Tuesday, June 24, 2014

August 15, 1939: With Warmest Thanks


Dear Miss Salmon,

I need not tell you how I felt when I received your letter of August 2nd. Many thanks for all you do for me.

My cable advised you that I accept the kind offer of McPherson College. I accept wholeheartedly, with warmest thanks to the students of the college.

I don't smoke and drink, and I don't want to dance but to be in USA and study there. As for the second point, that there is no regular course in engineering, you are certainly right to state that those basic courses you mention will be valuable to me in later study of engineering. They will even be necessary for me. Furthermore, I am confident that I find my way after having experienced this first year.

As soon as I have received the college papers, I shall apply for the visa. I assume that these papers will tell me at what time the next college year begins. I only have one fear now: that there might be difficulties by the consul. But I trust that everything will run smoothly.

I remain, dear Miss Salmon,

very sincerely yours,
Thomas Doeppner

I was going to lump this letter in with the last blog, but something about this letter made me feel like it needed to be separate. I can almost hear Opa’s sigh of relief and exhilaration that SOMETHING is happening and moving forward. Not that long ago, he was lamenting to Gisela that nothing was happening on the American front. I think he perhaps considered it a fantasy with little hope of realization. Now it is real, and he tells Charlotte Salmon and McPherson College “I accept wholeheartedly, with warmest thanks to the students of the college.” This letter is his formal acceptance after his one-word cable: “Accept.”

But this letter- he is genuinely excited and relieved and READY. He has been in Amsterdam after illegally leaving Germany for over 9 months now. He has had very little contact with his mother, and has been away from his friends, who have mostly left Berlin as well. He’s been hiding out in no-man’s-land. Now he has a plan. You can hear the determination in his words: “I don’t smoke and drink, and I don’t want to dance but to be in USA and study there.”

Opa knows that he still has a road ahead of him with securing a student visa, but he has new hope that things will work out.

Monday, June 23, 2014

August 13-14, 1939: YES! I ACCEPT!



Dear Phil Myers:

Today we received a cable from Thomas Doeppner with the one word "Accepted". I had previously written him of your offer of a scholarship at McPherson and carefully explained, quoting from your letter, the conditions under which it was offered. In case I did not send you a copy of my letter to him I am enclosing one with this letter. I am really delighted that he is available for I believe that he will contribute a great deal to your college, and certainly it is a wonderful opportunity for hi m.

Now he will need documents to prove that he has been admitted to the college, and that his maintenance will be taken care of while he is in this country. This should be in the form of a letter to him stating that he has been admitted, that he has been granted a scholarship, and giving full details of your arrangement for providing for his room and board. The letter should be written on letterhead paper, notarized and signed by a college official. It might be well to use a stamp or seal of the college if there is one. Two copies of this letter should be sent to him and one to the American Consulate, in Amsterdam, with a covering letter stating that McPherson College is eager to secure a foreign student and that you hope very much that the Consul will grant Thomas Doeppner application for a student visa. Be sure not to use the word Refugee since there must be no question in the Consuls mind but that Thomas Doeppner will be able to return again to Holland, as indeed he is able to do.

It might also be helpful if you, representing the student consul, would write a friendly personal note to Thomas Doeppner assuring him of your personal interest in him and of the welcome that he will receive from the student body. I will write to, and then he will have all these letters to present to the Consul to strengthen his request for a visa. We should send these letters off immediately so that he will have time to get there by the beginning of school. We will arrange to meet him and to help him in any way that is necessary when he first arrives so you need not worry about that. I think that there won't be any difficulty at all, and that we will have him over here in good time.

Thank you so much for your efforts in his behalf. I know that it must have been no easy job to raise the money for his scholarship.

Charlotte Salmon
Placement Worker

P.S. Will you please send me a copy of your letter to Thomas Doeppner so that I will know it has gone and that it will be alright for us to write.

I just love this telegram. Opa keeps it short and simple. Does he accept the scholarship, the terms, the college? Accepted. Does he want to go to school, does he want to leave Europe? Accepted. Does he want to find a way away from Hitler? Accepted.

Charlotte understands Opa perfectly. She relays the message to Phil Myers at McPherson College. She explains to Phil that Opa knew exactly what he was accepting, and she expresses her delight for the joint opportunity of the school and refugee student.

Then Charlotte gets down to business. She requests official documents that will help Opa in his application for a student visa. She is very specific in her instructions, you can almost feel the rubber hitting the road. It is interesting that she advises Phil not to use the word “refugee” in their correspondence to the American consul in Amsterdam. It seems counterintuitive, but the situation is (as I’ve written about here), the less in trouble the student seems, the more likely they are to obtain a temporary student visa. I wonder if the AFSC had a long game here. They probably knew that many of these students would not ever return (or wish to return) to their country of origin.  Or maybe they thought things would blow over? I have a feeling someone had an idea of how to help these students once they were no longer in school and under the protection of their temporary visa status.

