with my father, who is the manager of the United Press of America for Holland and Belgium. As a result of a petition to the Dutch justice minister, I am allowed to remain here under the condition that I seek to obtain a residence permit in another country. When this is accomplished, I will receive a Dutch certificate of identity, in which the visa for the relevant country can be entered.

You remember perhaps that I always wanted to study engineering in the United States?

Is there a possibility of me entering the States, at least as a student? Although my father has significant commitments to other members of the family – he supports among others my mother in Berlin and is maintaining my sister, who is studying languages in Paris in order to become an interpreter – he would agree to ensure that I do not become a burden on the American state. In practice it would admittedly not be possible for him to pay for my accommodation and studies in their entirety, but he would support me to the extent that, with the aid of some part-time work, I would get by. In addition, the United Press would also be willing to help him and me with advice and practical assistance.

I know that a study visa does not equal a permanent residence permit and work permit. I imagine, however, that at the end of my studies I could manage to obtain the permit, if not in the States, then in another American country. Besides, no one knows today what the world will look like in three or four years.

I am aware that the path will not be easy, but I want to pursue it if there is any way to do so.

My question and request to you, dear Mr Martin, is this: that you tell me what steps I must undertake to enter America, and that you, if possible, help me in doing so.

I got your address from Manfred and Lili Pollatz here in Haarlem. I have told them a lot about you and what you gave me and the other Young Friends.

When you send me your reply, would you also include a line or two to let me know how you, your wife, Haines and Dicki are getting on?

With Friendly greetings,

Thomas Döppner

(The handwritten note on top is from Mr. Martin: "An active member of the "jugindgruppe" (Quaker youth group) in Berlin, and a good boy- I should not hesitate to take him into my family.")

This letter to Mr. Martin, who we have yet to find descendants or connections to, is a simple, earnest request for help. Mr. Martin was an American who mingled with the Berlin Quakers for a bit and connected with Opa. Jason will do a spotlight on him following this blog- so look out for it! Opa hoped his connection with Mr. Martin might bring some possible solutions to his problem: he was stuck in Amsterdam with about a million or more refugees looking for a place to have a future. Opa hoped his connection and his particular situation would be just unique enough that he would stand out and find success.

The way I understood my Opa’s story was through the autobiography he wrote. He mentions in it that he was called to register for military service, which I understood as an involuntary draft, and he decided then and there that staying in Germany was no longer a possibility if he aimed to avoid Hitler and the Nazis. I never really thought about the urgency and suddenness that surrounded his emigration­ which at the beginning, as he tells Mr. Martin, was a race across the border illegally. When we spoke to Gisela and Bern, we got the impression that while his leaving was sudden, he did get a chance to say goodbye to some folks­ Bern remembered him saying goodbye. I always assumed that the draft into Hitler’s army was the catalyst for his departure­ but I never really knew the historical context for that. Having just read about the Munich Agreement, you can see how by learning a little historical context, Opa's departure began to make even more sense. 

So­ the part that you were supposed to remember­ about the militarization gearing up for an attack on Czechoslovakia­, that might explain why Opa took his military registration so seriously. It wasn’t like they were asking him to join the Nazi Army for exercises in the Rhine. There was a real event happening, and as Opa lived in Berlin, close to the border of then Czechoslovakia, this wasn’t an “ignore it for now” order. I don’t know that registration for the Nazi military was ever that­ but this crisis certainly put a tighter twist of urgency to it. If Opa didn’t want to fight for the Nazis, he had to get out, and right then. Opa probably couldn’t fathom that there would be an international “peace” agreement at the very last minute­ and either way, it forced his inevitable decision to leave Nazi Germany.

(A little aside, and I’ll need to do better research to confirm this as a possibility... But I recall reading about so-called “punishment brigades”- groups of unwanted’s in the military who were sent to the front lines as less-than-valuable human shields. These groups consisted of political undesirables and those of Jewish descent, like Opa. I wonder if Opa had been forced to join up in the military, if he might have been in one of these type brigades. I have no idea. But it is interesting to wonder...)

You remember he had a failed attempt to escape: got over the border, then didn’t know what to do, so snuck back in and hid out while his father came up with a plan. Then he was successfully smuggled, and living with his Dad and step­mother and no real clue what his future held. This is when he had lots of time to think and seek out options. He remembered Mr. Martin and thought­ what the heck­ I’ll give it a shot, maybe he has some connections. Opa probably figured that Mr. Martin had at least an idea of who he should contact.

I questioned if Opa really did care particularly about the United States, or if he was barking up every tree with choices. It seems from this letter that he really did have a dream to study engineering in the US­ at least enough that he had shared it with Mr. Martin. So he pitches the question to Mr. Martin­ is there a chance for me to get into the US as a student? He mentions that while he is one of many who are hoping to get out of Europe (especially Germany)­ he has some advantages. He will have a certificate of identity in Holland (which makes him a little less of a nomad), he has his father’s financial (limited) support, he has somehow misplaced (destroyed) his German passport, and he has some peripheral support from the United Press (the company August worked for). So does he have a shot? Can Mr. Martin help?

Also interesting to me is that Opa seems to be aware and even hopeful that he remains in America indefinitely. He’s pretty much kissing Germany goodbye. He knows that a study visa does not guarantee permanent residency, but he also knows the unpredictability of the world. “No one knows today what the world will look like in three or four years.” This was written in December 1938. Three to four years down the road­ 1941­42, the United States had just joined the international crisis as a response to the Pearl Harbor attacks in December of 1941.

So Opa pleads with Mr. Martin­ “What can I do? Will you help me? I’ll do whatever it takes.”

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