Wednesday, August 5, 2015

January 4th, 1940: Dealing with the Basics

Original Letter from August and Emma to Opa

We have two main translators, and this letter was by chance translated by both of them- I thought it would be interesting to see both of their translations. 

Translation #1, by Rose:

Amstelveen, January 4th, 1940
Tall Tom,
Your second letter, which was sent by boat still has not arrived, so we will not have any other choice but to send everything by Clipper.(air) On the other hand our business correspondence comes through undisturbed, but very slowly. Mama forwards your letters to her to me and I also do that with the ones you send to me. Plan to always write the things that cannot go through Germany after your signature as p.s., so I can easily cut it off. Also everything will go to Patti. We were all alone at Christmas and New Year, only Tuli came for dinner on one of the holidays. I have not been feeling well for several weeks, the result of a bad cold, which affected one of my kidneys. Now everything seems to be all right again.

What did you do for the holidays? By the way have you recovered completely? How is the winter climate there? How is it going with your work and the language? Wasn’t the enclosed letter from Vuur nice? He is now a really nice young staff member and does his job quite well. His education is much better than one thinks observing him. Incidentally he has also improved physically. Naturally the simple (poor) environment of his background is still part of him. I would love for you to write a short letter to him, he would be very happy about it. Don’t you think we should introduce him to the Quaker ideals?
He is a very decent young guy. 

You should also write to the following people, Police inspector de Vredes (who looked after your matters at that time) and Hollsteins. You will probably think of Pollatz yourself, and van den Berg, and maybe also Bras-Mosse. 

How is, what you wrote about your comrades in a letter to Mama, get into line with your observations to me, that the people there have many intellectual interests? Could it not be that one in Middle America is far away from European events, not just in distance? That the fight for intellect is there as well, but not pressed by so many hard facts as it is here? Also the tradition is missing. Am I wrong to assume that the young American struggles with problems as well? Perhaps without all the discords and taught attitudes the Europeans carry in their blood, which can be a ballast, make the road difficult and changes many ideas and willpower and finally collapses. Later on when you have time you will study the literary world, the old and the new. They are always so few and like the European youth only the average. What I am saying is, that for a correct commitment to all things and people, one has to be completely impartial.  

What kind of man is Mr. Maumann? What is his background? I think maybe a farmer or low ranking employee searching for his own way, which happens often and I like better than an intellectual schmuser. (means somebody who is always trying to please everybody, in a sweet and fake attitude. Schmusen also means to cuddle.) We have so many of them here.

It seems that all people around you are nice, and the picture of the girls is sweet. It is cold here now, you can ice skate on the Emma and the Grachten. (there must be a river called Emma , I remember reading it before in a letter, and Grachten are indeed the waterways in Holland, I have seen them.)

Even Bob dared to step onto the ice after Emma had grabbed him by the collar the first time and pulled him back off. How is a dog to know of the state of the water?

Pretty soon a letter from you should be due if you sent it by boat. Greetings from Emma, also from de Vredes, Hollsteins and Tuli. By the way, please write a note to Pinkley, not too short, yes?
Send it with my letter, because you can reach him only through me, because he is on the road a lot.

Do you have a new Photo?

Translation #2: By Allie

Amstelveen, January 4, 1940

Tall Tom, your second letter, which went by ship, still isn’t here, and I’m afraid it’s not going to arrive at all. I think there’s nothing else for us to do but to send everything by clipper. In any case, our business mail is still coming undisturbed, if still very slow. Mama sent me your last letter to her, and I send her the ones that come to me too. Always make sure, as far as possible, that the things that can’t go to Germany come after your signature as a postscript, so that I can simply cut them off. Additionally, everything always gets through to Patti.  

We were completely alone for Christmas and New Year’s, only Tuli was there for a holiday meal. I wasn’t feeling very well at all for several weeks, due to a cold that also attacked my kidneys somewhat. But now everything seems to be over with again.
What did you do for the holidays? Are you back and settled again? How’s your winter weather? How’s it going with work, and with the language?

Isn’t the enclosed letter from Vuur nice? He is now a right young staffer [assuming “staffer” is an English word here] for us and he does his thing quite well. He’s much more accomplished than you’d guess to look at him. He’s also come along nicely on the outside too. Naturally there’s still something about him of the simple environment from which he comes. I’d love it if you’d just write him a little note, it would make him really happy. Don’t you think that he should be brought into the Quaker environment? He’s a very decent guy.  
Furthermore, you should write soon to the following people: the police inspector, the de Vredes (who did concern themselves so much with your thing back then) and the Hollsteins. You must seldom think of Pollatz. (And van der Berg, perhaps also Brasmasse [Can’t read that writing perfectly, but I take it it’s another name of someone to write to].)  

How is what you wrote about your buddies in your letter to Mama to be reconciled with the impression I was given that the people have a lot of spiritual [or “intellectual”] interest?  Isn’t it the case, maybe, that people in middle America are just very far away from the European course of events, not just geographically? That the struggle for the spirit is present, but not burdened with such hard facts as beset us here? The tradition will also be missing. Is my impression wrong that the young American grapples with the problems, perhaps without rest, thoroughly and well? Maybe without the many resonances and overtones that the European carries in his blood from his old culture, but which can also be a ballast that makes his way more difficult and bends some thoughts and the will, and finally breaks them. If you have time later, will you look around in the American literature, even in the young and the youngest [most recent?]. They are increasingly fewer, though, and how far downhill it’s going with the European youth on average! What I’m trying to say is just that to be able to value things and people correctly, impartiality is key.  

