Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Spotlight: The Halle Family

Hey all...it’s Jason, your friendly neighborhood researcher.  As we go through our project, I have tried my best to look up any names that come up...even those that may not have been directly related to Sarah’s Opa. Sarah and I, from the beginning, have talked about this project in terms of stories...Opa’s story, Grandmother’s story (we won’t get to her for a little bit), the story of the Jewish people during World War II, and so much more. With that focus, we try to share the many stories that Opa was interconnected with. Through this blog, you will hear stories (or what we can find of stories) of other refugees, college students seeking to help people, military officers and more.

If you remember, back in Germany, Opa was a member of a Quaker youth group. Not only have we been in touch with some of them, but Sarah has met three of them, Bern Brent, Gisela Halle Faust, and Anni Halle. We have letters that Opa sent to the Halle sisters. Their whole family was an important part of Opa’s teenage years and so we wanted to do one spotlight on the whole family. You will hear about Bern a little later! Although the Halle family is a bit larger, we are going to just focus on "Gis" and Anni and their parents, Gerhard and Olga. All quotes will be from the book, “Quakers and Nazis” by Hans Schmitt unless otherwise noted. I will give some info about Gis and Anni’s parents and Sarah will share her reflections about meeting Anni and Gis and a bit about their lives. 

Gerhard and Olga Halle:

 This is a photo of Olga and Gerhard that Gisela shared with us by Gisela in 2013

Gerhard and Olga Halle can best be described as two people who were connected with the rich history of their country, living that out through their love of their country and its people. Olga was part of a famous German family, the Lillienthals. Otto Lilienthal was her uncle and Otto Lilienthal has been described in books as Germany’s equivalent of the Wright Brothers in America. Otto created some of the first gliders. Needless to say, the Lilienthal family was quite well known. 

I do not know much about Gerhard’s youth. As a young man, Gerhard fought in World War I for his country. His experiences in the war are documented in "Quakers and Nazis"... 

He and his engineers carried out the scorched earth-policy ordered during the German retreat to the Hindenburg line in 1917. They leveled ‘handsome, well preserved villages’ and mined the city hall of Bapaume, which blew up two weeks after their departure, causing great loss of life.

The “scorched earth-policy” meant that while the German’s retreated, they destroyed homes and gardens, food supplies, or anything else that the Allies could use against them. They also left booby traps like what happened at city hall to try and slow down the Allies.

The first World War, like it did for so many, changed things for the Halles. Most importantly, ideologically. For Gerhard, the horrific experiences of war changed his heart about the effectiveness and need for war. Below are some quotes that give you a sense of Gerhard’s new stance on war. 

In three meetings, held between May 20 and 22, 1932, near these battle sites, Halle asked his victims for forgiveness. Before an audience of seven hundred in Douai, he acknowledged his country’s part in unleashing World War I and accepted a “moral duty” to make reparation for the destruction.
When Gerhard was notified by local police in 1937 to report for the purpose of determining his military status, he did not follow that order. Instead, he wrote a letter to the Berlin Army Command, enclosing his World War I record, and declared himself ready to to give his life in the service of Germany “unless a higher duty restrains me.” But since his conscience also dictated respect for the life of others, he professed his inability to “participate in military service or its preparation.” This petition fell, however, into a void of silence.
In 1942, Halle was summoned again...the interview ended with his affirmation that before aiming a rifle at another human being he would turn it against himself.
The other thing that happened for the Halle’s is that they joined the Quakers through the Berlin Center of the Friends in 1934. Gerhard and Olga Halle were a very important presence with the Berlin Quakers. They are mentioned by both Albert Martin and Leonard Kenworthy, who were American representatives to the Berlin Center of the Quakers, as people who were graciously hospitable and very connected to the life of the city. As the years continued and the Nazis began to rise in power, the Halle family struggled with the idea of emigrating, but ultimately chose to stay. They couldn’t leave when so many were in need of help. On a day to day basis, much of the work at the Berlin Center was done, first by Gerhard, and then when he had a job, Olga took that mantle on. Olga helped to lead the Quaker youth group that Opa was a part of. In Sarah’s trip to Germany, Bern and Gis fondly recalled Olga leading music during the Youth Group meetings. 

In 1936, Gerhard wrote a biography of Otto Lilienthal and the Nazi party had some concern with parts of it. When they wanted to change it, he took it back. However, once the Nazi’s identified Lilienthal as appropriately Aryan, they lifted him up as a German National hero, began a Lilienthal Society, and revisited publishing Gerhard’s book unchanged with the caveat that it had to include a forward by Goering.

Throughout the second World War, Gerhard and Olga were not shy of speaking out on behalf of those who were in need and lived out their faith through actions...Gerhard wrote to the Nazi party in his neighborhood against the euthanasia of individuals with incurable afflictions. He spoke out against the starvation diet of foreign workers in Germany. They also kept fugitives in their home. 

Olga’s compassion for the people she tried to help was evident. 
At the end of 1941, after emigration had been stopped, a group of twenty-eight clients remained who were in the process of getting the necessary papers together. Two of these were hidden at the Halle home in Lichterfelde and were then spirited out of the country. The rest were doomed. The memory of these desperate petitioners pursued Halle to the end of her life; a delirious Olga Halle recited their names on her deathbed.
Two of my favorite stories of Olga are captured below and show her resourcefulness and courage. I, for one, would have loved to have had the chance to know these amazing people!!

