Tuesday, February 28, 2017

August 3, 1941: Remember Hanna's Birthday!

Letter from Ella to Opa 


Tom Döppner
1119 Kearny
Manhattan Kansas
Berlin-Charlottenburg 4
August 3rd, 1941
Droysenstr. 14

My beloved child, Today just a short note, so you won't be without news from me. My present situation has not changed, it is very hard to get new pupils now. And it is questionable if my outstanding claims will be paid at any time now. I would feel terrible if I would have to borrow money, although it has been offered to me from several parties in a loving way. Hopefully it will work out without help from anybody. I can manage for two more months, without the money from my former students, and then perhaps I will find  something.  

Tilli is coming tomorrow, I don't know for how long; in any case I am looking forward to her visit. I received news from Patti through Emmi Haupt. She (Patti) studies in Lyon now. Her parents-in-law bought them furniture, and they are happy in their own home now. You can imagine how I am longing to see them both in their happiness. And how for you, my beloved boy. I know you are doing all you can, so I can come to you. Nothing can be done from here, everything has to be handled from there. Have you contacted the State Department and submitted my papers? Write about any prospects.

I am waiting for your letter from Manhattan. My boy is now totally on his own. But you will go your way, my beloved Hunschen.

I kiss  you much!
Your Mama

(Small note on top of the page:)
Remember Hanna's birthday is on September 10th

Ella is diligent in writing to her son even if there isn't much to report. She knows that no news is not good news, and wants to keep her son from worry and stay connected. 

Opa has now moved to Manhattan, Kansas, to attend Kansas State University and finally get his degree in Engineering. McPherson College is behind him, but always in his heart. 

Ella still has few pupils, and for some reason she now suspects her previous ones will be unable to pay her. I don't really understand why that is the case. She seems to have some emergency savings, and I'm sure that's to live very frugally. She is so hesitant to accept help or loans from anyone, she's so fiercely independent. It's interesting because Opa's book talks about how she was plagued with migraines and suffered depression after her mother died, but he doesn't quite capture how insanely strong she is and how self-sufficient she had to be. He does speak of how kind and loving she was, and I don't think anyone can doubt that.

Patti has moved to Lyon and has furniture thanks to her in-laws (a random detail). It seems Ella's communication with Patti is limited still (she mentioned before they communicated through red cross letters).

Ella still holds out hope that Opa can do something for her from America. Has he told her? There seems to be no possibility on his end either. He's barely a legal resident himself.

I love when Ella writes that Opa is on his own completely, and yet in two lines reminds him of his cousin Hanna's birthday. Ha. She can't help herself. Even as she is living on the last of her money, she has the presence of mind to remind her son of a family birthday coming up.

Monday, February 27, 2017

August 1, 1941: Shape-Shifting Immigration Law

Letter from Marjorie Page Schauffler of AFSC to Opa


August 1st, 1941

Mr. Thomas Doeppner.
McPherson College.
McPherson, Kansas.

Dear Thomas Doeppner:

Miss Thieman asked me to take up with you the matter of your pre-examination procedure as soon as the new developments regarding visa application arising out of regulations instituted July 1st should be clarified.

While we do not yet advise that you should under any conditions leave the country for the immediate present, we believe that it is now possible for you to proceed with the first steps toward your change of status.

It is now necessary, before requesting pre-examination from Mr. Salisbury on the Form I-55 which you filled out in consultation with Miss Thieman, to send to the Visa Division of the State Department a biographical statement and two affidavits of support on required forms issued by the State Department July 1st in connection with their new visa application procedure. We are enclosing work sheets of these three forms (Form "B" and two Form "C") together with a description of procedure by the State Department (Form "A") and an informal instruction sheet of our own.

When the affiants have completed these work sheets, please have them returned to us for review, we will then mail them the official forms for final completion with any suggestions which may seem wise. We will be glad to forward the completed copies to the State Department with a covering letter from our Committee.

When the State Department approves the affidavits, they inquire from whatever Consul you indicate as the one whom you wish to consult whether there is a quota number available for you. If so, they will inform us of approval of papers and at that point you submit to Mr. Salisbury the pre-examination request which you have already prepared and which we shall hold in them meantime.

While we cannot guarantee that there will be no change in this procedure as outline above, we know that the affidavits will be required and believe it will save time to proceed with the preparations of them at once.

Very sincerely yours,

(Mrs.) Marjorie Page Schauffler

This letter goes a long way to show two things: 1) Immigration law is a shape-shifting beast that everyone has to figure out how to tame every time it changes colors; and 2) The arbitrary nature of the shape shifter requires groups like the AFSC and other non-profits to help people navigate the system. If you ever wondered why or if these groups help, this letter should be a good indicator of why immigrants today and yesterday need this help. It's complicated stuff.

I have a friend who works for the federal government, and I have learned so much from her. Policy change is very impactful. If we aren't directly affected by it, we could be completely unaware of a major shift in how things work. But by what she tells me of the amount of preparation and discussion that goes into the every day work of a federal employee- there is constant work to keep up or ahead of the changes. The rules may suddenly change and then it is up to the agency to make up the new forms and paperwork to reflect the change. Then the folks like the AFSC have to retrain themselves on how to use the new forms, how to best prepare their clients for successful integration. 

