Tuesday, June 9, 2015

November 6, 1939: Letter from Papa August

Original Letter from August to Tom

The last blog post was about a letter from Ella, Opa’s mother, who wrote as soon as she heard of his leaving for America. Ella is my great-grandmother. She wrote to her small, big boy with advice and love. This blog post is about a letter from August, Opa’s father, my great-grandfather. August wrote this letter on November 6th, 1939- the same day Ella wrote her letter. He wrote to his dear big boy with his own set of advice and love.
(I'm going to do the translation in bits.)

Amstelveen, Nov. 6th, 1939

My dear big boy,

Now you have been gone for 4 days floating somewhere on the Atlantic, and the house, as Emma also noted, has grown very empty. Kansas seems very far away, and I feel very lonely.

I am afraid it will take a long time til we see each other again. But then everything will be beautiful, right? I have worried my head if it was right to send you so far away, but I think it was the right thing.

There is something about the language in the beginning of this letter. August is not thinking much about the fear of the unknown, but rather taking in the quiet of loneliness. I wonder if his lonely confession surprised Opa. I keep thinking about myself at nineteen. If I received a letter that started this way from my Dad after arriving at college, I would be oddly surprised by the tone. However, at nineteen, I did not sail the Atlantic, escape Hitler’s army, or know any true fear or war. August’s worries of whether he should have sent Opa to America or not tells me that even the most aware and politically savvy person could not have known the eventual vastness of Hitler’s reach in Europe.

August understands that it may be a while before he sees his son again, and his assertion that when they do reunite "everything will be beautiful" is so painfully hopeful. How hard it must have been to send his son off to a new country without a clue when he would see him again. He had spent the last year with his son- which was more time than he usually spent since he and Opa's mom divorced and he left Germany. August must have enjoyed the opportunity to connect with his son. Then he had to let him go again.

Most of everything will depend on you, your energy and your character. Your path will not be an easy one, hopefully easier than mine. Will you do everything to survive, manage the daily fight one has to lead against oneself and others?

I believe it is good to sit down every evening and to think about things done wrong and things done right. And when you discover that certain mistakes happen several times, write them down in a notebook and number them. Then when you are in the same situation the next day, you will remember "that was mistake number 3 or 5 that will not catch me again."

What profoundly German advice! I should try this! I am not sure I would remember my faults by number, but I like the simplicity. August is putting so much on Opa, and yet he knows that Opa really has to be his own success, survival, thriving. Did Opa receive it as advice from a wise elder, or was his reaction more along the lines of “Daaaad!”? I think if my Dad told my nineteen year old self to keep a notebook of mistakes- I would have rolled my eyes. Although I think my Dad knows better than to advise that.

You are alone for the very first time and habits can be very powerful. Do not let any habits lead you, the kind you cannot carry responsibility for. 

It just occurred to me: Opa had never been away from home at this point. Ever. So how’s about a short trip across the Atlantic and then to the flat middle of a whole new continent? August is trying hard to remind Opa that he is alone and responsible, without a safety net. It is up to Opa to establish his character. This last sentence is so simple but has such depth to it: Do not let any habits lead you.... the kind you cannot carry responsibility for. I’m sorry, but I’m a step away from sending this to the makers of motivational posters. It’s good stuff! When you feel out of control, stop the thing that leads you to the spiral. Again, I wonder how Opa read this letter. Was it encouraging and profound, or did he feel over-parented?

Write to me about everything, will you? Even unpleasant things. I am older and may have some advice when you might not know what to do. Write to me about the people around you.
Be honest to yourself, it is the foundation for everything. And remember that probably some day you will have to provide for Mama. So plan to build up something. Inform me right away about the financial situation and what it involves.
I love this, August gets to a little business. Write to me about everything, I am older and wiser. To thine own self be true (I wonder if he was referencing that philosophy), plan to provide for Mama (Ella). (I do wonder if he might have been alluding to a more near-sighted goal of Opa trying to get Ella out of Germany.) Tell me how you are doing with finances. It’s the papa laundry list. There is something very comforting about the normalcy - like a casual empty-nester is writing. Instead it is a man who spent a fortune getting his son out of Germany and spent a year of his life helping his son gain entry to a country that offered freedom, opportunity, and safety. But August knows that there will be twists and turns - even on the highway of the American dream.