Charlotte even asks Phil to send a warm letter of welcome (and to send her proof he sent it!). Her confidence and business-like “get it done” spirit is palpable at the end of this letter. She must have felt so good to have some movement on a case that really had a chance of success.

The most pressing thing at this point is timeliness. The process of getting a student visa must happen quickly, and hopefully with success, in order for Opa to get to school on time.

Friday, June 13, 2014

August 3, 1939: Any Word Yet?


Thomas Doppner
Amstelveen, August 3rd, 1939.
Emmakade 8

Dear Miss Salmon,

Thank you again for your kind letter of June 22nd. I appreciate the personal interest you have taken in my case and all of the time and effort you have spent on my behalf.

Naturally I am greatly interested to learn if the winner you mentioned has secured the proper affidavit and other necessary documents. I will appreciate you informing me immediately a decision has been reached.

If the winner qualifies, does this mean, that there are no other scholarships available immediately for Oberlin College? If all scholarships have been awarded, how long will it be before additional ones are available, and will my application be considered at that time? Also are there any other scholarships available in other colleges or universities?

If so, I should like to have an application entered and considered, because I am anxious to arrive in America and to continue my studies without interruption.

Thanking you in advance for your assistance.

Sincerely yours,
Thomas Doppner.

Opa writes to Charlotte Salmon at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) - he still has no idea of his offer from McPherson College. In fact, he is writing to check in on Oberlin’s wait list. He wonders if he might have a chance at getting in, and if there are any other scholarships available at Oberlin.

Opa’s perspective of the process that Charlotte has been involved in is pretty narrow. In his mind, Oberlin has been really the only school- all the eggs were in that basket. He asks “are there any other scholarships available in other colleges or universities?” It’s as if he thinks Charlotte is only engaging one university at a time on his behalf- and it makes sense. We apply to schools and wait to hear back. The process of placing refugee students in schools is very different from the way we typically apply and receive acceptance or denial from universities. Opa basically tells Charlotte- apply anywhere! He doesn’t realize that she has been diligently referring him to every college or university that has shown interest in refugee students. Even from the handful of files we have looked into - we have found several letters where Opa’s named was offered as a possibility. There are likely documents in other files we haven’t seen that have his name on them. Opa has no idea how hard Charlotte and the AFSC has been working on his behalf. Come to think of it- he probably never knew. He probably never saw his case file. That kind of blows my mind.

What support have we had in our own lives that happen completely without our knowledge? How many times have my parents, teachers, siblings, friends, even strangers to me perhaps- been an integral part of my well-being without my knowledge? Like Opa’s last letter- how many times have we thought that we were on our own, when in fact there were people working hard for our sake?

A little side note: Charlotte received this letter on August 14, 1939. That is Grandmother’s 17th birthday. Little did this 17 year old know that the world’s events was bringing her future husband closer and closer to her.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Book Review: Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse

Opa’s words:
Do you know "SIDDHARTHA" by Hermann Hesse? He was a young Indian, who looking for knowledge comes to the Ascetics, learns all the exercises for abstinence, the insensitivity to pain, etc. but later moves on, because he saw this as an escape from earthly suffering and joy, to which an Ascetic tries to make himself unfeeling. Naturally it is too human to try such an escape, but shouldn't one, if at all possible, try to bear it?
As promised, I have read the book Opa mentioned in the last letter to Gisela, Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. These mystical/life quest books seem to be en vogue around this precarious time between the world wars. This book was written in 1922, soon after the shell-shock of the Great War. The future is uncertain, the past is ghastly, and the present time isn’t promising. It is a ripe time for self-reflection, spiritual questioning, and abandoning all preconceived ideas of religion and morality. Hermann Hesse looks to the East for inspiration. In his book, Siddartha, he chronicles the journey of a man on a spiritual quest. The man, Siddartha, isn’t even sure what he is looking for: wholeness? Spiritual awakening? Wisdom? By the end, even the concentrated effort of searching seems wrong. All along this search, he has a friend, Govinda, who is sometimes alongside him, sometimes distant, but who seems to always show up just as Siddhartha is transitioning to the next step in his journey.

