Friday, August 14, 2015

February 1, 1940: Things Seem Normal

Original Letter from Patti to Tom
Translation by Helene:

Grenoble, February 1, 1940

My dear Henschenboy,
Since air mail letters are expensive, since they arrive more rapidly, and since I want you to get used to getting “ordinary” letters sent by boat, without your having to wait a long time between them, I’ve devised the following system: I sent an airmail letter a few days ago, next week I’ll send yet another by air, and you’ll receive this one which I’ll send by regular mail a little after the second one sent by air mail. And I’ll continue sending you an ordinary letter every week, but if there’s something urgent to tell, I’ll send it by airmail. Okay? In any case, if you aren’t okay with this, the soonest I’ll only know that will be 6 weeks from now, but you have to be okay with it! As for you, don’t forget to write me, too, you little rascal!

So, I had promised to speak to you about the ski trip I took last week. So here goes: At 6:45AM your sister was already down in the street, dressed in a ski suit that once was snazzy, with a hood on her head, pompons under her chin, and a big smile. My friend was already waiting for me, since I’m always exactly 3 minutes late, and so we went to our bus. Going up the mountain in the bus was disappointing, because the sun was hiding and the sky full of clouds and the air thick with fog. But once up there, the fog lifted to be replaced with a brilliant sun. You can imagine this snowy mountain beauty under morning sun.  It was 7:45 when we arrived, and since we were told that the bus wouldn’t leave until 7PM, we thought that the day would be almost too long.  But wait for the end! We went up, half on foot and half by ski, to a pass, then we had a picnic in the sun, then a little practice skiing on the trail, then another picnic, and then we climbed the mountain on our skis! The path was easy, the snow magnificent, but when we arrived at the top much later than we had expected, I was already very tired, so you can imagine what kind of a descent I had! I didn’t have the courage to do anything, so to stop myself I just let myself fall, which means that we arrived back at the pass two hours late. That was 45 minutes before the bus was supposed to leave, and 5 kilometers from where we were! So my friend took my pair of skis on his shoulder and we ran and ran without stopping, and we arrived at the bus ten minutes late. But it hadn’t left yet, and so everything was fine. I was very tired, but enchanted with this beautiful excursion.

Since Mardi Gras means 3 days of vacation, I’ll go up then to another ski hut with some nice friends. I’m lucky, aren’t I? I know that, and I’m grateful. If all goes well, I should be able to leave soon for Paris, and there I’ll have a lot of work, and no mountains or snow.

Forgive my dreadful handwriting, but I’m writing in the evening and I’m tired, especially today, because I worked out for an hour with Helga, and I’m no longer used to it.  We intend to do that regularly twice a week from now on.

I’m writing you things of no consequence, but what do you want me to write now that I’m writing you every week? I started this letter yesterday, I had to stop, and now I’m finishing it this evening and it won’t leave until tomorrow morning, but too bad! In my next letter I’ll tell you about my three days in the mountains, and I hope my narrative will be full of enthusiasm.

Don’t be disappointed that this letter says almost nothing, another time I’ll do better.

Good night! Oh, you are so far away! Where you are, it’s not even dark yet! 
Hugs, Patti

(upside down on top) I hope soon to receive a detailed description of your vacation. Have you already taken your exams? I'm waiting impatiently for this news.

This letter is from Patti, Opa’s sister who at the time is living in Grenoble, France. She is studying and enjoying life with friends her age, away from the German political epicenter. Life seems normal. She talks about rushing to make the bus on time, the beauty she finds in a new place, and the pleasure of her friendships.

Patti is so care-free, recounting details from her trip up the mountain with a friend. 

The Alps outside Grenoble, France

She gave her brother the plan for letter-writing, making sure they kept in touch. She has spent a good paragraph every letter on logistics of who should write when and how they should send it and how often. It makes me laugh. She was a planner. She even alluded to the fact that she wouldn’t be writing about things of much interest since she would be writing so often. 