What kind of person is Herr Maumann, what kind of environment does he come from? In general, I think, a farmer or a lowly employee who is seeking his spiritual way—there is such a thing—is preferable to me than an intellectual kiss-up, like we have so many of here.

Personally the people all around you do seem terribly nice, the note from the girl is charming.

It’s cold here, and people are skating on the canals and the [?]. Even Bob trusted himself on the ice, after Emma finally took him by the collar and moved him onto it. How is a dog supposed to know anything about the conditions?

Another letter from you is due soon, you will have sent it by ship. Greetings from Emma.  Also from the de Vredes and the Hollsteins and Tuli, I should send greetings. By the way, write to Pinkley soon too, not too short, OK? Send it to me, because he is now just… [I guess August finishes this in the left margin, but I can’t read that.]

The letter is going out just today, because Papa is once again lying on his face, or on another body part, in bed. Yesterday the doctor was here. It’s a general flu-infection, nothing dangerous. The [?] is now all in order, which is a big comfort to me. After bad weather and [?], we’ve had frost and a sheet of ice since yesterday, even Bob is slipping. Is it cold there, are your underclothes enough?

Heartfelt greetings,

August writes a pretty basic letter to Opa here, catching him up on the weather and holiday happenings, and encouraging him to write to those he should... The part that struck me as interesting is the paragraph where August talks about the intellectual pursuit of Americans vs. Europeans. It’s hard to know exactly what he’s saying- and it feels a bit like we’re eavesdropping on a conversation that has been going on for a while without us.  

But the basic gist I get is that August makes the observation that Americans were more free to develop their intellectual interests because they were unburdened by the basic fears and trials that confronted Europeans every day. August sort of contradicts himself and says that the Americans also have their share of problems that they are faced with (maybe he says this as sort of a catch-all caveat?). 

August's assessment of the ignorance or distance of Americans from European troubles (specifically Germany) has definite truth to it. When you’re worried about bombings, invasions, food supply, job security, inflation, shelter... basic survival- you are likely not going to be spending a lot of time thinking about philosophy, tinkering with inventions or penning your next great novel. 

This is the part I don't really understand- August (and Opa) have talked about the absence of intellectual and spiritual pursuit in Americans. Maybe the real distinction is not whether Americans or Europeans have intellectual growth- but rather the outcome of American intellectual growth (unfettered by European problems and historical prejudices) in comparison to European intellectualism. However, it's as if August is telling Opa to give the Americans a chance, and to remember that he does not know their struggles or pursuits. Opa has expressed to Gisela that he felt the Americans sort of wore their freedom poorly- taking it for granted.

That whole paragraph of August's is confusing, and I think August had a habit of being a little convoluted. However, it made me think... We all have our first impressions, our judgments, our ideas of who suffers more or less or whose cultural norms are more acceptable. However, when it all comes down- we're nearly all ignorant to the real stories and the big picture. We are blind to our own prejudices and our own social framework that prevents us from seeing the glaring eyesore in our own way of thinking.

That last part August wrote in the confusing paragraph: "to be able to value things and people correctly, impartiality is the key." I think this is sort of the ironic point that no one realizes they are making. August believes the average German (and much of Europe) have been victims of hardship. This isn't altogether false. However, neither Opa nor August have the first idea of what it's like to be a black person in the south in the 1930s. They have no idea what it is like to be a Kansas farmer holding on to acres of dust that will produce no crop, but is their only namesake and way of living. On top of that- it is naive to think that Americans are all white people who have lived in America their entire lives without any European baggage. There are countless immigrants from all over the world living in America at this time. Even the idea of one type of American- one stereotype to fit the group- is ridiculous. Just as it is for Germans or any other nationality. 

I'm kind of annoyed at August for playing into the "us vs. them" dialectic that Opa has set up for himself in navigating this new world. Of course that is a natural way to experience a new place, but August sort of played into it a little bit before ultimately throwing up his hands and saying "be impartial!"

The other thought I had while reflecting on this letter is how much we like to hear the story of the underdog. We love hearing the stories of triumph over evil, survival against all odds, grit and strength shown in the face of despair. I admit- I eat that stuff up too. It gives us hope in dark times. When crushed and oppressed, diamonds of leadership and strength emerge.

But then I thought- what if we didn't have so many people consumed with just survival? What if war and famine and corruption weren't part of the every day life of these people?
We don’t talk much about what happens in the absence of those trials. We don’t often think about what happens in the space of security for the average person. In the absence of hunger, are there a thousand Einsteins? In the absence of poverty are there a few choices for curing cancer? In the absence of war- is sustainable energy a no-brainer? These are impossible questions to answer- but it just made me think. The wars: political, religious, national, emotional, economical... have more casualties than the black and white numbers on a page.

I am grateful that I have the freedom to think, to explore, to wonder. I am fortified with a new appreciation for this - and a sense of responsibility to use the time I have that is not consumed with the basics of survival. If you are unfettered by survival- take advantage of your freedom, and do something great.

(Last but not least, Emma asks Opa if his underclothes are enough for the winter cold. Every college kid wants his step-mother to ask that.)

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