Siddhartha, starts as a young boy who leaves his father to join the ascetics, abandoning all physical comforts and even necessities in the hope to transcend the physical world and reach full spiritual maturity. He masters this task, and leaves in search of a greater challenge, a higher revelation. He wandered into a town and met a courtesan, Kamala, from whom he learned the art of love. He also learned the art of making money and became a full participant in village life, all in the quest to earn his lessons in love from Kamala. He became saturated by the lessons, the life in the village, to the point where he no longer thought and acted as an ascetic, but thought and acted as an ordinary man with riches. At this moment, he felt the weight of this materialistic world and its possessions. He moved on from this life, suicidal and sick from greed, gluttony and lust- seeking to learn something else. He travels to a river where he finds his will to live, a good night’s sleep, and another chance meeting with his friend Govinda.

Siddhartha begins to learn from the river, and the Ferryman who is sort of an ambassador for the river’s wisdom. When Siddhartha and the Ferryman, Vasudeva, get acquainted and make arrangements for Siddhartha to stay and learn, the Ferryman humbly tells Sidhartha: “I am not a learned man; I do not know how to talk or think. I only know how to listen and be devout; otherwise I have learned nothing.” (105) I think this quote is a good summary of how Siddartha ultimately completes his quest for spiritual enlightenment.

His journeys are not over, as he has an unexpected visitor from his past: Kamala, who brings with her Siddhartha’s son. Kamala suffers an untimely death due to a snake bite, and Siddhartha’s son is stranded and stays with his father, a stranger.  The son is pretty much a spoiled kid who is traumatized by his loss and his forced relationship with his father. He treats his father with as much disdain and teenage angst as he can muster. Eventually he runs away and Siddhartha lets him go, although he is completely heartbroken, he knows that the son needs to go back to his village with the comforts of his previous life.

Siddartha endures his heartache until he can’t take it anymore and confesses all that is on his heart to Vesudeva. Vesudeva listens well (he has the gift of listening) and takes Siddhartha to listen to the river. Siddhartha has a spiritual experience, and awakening, when he listens to the river. He sees his own pain and suffering, characters from his life- flowing in the river. Then he hears the voices of joy, suffering, and all the sounds of creation and emotion swirling together in a cacophony that combines into the sacred “Om” sound of one-ness.

After fostering this revelation, Vesudeva is able to go in peace, and he walks into the forest “into the unity of all things.” (This death sort of resembles the death of the prophet Elijah who doesn’t die but is swept away on a chariot to heaven.)

The last visitor and journey for Siddhartha is his dear friend, Govinda, who has once again crossed his path. Govinda asks Siddhartha for teaching, for some moral or principle to live by. Siddhartha has a difficult time expressing to his friend that what he has to offer: wisdom or enlightenment- is not for explaining or teaching. One must simply listen and learn it. Govinda at last has his revelation and sees in the river and in Siddhartha the revelation of the one, of Buddha, of wisdom.

Siddhartha speaks of the one-ness of all things in his sort of mystical existentialism (my label)- he sums up his wisdom in this passage:
I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it. (144)
To me, this statement sort of sums up what Siddhartha has learned in his journey. It is sort of a combination of buddhist teaching that one should strive to escape all suffering... with the idea that the way to escape it- is to not want to escape it- but to experience it all and love it all as it is all part of the Holy Om, or One. It seems dialectical in nature, but I’ve found many parts of wisdom to be this way. This same idea is reflected in one of my favorite “mystical” teachers: Julian of Norwich, when she echoes the refrain “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” You could find this idea hidden (perhaps more flippantly) in the French expression “c’est la vie.” 

This idea of oneness- of everything and nothing mattering- is why I’m calling it existential mysticism. It is sort of a big picture idea of existentialism, but combined with a contentedness that comes from a spiritual understanding. So it is not an existential depression that follows (when you think- if it’s all the same, who cares?!) but rather- there is peace and value that ultimately, everything returns to God. All shall be well. Life will be, and the value is: love. Love life, love the world, love the spirit- do not separate them- and become one with it all.

I think this sort of practical application of a mystical journey must have appealed to Opa- who understood and appreciated the value in thinking and exploring mystically, but ultimately felt that it was an error to forever search an escape by ignoring reality. You cannot escape the world, as Opa has learned through his life experiences. But you can find value in the experience that is beyond face value.

Siddhartha is a mystical book that combats the extremes of mysticism. I don’t think that the ideas in it are all perfectly logical or theologically sound- but I can learn wisdom and truth from it. And isn’t that the point? Even if life is not perfectly logical or theologically sound, we can still glean wisdom, understanding, and above all- love.

August 2, 1939: Planning Unaware



August 2nd,1939
Dear Gis,

I would have loved to answer to your last letter, but I was afraid, that you might have left already, before it got there, and that seemed too dangerous to me. But you will meet people in Pyrmont, who can help better than I.

