Tuesday, July 21, 2015

December 4, 1939: Easy Freedom

Original Letter from Opa to Gisela
Translated by Salome on 13 Nov 2013
                    McPherson College letterhead
Dec. 4th, 1939
Dear Gis,
You will really be mad at the lazy Thomas, but you have to excuse him this time, he really didn't have time to write. After I heard that my ship should only leave on Nov. 24th, I desperately searched for another one, and finally found the Pennland, which had a few seats available. The trip was hopelessly boring. During a storm I was seasick for two days, but that was the only change! Having had a delay of four days, we arrived in New York.  

I had a few problems at the passport control, but in the end I received the permission to stay in the USA for seven months, but not a day longer!... Well, this is going to be worked out somehow. I was a bit disappointed about New York itself. Nothing amazing, nothing huge, only a big city, only stores, nervous on goings and indifference. And these skyscrapers, the very famous and much praised about... oh well, they are high, but other than that nothing much; they don't make an imposing impression. 

It is different at night though, when the ads flicker in the light. That is truly intoxicating, one can really not imagine it! Thousands of lights in all colors, light surfaces, light bodies, play and whirl in a mess, exchanging itself and in a colorful interchange flowing back- one gets in the truest sense of the word, drunk from so much light! I would have not thought of something like that being possible. 

The next morning I continued on to Philadelphia, where I immediately went to be with the Quakers. The American Friends Service committee is located in the middle of town. A little, old, ugly house which looks poor in between the skyscrapers, but the sign "Everyone is welcome" shows that it isn't as poor as it seems. The offices are 'only' on the 11th or 12th floor even in a skyscraper. It is a pretty small office when one considers what is being done there! I have been nicely taken in. Nobody believed anymore that I would still appear. I have got to know only there, that they believed the whole thing as hopeless! 

In the afternoon I went to a film presentation, where movies of Quaker working camps were showed. Have you ever heard of these working camps? It was completely new to me. These are camps somewhere in America, where young girls and boys live together, work and study on the basis of certain topics. For example an agricultural subject; they farm their fields, have theoretical working communities in farming, and study for example the social relationships of the locals or similar things. And likewise there are many other themes around which these camps are built upon. I was totally excited about the thing, what a marvelous opportunity to fill the long college breaks. 

In the evening I drove further with the bus, because that is considerably cheaper than the train and it doesn't take all that much longer. A wonderful journey began, the American landscape is just indescribably beautiful. We drove through completely wild, endless forests, which are so beautiful in the fall, one could cry. Often I felt like getting out, to forget about the College, and find a home there in the forests. But I only needed to open the window a little, to wake up from my dreamy thoughts, because it was awfully cold! At night we clapped our chairs backwards, and should have supposedly slept that way. There are people who insist that they know people who have been able to sleep this way for a half an hour; I consider this pure lies. I for one wasn't able to close my eyes at all during the entire bus trip. About every four hours it stopped in front of a restaurant, one could wash up, and received the most marvelous things to eat for ridiculous money. 

On the next day we got into the mountains; it wasn't the high mountains, but still through the expansion much more immense than our middle range mountains. And then always these gorgeous fall colors! The next day in Ohio, old childhood dreams came up, I rode as a bold trapper on my brown one into the everlasting steppes of Ohio. Kilometer after kilometer nothing to see except the plains, small hills in between, and bushes that always looked as if someone would be hiding behind them. The whole country seems so immense, that one feels so little and insignificant like a mustard seed in these steppes. Unfortunately it was night when I drove through Missouri, so I didn't realize that we crossed the Mississippi, and the next day at noon we arrived at our destination: McPherson. A small city of 9000 inhabitants, who nevertheless has its 14 churches. Whatever the human needs, he has to have. 

I have made myself comfortable in the College very fast, it wasn't hard. The tone here is extremely cheerful, students and teachers are nice all the same. The way of speaking is friendly, sometimes a bit rough, but warm; no difference if one speaks to a professor or a student. They are only professors during class, outside they are private people and glad if they are not being addressed as professors. I have a very small room together with another very nice young student, my 'wife' as they say here. Since he doesn't have a lot of money either, we try to avoid any expenditures. We build our own furniture and it looks the part. We wash and iron ourselves, and even if the laundry isn't white but rather a little gray- it's still good enough for the College. 

I come along better than I thought with the lessons. Right at the beginning I was able to jump a year ahead, and through that, I am now already in the third semester and younger than the class average, so I practically haven't lost any time! The learning method here is different than with us. One has less hours in a week, but has to work incomparably harder for the individual lessons. One is not allowed to take more than 18 weekly lessons. Since I was late, they only allowed me 15 hourly lessons, which I divided as well as possible: I cover calculus, mathematical theory of electricity, advanced physics, and then since I have a few hours available, English composition and French drama. So I stay the whole week fully busy, and on top of that I have to make up a whole bunch, because I missed a lot, and much is being done here in other ways as we are used to. Until the middle of January I will have had to make it up, because then I have my finals of the third semester. I don't know if I am able to do it, but it doesn't matter for that one extra year if I fail. 

There is a lot of social interaction, at least for people who have the time. There are a lot of student activities; I have joined one: S.C.M., which means Student Christian Movement. Twice per week they either hold a talk, or an evening of discussions, where social and ideological issues will be discussed, which was the draw for me.