Meanwhile, it's all up for interpretation. It's largely arbitrary. So really what is happening is that the culture shifts and the agency has to print that shift in legal forms and the non-profits have to find the right pitch to make sure their people still have a chance. It's just bizarre.

Opa's path to permanent residency has shifted once again, and while the full course has not been illuminated, the folks at AFSC are confident that he can at least get started. So now he needs two affidavits and to consider the possibility that he may need to leave the country in the future. 

I did find out about that bill that Annelise was talking about in the last letter. She called it the Smith bill, and it was supposed to provide a path for immigrants to shift from temporary to permanent visas without leaving the country. I emailed my trusty librarian friends at the Holocaust museum and not surprisingly, I received a well-documented answer almost immediately. The short version: there was a bill, and it never made it. I think by this point in August it was already dead. 

So today: make a contribution to your local museum, library, archive, refugee non-profit. Or at the very least go hug a historian. We need their expertise. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

July 30, 1941: My Only Joy

Letter from Ella to Opa


Bln. Charl. 4, 30.7.41
Droysenstr. 14
My beloved boy,

I have been without news from you for such an awful long time. Your last letter was of June 16th, the one before from May 23rd. I assume the mail has gotten lost, since we had agreed to write once every week. Hunschen, you have to keep to that, your mail is my only joy. From Patti I receive news only through the Red Cross, from Papa have not heard for one year, then 3 weeks ago a letter arrived, which was actually pretty nice. Papa still has his old optimism. I know how difficult it is now for me to come to you, but I cling to the smallest possibility, and always tell myself my Hunschen does everything he can to accomplish it. It must go fast now, my boy. I just cannot believe that I won't see both of you again.  
Where might you be now?(cannot read the next word) Doing road-construction? Building houses? Harvesting? I imagine you in different places, doing different kinds of work, always with that longing to be there with you, helping you, taking care of you and loving you. When does your new semester in Manhattan start? Don't forget to send me your new address. I already received a birthday letter from Rose. She says, she did not get a reply to the birthday wishes she sent to you.  Please Hunschen, stay in contact with her, she is a very reliable person. Have you written to our Herting in the meantime? I sent you the address.  
Not much has happened since your last letter. I still cannot accept the fact, that I have lost my beloved occupation and livelihood. Right now we are still on holidays, so it is very hard to find new pupils. I still have 2 former ones, but that is not enough, hopefully it will get better soon. All my friends are very worried (touchingly) about me, as I wrote in detail in my last letter to you. I just hope it won't be necessary to enlist their help. Tomorrow is Annchen's birthday, I will be with her for lunch and go home in the afternoon. I don't even want to think of my birthday, I requested that nobody  will come to visit. I don't want to be with many people, it is all so very sad. Next week I will go and see Mrs. Halle. The boys will be on a trip, and I will help her to mend socks.

When you go to Shelley’s always say hello for me. When I am not so depressed anymore I will write to them. In your letters is always a lot about your stay with them, about this outrageously pretty girl Leila and also Hubert, which you have never mentioned to me before. Did you meet Shelley’s through Hubert or the cousin, Hunschen what was her name? Fairly early you wrote that you made a car trip with a student to visit her relatives, was that Shelley’s? Have you heard from Ellenruth? I think she is on the best way to destroy her whole life. If only one could help her. But everybody has to live through their own experiences. You know I like her very much, and regret that everything had to happen like that. I now understand, that because of the kind of home life she had, she became so insecure (unrestrained). 
(cannot read the next 2 lines) and thank him for his kind words. I asked Aunt Berta to come to me, I really want to talk to her. (She means have a heart to heart) She wanted to come before, but I felt so hopeless and begged her not to travel then, but now I am doing a little better. Tilli's birthday is on August 13th. If you would write to her, it would make her happy. You can add it to the letter to me, and I will send it to her. I wonder if Annchen will have mail from you tomorrow. Papa had the picture of Patti and Maurice enlarged. One for Annchen and one for me. You can imagine how delighted I was! He also wants to enlarge a picture of you, so I will send him one.

Write soon, my beloved boy.
I kiss you very much.
Your Mama

Not much has changed for Ella. Her despair remains, although she tries to hide it just a bit more in this letter. She urges Opa to keep writing her frequently, as his mail is her only joy. I didn't realize that Patti could no longer write, but that their correspondence is now just red cross letters. I've seen these - they are like postcards but with even less space to write. And you cannot write much more other than "I'm well; the weather is nice." without the censors throwing it away. August is not dependable as he write once in a blue moon. Opa's letters are all Ella gets from her family.

Ella acknowledges that the way to the United States is impossibly narrow, but has hope that Opa will keep trying for any possibility. This line: "I just cannot believe that I won't see both of you again." Not only can she not believe it, she refuses to. She knows logically that it may be true, but she just won't believe it. Her tenacity even in the face of her own despair is inspiring if not also heartbreaking.