Your preference for Mysticism honestly surprises me. Perhaps you are correct, one needs hours (time) which will lead us into another beautiful world, but is that not the same as getting drunk? One gets drunk on alcohol, the other on worlds of dreams, the other of hope of mystical fulfillment. All of it amounts to the same: "escape from reality!" Do you know "SIDDHARTHA" by Hermann Hesse? He was a young Indian, who looking for knowledge comes to the Ascetics, learns all the exercises for abstinence, the insensitivity to pain, etc. but later moves on, because he saw this as an escape from earthly suffering and joy, to which an Ascetic tries to make himself unfeeling.  Naturally it is too human to try such an escape, but shouldn't one, if at all possible, try to bear it? 

Especially the mystic comes to us early, we need not to go forward to it. (Sadly enough I did, and now regret it a bit!) The two worlds you are talking about have nothing to do with each other, they are beautifully connected with each other, need each other, to jointly form a person. However the most important is the individuality, the own self and beliefs, because only in one’s self can one find the way, can discover the source, or even become it, which can radiate from there. And again, can radiate from within, not by way of examples, or some information, but in an invisible and not noticeable way, I don't know, somehow. (Perhaps a mystic way?)

Why are things different at your house with Anni there? I cannot imagine her that way, even less, that she feels hopeless and cannot see a reason for living. Does that have something to do with her illness?

I now have my French Visa, the passport should arrive during the next week, maybe it will come soon. I don't know if I can leave right away, it depends on the situation here now. There is not too much of a hurry since the semester starts in November, but naturally it would be good to be there before, to learn French.  The America thing (plan) I will of course continue, because I will never be allowed to work in France.

How are things in Pyrmont? Are you part of the annual gathering? You can hardly imagine how I would love to be there, but that is absolutely impossible. I rejoice like a child whenever somebody from the group passes through here, even if it is only Hilde Weiher, last month. In my mind [heart] I am marching in your rows with you.

Heartfelt greeting to you and the group

Is Mr. W. also in Pyrmont?

This letter to Gisela is pretty quick after the last one. It seems Gisela has written something to Opa that he is hesitant to respond to if she’s not around to get the letter right away. I’m not sure if that’s about something as big as information getting into Nazi hands, or more on a small scale like information getting in Anni or other relative’s hands. Either way, whatever it is, it seems Gisela should be able to get some advice/help from the folks at Pyrmont. Pyrmont is the site of one of the Quaker retreat centers. The Quaker group visited often, and it is still there. In fact, today, Gisela’s parents and husband are buried at Pyrmont. It is a special place for the Berlin Quaker group.

So Opa and Gisela are still on the mysticism train. I love Opa’s drunk analogy. I also love that he pins down the biggest downfall of many of these movements: "escape from reality!" This he believes is ultimately foolish. Opa mentions yet another mystical book “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse, which I am also reading (I’ll get those book reports to you soon!). Opa offers his own philosophy - that mysticism has its place as well as a firm grip on reality. He focuses in on the individual - and the self-discovery of someone who finds the way within themselves. I can’t help but notice that Opa’s reliance and focus on individuality comes in a time when he has had to be extremely reliant on himself through some pretty scary and trying times. He left Germany by himself, only to come close to getting caught. He was smuggled illegally out - having very little communication with people until he finally arrived in Amsterdam. (Read here for my account of Opa’s journey out of Germany.) And yet, the irony is that even though he has had to rely on himself and his own strength for much, he has also been relying on his friends, family, and the kindness of strangers.

I wonder if Opa could see all that we dug up in documents (some of these files he never saw)- if he would have a different perspective. His entire life at the time of this letter is surrounded by a loose community of people working very hard to help him. When he feels the most isolated, lonely, and independent- he is the most reliant on other people for help - and they are very present- if not close by.

I had never heard of Anni having issues with depression or hopelessness during this time, although I don’t doubt it. The Halle family were subject to continual visits from officials to ask questions and intimidate them. The Halle’s were right on the border of being acceptable to the Nazis. They worked tirelessly to counteract the work of the Nazis, but they did so cleverly, in a way that wasn’t technically illegal (to my knowledge, although I’m sure they broke the rules plenty- just not obviously). They had the Quaker name to protect them- the Nazis remembered the Quakers feeding everyone after the first world war (see here where I mention that). They had the famous aviator uncle Otto Lilienthal to name-drop should they need to. So basically the Halle’s were on the Nazis’ list of people to pester and check in on. That much surveillance can make a teenager/young adult go insane. Especially when you have things to be worried that the wrong people will find. (See our spotlight on the Halle family here, we will likely add more as we learn more).