How are things with you? Are you still busy serving as a nurse with the babies? What is the group doing? Can you still get together regularly? Do you plan a party of some type for Christmas? Christmas here will be pretty lonely. Many students will drive home, but that will be good for me to work. Boys and girls here are all very nice and kind, I doubt that I will find real friends here; the people altogether have a dreadfully narrow mind, and their interests lie in totally different areas. That is certainly and of course not to be seen as a fault, but the difference is still here, and therefore I will never really get close to these people. But that doesn't matter much, because they don't seem to be that precious. The big democratic freedom doesn't become them well. Sluggish and characterless they incline a bit to accept everything that comes from within as good and right. Well, maybe the one or other can be changed still! 

But now it has gotten so late, and I have to get to bed right away; my wife is already complaining! Now I am looking forward to an answer soon!
With hearty greetings
This might be our only letter that gives us Opa’s true thoughts and feelings about his journey to America and initial feelings when he arrived in Kansas.

Opa wasn’t all that impressed by New York- even his autobiography mentions this. All of my readers who think New York is the most magical place in the universe: I apologize- but it just didn’t do it for him. However, the lights at night- I know exactly what he’s talking about. I remember my first time in New York City. I flew there in the spring of 2000. It was actually Easter  weekend, and my flight landed at night. I was enamored and overwhelmed by the lights. I spent the entire taxi ride from the airport to my sister’s apartment in silence. I was in awe. Every little light, every lit window- represented at least one soul inside. That realization overwhelmed me. There were so many lights and windows, so many people. I had never really been in a big city like New York before. Opa, however, was born and raised in Berlin, and although they don’t have the skyscrapers and intoxicating lights, they do have bustling street corners and lots of windows and souls.

I love the way Opa describes how the lights “play and whirl in a mess.”

Opa talks about the humble building of the American Friends Service Committee headquarters and how it fails to match the importance of what goes on inside. He learns that he was even luckier than he thought, and that most assumed his case to be “hopeless.” That’s crazy! I don’t know if that would make me feel better or worse! He learned about the Quaker work camps in the summer and was really excited about the opportunity to learn and grow and be able to do something productive over the summer.

Opa rode by bus across the American landscape during the peak of fall colors. That’s awesome. What perfect timing. I love that Opa was more impressed by the endless forests and wild landscape than he was by the skyscrapers and lights of the city. It’s very German of him.

The fourteen churches comment cracks me up- it’s so true in the midwest and in the south! It reminds me that the religious climate of the midwest with all its churches would have been so foreign for Opa. Not only is Europe different, but Nazi Germany had very little free religious activity, and it certainly would not have had the American social norm of everyone being expected to attend church of some form. All those churches must have seemed crazy to him!

He tells Gisela that he settled in all right, folks are nice enough. He says that “the way of speaking is friendly, sometimes a bit rough, but warm”- I got that from my trip to Kansas in August of 2014. The midwestern way of Kansas is hospitable, warm and friendly, but straight-forward and no-fuss. I think that this was probably familiar for Opa- as the Berlin way is similar- friendly but direct.

The roommate being called a “wife” is hilarious. They built their own furniture?! I kind of want to call BS on this one. Opa is writing to Gisela, who he has at least a once-kissed-relationship with. Maybe he’s trying to impress her? But seriously. What would they be building, with what are they building?? This is before IKEA.

Next Opa brags a little bit about how smart he is. It seems he is playing catch up on his work and still finds time to build furniture and attend twice weekly meetings that sound similar to the kind of meetings the Quaker group held. I bet the Student Christian Movement meetings were so different from the Quaker meetings. Quakers typically root everything in silence. So even a talk or discussion would be started in silence and processed in silence. A Christian club in Kansas… probably not as much silence.

Opa asks about Gisela, it sounds like she has a nannying job or perhaps some sort of childcare work with babies. Maybe she did more than just babysit. I think Gisela said she trained for this type of job- almost like a nurse for children.

Opa shares that while everyone is nice and all, he’ll be lonely for Christmas, and he feels sort of lonely in general. He doesn’t feel connected with the Kansas folk yet. The cultural differences are too much- their worldviews so different that Opa doesn’t see himself ever getting close to any of them. I love how he says democratic freedom doesn’t become them well. It’s sort of a fancy way of saying they take all their freedom for granted. And of course they do. They have never had to doubt their freedom or that the government generally works for their good. Many have never really confronted the evil outside or even inside themselves- so they assume all is good and right that comes their way. At the same time, I wonder if Opa realizes that perhaps some of their optimism is a survival tactic they learned when facing the giant odds of the dust-bowl, when the very earth fought against their survival. They survived- so they have no reason to think they couldn’t survive other disasters.

Opa has had to defend himself in all matters- defend his right to think freely, build his own radio to hear freely, fight even for a normal family life in spite of his father who in many ways abandoned him. Opa sat four rows from Hitler, Mussolini, and Goering in a forced school assembly. He didn’t have to look hard to find evil. And Opa’s evil was winning- Opa’s only freedom was an escape. He had not defeated his devil yet.

This reminds me of a friend of mine. He grew up in England during the war. His mother worked in the factory, his father flew in the Royal Air Force. This man’s entire childhood was based around defeating the Germans. He said to me as his body was aging, that all he had left to defend himself was one good fist. You could tell this bothered him. He always had to be ready to defend against the enemy. For him, there is always an enemy. I was struck by this. I never think about having enemies. I have considered self defense as a woman, but I’m not constantly concerned with defending myself. My optimism comes from an easy life and an easy freedom. Perhaps my freedom does not become me. However, I think it also represents the possibility of what the world could be. Maybe we don’t always have to have an enemy.

Perhaps the optimism of the midwestern Americans will do him some good. Perhaps his realism and experience will teach them some wisdom. After all- that was sort of the point of helping a refugee- not only for McPherson to help a refugee, but also for the community to learn.  Let’s see how freedom becomes Opa.

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