This letter will probably arrive in McPherson before you do with greetings from your Papajung (Papa means Dad and jung means young, I do not know what this means) who will help you as much as he can. And who is with you even though you cannot see him.

Our translator was confused about this term August used, but Helene (Patti's daughter) knew it was a term of endearment for August. Who knows exactly how it came to be- we can only imagine the conversations Opa and August must have shared in their time together, and the inside jokes and shared knowledge that resulted.

Emma sends greetings. Now she cannot scold anymore about you stomping down the stairs so loudly, and when we left Rotterdam she cried.

Keep steady even when it is hard. That is the whole trick. And imagine how beautiful it will be after you succeeded.

Do you have a warm room? I am very much waiting for your telegram and your first letter.

Say hello to the college boys for me.

Oh Emma. I’m sure Opa had a strange relationship with her- she was his mother’s first cousin, and his father’s second wife. Awkward. Despite the awkward circumstances, it sounds like she felt very motherly towards him. Again August mentions the beauty... I’d love for a moment to sneak inside August’s mind and see the scene he was surely imagining. Did his dream of beauty come true? I love the last part: “do you have a warm room?” So basic and yet such a fatherly question. He just wants to know if Opa is safe, warm, and in college.

I can’t help but notice the difference between the two letters:
Mama vs. Papa. Ella writes of holding and comforting her child. Of course she has her own character lessons to boot. August writes his advice in German form, with checklists, financial preparedness and steadiness. In the end they both write of loneliness in the absence of their child, and hope and encouragement for his future. I can imagine if they were my parents and I went back to read the letters a year, two, 10 years later- these letters would increase in profundity for me. Did Opa re-read these letters?

As a side note, I thought about August’s profession as a newspaper editor and wondered what was going on in the world around him on this day. I simply googled “What was Nazi Germany doing on November 6th, 1939?” This is what they were doing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonderaktion_Krakau (I know, I know - wikipedia, but the story is legit- I’ve checked several other sites) The gist of the tale is that the Nazi plan just weeks after invading Poland, was to take out the Intellectual Elite in the master plan to brainwash and dominate Poland. The professors in Krakow were called to a meeting under false pretenses and immediately arrested and sent ultimately to various detainment camps (some eventually to concentration camps). Many died. Those who survived created an underground university, and among its students was someone you may know- Pope John Paul II. That actually happened. Legit. A group of men sat in a room and made a plan to psychologically and culturally dominate a country. A real plan. That they carried out.  

If you look at a map, Amstelveen (where August lived) is about the same geographical distance from Berlin as Krakow. Amstelveen is much closer to the German border than Krakow. That’s pretty scary close.

I’m going to be honest with you readers, after looking up the Poland thing, I had an evening of funk, depression, whatever you want to call it. Because I don’t just read the headline, I read the article, the related articles, the side link, and the google images roll to go with it. It’s not nice stuff. It gets so overwhelming that I start to push it, and the reality of it, away. I just kept looking at the stuff thinking, how is this possible? How does this happen? Can I do anything to help stem this evil tide that flows in different parts of the world at different times, in different stories and different prejudices? Does good win? In faith, I believe, yes, it wins. More than just “good”- it is Love that wins. Light pierces the darkness. My faith in this is strangled almost to the point of hopelessness sometimes, but I hold on to it. Love wins. 

August and Ella loved Opa. That saved him. Opa had enough love from neighbors, strangers, and high-connections to keep him floating. So I keep sharing this story of love, and try to write my own story of love with my life.

August was very right to send his dear big boy as far away from these atrocities as he could.

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