For Ella, it's always about her children. Her joy and sorrow is wrapped up in their welfare and her ability to be with them. You know, in a society with options and opportunities, I might say she should try to do something for herself or find her identity outside of her children, but she doesn't live in that society.  She lives in survival mode, and for her, survival is nothing without the promise of being with her children.

She asks Opa about what he is doing now, what kind of work he's doing. She chastises him a little (passively) for not writing to his relatives or wishing them a proper happy birthday (or thanking them for their birthday greetings). 

Ella returns to her misfortune of losing her livelihood, it seems she hasn't been able to pick up enough students yet. She is going to celebrate Annchen's birthday, but has no desire to celebrate her own (August 4th- just two days before mine!). She then mentions mending socks with Anni and Gisela's mom. She's just so sad! She doesn't know what to do with herself!

I hope Opa has written her a few letters, letting her know he is well and fed and warm and happy. If nothing else- maybe she can find joy in his happiness. How difficult it must have been for him. On the one hand, his mother was in serious danger and he had been her only real hope of leaving Germany. On the other hand, she is his mother- and to have her still telling him what to do (and who to write) from thousands of miles away must still have annoyed him. And then there is her unusual despair. Did he feel burdened by it? What kind of pressure did he feel when she told him his mail was her only joy? It might have been a guilt trip- but the boy better write.

July 15, 1941: Ella Breaking

Letter from Ella to Opa


Tom Döppner
McPherson College
McPherson, Kansas
Bln. Charl. 4, 15.VII.41
Droysenstrasse 14

My very beloved boy,

Hopefully you have not been too worried, to be without news from me for such a long time.  I have not been well, for the very first time  I lost my nerve totally. It was very difficult for me to lose my beloved livelihood from one day to the next. In my last letter I wrote to you how much I enjoyed every lesson and every pupil, now suddenly everything came to an end. For a few days I was in total despair, not seeing a way out, now I am still terribly depressed. Even though I should be happy to have so many good friends, from all sides help is almost forced unto me.

Luckily I will be ok for a while, and I hope soon I will have enough to do again to be able to manage on my own. I already have 2 pupils. Now is an unfavorable time for me, it is vacation time, and there are many difficulties with many emigrations. Hunschen, I want you to thank all who offered to help me as well, especially Frank’s, Luz and Mrs. Ruhst, also Annchen. If I can collect the outstanding fees for my June lessons, I will be ok for a while.

It pleases me that you celebrated your birthday so nicely, I already replied to your letter of May 23rd. Then the next one came, dated June 16th, also a letter from Mrs, Shelley for which I am very grateful, I will answer her soon. From Patti's girlfriend I heard that she (Patti) does not get news from you. Why is that? Write to that child. She seems to be very happy. I had a nice letter from Papa. He seems to be doing fairly well.  
Hunschen, what is going on with my situation in coming to you? Hunschen, you should try to get a visa for me straight from the State Department in Washington, since the consulate here is not in operation anymore. But I don't know about the conditions there.

Hunschen, please find out very soon. I want so much to be with one of you two. Since 11 years, I have for the first time nothing to do, or almost nothing. My household profits from that, I do lots of good cleaning, but cannot keep the worries away, and that is not good for me. Last week Grete was here, she lives in Lichterfelde, I visited twice, one time for dinner. I tried to be of use, helping her to mend socks. Anni is not at home, she is taking a little vacation trip
and sent a card to me and Gis. She wrote she had sent greetings to you also. I think Gis likes you especially much.

Hunschen, have you not taken on too much, like the work at the library. You cannot, for your life, do all those translations. German, French and Dutch, I believe you can do, but I think your knowledge in the other languages is not sufficient. I believe I know more than you, but I would never attempt it. Do write, though, whether that goes forward.

I’m so glad you’re having such a nice time at the Shelleys’ again. I would like to be there. I didn’t know Mrs. Shelley was a colleague of mine, so to speak. I can imagine how nice it is to have the daughter of a student as a dear guest. The fact that you unashamedly find her pretty is an indication that she is nice to you, and so I hope you have a nice time together.

It was a great, great joy for me when the letter from the president of your college arrived, in which he praised you so highly, and it’s not just him who is so full of praise; he writes: we – and I take that to mean the other professors too. Did he actually get my letter? I think our letters must have crossed each other [in the mail]. That would be noteworthy: first people don’t write to each other for two years, and then at basically the same time. Hunschenjung, did you by chance receive a small present from Ellenruth for your birthday? She wrote that she sent something, but you haven’t mentioned anything about it. Or did a letter from between May 23 and June 16 get lost? I even thought you would have spoken to Ellenruth. She drove from New York to Los Angeles; she would have passed right by you. If so, I’d be interested in what kind of impression her Fred(?) made on you.

Hopefully this letter reaches you before too long, for the moment I’m still writing to your old address. What is the new position that Mr. Schwalm is taking? He seems to be a wonderful person. Hopefully they will show just as much interest in you at the new college? Yesterday I was at the Löwes’. It was Richard’s birthday, and since they didn’t have any other company, I went over for a little bit. They send their greetings.

Write to me soon and a lot, my beloved boy! I’ve been missing your [plural] letters a lot just now. I kiss my beloved boy!