I just quickly glanced at the dates for invasion. Germany invaded France, Belgium, and the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. This letter is dated February 1, 1940. In just three months, France would be invaded. France fell to Germany shortly after and Hitler made his victory visit to Paris on June 23, 1940, a mere four and a half months after this letter was written. In this letter, Patti talks about wanting to go back to Paris and hoping to be there soon to continue her studies. 

While I was in Germany, one of the things that Bern Brent (Opa’s friend in the Quaker group) mentioned a couple of times was that we had to be careful when looking back on history, to remember that there was no way the people could have known what was going to happen in their future. This seems too obvious to point out, but it really is important to remember. We often assume that the events of history were as clear to those living it as to us. Even Patti, outside the confines of German propaganda, could not have known the timing of German invasive maneuvers. I imagine most people knew it was probable, but the urgency of the matter seemed to be missing from this letter. The speed of France’s fall was likely not part of even the most perceptible visions of their future.

I shared an earlier version of this blog post with Helene, Patti’s daughter, and she pointed something out to me that I might have known in my head but hadn’t quite put it completely together yet. She made me aware of a second censor that we haven’t talked about… The first censorship is the Nazi censor. The little red box with the number that lets you know that the Germans citizens were being edited… their thoughts were not free to be written out, and their fears were silently rattling in their brains, with no safe outlet. At the time of this letter, Patti is in France, free from the German stranglehold. In my mind, I thought this also meant that she was free to write as she pleased. And to some extent, she is. 

However, Helene reminded me of the censorship that we often put upon ourselves in scary times. I can’t decide if it is self-imposed out of fear or hope. Maybe it is both. Either way- Patti knows that war is inevitable. She knows that Jews are not safe. She knows that Europe is an ever-expanding battlefield. But she chooses, out of hope or a desire to forget the fear - to talk about her fun weekend. Her life cannot simply be put on hold for fear- so neither are her letters. There quite possibly was an understanding between her and Opa that they wouldn’t dwell on the hideous, but rather speak of what is good and well in the world. There are moments when they ask the other to speak earnestly, and maybe that is permission for the other to be honest in their fears.  But yet they still write about the normal things.

I write all this because it helps explain something that I keep seeing: shock.

In Germany, while there are memorials all around - and we spoke with people who were willing to share their experiences- I got the impression that the war was something many people are glad to leave buried in the past. Of course such a horrible time in the life of a country would not want to be daily remembered... but there is a nuance to the way people avoid it. It feels like Germany is still in shock. Still in disbelief, as other European countries might be. How did this happen? How did these men who bordered on mental instability, come this close to conquering the world? 

The most honest statement I heard by a young German was our tour-guide at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg: “It is hard to understand how Germany went from being a civilized country to complete barbarianism in the short fall of 13 years. People are still trying to wrap their heads around how that happened.” And this is so true. My experience of Germany was amazing. The people are fantastic. Yet, their family members were Jews, Nazis, Soldiers, Quakers, country folk, city folk. There was nothing inherently obvious that would separate them out right now. The shock of the war and all its atrocities isn’t a shock of a people who were oblivious… rather it is the shock of someone who doesn’t know quite how to deal with the reality that surrounded them, that they knew and saw happening before their eyes. It’s a stage of grief. A loss of innocence. Somehow their wonderful civilized country fell into evil for… love of country, need of food, hope for power, thirst for revenge. I don’t know if there is a single answer appropriate to answer the “why” - and there are only fleeting guilty faces to answer “how.”

I’ve gotten ahead of myself and this letter, but I think it is important to see that someone who was looking for information and suspicious of the German regime, was enjoying a weekend in the Alps, working out with Helga, and planning her move to Paris four months before Hitler arrived there as a victorious conqueror. No one could have seen that coming. Not even Hitler.

1 comment:

  1. I miss Grenoble so much! You'll have to go through my pictures of it on Facebook and feel free to steal whatever :)

    Patti's letter makes me think of "live life to the fullest," especially when you aren't sure how much time you have left.


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