The original letter from Opa (Tom) to Anni and Gisela (Gis) Halle
For this blog post, I'm going to give you the translation in parts. It's a long letter with lots of depth- so I find it easier to read it and talk about it bit by bit.
Amstelveen, March 2nd, 1939
Dear Anni, dear Gis
I think you misunderstood my last letter again, but I have no idea which part could have given a reason for such a small storm. (I think he means what gave them reason to be very angry or very upset). I completely share your opinion, and never wrote anything to the contrary. When I spoke of winners in a discussion I meant the danger not to have convinced or found it together, but to be a winner, because of the strength and choice of words to bring things to an end. This danger really exists, and especially with people who are strongly convinced of their ideas, they cannot understand, that somebody who does not know these ideas, does not accept them, although they appear so clearly, and those people then are personally insulted. This should not be a hidden hint, I am speaking in generalities.
This letter from Opa to the Halle sisters is a continuation of a seemingly heated discussion. Opa has given his opinion about things, and it appears that the combination of his brutal honesty and the miscommunication that happens when people are not face-to-face, has resulted in what Opa called a “small storm.” The letter has a lot of little points that are hard to decipher in one read through. After reading it several times and getting the background on some cultural things- I have really come to love this letter. To me, the letter shows that even in heated discussion, the door was open for this kind of honesty and banter back and forth- across gender lines, across religious lines, and within what seems to be a safe space. I think Americans have lost some of the ability to have honest, productive discussions when there isn’t consensus.
This letter reminds me of why I read through these letters, research them, and write on them. I guess I could have just scanned them and put them up for folks to read for themselves- and some letters may only need that. A letter like this one reminds me that I am learning through these and I want to share that journey with others. My Grandparents are part of what people often refer to as the “Greatest Generation.” This term was coined by Tom Brokaw in reference to those who were born or raised in the Great Depression in the US and then fought in WWII or worked hard at home… doing the right thing for the sake of doing good. I think he had a great point, but I wouldn’t limit it to the US. There were many in Germany, UK, France, Poland, Russia, etc who found the same hardships and fought the same war (not all Germans fought for the Nazis)... The Greatest Generation of people were a people whose situation forced them to choose to do something, and many of them did the right thing at great cost.
Opa talks about the idea of having a “winner” in a discussion- and I have interpreted his writing to be a warning of the danger in needing a “winner” in a discussion. He defines the winner in this case as someone who has “strength and choice of words to bring things to an end.” He says that this is an especially dangerous person when they are so convinced of the universal truth of what they are arguing, that they are personally insulted when someone else does not agree with them. Truth, Opa. Truth. How applicable this seems to me, and how timely it must have been for Opa. I suppose that our need to be right and to win is a recurring human weakness. Opa saw it in discussions in his time, and probably most explicitly in political circles around the Nazi era. We see it now in politics, but also in everyday life. How often are we caught up in a discussion when it becomes less about learning or collaborating to move forward, and more about someone winning the argument? It sounds like the Halle sisters took Opa’s comment to be personally against them- and he said it was just a general statement. My thought is that he’s talking about Anni.
Gis, if the Quaker Faith satisfies you completely, you naturally need not search otherwise, and can consider yourself exceptionally lucky, but I don’t believe one can find answers for all questions on this basis. I at least cannot even see a way in all that, but I also don’t know any other idea, which can satisfy me. Naturally it all depends on how one solves problems, but I don’t believe, that the problems are so simple, to be able to judge by the count of people killed. (Which brings up the question, with what method more are dying). (This must be in reply to something the girls had written to him about.) It depends on which way leads to the goal (achievement) and in this we are of one opinion.
Opa writes about Gisela’s satisfaction around the Quaker faith. He commends her- but it is sort of backwards compliment because he then says he doesn’t “believe one can find answers for all questions on this basis.” I think he is talking generally about the Quaker faith, but with an unnamed focus on the principle of pacifism. Opa says he doesn’t believe “that the problems are so simple, to be able to judge by the count of people killed.” You sense he is questioning the efficacy of pacifism, yet he hasn’t found a better solution. He agrees on the final goal with the Halle sisters- he is just confessing his questions and curiosity. In this whole confessional/inner dialogue he is sharing- I see a bit of myself at that age, even now- questioning what I’ve been taught, turning over solutions and possibilities in my mind. I did this (most of the time) with respect, but not wanting to be fooled by the standard rules of society. I have read enough history to know that the general consensus is not always correct. I’m sure Opa had his fair share of questioning the status quo, and he can’t let himself stop questioning, even in Quaker circles.
