Monday, August 3, 2015

December 29, 1939: Provoking Security

Original Letter from Opa to Gisela


                   McPherson, Dec. 29th, 1939
Dear Gis,
You probably have received my letter by now, and know that I have arrived well, and have found everything in good order. Often it seems unjust to me that I should live here in joy, quiet and safety, while others and especially my friends and 'colleagues' have to give their blood, and sometimes don't even know if they really fulfill anything by it. 

When I see how people live here with such provoking security and unaffectedness, then it seems utterly useless to say anything against all that injustice. I spoke with a theology student here. He seemed very reasonable though a bit dogmatic, and I asked him, how he could agree with his Christian faith, to drive to College every morning by car, and to live a rich and orderly life, while somewhere else, most everywhere else, people have to suffer unasked. He felt, that it is of course an injustice, but "God has but the injustice into this time, in order for people to recognize it and to balance it out". Moving dialectic, but a typical example of the American religiosity. But I feel the injustice as something pressing strongly on the whole earth; maybe there wouldn't be any war, or suffering if the human race would be able to balance things out. But I know how hard it is, have I not failed myself already through the fact that I am here? Surely there are enough tasks to fulfill here, but I feel that my task is somewhere else, or better was; somewhere else... and there I didn't fulfill it. I asked myself often if I could fulfill it still, and the answer is always: yes! But still I won't leave, and know exactly that I won't go. Bad? Wrong? I believe the reason is that the ideals don't have the power anymore that they used to have in the old youth dreams, and there are earth bound things, which have to be strived after and hoped for and fulfilled in a holy manner, in order for the ideals not to be able to expel them. Also, they don't stand in opposite with the ideals at all, in order for a choice to be almost impossible. There are again the famous two souls, who, oh, live in the same chest. The bad thing is, that it truly isn't only a question of strength and will, but that I don't know which way is the way for me. To unite both? That is the excuse which prevents to take one to the end. I have taken one way, but I feel that not I but it has chosen me, and that is never good. Still, I will take it to the end, and my time of studying, and consider the whole local life a preparation, a means for the purpose. For most of the students here it is the purpose in itself, they are aware that this is the most beautiful and best time of their lives, but that is not good enough for me. Not that I am dissatisfied here, but this way that has chosen me, doesn't stand still here, but is leading up, to another up somewhere. Even my future profession should not and cannot be the goal for me, it also can only be a means for a purpose, which I don't recognize yet, which isn't comprised of only ideals, but will take on more earthly forms. I don't know if I retreat , maybe it is really the feeling that I and everyone and everything is too weak; but I do believe that we bring our ideals back to earth, should we be able to accomplish them. It is truly as Schiller said: "How big has this earth been created, as long as the bud held her; oh how little! the small has unfolded to such little, so scant!"
You write that the first Quakers have not asked nor searched, but traded. But we are not the first Quakers, in us or at least in me there exists no trust in a leading power, I cannot go blindly. I first have to seek and find; why should I dash into the ocean, of which other side I cannot see, if I don't know if the shore is at all reachable, or if it even exists? Maybe the first Quakers, or Jesus or others have really seen the other side, either in spirit or in reality. But I don't see it, neither in spirit nor in reality, and I believe you don't see it either. Let us build a binocular, and look to the other side, let us first see and recognize as much of the world and its laws before we dash into the unknown. It doesn't have to be unkown then; it will be uncertain as well if we still have the strength to reach the shore. But we need to know if the other side exists, and also if it is the correct side, because doubts would destroy any strength. The first Quakers knew that it was the right shore, and they knew where it was, therefore they didn't need ' binoculars', but we who don't know, have to first seek in order to find.
I can understand your doubts about your work; I would probably feel similarly. Why do you believe that you have to give up your personal things? Will you not be able to fulfill your work properly? I believe personal things are more important to you than work. You cannot bloom in unspiritual work, and that would also be unfortunate for you. Why shouldn't you read, attend the group and commit to other spiritual things? Is work then so all important, that it should require such sacrifice? I don't know which work it would be, maybe I have a wrong understanding. Can you write me how your day to day is going, how your life is? What is the group doing? I imagine it very hard and sad to be in the group these days, when one knew how it used to be and what they used to do. What are some of the individuals doing? Werner, Arno?
Here, things are going well as much as is possible. I already feel very much at home. I have found nice people and I try -thank God in vain- to Americanize myself. I enjoy the studies a lot; now at the beginning I have a lot to do, because I have to make up everything until January when I have exams.  But the work is appropriate for me and I enjoy it.
Please write me soon again, and greet Berlin and the people of Berlin!