Yours, Mama

Aunt Martha tells you hello. Will you remember that Ellenruth's birthday is on August 15th? Do you have something small to send to her?

Ella is uncharacteristically vulnerable with Opa about how she is emotionally and financially. There seems to have been a fall-out for her as far as her livelihood is concerned. As a jewish woman, she is severely limited in her ability to support herself. She has been tutoring privately for income. Something happened where she says that she lost her beloved livelihood from one day to the next. I am confused about what happened, and why this happened so suddenly. 

The only thing that I can work out is this: the closing of the German and Italian consulates in the United States. Ella's last letter was in June, on the day that FDR announced the closing of the consulates to be effective in July. I think I was talking to a family member about this letter and we hypothesized that most of Ella's students were people who were preparing to leave for the United States and were being tutored in English. Once they no longer had the possibility of leaving, they no longer felt the need to pay for tutoring. This is a pretty good guess and would explain Ella's despair as it not only closed a door in her hopes of emigrating, but it also could have potentially wiped out the demand for her tutoring services. In the end, it's just a guess, I'm not sure if that was what happened. 

I kind of love Ella's wit even in sync with her despair. She was depressed, but grateful: "Even though I should be happy to have so many good friends, from all sides help is almost forced unto me." Ella hates not being self-sufficient. Whatever happened has made her even more dependent on others, and it drives her nuts. She turns a hopeful tune and says perhaps she will recoup some students, though it is summer time and emigration everywhere is hard. 

The next part would make me very nervous if I were Opa. She asks him to thank people who helped her... and those people are her neighbor, his aunt, and others who live in Germany. What's that about? Why can't she thank them herself? Where does she think she's going? This part made me very nervous for Ella. This is a strange request followed by an unusual show of despair. What is happening?! 

Then, as if a light flipped on, her tone completely shifts for the rest of the letter where she talks happily about his birthday and the family and chides Opa into writing everyone more. She even puts in a nice "I think Gisela likes you." Grete is Grete Stumpf, one of the Quaker women in leadership who helped people like Ella, mostly keeping them connected to a community of people who cared when they couldn't help them immigrate. 

Ella talks about Ellenruth, her niece (Opa's first cousin) and asks if he received a gift from her. Later she encourages him to write her and send her a little gift for her upcoming birthday. I recently visited Ellenruth's daughter in Seattle, where I saw the pictures from her trek across the US from New York to LA. I don't think they stopped by to see Opa, but at the time I'm not sure they were really in touch (despite how much Ella seemed to be trying to get them to communicate). Fred is actually Alfred, or Allie as they later called him. This was Ellenruth's husband at the time, and her daughter's father. A side note, Ellenruth's parents were mortified that Ellenruth was with him (he was much older than she) and that she left a good job in New York to travel west with him. I wonder if Ella is trying to get the scoop on Fred and see if he's as bad as her sister makes him out to be.

Also- randomly- August wrote to Ella? She has never mentioned a letter directly from him and actually complained that he didn't write. And here we have Opa's letters- and August is silent starting in May 1940. What's that about?

The last half of the letter is completely different from the first half... it's as if she sat down to write and then returned later when she was in better spirits. But the first half must have haunted Opa in a way. Ella usually qualifies her despair saying that things will work out- this letter doesn't have quite the same tone to it. She urges Opa to see if he can't get her a visa right from Washington (which he does not live near at all). Her desperation is apparent. What does Opa do? It has to be torture to watch Ella breaking.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

July 7, 1941: Everything Changes in Wartime

Letter from Annelise Thieman of AFSC to Opa


July 7, 1941.

Mr. Thomas Doeppner,
McPherson College,
McPherson, Kansas.

My dear Mr. Doeppner:--

We have received your letter of June 28th with the attached questionnaire which I am not yet returning because we have to look it through very carefully and at the present time there is no urgency in your returning it to Mr. Salisbury. However, there are quite a number of questions which you will want to answer differently and more correctly, and I shall send you these papers as soon as we have had time to go through them.

As you probably know, the whole affidavit procedure has not only changed, but also the regulations about change of status. In other words you know that no Germans (and in spite of the fact that you once had a Dutch passport you are still considered a German) are permitted to leave the United States at the present time. That includes persons who want to change their status from temporary to permanent immigrant, just as well as any other German, therefore for the time being the procedure of changing status is stopped. There is a bill pending in Congress which would be very helpful in case it should go through, and that is the "Smith Bill" which suggests that reliable persons in this country on temporary status should be enabled to change their status without leaving the country. However there is also reason to feel that this bill may be defeated and I am just telling you this for what it is worth.

Please tell the lady who might be planning to give an affidavit for you not to prepare these papers yet, because the new forms will be issued by the State Department (although they are not yet published) and in case you would use the old forms it would have to be done all over again. As soon as we have the new affidavit forms we shall forward them to you, but at the present time there is no hurry about anything.

As to the question about your "first papers" I think we will take that up with you at such a time as you are applying for them, and not now. It certainly would be unwise to take the stand of a "conscientious-objector" under the circumstances in which you find yourself at the present time. However, you ought to take the difficulties as they arise, and therefore there is no hurry or need to worry about that now. As far as your mother's situation goes I am afraid we will have to be rather skeptical. The new regulations of the State Department regarding the admission of aliens excludes everybody from admission who still would leave close relatives abroad, that is, in Germany or German controlled countries. However, many clarifications will be needed in the present immigration procedure before one can say anything definite abut it.

