Saturday, May 24, 2014

June 17, 1939 - Opa's Confidant

Translation by Salome:
Amstelveen, June 17th 1939

Dear Gis,

Maybe it is better if I don't discuss your letter, but try to forget with you and recall the previous time. There is only one thing that I would like to tell you in regard to your last letter. I am very thankful that you convinced Anni to write me again. You can imagine how I felt after receiving the letters from Italy (of which you obviously know), and how glad I was that we were writing each other again. And I want to get back to you on another subject, which has been a long time ago, but hasn't been forgotten. I want to thank you for what you have been to me during the mountain trip. It was a difficult time for me, and I felt very lonely. I didn't get any sympathy from the other girls, but only trouble that this awful tension happened. While the boys (Werner being at the head) had a tremendous fury against Anni and tried to arouse me against her. You were the only one who showed consideration and tried to help me. I have remembered that and I do appreciate it.

Great that now you finally have the permit. When is it time to go? Do you know already from where you will be leaving? It is really bleak how Germany becomes empty of people. When one considers that all the people that are being written to, to all countries and parts of the world who have been living in the same town three to four years ago, and we see that these migrations become bigger and worse, then one can see the effects the Nazis have. Even the people I like, start to emigrate; Hitler makes sure that nothing and nobody stays back in Germany that I would want to long to return to, or that going away would make me sad. How terrible though for the unfortunate ones who have to stay back in Germany! One cannot think about it, otherwise there would only be hate feelings growing within oneself. I am really not sure what I would do if it would start 'over there'.  I know certainly well what I would have to do, but if one would go with the flow in the decisive moment? Be glad that you are a girl and don't know the lust which is shown in violence. Because with us it is the opposite than with you, the feeling tells us: Strike! and it is the mind that keeps us back. (I recently tried to explain these things to Mrs. Pollatz, you can imagine her outrage.)

I haven't gotten any further with my American affairs. The Ohio College sent me a form which I had to have filled out by my last teacher. My math teacher sent it back to me now, but it is filled out with mistakes. He marked all the questions with the best answer and on top of that a most polite general judgment.  Also with that, I received the day before yesterday the copy of a recommendation, which a U.P.-man has sent for me to Ohio. This U.P- man has been late, which he felt very uncomfortable. He tried to make up for it by writing a most favorable recommendation about me. He described me with character traits, of which I haven't discovered myself yet. For example I speak, read and write German, English, French, and Dutch, as well as some knowledge in Spanish, Italian and Russian. I am a young man of splendid Christian character, who does not drink. I have been an active Quaker for 12 years(!) and have always been head of the class at school, and so forth in this style over two typed pages long. In addition he has asked a United States Governor, as well as the president of the U.P. to write recommendations; the people will have a good impression of me, as long as they don't know me. I'm only afraid that these recommendations are too good, and unbelievable, but it seems to be common practice in America. Well, hopefully it will help some. In addition there is still the French issue, and it was promised to my sister that she will have the determining answer in 14 days. They probably will give her the same promise again in another 14 days...

Now a request: When Kaethe Juergens was here I organized for her the report of your Easter conference, but afterwards I haven't seen her nor the report anymore. Can you write me your report? I will type it then for myself, and will return it to you again. It means a lot to me. In addition I want to write about it to Berlin as well.

How do you like the picture? I find it very good, even if it isn't very similar. Do you want more copies of it?

With hearty greetings!