I want to tell you about a discussion I attended in Haarlem the other day, and would like to hear your opinion about it. Mrs. P. thought it would be great, if the world had a Christian dictator, a man who would rule over the world in strong faith and great responsibility, and apply moral and material measures, to force all people to be happy. I believe this is the kind of means (ways) we want to fight against, and if it really lets us advance some the realization (reaction) will come even faster. Mrs. P. gave Cadbury as an example, who in his factories exercised quite some force to gain many successes. Force at first, and as the workers saw, what unselfish goals he set, and as they were really doing better and better, he could slowly reduce the force. Somebody replied, that the workers had only made comparisons, and since they would have been subjected to more force somewhere else, they acknowledged Cadbury’s work. The discussion was discontinued, but I was very surprised to hear such an opinion from a Quaker. How do you stand to that?
The discussion that Opa attended with the Quakers in Amsterdam (at Haarlem) sounds pretty interesting. Mrs. P. is Mrs. Pollatz, who was known for being kind of intense. You can read their spotlight here. The discussion revolved around the idea of a beneficent Christian dictator… which is a fair option to bring up in an international climate of rising dictatorships. What would it mean if the dictator were a good, Christian person? The Quaker ideal that there is that of God in everyone likely boosts the idea that this could work out. However, Opa is astonished that even a Quaker would espouse this idea. The example used was that of the Cadbury’s (yes, as in the Cadbury eggs)- the early company was famous for their fair wages and treatment of their factory workers. I read an article online about them (read it here), but haven’t gotten deep enough in my research to find anything about them being “forceful” in their good works. I’m curious to find out more about that. Either way- Opa is bringing up the idea of forcing goodness on others… which he finds to be not in line with the Quaker ideals. This sort of balances the discussion a bit- and shows that Opa is struggling with the concepts of power, good, evil, pacifism, and perhaps a concept of “just-war.” The backdrop for his internal struggle is like a pick your own adventure book, with every possibility and outcome being experimented with on the international landscape. Is there a need for a dictator sometimes? What if s/he is a good one? Opa can see that this is the same pit that Germany fell into as it progressively seceded power to a leader they trusted could turn things around if only given the ability to do it. Yes, there may be that of God in all of us, but that doesn’t mean that we should all get unilateral power over a country (and empire). Once again, history warns us about that sort of thing.
It really is not my intention to try to appear superior to you in any way. I am very sorry, if my letters to you gave you the reason to believe that. If again you have that impression, it does not mean anything bad (mean), it’s just a poor choice of words. I will make an effort to be more careful about that.
It kind of makes me happy that the Halle sisters accuse Opa of trying to appear superior to them. Whether or not Opa actually felt that way (and my honest opinion is that he did not 100% feel that way, but maybe a small part of him did and it seeped out at times)... I love that this relationship is in such a place where they can call him out on that. He apologizes, and then in the next paragraph he gives his critique of their report. Ha.
My critic of your ¾ year report I sent to Mr. W. (Mr. Wohlrabe) 2 months ago, he wrote me, he did not read it to anybody for the following reason: You had so much joy with the report, were so proud of it, also received much acknowledgement from the adults, it would have been wrong take it apart critically. Well, I think criticism is good everywhere, especially when it comes from one’s own ranks, but Mr. W. must have had his reasons. So, what I now write about the report, please do not read to the group. I think the report shows a bit of a “dancing lessons” atmosphere, which has sneaked into the group, which is terribly superficial. I was still there at many of the discussions and I know they were better than described.
His critique is fair, I think he means to emphasize that the group is more thoughtful and complex than their report showed. Opa talks about a “dancing lessons” atmosphere that makes the group seem superficial. I see a couple of things happening here… I think Opa is warning the group about becoming too lackadaisical about things that matter, especially in a time when the world is in need of strong willed people to fight for good. On the other hand, I think Opa is grieving the loss of his community. He doesn’t seem to have quite the close-knit feel in the Amsterdam Quaker group. He wants to highlight and remember all the details of the Berlin group that made it so good… His sadness about what he left behind becomes manifest in a critique of how they may have misrepresented the group and the very real connections and discussions that they had. I could be wrong, but when I put myself in Opa’s shoes, I sense that he is not just critiquing the lack of depth in the report- but mourning the lack of depth in his current setting, and wanting to honor what he left behind.