I never knew Opa officially had his French Visa, and he was due to receive his passport in a week! He was planning to leave for France soon! We know as readers that he has been accepted to McPherson College on a scholarship, but he doesn’t know yet. Charlotte is only now receiving the news. He sounds like he is planning on studying in France like his sister Patti. I can’t believe how simultaneous these two very different tracks are unfolding! What if Opa had ended up in France?! What an incredibly different story that would have been!

Opa wishes that he could be back with his Quaker youth group, enjoying life with his friends on a retreat in Pyrmont. Hitler has taken absolutely everything dear away from him. Opa’s entire life has been shifted by Hitler’s existence.

I laughed a little when Opa talked about being so glad when someone came through Amsterdam, even if it is only Hilde. HA! Poor Hilde- chopped liver! He mentions Mr. W- that is Mr. Wohlrabe- the adult leader of their Quaker youth group.

Soon Opa, who is still a bit forlorn, will learn that the “American thing” is a very real possibility. Then everything will change. Again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

August 1-2, 1939: ACCEPTANCE to McPherson College!

Charlotte Salmon
Refugee Service
Philadelphia, Penns.

Dear Madam,
      I am writing to you again in regard to a refugee student.

     As I said in my last letter we were expecting to obtain a student thru Dr. Martin. I have at hand a letter saying that he resigned from the service and has sent our correspondence with him to you.
     If you do not receive his letters this is the substance of our letters to him. It is the decision of the committee that we accept Thomas Doeppner if he is willing to come knowing that this is not an engineering school and that our finances are sufficient but not over-abundant. We should like to know soon if Mr. Doeppner is available and if so if he is willing to come. Thanking you for your continued consideration of our demands. I am

Sincerely Yours
Phil Myers

Thomas Doeppner
Amstelveen N.S.
Emmakade 8, Holland

Dear Thomas Doeppner:

     McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas, has offered you a scholarship for next year. This includes free tuition, some money in cash for board and room, and an opportunity to work for money to take care of other expenses. It is a very good scholarship. The student body of the College has raised this money at some sacrifice, since it is not a wealthy school, and they are looking forward to the arrival of a German student. 
    There are two points I must bring up before asking for your decision. The first is the fact that McPherson is a small mid-western school, supported by the Church of the Brethren. It has about two hundred students. To quote the letter I received from them.
    "It attempts to maintain the standards and ideals of the church on its campus. Smoking, drinking, and dancing are not permitted. If Mr. Doeppner should decide to come he would be expected to conform to the ideals of the college."
    The second point is that it is a Liberal Arts college and does not have a regular course in engineering. Its catalog lists such preparatory courses as Advanced Chemistry, Advanced Mathematics, Calculus, Mathematical Theory of Electricity, Atomic Theory, Advanced Physics. I believe these courses would be valuable to you in later study of engineering. Many of the Liberal Arts Colleges have offered refugee scholarships, but the regular engineering schools have not shown such an interest. However, I think it much more likely that you might get a scholarship in engineering after making a good record at another American school. 
   I have been considering very seriously whether this opportunity is one that would be helpful for you. The college students themselves raised the two questions that I have also presented to you. You could find them, I feel sure, wide awake, sympathetic, young people, who would eagerly welcome you and try to make you feel at home. On the whole I think it would be a worthwhile opportunity. If you will let us know your decision immediately, we will send you the necessary papers for obtaining a student visa. That is a statement of admission to the college and of their plans for your maintenance during the year. Perhaps you had better cable me. The cable address is AFSERCO

Sincerely yours,
Charlotte Salmon
Placement Worker


Phil Myers
The Student Council of McPherson College
McPherson, Kansas

Dear Phil Myers:

      Just yesterday I got back in the office after a vacation and found your letters to me and to Albert Martin. I considered them carefully and also the McPherson College catalog and I have just written Thomas Doeppner advising him to take advantage of this opportunity. The only question in my mind was whether he would find satisfaction for his engineering interest at McPherson. Since he hasn't had any straight college work, as we know it in America, although he will probably be able to enter as a Sophomore or Junior, I believe that a year of preparatory work will be valuable to him. I also feel that association with a college group such as yours where he will be warmly welcomed will be of invaluable assistance in helping him to become adjusted to this country. I have asked him to send word by cable. As soon as I hear from him I will let you know. 

