Monday, June 9, 2014

July 23, 1939: Darkening Hope

 Original Letter from Opa to Gisela

Translation by Rose:

23 July 1939

Dear Gis,

Please be not too angry with me for not writing for such a long time. My father is on vacation in France, so I am alone in the house with Bob, and with housekeeping, cooking (or better what I can call cooking) much time passes, and I also have to work, not much time is left.  Of course now and then I found a free hour, but for writing one needs, in addition to time, quietness, time to reflect, and the right mood.  Today, on Sunday, back from prayer service in Haarlem, all these things are coming together.  Now also finally the long awaited reply came from France, but I can only be half-heartily happy about it. The visa for me was approved, but disapproved for my mother. There are people who never have luck in life and my mother belongs to them. On the other hand not all is lost after all.

My father has a connection with the ministry in Paris, who can try to do something, but I have not much hope anymore, it is so awful.  In addition to that I was called up [drafted] to the military, who knows what they will do to my mother if I don't go. What if, one day, I have to face the question---serve or let your mother be sent to a camp.

That you are interested in mystic does surprise me some. Hopefully you don’t become too deeply affected, because I see it as quite dangerous, it satisfies too easy, and then when one is removed from it, disappointments feel twice as difficult. The mystic life of humans, in my opinion, is tied too closely to the earthly ways to independently live from it, and most of the time, the subjects of mystic are of earthly origins, and one searches in mystic the things missing in earthly life. Which after all is earthly. It makes no sense, after having lost the key at the dark front door, to search close to the lantern, just because it is lighter there. Haeckel (Ernst Heinrich Haeckel) speaks with exaggeration of mystic.  “They fled to mystic life and ended up getting out of the rain into the eaves.”  [German saying, I guess like getting out of the frying pan into the fire.] Perhaps he was correct about that. I also believe in mystical powers, mystic life, and mystic destiny, but I thought you belong to the lucky ones that are saved from ideas like that.

Sadly enough I know very little of any literature about mystic. Of the German mystic writing, I know very little, they don't offer me a lot. Very good is the Chinese Laotse, mystical thoughts you find by Rilke (Rainer Maria Rilke), especially in Studenbuch and also by Morgenstern. But as I said, I don't know enough to give advice. One of the greatest mystic books, in my opinion, is the bible, even as Christians don't want that to be true. Do you know Gustav Meyrink’s the Green Face? That is a splendid mystic novel, which by the way, plays in Amsterdam. Should I send it to you? With all my best intentions I cannot find the excerpts of the lecture about India. I put it away for safekeeping, too well I am afraid. I looked all through the house, no luck.

But I will write what I remember about it.  First he gave an introduction about Indian thinking and culture by comparing the ideas and developments of India to us, then he spoke of several single religions and mystical ideas, about the difference between  a dream and reality. Man generally thinks to really experience it all, so how can he in reality know if it is not really just a dream? As of now, no human has been able to define the difference between dream and reality! Somebody (I don't remember who) said once: Life is only a dream, Reality is someplace else. These are typical of Indian thoughts. Then he spoke of the rather strange fact that the Indians, through religion and odd [strange] mystic beliefs arrived at the very similar results in Metaphysics as modern science. The Indians deny any matter, or better would speak of the spirit of the matter … [sorry, I cannot do the next few lines, it talks about Atoms about vibrations, etc] 

For hundreds of years this would have been in extreme contradiction to science, for it.  Then he also spoke about the [this is not clear]…  Then he gave a short overview about modern scientific theories, which sadly showed a rather pitiful lack of knowledge.  Fact is, that modern science is more and more coming to the belief, that an atom is nothing but an electronic vibration and power condition. But that has not been totally proven, at all, even very much speaks of it.  Then he also spoke about the problem with the Yogis, but I cannot recall any of it. At the end, he placed the request to study more about the Indian problems, because in his opinion, the key to wisdom would be found easier, than in exact sciences. The whole report was done very well, spoken fluid and exciting, but sadly enough he also spoke much about things he did not know much about, and also his logic was not perfect. I will search again, perhaps I will find it after all.

What you write about Ullrich S. surprises me. He must have really changed greatly, but I do not believe him completely. Are you, out of pity, seeing too much? He always exaggerated much, and knew how to put himself in a good light. Naturally things will be hard for him, but he will easily exaggerate and let others pity him. I hope, he has improved so nicely, but I don't really believe it. Would you write to me about him again? 

Last Sunday the Young Friends meeting was in Haag, and afterwards I went to see Herbert [not sure about this name] in Scheveningen.  That guy has been so lucky. [in German it actually says, he has so much pig, which stands for luck.  No idea where that came from. But if you recall, in Ella's letter, written on New Years, she wrote about  good luck plants, like  clover.  Many times they were decorated with tiny pigs, chimney sweeps, horse shoes etc.] He lives, as you know, with a very rich old lady. The flat is only 5 minutes from the beach, the room has a view over large sand dunes, a real fairy tale view. The old lady is also very nice, she cares for him, as if he were her own son, and treats him like that also. She also pays for his training to become a Foto and Film operator.
I like him more and more, I really like his candor. We have become good friends now.  Friendship, what remains of that, when every year one has to search for another country?  And what a torture it is to have to write letters from there. Cruel world, and the “what for" grins at you everywhere, questioning, threatening and scornfully. And still it is funny, one knows the “what for,” and one's way. 

