Thursday, March 20, 2014

May 3, 1939: The Howards at Cornell

Original Letter from Howard L. Jeske at Cornell College to Charlotte Salmon at AFSC


Dear Miss Salmon:

I have your letter of April 24th addressed to Howard Johnson at Cornell College, Mt. Vernon, Iowa. You say that if we can offer room, board, and tuition for a German refugee you can suggest a number of candidates.

Through student subscription the Cornell student body will be able to pay a part of tuition, fees, and room for a qualified person whom you may suggest. The college administration is prepared to make up the remainder of his tuition through a scholarship fund and to provide opportunity for him to work for his board. However to make definite arrangements with the college administration we will need complete credentials regarding such a student.

Will you send me as soon as possible all the papers available on about three young men whom you believe would be interested in this proposition.  These papers should include, as accurately as possible, an estimate of his past scholastic achievements: that is, something approaching a transcript, of his grades in previous schools he has attended. You have sent us a short history of one Thomas Doppner. As one of the three, we would like to have more information concerning him.

Because complete arrangements with the college administration and collection of student subscription must be made within the present month, you will appreciate the urgency with which we must receive this information. I thank you very much for your co-operation and wish to congratulate the Friends Service Committee for the very worth-while work they are doing in this field.


Howard Jeske

Howard Jeske responds to a letter written to Howard Johnson. Just wanted to clarify- and giggle with you a little bit. “Howard?” “Yes?/Yes?” “Uh, no, Howard J?” “Yes?/Yes?” “Oh...Uh- you there.” 

Ok, I'm moving on. :)

Howard Jeske knows how I feel about being rushed to get the students chosen in time, which makes me happy and a little nervous too. We’re down to the wire- where on earth are Opa’s papers from school? Why weren’t those sent from the beginning? I found my answer using a little logic and some insight from a story in Opa’s autobiography: From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom:
Other problems arose at school when the Nazis came to power. As we entered school, there was a teacher at the main gate, and we were required to give the Nazi salute… I couldn’t bring myself to do that, and normally found a way to enter through another door...or go early. One time my head teacher was at the entrance. It was too late to back out, so I just walked in and ignored him. He called me into his office and chewed me out. He said, “Doeppner, I understand your feelings, but I don’t like being ignored. The least you could do is give me an old-fashioned “good Morning” when you come in.” The next day, when I went through the door, I said, “Good morning, Dr. Widder.” He said “Heil Hitler,” and winked at me…. Several years later in Holland, when I tried to obtain a scholarship to an American college, I needed a transcript of my high school grades. I wrote to Dr. Widder, and he sent it to me with a very cordial personal note.
I realized a few things through this story. Just like anything else, especially before the internet, forms and information were requested and provided through personal interaction and the mail service. We have some inclination that the mail service in and out of Germany was a little slow during this time. Also, I remembered another thing: Opa left Germany in a little bit of a hurry. I still don’t know for sure what caused him to leave at the exact moment he did, but we get the impression that there was some urgency to it. When you leave someplace in a hurry, you don’t ask and wait for your transcript to be provided. So it makes sense that Opa didn’t have this information with him when he left, and it makes sense that he may have had to carefully choose who he requested this information from (a trusted teacher who knew him well), and lastly it makes sense that in the age of snail mail transfers and with a backdrop of brewing war- things will take time.

As those papers are making their way to Charlotte at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), she is busy with requests left and right for more information on students. This must have felt like a big chess game- which piece do you move forward so that they all win? This letter from Howard of Cornell College must have been nice for Charlotte- they specifically requested Opa’s information as one of the three candidates they wanted. You see Opa’s name “Doeppner” written in the margin by Charlotte, and underlined. Then you’ve got two other names, one crossed out. Who knows why the other is crossed out, my optimism hopes it is because he had already received an offer elsewhere.

Howard outlines a pretty clear plan for how the student body will support the refugee students- and it appears that they will do it through their own tuition and fees. This is cool. Think about it, if you were paying full tuition at a college, and someone asked if you would pay even more tuition so someone else could go to school for free, would you do it? It’s the generosity of these students that worked together to give people an opportunity at life. I think for me, the more I gain the perspective of the abundance that I have in life, the more I am willing to let go of what others might consider scarce resources.

I had a pointed perspective shift recently when I was doing research for this blog. I spent an entire day working on my taxes, and as such I was looking over all of our visa and checking account transactions, making sure every last penny of tax deduction was accounted for. I noticed something sort of sobering: we spend a LOT of money on food. It was sort of a wake up call to me in terms of how to trim our budget. The same day, during a break in my tax preparations, I read some articles about the Hongerwinter. This is the winter between 1944-1945 in Holland when citizens were starving to death under Nazi occupation at the end of their finally losing campaign. The images were startling, and the realization struck me: I have a completely ridiculous relationship with food. I have more than enough. Abundance. This changed me. 

I wonder if the students in college at Cornell and across the US had some perspective of their own abundance as they lived in a nation crawling out of the Great Depression. People talk about those who go through times of scarcity as fearing future scarcity. I have seen that and know it to be true. But I wonder if there are also those folks who realized that they can live on much less, and then are more willing to sacrifice for those who are less fortunate. Howard Jeske, at the end of his letter, writes a kind sentence thanking Charlotte and her organization for the good work they have done and continue to do. Howard understands gratitude, possibly as someone who has been on the receiving end of help.

So we continue with the back-and-forth paperwork of scholarship offers, immigration information, and transcript seeking- and we remember that it is all done so that someone has a shot at freedom.

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