Sincerely yours,

Charlotte S. Salmon

Placement Worker

This letter is a short and sweet one, and so will be my thoughts. THOMAS DOEPPNER HAS BEEN ACCEPTED TO MCPHERSON COLLEGE!  (With a scholarship!) Phil Myers is the writer of the official document, right there on letterhead paper.

YAY!!! And it all boiled down to Dr. Martin’s word of approval. I had always thought it was the Einstein letter of recommendation that got Opa the edge- but it was his friendship with a German Quaker: Dr. Martin.

After Opa’s letter to Gisela where he confessed losing hope, he gets this good news. His next step: to get that Student Visa! Note that the date of this letter is August 1st, received by Charlotte on August 3rd. Let’s assume school starts sometime in September. That’s one month. That’s not a lot of time. When will Opa get the news?

Charlotte writes on August 2nd to Thomas, giving him the good news. She tells him he’s been accepted and has full tuition and money for room and board. She writes “It is a very good scholarship.” Indeed! She brings up the same two points that Phil brought up, giving Opa full disclosure on the conditions of the offer. We see again the no “smoking, drinking, and dancing” line. The second point is that McPherson is “a Liberal Arts college and does not have a regular course in engineering.” Charlotte notes that the school does have introductory courses available that would be beneficial for engineering, and that the scholarship availability from engineering schools is slim to none.

Charlotte gives her two cents upon giving the issue serious thought: “on the whole I think it would be a worthwhile opportunity.” She encourages Opa to cable (telegram) his response to McPherson’s offer. Charlotte tells Opa she will then send him the “necessary papers for obtaining a student visa.”

Things are about to speed up guys.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

July 26, 1939: Martin to Cherry


McMaster University
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
July 26, 1939.

Charlotte Salmon
20 S. 12th St.
Philadelphia, PA

Dear "Cherry" Salmon - 
      The four Martins are here, combining a bit of rest with house hunting and preparations for the coming academic year. This will be our address for the future. Of course, Anne and I shall be glad to help out on cases where we have already become quite involved or have a deep personal interest, but in general we feel we are too far away to be of any service in general.
     Today I come to ask you about a young man whom we knew in the Berlin Quaker group, and whom we would like to help all we can, Thomas Doeppner. Before I left Scattergood I recommended him for a refugee scholarship at McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas. I enclose their last letter to me, just received. I believe you have his papers and know where he is. I am not sure where he is now and cannot contact him. Will you kindly let me know whether you know where he is at present and if you do, please carry on the cast further? I am writing the college that we will try to have an answer from him soon. My second recommendation was Jerry Schroeder, who is at Scattergood. 

With kindest regards.
Yours truly,
Albert P. Martin

I started singing the Four Season’s song “Sherry baby” when I saw Dr. Martin’s little nickname for Charlotte: “Cherry.” Then I stopped myself. You’re welcome. It seems that Dr. Martin is on friendly terms with Charlotte, and we shouldn’t be surprised, the Quaker world is pretty small and connected. We mentioned this briefly in other blogs, (especially this Spotlight on the Martin’s) but Dr. Martin was a professor of German who volunteered at the Berlin Quaker meeting for two years. When he went back to the states, his wife spent some time working for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). This is likely how he was more personally connected with “Cherry.” After their stint near the AFSC headquarters, the Martins were at Scattergood (the refugee hostel run by the Quakers), and at the time of this letter, Dr. Martin was making a transition back to a teaching job in Canada.

After receiving the letter from McPherson, Dr. Martin writes immediately to Charlotte, unaware that she has been the one working diligently on Opa’s case all this time. Martin was likely aware that the AFSC was involved in Opa’s case, but he wouldn’t have known that he had essentially completed a communication circle between the AFSC, McPherson College, and himself. Martin seems to have lost Opa’s contact information and is telling Charlotte of the opportunity from McPherson should Opa accept the terms. Martin may have been out of the loop due to his transition to a new school and home.

You may remember the terms McPherson outlined earlier from this letter, but just in case, Opa had to sign off drinking, dancing, and tobacco among other things. He had already told Charlotte he was fine with that. Dr. Martin mentions in this letter that my Opa is his first choice, and mentions his second recommendation.

So it seems with all these contextual clues- that it is unofficially official that Opa has been accepted to McPherson! Don’t pop open the champagne yet, we haven’t gotten official word from McPherson- but things are looking really good! (And don’t tell McPherson about the champagne.) Plus there is that whole pesky business of getting a student visa. But for now- good news!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Review: Rainer Maria Rilke

I am not a connoisseur of poetry. I have only read the assigned poets from my school days plus some Shel Silversteen and Khalil Gibran (my favorite poet). Poetry has always intimidated me. It seems like you either “get it” or you don’t, and it’s no fun being on the “don’t” side.