Now I have been alone here for three weeks, and I am angry that this time here is coming to an end, because it has helped me a lot. I have though a lot about my doubts about Christianity, and I am much clearer about things. Not Christ is the way, Christ is one way, and one that is correct for only a few people. 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. Sadly that humans always return to the values and support of the community, and having to return to it, and want to, is the best proof for the good in humans and the urge for unity between humans. Did you kind of understand what I mean by that? I am afraid I expressed myself not very clearly. 

Many thanks for the report, I will send it back as a business letter [circular]. Sorry, but I cannot send the pictures, until my father comes home, he has the negatives. Where are you now? [In German he says where are you hiding out now?] What about your residence permit?
Best greetings                 

This letter to Gis is the result of a few weeks of Opa being alone, left to his thoughts. It’s almost by coincidence that I can relate to the depth of soul you go when you have nothing pressing to distract you in every-day activity. I’m currently recovering from spinal surgery, so that means lots of reading, resting, movie-watching, and thinking. The thinking has about done me in. And now I see this letter. I don’t have a mother trapped in the center of anti-semitism. I am not a refugee. I have not been drafted into Hitler’s army. How can anyone be alone with these sort of thoughts?!

The first paragraph of this letter takes my breath away. France approves Opa’s visa, but not his mother’s. Opa hopes for his father’s connection in Paris to be helpful, but he is steadily losing hope. As if to answer his hopelessness, Opa learns that he has been drafted into the German military. He has a very real fear, and one I can’t imagine: “What if, one day, I have to face the question -- serve or let your mother be sent to a camp.”

Who can answer that kind of question? It is no coincidence that Sophie’s Choice was written in the context of the Nazi rule, with the choice happening on the very ground of a concentration camp. Did Opa know exactly what the concentration camps were like? No. He had seen enough evidence of what the Nazi party did to those they did not like. He knew that his mother shouldn’t be anywhere near those camps. These thoughts, this choice he was having to consider, it was when he was 19 years old.

The next part of the letter is almost to interrupt and distract himself from the impossible position he’s in. He addresses the mystical train that Gisela seems to have hopped on. It’s funny, because it seems like he is trying to convince Gisela to steer clear of mysticism, but then he admits he is equally enthralled by the ideas. His warnings are more about getting lost in the ideas as simple answers to life’s problems. He says that life is “after all.. earthly” so to try to live outside of that or to find answers outside of the realities of earthly life is pretty pointless. And yet, he lists multiple mystic writers, in particular Gustav Meyrink’s “The Green Face.” I am currently reading that book, so you’ll get my book report on it soon!

Opa then shares what he remembers of a lecture about India, which had some ties to the topic of mysticism. Our brave and kind interpreter had difficulty translating this part as Opa goes into what I imagine are metaphysics and laws of physics. Perhaps later we’ll find a German physicist who can give us a translation- but until then- let’s just assume Opa talks science and philosophy. Ultimately Opa’s criticism of the lecturer is that they have a lack of knowledge about modern science (think about the fact that Albert Einstein is in his prime right now- these are the theories being discussed in scientific circles!). Even now- as I’m reading Opa’s statement that an atom is thought to be nothing but an electronic vibration and power condition- the limited scientist in me says this is no longer the case. An atom is the most basic element of matter- true physical matter. The atom is powered by protons and electrons (right guys?) which give the positive or negative charges of the base atom. That’s at least what I remember from science class. Even then, that may have changed or could be debated. All I know is- here is my Opa- writing to his friend in Berlin about mysticism, atoms, and metaphysics. And Yogis. And a lecture on India. It weirdly makes me miss school. I remember talking about stuff like this. I remember being surrounded by opportunities to learn and educational lectures. I didn’t take advantage of nearly enough. I wasn’t this well-read or educated at 19, but by 21 I was making a dent. Even though Opa never talked about this kind of stuff with us grandkids (or even his sons, I’m guessing), it is congruent with the Opa I knew. Education was a big deal, and he had scores of books on physics and other sciences in his book collection. It’s too bad none of us could have carried our weight in a discussion with him.

Opa shifts gears again and responds to something about Ullrich, who I don’t know. It seems Opa’s opinion of him hasn’t been incredibly high and he suspects Gisela is giving him a little too much credit. I’m not sure what they’re talking about though.

Opa writes about a new friend of his who has lucked out by finding a surrogate mother by the beach. Opa’s joy of finding a pal is almost immediately darkened by his realization that even this friendship will likely be temporary as everyone he knows and gets to know (including himself) are on some road to some other country, if they are lucky. He writes “cruel world, and the “what for” grins at you everywhere, questioning, threatening and scornfully.” That line sounds like it could have come right out the “The Green Face” - with its dark, foreboding tone.

Opa really is all over the place, and I feel it right with him. Right after his dark realization, he admits he is angry his time alone has come to an end- it has been fruitful. He talks about how he feels about Christianity at the moment. He sees Christ as one way (not “The Way”) to God/enlightenment/a way through life. The next part, I’m sure some things are lost in translation, but I think Opa is both praising and criticizing the value and hold the “community” or perhaps the “institution” has on people. It’s a blessing- the need to be together and unified shows the good in humans. But it is also a curse - the side effect of institutionalized sameness can be as suffocating as harsh church doctrine, or as deadly as anti-semitism. Opa may have been saying something completely different - this was just my take.

It seems like Gisela is also in transition, not in Berlin but traveling about.

The whole world seems lost, moving, dark, and losing hope. This letter from Opa tells me he was not immune to it. It weirdly gives me hope, like learning that Mother Teresa had her doubts. Even the most hopeful and intuitive have their doubts.

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