For example the report states, that Stefan Zweig in ”the eyes of the eternal brother” did not solve the problem to the end. That is my opinion as well, but the report doesn’t say anything about why and what if the problem was kept open (unsolved). That poor performances (achievements) are not a mistake, but the victory of the subconscious over the consciousness, to be part of Freud’s theory was not clear to me, but that’s probably my fault. Then the report speaks of a contradiction between “Menching’s book” and M. L. lecture. I cannot find one in it. They claim that people of different races, living under equal conditions, do not show any significant differences in their intellect and their abilities, which does not mean at all, that life together must be harmonious. Those are 2 totally different questions. Then it says, the individual can expect from the community only as much as he gives himself. I don’t think so. The individual should expect from his community, that they, if needed, totally and absolutely support him, without checking how much he has done for the community. After all, the community is not a store (business), where everything is precisely settled up to each penny. Everyone should, without indifference, expect from the community all it can give, no matter how much he himself can give. That he gives to his own abilities (strength) is taken for granted, otherwise a community cannot exist, how strong his strength is, only he can decide alone. The whole report seems to also be rather incomplete, as you beautifully noted your themes, sometimes also give the results, but the meaning of the report, an account of the discussions, are missing totally. One more thing about the non-violent discussion. It says: some could really not understand why one, who is attacked, does not defend himself, and has the advantage, just because he has stunned (surprised) his attacker. I think that sounds so touchingly naive, as the little Moritz imagines non-violence. Moritz might just be a name for a boy who believes everything, I am not sure. (There is a German children’s book, MAX UND MORITZ, they are very mischievous, and the stories are rather bloody.) May I ask who wrote the report, or is that too indiscreet?
He mentions the Zweig book that I did a book review on here. (I did, seriously, a full-fledged book review. In honor of Opa’s need for depth- and my own love for new books.) The next part is one of my new favorite glimpses into Opa’s heart and mind. He talks about a book and lecture that seem to be about race and class. He then quotes someone (I’m not sure who- the book, lecture, or report. My guess is report.): “the individual can expect from the community only as much as he gives himself.” Opa disagrees. He writes: “the individual should expect from his community, that they, if needed, totally and absolutely support him, without checking how much he himself can give.” He makes a point that the community is not a business, with goods and services exchanged for a price. I really like this insight, and think it is important for us to remember that there are people in our community who are unable (yes and some also unwilling) to contribute to the community. I’m speaking in my own words, but when we focus too much on an individual’s ability to be productive and contribute to society, when we focus on that contribution as the purchasing price for inclusion into the community and its services (healthcare, food, shelter)- we lose sight of what it means to be a community. By focusing on contribution, we isolate and shut out those who are mentally and physically disabled, those who are elderly, and even on the most basic level, those who are children. Opa’s disagreement is a pretty important point to make, especially in a society that is making a habit of eliminating those whom they deem unproductive for society.
One more side note before I move on to the next part. Have you ever read Max and Moritz? If you have not- it’s one of those crazy children’s stories that is actually horrifying! Here is a link to the stories online, if you read even just the introduction and the last “trick”- you’ll see what I mean. Why are all of our classic children’s stories so morbid and bizarre?!
About my France situation I am in great despair. (Sounds like he is ready to give up) The other day my mother was ordered to the consulate with her passport and pictures. Overjoyed, she wrote in a letter to my sister, she went there, full of hope to come back with a visa, and then heard there, we have to apply again, since the files (Documents) allegedly were lost. Can you imagine her disappointment? This is how they play with people…(This is how they play with people’s lives)
Opa moves on to talk about his visa situation. It appears he is actively searching for both his mother and his own visas. France dropped the ball for Ella, and it seems like it wasn’t a mistake. Opa is pretty upset about it.
How is the group, how about your plans for work? Do you actually still have work regularly? The Amsterdam J.F.(Young Friends) group is pretty good, but sadly enough only meets once a month. They are also “ailing” some, that people are too well off here.
With best greetings
Opa asks about the Berlin group, about the Halle sister’s work. He reports that the Amsterdam group is good but only meets monthly and are “too well off here.” I remember Helene (Opa’s niece, his sister Patti’s daughter) telling me something about her mother’s worldview. She said that her mother (Patti) felt that if you hadn’t gone through real hardship or struggle, then you weren’t really as wise or credible as someone who had. I think Opa is mirroring some of these ideas here, but it is interesting that he did not think like this or talk like this in later years, not while I knew him.
Opa is in transition- mourning the loss of home and familiar friendships, facing a changing landscape and anticipating an unknown future. I’m grateful that he had friends like the Halle sisters that he could write out his thoughts to and find a response that was not timid but still accepting.