As soon as we have had time to go over your papers, we shall send them back to you. This is just to tell you not to rush anything at the moment, because nothing can be done.

Very sincerely,

Annelise Thieman.

Your letter of 7-5 with the good news just arrived - be sure to apply for a new extension in August! 

There's a lot of information in this letter. I think the thing it highlights best is the constant changing and morphing of immigration law in war time, and how that affected people like Opa and his mother. It also shows just how on top of it the folks had to be at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and other refugee placement agencies. Annelise says that Opa doesn't need to hurry, and it has nothing to do with the urgency of his or his mother's situation (which is fairly urgent), but the fact that they know everything is about to change, so they have to wait for the new forms to roll out and start all over again with a new strategy.

Annelise advises Opa not to worry about his concerns with the conscientious objector thing. It's very much a "cross that bridge when you come to it" and "you have more pressing things to worry about." 

I tried to look up the Smith's bill, and while I found something it was about an anti-strike bill, so I may have to dig deeper (or see if the immigration thing got slapped onto a larger unrelated bill). If it did pass, the papers will likely show us later.

As for Ella, things are not looking good for her chances to immigrate. The German consulates are closed in America. Opa is not allowed to leave the country (which I'm sure he doesn't really mind at the moment). But for Ella, another policy stands in her way. As Annelise presents it: Germans are not allowed to immigrate if they leave close family behind in Germany. There are a handful of ways this policy might have come to be... most of my dreamt up reasons don't stand to logic. I thought, maybe America is nervous about German spies reporting home to their family? But last I checked, spies usually report home to the government. Or a liaison to the government. Either way, couldn't you just be super mean and censor their mail? Seems less mean than not letting them immigrate on the off-chance they're spies. (And since when do folks immigrate and then immediately have access to high-level military information?) Ok so maybe the reasoning is that these other family members could and should take in their relatives who are at risk. This of course is a bit ridiculous as many of the folks who are looking to leave (the refugee portion) are leaving because they are Jewish- and none of their jewish relatives are safe or can protect them. I can't figure it out. Again- another thing to research, but I may never figure it out completely. The thing Annelise does allude to is that the immigration law is (as always) subject to translation, so consuls might interpret those guidelines in various ways. 

Regardless, Opa is stuck (happily) with a temporary reprieve on his haste to figure out his visa. Ella's fate, on the other hand, seems to be tangled deeper into the jungle of Nazi Germany, and it is a matter of how long she can remain hidden in plain view of her oppressors.

This letter made me sad the first time I read through it. Then as I did research, I found myself becoming numb to the reality before me. I wonder if that's how Opa felt. None of the news lately has been good for his mother. There was a short time of optimism when he had an affidavit, when there was some shining possibility that he could request her or her number would be up soon. Then the affidavit wasn't good enough, Opa's visa not secure enough, the consulates closed. Things started closing up and the light began to flicker. We're used to the bad news now and wouldn't trust good news if it appeared. Did Opa become numb in his necessity to accept the inevitable? That his mother was not going to make it to the United States? That there was nothing he could do? Now his only goal was to keep himself safe and keep knocking on that padlocked door, just in case. His goal was to keep writing, keep hoping for her, not in belief that she would be able to leave Germany, but in that buoyant emotion that keeps people alive when nothing looks good. 

When is that moment when Opa and Ella both know she won't make it to America? This could be it. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

July 6, 1941: You Can't Lock a Million People Up

Article in The Hutchinson News Herald (local newspaper)


Escaper From Nazi Camp to McPherson

Young German Jew Enrolls In College After Adventures

McPherson - A fugitive from Germany, escaped from a concentration camp, Tom Doeppner, 21 German Jew, has found refuge at last in Kansas, and is enrolled as a student at McPherson college.

Twice he got out of Germany, but once was caught and returned.

It was in 1938 he first made his get away. Just 18, he had been ordered to take the first train to Leipzig, to enroll in a regiment there.

"I got on the wrong train," he remarked, "and found myself at the Holland frontier, headed west instead of east as ordered. They caught me and sent me to a concentration camp.

"The stories you read about the treatment given prisoners in those concentration camp are unfortunately only too true. No human being can hold up under the torture when the officials are trying to learn something, or trying to make one change his views."

Doeppner managed to escape from the concentration camp, It can be done. He made his way into Belgium, and then to Holland, and from there made his way to America.

Read Only Lies

"The German people don't know what is going on," the young German declared. "All they know is what the Nazi propaganda officials let them know. Most of it isn't true. They can read the newspapers, but nothing is printed excepting what the government permits.

"As for the radios, only German programs are allowed heard. You soon get so tired of them you just sell the radio. Some people have foreign wave-length sets with earphones, but they have to keep them hid away in basements for if they are ever caught the secret police take away not only the radios but also the owner."

Doeppner said Hitler had set up what he called the German Christian church and had tried to suppress everything else. But he had found it difficult to do.