Opa recommended Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry to Gisela in this letter. Rilke's poetry is surprisingly approachable. The poem I read is from Opa's recommendation: The Book of Hours. It starts like this:

Now the hour bends down and touches me
with its clear, metallic ring:
my senses tremble. The feeling forms: I can-
and I grasp the malleable day.

Well, that’s sort of delicious.

Later, Rilke alludes to the story of Cain and Abel..

You pronounced live strongly and die softly
and ceaselessly repeated: Be.
But before the first death murder came.
With that a rent tore through your perfect circles
and a scream broke in
and scattered all those voices
that had just then come together
to sing you,
to carry you about,
their bridge over all abysses-

And what they have been stammering since
are fragments
of your ancient name.

Woah. But here was my absolute favorite part:

God talks to each of us as he creates us,
then walks us silently out of night.
But the words, spoken to us before we start,
these cloudy words, are these:

Sent forth by your senses,
go to the very edge of your desire;
invest me.

Back behind the things grow as fire,
so that their shadows, lengthened,
will always and completely cover me.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Only press on: no feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself be cut off from me.
Nearby is that country
known as Life.

You will recognize it
by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go let everything happen to me and follow my dreams.

Lastly, Rilke gives me this gem:

O Lord, give us each our own death. Grant us
the dying that comes forth from that life in which
we knew love, grappled with meaning, felt need.

My introduction to Rilke has been a good one. And now maybe I will give poetry an honest try. I can’t remember where I heard/read this - but someone said the meaning and quality of art was in its ability to start a conversation. I’ve always liked that. It frees us from needing to label something as good or bad or perfect or flawed. If it starts a conversation, it has meaning and value. Perhaps the same applies to the art of poetry. Maybe I don’t have to “get it” or understand the original intent. Maybe the goal is to start a conversation. Perhaps I will find something no one else found. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Thanks Opa- I may become a connoisseur of poetry after all.

Book Review: "The Green Face" by Gustav Meyrink

Opa recommended The Green Face to his friend Gisela : “Do you know Gustav Meyrink’s the Green Face? That is a splendid mystic novel, which by the way, plays in Amsterdam.” (Find this quote in this letter he wrote to Gisela, which gives you some context for the mystical conversation.)

I don’t know that I would have said the same thing. Splendid might be stretching it for me. It is a deeply intricate tale of a mystical sort of revolution/revelation that occurs within a group of people on the eve of an apocalyptic event. And by apocalyptic, I mean end-of-the-world event. The very last scene in the book describes the demolition of Amsterdam (and it is assumed every other place is met with the same destruction) by strong winds (hurricane and tornado). The description is eerily similar to what I imagine an atomic explosion would look like. This is super creepy, considering that concept didn’t even exist yet at the time of this writing, as it was first printed in Germany in 1916, three years before the end of the first world war. There are many things that are compelling about this book (especially in the line of Meyrink's uncanny ability to foreshadow the future). The book felt sort of like a mix of The Matrix, The Left Behind series, and a genius tripping on acid.

Let me be honest about why I didn’t like it, and then I’ll talk about why it was intriguing. It took me forever to read this book because I could not get invested in a single character. I didn’t care if they lived or died, and ironically their mystic enlightenment allowed them to move beyond mortality. The book felt too much like an elaborate vehicle for a mystical, philosophical treatise. I understand that stories are often the vehicles for communicating philosophical and faith belief, but this book just felt like it was leaning too hard on the philosophy. I thought I was going to read a novel, and instead I read a book on the occult. The book has a fantasy feel, very dark, brooding and sci-fi, however, I got the feeling the whole time that I was supposed to take it seriously. That threw me off.

The edition of the book that I purchased had a short biographical piece about the author at the end of the book. I almost wish I had read it first. It explains that the author, Meyrink, was indeed known for his dabbling in the art of the occult. He was a participant in many mystical circles that favored the idea of “special knowledge” that allowed its participants to rise above to a new level of spirituality and understanding. This made the book make a lot more sense. Once I realized that the author took this stuff seriously, it made me understand why the novel read more like a philosophy book than a story.

The funny part is this: the characters in the novel talk about all the myriad ways someone can be led astray by silly thoughts and ideas, almost like false prophets of the mystical realm. The characters urged each other (and I’m guessing they were vehicles to tell Meyrink’s readers) to be cautious of the flimsy mystical teachings that do nothing but distract and confuse. There was a sense of “if you don’t know for sure, you don’t know. When you *know* - then you know you know.” You know? It was this circular stuff that had me putting the book down for a few days' break at a time.