Both stories are from this website (although I found them in multiple sources)

Story 1 - 
One Berlin Quakeress, voice trembling, phoned Olga Halle to reveal that her son-in-law had found a copy of "Der Quäker", the magazine of the Yearly Meeting, at her home. He was a loyal Nazi who had been out of work until the Party found him a small post at the Air Ministry. The political contents of the magazine so horrified him that he marked all the seditious passages with the intention of exposing them to the Gestapo. That seemed certain to mean the end of the Yearly Meeting. Olga calmed the woman, and went straight to the son-in-law’s office. There she chatted first about aviation, explaining that she was the niece of Otto Lilienthal and telling of some of her uncle’s famous flight experiments. The son-in-law knew who Otto Lilienthal was. He seemed honored to be talking with so near a relative. Then, with her social status clearly established, Olga insisted he had misunderstood the passages in "Der Quäker", and that if he read more copies he would realize the contents were religious, not political. When she left, she took the marked copy with her. The son-in-law did nothing to stop her, nothing more against German Friends.
Story 2 - 
The case came up of an elderly Jewess in southern Germany. A Swiss Catholic relief worker had thought that baptizing the woman would protect her. In fact it meant that neither the Jewish nor the Catholic agencies felt she was their responsibility. But the Quakers discovered she had been born in America, and could reclaim her American citizenship if they could get her to the embassy in Berlin. She would not travel on her own - she was too frightened after Kristallnacht - and Olga had to go fetch her. On their way north, guards entered the train compartment to inspect papers. The woman was too frightened to speak, but Olga chatted with them at length, told them this was a deaf relative she was bringing to Berlin, and after a while the guards wished them a happy journey and continued on their way. The woman reached the U. S. via Portugal, some months later.
Gisela and Anni: Gisela and Anni were a part of the Jugengruppe and were two of Opa’s closest friends from the group. Sarah's thoughts on them: 

The Halle family (left to right): Anni, Olga, 2 brothers, Gerhard, Gisela

The Halle sisters were born into a family of boldness. Anni and Gisela both inherited some of this boldness but in very different ways. As mentioned above, their great uncle was the pioneer German aviator who lost his life during one of his test flights of the gliders that were the precursors to airplanes. Anni and Gis’ father fought bravely in the first World War, but was so disturbed by the realities of war that he did an about-face and returned to the lands he burned and asked for forgiveness. Gis and Anni’s mother was bold in her tasks to do what was right and protect the least powerful from what was a frightening power-house of injustice and hate. Can you imagine growing up with these people in your everyday life? Can you imagine your life being framed by the height of world chaos? With your hometown as the epicenter? And your people on the wrong side of the power struggle? 

Anni and Gisela were born and molded from this clay, and each of them have their own fire-set shapes. Anni is consumed with her family’s story, especially in connection to the city of Berlin. After the war, she worked as an archivist, with her research and fact-collecting held to a scientific standard. When my parents and I spoke with Anni, I guess the best word you could use to describe her was intense. She was deeply interested in talking about the history of her family, the history of her time, and how those stories spread out over time. I think there was a sense of closure for her in speaking with us, a chapter in her life (her friendship with my Opa) had been unresearched and unknown- now she could finish that story. She sent us copies of documents and books to our home in the US after we left, to be sure that we had the facts of her family’s story. Anni spoke about the burden of having heroes for parents. I sense in her fact-gathering that she aims to document their heroics, as light in that time when Germany turned dark. She turns the question over in her mind “How did this happen?”- as if it was just yesterday that the war ended. The wounds all seem still fresh even though she is able to hold them at arms length for a “scientific” view. She is very stubborn and opinionated, and I got the impression that her mind is never, ever still. Anni never married and spends most of her time at her home, the family’s historic home- which is decorated with pictures from her family’s past. 

*Update: I met Anni in July of 2013. I found out in November of 2014 that she had died in her historic home. May she rest in peace.*

Gisela is younger than Anni by two years. After the war, she was a nurse-maid for children and spent time in the rural parts of Germany aiding in the reconstruction. Her experiences during and shortly after the war were so soul-darkening that she had to go home for mental help. She was in a mental hospital when her family decided that she wasn’t getting any better and the best way to help her was to bring her home and love her back into the light. It was the medicine she needed, and later she married and had a daughter. She continues to be active in the Quaker group, even giving tours and talks about the history of the Berlin Quakers. She also gives talks about the kindertransport, which she participated in, and her parents helped organize. Gisela seems to be much more at peace with her past, and though her mind is active, she doesn’t seem to be haunted by her thoughts as much as Anni does. Gisela keeps in touch with a lot of people, and often if I am in contact with any historian or Quaker folk that is connected to Berlin, they have spoken with Gisela. Gisela moves through the city of Berlin by foot, train, bus just like any other city dweller. I don’t know that she spends much time in her home during the day. 

Anni and Gis don’t talk to each other. I understand some of the reasoning behind it...but it makes me so sad. In some ways their combined history, combined personalities, are too much, too painful, too big for one room. Most of their reasons are personal and not for my consumption.

I am so glad I got to meet the Halle sisters. It gave me insight into my Opa’s friendships, and how important this family was for him. I gained insight into Germany’s past, and those few who are still living in Germany today with all of the memories, hopes and survival instincts like these two women. They were fascinating people to meet, and I continue to learn from them. 


Gisela in July 2013


Anni in July 2013


You will continue to hear more about the Halle sisters as we share letters, so we are glad to introduce this fascinating family to you!

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would love to hear feedback! Share your thoughts and your stories.