This letter is profound and a little hard to understand. I’m sure, again, that there are some things lost in translation and some things that I would understand better if I was like Gis and had the privilege of hours long talks while walking with my young Opa.

Opa struggles with the idea of justice and fairness in this letter. He speaks of his own uneasiness at living a safe and quiet life in America. It is almost a survivor’s guilt, except he doesn’t yet know what he has avoided and survived.

“When I see how people live here with such provoking security and unaffectedness…” Those are pointed words that pierce my conscience. I can imagine that my security would provoke many a refugee. Opa finds a theology student to talk to about his struggle with the injustice of their provoking security. How could the student get in his car and drive in luxury to his quiet life when elsewhere people were shot on the spot… for their bad blood?

The theology student’s response is a little bit awkward in the wording, but it seems like the student is saying that the injustice is there for us (by God’s will?) to notice and try to balance it. Opa’s response is that this is a moving dialectic- which I interpret to mean- this is kind of baloney and bad logic. As someone who graduated from seminary, I kind of wish I could have had someone like Opa ask me hard questions like this. Did that student remain unaffected, or did they feel the piercing of their comfort? Years later, Martin Luther King, Jr will write in his letters from the Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It’s as if Opa can feel this idea brimming in his heart, and he can’t fathom why no one else feels burdened by the injustice.

Opa doesn’t know what to do with this. How can he do anything about it? He takes what the theology student says about balancing the justice and points to himself- “have I not failed myself already through the fact that I am here?” He feels pulled homeward to do something- and yet he knows he won’t go there. There is guilt. His youthful ideals of fighting the fight, doing the right thing, slaying the dragons- they lose their power in the face of reality. When he faces certain death (conscription into Hitler’s army)- he loses the ability to live up to his ideals. It’s like he is fighting two wills within himself - to get free, to get an education, to make his life worth something; and then on the other side- to stand and fight, to make evil answer, to balance the injustice back to justice.

Opa faces the normal young adult questions of “why am I here?” and “what is my calling?” with the weight of his friends’ lives, his family’s lives on his shoulder. Who can answer that kind of weight?! How helpless he must feel being free and guiltily happy for all his friends and family to see. How much pressure he gets from the letters to use his privilege well- to be worth saving.

Opa hopes. He hopes that the path he is on, even if he may not find his “purpose”- that he will find something useful to set himself on the path toward his purpose. I wonder even now- did Opa find his purpose? What would he have thought it to be? He lived a beautiful life and was a wonderful grandfather. What was his dream? Did he reach it?

I think we equate maturity with rational and straightforward thinking. Dreamy, philosophical letters like this- if we had written them at nineteen, we would just laugh at ourselves. But I think a lot of us lose our dreams because we try to become sensible adults. We don't worry about injustice because we focus our eyes on the ground beneath us. These are the kinds of questions and thoughts we should entertain well into our elderly age. We should confront ourselves with our provoking security. We should engage with theology students, refugees, friends, family, scientists, professors, and whoever else will talk to us. We shouldn’t stop pouring out our hearts and feeling the stretch that is living our lives and dreaming our dreams. The stretching makes us flexible, adaptable, it makes us grow. It gives us wisdom. So here’s to recognizing our own provoking security, and wrestling with it. For the sake of justice.


  1. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for the letter and your interpretation!
    I really enjoy these glimpses from the past!
    Just know that the German letter you posted on top if this entry is in fact the one in which Thomas tells Gis about his journey to the U.S. not the one that is translated below.
    Wishing you a great day from Germany

    1. Thank you Jasmin! I didn't notice it til you pointed it out! I'm glad you're still reading- thanks for reading! :)


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