I understand why a college-aged Opa would be fascinated by this book. It’s weird, it’s different, it deals with a lot of themes that are pervasive in his society (the fault in mechanically following our daily routine that is mapped out by our physical needs, things falling apart on the societal level, war). It’s something to think about, to chew on. Opa liked those sort of things.However, I think he held them at an arm’s length, which he demonstrates in the letter to Gisela where he talks about this book.

There are a few things that are compelling about this book. The setting in time was post war Europe. It was actually published during World War I, in 1916. In the novel, the author alludes to the idea that was generally held after World War I- that the Great War was the “war to end all wars”- but it's interesting that the author picks up on this sentiment before the actual war has even ended. Not only this, but he states that although this is what people think after the war (in the future setting of this book)- the characters in this novel have a different sense, an ominous foreboding. Meyrink sounds almost prophetic when he predicts that even worse things are to come. In his book, the end of the world is what is to come. The characters that make up the small enlightened group are almost like dual-citizens, humans from the past world and enlightened souls who can usher in and guide those in the new post-apocalyptic world. Meyrink writes of this ominous foreboding after the Great War before even a whisper of the Nazi government has been uttered, so it is compelling that he sort of names that this war isn’t the end of it. The novel is so dark and brooding, the scene so sinister, that you wonder if he didn’t have some psychic power to know that the worst was yet to come.

Meyrink writes about the main character’s foreboding feeling at the beginning of the third chapter:
He had found various ways of explaining it away: it was wanderlust, it was nervous exhaustion, it was the result of his unhealthy way of life; when war raised its bloody standard over the Continent he assumed it had been a premonition of the carnage. But why, now the War was over, was the sensation becoming daily more intense and driving him to despair? … almost everyone he talked to about it had a similar tale to tell. They had all confidently assumed that when peace descended on the nations of the world it would also return to the hearts of men. Precisely the opposite occurred…. the juggernaut they had driven for the last four years in the belief it would clear the world for a new generation of free men was a treadmill in which they were trapped for all time.
That last line. Woah. No wonder Meyrink had a cult-following. That’s downright prophetic.

I found a line- “seek spiritual enlightenment not from others but within yourself.”  That reminded me of what Opa said in the previous letter: “For everybody the way is important, if he found it in himself, and the development of that very own personality is the highest goal, a person can follow.” I do have a contention with this idea though. My argument sort of follows the idea of “no man is an island”- I agree that we contain within our spirit the tools for transformation- but we need interaction and other people to act as a catalyst for our change and enlightenment. We can’t do it all within ourselves- that seems to be … self-righteous? Self-idolatry? At the least it’s pretty cocky.

A side item that is worth mentioning, Meyrink’s characters are also a bit caricaturish, especially when it comes to race. There is an African man who is displayed as a bit of a brute beast, focused on sexual exploits and moving like a gorilla through the streets of Amsterdam, using voodoo powers of persuasion when necessary. The stereotype of the black man was so overwhelming I almost couldn’t pay attention to what the story was. All I could see was every single awful stereotype being played out, and not in an intentionally “ironic” way. I have to allow some grace as this was published in 1916, but oh my gosh it was bad. For a book focused on being enlightened beyond the physical realm, this was a quick reminder of how connected we are to our physical appearance, for better or for worse.

These caricatures also included gender, as the main female character in the book waxed poetically about sacrificing herself:
with the instinct of her sex, she knew that the most a woman could do was to sacrifice herself, but whatever course of action she thought of, it seemed fleeting, paltry, childish, compared with the intensity of her love. To subordinate herself to him in all things, to relieve him of care, to anticipate his every wish: how easy that must be, but would it make him happy? It was nothing more than what millions of women did, but she longed to be able to give him something beyond what was humanly possible.
I wrote a note on this page that I shall not write here. Let’s just say it is clear the author is a male.

Some gems from the novel: 
Thoughts are contagious, even if they are not expressed…
That is what I want to do, to tear a hole in the net in which mankind has caught itself; and not by preaching, but by escaping from the meshes myself.
And last, something I can hang my hat on, the main female character, Eva, is thinking about the common connection between all people and muses in the light of warring people: 
yet it would perhaps have only taken a tiny rent in the curtain that veiled their eyes to turn the bitterest of enemies into the most faithful of friends.
The Green Face is perhaps worth the read, but for me, not much worth a second read. As with many mystical novels of this time period, there are jewels to be gleaned in the philosophical musings. At this point, I’m grateful that the next book on my list is a book of Poetry.

Also- my apologies for not having page numbers with the quotes. I read the book as an e-book and have yet to figure out how to do correct notations.