Church to Prevail

"In the Confessional church, made up of those who refuse to line up with Nazi religious movement, but who stick to the old Bible, is became a regular procedure to arrest the preacher and take him to a concentration camp, on the charge of talking against the government.

"But the next Sunday there would be a new preacher. There would be another arrest, and then still another preacher. Hitler can imprison hundreds or even thousands, but he cannot imprison millions and there are literally millions of Confessionalists in Germany, and they are ready to preach whenever they feel the urge.

"Finally, the Nazis gave up trying to arrest all the Confessionalists, but the Black Shirts patrolled the streets in front of the churches, taking pictures of everyone entering to worship. This, they thought would keep people away. But it didn't.

"They began then putting these photographs on the bulletin boards in the business section, with names and life history of those photographed, as a warning to business men not to sell them anything.

"They try everything to frighten the people, but the Confessionalist movement is growing. You can't lock a million people up."

I'm going to let you take a big breath after that. It's a good story, I'm just not sure it's true.

If you are a Harry Potter fan (as I am), you might recall a scene in one of the movies when Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of witchcraft and wizardry, shows Harry Potter, student and hero, a distorted memory. The memory starts out fairly normal and reasonable, then things get weird and something feels off. Harry recognizes the weirdness at once. Dumbledore wants Harry to go to the original source of the memory, and get the real story.

That's this article for me. The painful thing is that I can't go to the original source to sort it out. So we have to sift it out and see what is true and what is debatable. There's a lot off here, and some things are sort of eerie. Like the line "You can't lock a million people up."

So let's start with this: Opa never said anything to anyone in the family (that I am aware of, and I've asked) about being in a concentration camp. He also has not mentioned it (that I'm aware of) in any of the documents to the AFSC. We saw recently that he asks his contact at the AFSC about whether or not to mention in his application for permanent residency his very brief detainment at the Holland border, in which he was not even processed but released back into Germany. (One of the questions on those immigration forms is whether or not you have been arrested or imprisoned here or abroad.) There isn't even a family lore about it (which there are about other things). So I am automatically set to question this statement that he escaped a concentration camp. But I'm not throwing it out completely.

We do have Opa's account of his escape to Holland, and while this article has elements of it, it is very different from what we have. Before I compare the stories, the only way we know about what happened (how) Opa went from Berlin to Amsterdam, is from his autobiography. We have found some discrepancies in that autobiography, but mostly it was through omittance or assumption about things he didn't necessarily know (as Opa wrote it many years later and with some dementia). So in Opa's account, his passport was marked "For Identification Purposes Only" which meant he would be subject to the draft soon. He proceeded to make his way towards the Holland border so that he could join his father in Amsterdam and try to make a way to the United States. He gets caught at the border, and explaining his situation, the Dutch border patrol takes pity and says that they cannot allow him to stay, but that they will help him get back into Germany unnoticed. We assume that that conversation took place during some form of detainment (although perhaps not so formal as a time spent in any holding cell). Opa then found himself back in Germany and spent time in a hotel while he awaited instructions from his father (who he had cabled for help). One day help arrived, and a team of people smuggled him into Holland. 

Ok- so now that I'm rehashing Opa's story- his seems a bit too polished. Either way- the newspaper story does not make sense in may ways. Let's start with geography. First: that Opa was ordered to Leipzig and "got on the wrong train" is a bit strange. The article quotes Opa as saying:
I got on the wrong train...and found myself at the Holland frontier, headed west instead of east as ordered. They caught me and sent me to a concentration camp.
Here's a little issue with those east west directions. First, Berlin is almost as far east as you can go in the country before you hit the Polish border. Leipzig is south of Berlin. A train going to the Holland border is a long train ride, where Leipzig is a pretty short jaunt south. So my guess is his "I got on the wrong train" is tongue and cheek, but he was never going east- and Opa would have known that intuitively, so my guess is that this is already a tiny misquote at best. Then the paper says that after escaping from the camp, Opa went into Belgium, then Holland. So... unless the camp was far south or Opa's train took a really round-about way to Holland, it doesn't really make sense for Opa to go to Belgium first. (See map- for those who didn't do fabulous in geography- this is Europe now, but you can see Belgium south of Holland/the Netherlands.)

This all makes me wish there was some way we could know for sure just what really did happen. How did Opa get into Holland? Opa's niece, Helene, has wondered about this story with me as well. She wonders if he did not need to "escape" at all but was able to easily get into Holland, but did have to work hard to stay there legally (and get a chance to go to the US). Maybe Opa knew a Dutch passport would get him a better chance of going to the United States? (Which is true.) Maybe he destroyed his German passport, not because he was to be enlisted, but to better his chances of not being returned there. We don't know when he destroyed it, if it was in fact destroyed, or what the nuances were. I do wonder if he didn't get the stamp "for identification purposes only" -what the impetus for his quick departure would be? I do think something had to have happened to get him to make the trek west on his own. Then I also wonder, why didn't his mother leave then if it weren't that difficult to cross the border? I wonder if she didn't feel as in danger at that moment  (kristalnacht had not happened yet). I need to gather some more facts. 