In every person’s life- they should have a trusted confidant. The sooner and longer we have this- the less alone we will feel. Gisela was this for Opa- I can see it. There may be a hint of affection between them, but at least for Opa, this was a classic friendship - where two people can confide, inform, sharpen, disagree, and genuinely care for the other. I love this friendship. I had a friend in grade school who remained a friend throughout High school- he was a confidant- another person who felt a little odd in the masses... and together, I felt less odd and accepted. We don’t keep in touch very much now, but our friendship was important. I see the role of friendship as having the power to sustain people for the struggles of life. Not just existing friendships- but the foundation and comraderie of friendships past.. knowing someone out there shared a part of your formative years of life and walked with you- it is comforting.
Opa is a bit cryptic (for us anyway) about Gisela’s last letter. I wrote this blog a while ago and am now coming back to correct it. I had originally thought the cryptic beginning was about the fight he had with Anni, but now I think I know what it is- and I can’t believe I didn’t see it before!
Another Quaker group alumni that I have had the privilege of meeting- Bern Brent- said that Gisela and Opa would often go off on little walks and talks together during the Quaker trips to the mountains. Bern of course assumed that their talks evolved into more than friendship- but he never knew for sure. In fact- when he and my parents and Gisela were all sitting in the Quaker meeting room in Berlin in 2013, he asked Gisela point blank- “Did you two ever kiss?!” It was like he was asking for the finale to a 75 year cliff-hanger!
The kiss! I kept putting off the kiss story because I wanted to wait until she had officially made her visit in the timeline of these letters. However, they never mention it in the letters, so I kind of forgot about it. Well- then I remembered that Gisela gave me this picture she had taken when she visited Opa in Amstelveen, with a date on the back of it. The date: May, 1939.
Photo of Gisela Halle in Amstelveen
Back of Photo
This letter is after their visit, and I believe that Gisela must have written a note to Opa about the kiss. Having met Gisela, her demeanor is such that I’m sure she was a little bit embarrassed and wanted to make sure that they would remain friends, remain in touch, but also remain practical. To “forget” - as Opa said he would forget with her.
SO let’s take a brief moment and tell the story of the kiss, as retold by Gisela:
When Gisela rode on the kindertransport train to Britain, she was able to make a stop in Amsterdam on her way. That stop resulted in a brief visit with Opa. Gisela said they were making their way from Amstelveen back to Amsterdam when they were stopped by the police in a sort of air raid drill. So the two of them stood huddled and waiting for the all-clear. That was when Opa kissed her. Gisela said it was her first kiss, and she thought it was Opa’s too. She said it was sort of sad, it was almost like a goodbye kiss because they knew the war would come and they knew they wouldn’t see each other. At the time she was to go to New Zealand and he was hoping for France or otherwise. The kiss was not so much romantic as it was a final gesture of connection. When Gisela told the story, she had pictures in her hand, one was the one of her outside August and Emma’s house (she didn’t remember them at all), and the other was one that Opa had sent of himself, she said he looked very nice, all grown up.
So that answers Bern Brent’s 75 year old question that he posed to Gisela: “did you kiss?!” Yes indeed, they did. And how many of us can say we interviewed our grandparent’s first kiss?
Back to the letter- for whatever reason, Anni and Opa had gotten into some argument and Anni had not been writing and Gisela convinced her to write again. Opa is grateful. I met Anni when we took our trip to Berlin in 2013... and she was a firecracker- so who knows what offense Opa committed to get her upset with him. (I wonder if she found out about the kiss? Legend was that she didn’t like Opa, but maybe she did?) It seems that Gisela smoothed things over and they are back to communicating.
This letter gives us an incredible glimpse into the observations of two teenagers on the mass exodus that was happening from Germany (or at least the attempted exodus). Opa notes that Germany is so bleak, becoming “empty of people… Hitler makes sure that nothing and nobody stays back on Germany that I would want to long to return to…” How sad. Can I even conceive of this? Can I imagine America emptied of friends, family, and people who make my home worth missing? How do you grieve that? Opa shares with Gisela his current method- not to think about it at all. He shares his primal urges to fight back, to strike in the face of evil. This is quite the confession to a daughter of prominent pacifist Quakers. I laughed about him trying to explain it to Mrs. Pollatz- she probably lost her mind!
It is odd how freely Opa is speaking to Gisela about his dislike for Germany’s current Nazi regime and leader. Maybe I’m mixing my timeline a bit- but I thought that the letters were already being censored or at least monitored. Either way- he doesn’t seem to think his letters are being watched.
Opa catches Gisela up on his attempts to get into an American school- and at this point, we know only a little more than he does with our insight into the files from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) who are working hard to get him to the USA. The Ohio College is Oberlin, the one we’re waiting to hear from. In Opa’s mind, he isn’t really getting too far- but it isn’t for the lack of effort. His description of Pinkley’s letter of recommendation is hilarious. Pinkley is his father’s boss at the United Press (U.P.) in Amsterdam, click here to see his glowing letter of recommendation. So basically everyone inflated Opa’s abilities and qualities, although I imagine that he is downplaying his in this letter. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

I like the observation about how it is common practice in America to inflate and exaggerate (even though the German math professor did as well). This is probably right- as the Germans tend to be more forthright with their honesty. Someone once described the Berlin way (even their way of speaking) as being particularly abrupt. They said in a restaurant seating situation, someone from another area of Germany would join in the courtesy dance of allowing others to sit where they like, where a Berliner would immediately sit where they please and/or instruct others to sit in a certain spot. Direct. I kind of love it. I experienced this when having dinner with one of Opa’s Berliner friends in Virginia last month. She had no problem telling people what to do or where to sit, but she pulled it off with the grace of hospitality and friendliness. That’s skill!
I don’t know what the "French issue" is that Opa is talking about with his sister Patti, who lives in France. I’m wondering if this is a hint to their work on trying to get Ella to France with Patti.
Opa finishes his letter with some inquiries about the Quaker group’s recent report - which I appreciate. He is trying to keep up with what the group is doing, he is still invested. Not everyone has left Germany yet.

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