All this to say- I think this reporter went to one of Opa's talks rather than had an interview, and I think that he took some liberties and/or forgot things. Perhaps Opa mentioned he was detained and the reporter automatically thought "concentration camp" - and of course he would have to round out the story by quoting Opa on how bad the camps were (which were bad, but not quite the extermination camp situation that we imagine when we hear that phrase- that came later). My guess is that the talk was given to address the church in Germany, which again the information sounded a bit too Americanized, or at least weirdly optimistic. I need to do more research on that too. 

I just did a little brief glimpsing of the history of the Confessional movement in Germany. I am not an expert, but I do remember studying a lot of the leaders in seminary! Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are names of leaders in this movement, and any study of Christian theology has likely read or studied some of their work. The primary goals of the start of the movement was more to establish a separation of church and state (rather than overtly call out the morality of the Nazi government). This resistance evolved, and there are criticisms (in time and after the fact) that the Confessional Church did not do enough to make a strong stance against the anti-semitic nature of the Nazis and other moral deficiencies. That's my VERY short version of what I've learned.

Let's just say that the Confessional church was a force on the German religious scene, but I will say that the reporter might be over-emphasizing their strength in numbers and resilience. 

And yeah, Hitler could lock up millions. But no one could have known that.

So to wrap this novel up: Opa's travels from Nazi Germany to his father's house in Amsterdam is a mystery. This article certainly makes for a dramatic story, but I'm not convinced of its accuracy. There's a chance Opa read this and cringed, or maybe he felt the white lies could benefit him as a verifiable refugee. I have no idea. As I mentioned before, it's interesting in any case that Opa would be making a presentation about the Confessing Church, as he was never a member or participant in the organization. In fact, his family belonged to a group that the Quakers named "Konfessionsloss," Essentially, what religious folks today mean when they say the "nones." This term is for the individual without any religious attachment. Opa's venture into the Quaker youth group was an intellectual pursuit with spiritual benefits. 

And finally: don't believe everything you read. Even the "good guys" get it wrong. Primary sources are a fabulous thing.

Monday, February 13, 2017

July 6, 1941: Keep Fighting Life

Letter from Opa to Gisela


McPherson, July 6, 1941
Dear Gis, 

Today is Sunday, the only day I have time to think for myself, and so I wanted to reply to your very sweet letter. It was so nice to hear in detail how it’s going for you and what you’re doing. Your work seems like it’s really very interesting; it’s great that you like doing it, though working nights is pretty hard, isn’t it? It’s too bad you can’t find any friends among the girls, but I know sometimes it’s better to not have any friends than to be forced to be a friend. But a person can also strike up a friendly relationship with people they don’t usually fit in with, without rightly being friends.  

Since exams in May, which concluded the school year, I’ve had a ton of different jobs, since I’m not allowed to take a permanent position, but still have to earn tuition for next year completely on my own. First I worked for a while in City Park, then I did garden work for an old rich lady, then I had a few other odd jobs until the harvest began. Harvest work is just about the best job a person can get here, since it pays well and you get all your meals during that time. Overall it lasts only a short time, but during that time you really have to work. The harvest here is done completely differently than it is in Germany, since the fields are much bigger. Here in Kansas there are almost exclusively wheat fields. The land is divided into sections, one section is exactly one square mile in size, between these sections are so-called section lines, which are good paths for cars. These section lines go exactly in the cardinal directions, so you can practically never get lost, since you’re just told: Go three miles north and five miles west, or something like that. Each farmer usually has half a section, or sometimes a whole one, sometimes more, seldom less. You can imagine how long it would take to harvest that kind of land with a scythe, which is why the farmers here have a special machine that they call a “combine,” that’s a machine that cuts the grain about a five-meter-wide strip at a time, then the cut grain is put on a conveyer belt inside the machine, where it is through a complicated process immediately threshed. Through a long tube the threshed grain comes into a big box that is brought along. The straw and all the weeds that are picked up get thrown out the end of the combine. A tractor pulls this machine fairly slowly, about at a walking pace. But since the whole time a five-meter-wide strip is being cut and threshed, it naturally makes for a relatively fast harvest. A truck then drives next to the combine, and the threshed grain is sent through a tube from the box to the truck, the truck drives to the barn, and two scoopers shovel the grain quickly into the barn, then the truck goes back to the field to pick up the next load. In the first position I had this year, I drove the tractor in the mornings, but in the afternoons I had to shovel, which is the least pleasant of all the jobs, and it doesn’t even pay better. The two shovelers switch off in bringing the loads. First I drove out with the truck to pick up the next load while the other guy stayed back to shovel the grain back into the barn, the next time we switched off, so that it didn’t get too boring. We worked from 8 o’clock in the morning until 12, then a half-hour midday break, then from 12:30 to 5, ten minutes for lunch, then we worked straight through till 10 o’clock at night and sometimes later. In the next position I had, the scooper was paid somewhat more than the tractor driver, so I tried to only scoop, and I was allowed to do it. So we shoveled approximately fifteen to twenty truckloads of wheat a day, you can really feel your muscles then. Once in a while we bring the load to an elevator, that’s a wheat storage facility where you can sell the wheat without storing it first in your own barn. You drive the truck with the full load first to a scale, where you’re weighed and a sample of the wheat is taken, then you drive into the elevator and there drive your front wheels onto a little stand. Then the front wheels are lifted up via the stand so that the wheat can trickle out the back.  It trickles through a grate on the floor into a big container, from which it is lifted with an electric hoist into the actual elevator. Then you drive the empty truck back onto the scale, the difference in the weight is taken, the result of the wheat sample is accounted for, and you get a receipt and drive back to pick up the next load. That is naturally a lot simpler, since you don’t have to shovel, but it usually takes longer, since you sometimes have to drive miles and miles to the nearest elevator and then wait for a while there. - This kind of work is certainly rather strenuous, but it’s healthy, and best of all is you usually get five or six dollars a day. - Now the actual harvest time is past, but there are naturally still some old-fashioned or very poor farmers who don’t have a combine, and I’m working for one of those men now. We drive with horse and wagon – the majority of farmers here don’t have horses anymore – stack the bundles onto the truck and then bring them to a big wheat stack where they are artfully piled up. I still can’t build a real stack by myself, to do that you have to know exactly how every bundle is laid down, since the stacks are approximately ten to fifteen meters high.  The farmer I work for stands up on top of the stack and I throw him bundles with a pitchfork. That’s fairly strenuous when you have to do it for the whole day, and the thermometer around midday climbs to 43 (109 degrees fahrenheit) degrees or higher.  

If I can earn enough money by September, then I’ll go to Manhattan, to Kansas State College. There I’ll still need two years to get my electrical engineer diploma. Kansas State College is one of the best engineering schools in the States, so it’s much more expensive than McPherson, but it’s what I have to do. I’ve already gotten a job there that will bring in enough money for board and room, about four hours a day I’ll be working in the library as a translator. I had some difficulties in getting this job, and had to drive there three times, after a long exchange of letters; the folks naturally didn’t want to hire a German; you can imagine that there is a kind of hatred of Germans here that we have to put up with. - I’m going to rent a room there with another guy, where we’ll eventually be able to cook for ourselves, but we haven’t completely agreed on that yet.  

I’ve found a bunch of good friends here, but there isn’t anyone with whom I want to strike up a full friendship, there are too many differences in upbringing, values and interests for that.  There is a guy here who I’ve become friends with unlike with anyone else, he is twenty-five, studied literature and history, last year he got his diploma. He’s now trying to find a position as a high school teacher, but that’s rather difficult. He’s an outstanding scholar, writes good poetry, which he can publish off and on. We’re together at least twice a week and always have a good time. But despite that I feel rather alone in some of my connections, though I’m not complaining, since I know I have it better than most guys my age, and much better than I deserve.  

You should already know that Anni wrote to me, and we’re going to start writing to each other again. Gis, time has changed a lot for me in this respect, old wounds are healed, and the scar is only there to remind me of the good and to help me in my life going forward. I’m not tied down, and I think it’s good that way. I’m with girls a lot, we have classes together, all of student life is fully built around coeducation. If you go to a get-together, to a picnic or something along those lines, it’s always expected that a boy has a date. As long as it stays within good boundaries, and that is the case in most circles, I like that a lot; it simplifies social life and helps relieve the pressure than can otherwise so easily become disastrous. Overall the relationship between guys and girls is really pretty free and unhindered, a kiss means nothing in America, or at least in American colleges, and that is naturally not always such a good situation.  

Every Sunday here I go loyally and dutifully to Sunday School and church. Not that I belong to any church, or even have the slightest intention of belonging to one, but one reason is that McPherson College is supported by a church and thus I already went for diplomatic reasons, but another reason is that here you usually meet more interesting and thinking people in church circles than outside of them. There’s no Quaker group in McPherson, about 80 kilometers from here is a Quaker university, but seeing as I don’t have a car, I naturally can’t go there often. Last semester here at McPherson College I drummed up a group of religiously-interested guys and girls, and we held a little meeting every Wednesday morning before breakfast. That was an interesting experiment, and we usually had at least six or more in attendance. There wouldn’t be any point in beginning a real Quaker group, since we already have a Student Christian Movement, an International Relations Club, and many other similar groups on campus, which provide enough opportunity for religious, spiritual and intellectual life.  

I’m now having some difficulties in securing my status here. I’ve applied for naturalization, but as you well know, you have to sign some things for that that are impossible for me to sign if I want to remain true to my conscience. On the other hand, my mother can only come here once this matter is fully settled, so I don’t know exactly what I should do; you know well what I’m talking about.  

It’s already late now and I have to be up early tomorrow. Be well, Gis, and keep fighting life, because few people can do it as well as you! It could be that we won’t be able to send mail to Europe anymore soon, but I know that we won’t become strangers to each other, even if we can’t write; as long as we can write, though, let’s do! Thanks very much for your picture, I was so happy to get it, it’s really an especially good one! I hope my picture looks somewhat like me, you know, a person can never judge that for themselves.  - I’ll wait impatiently for another letter from you soon.

In heartfelt friendship, 


I'll say it probably every time we have a letter from Opa to Gisela: I am SO grateful that we have these letters. I remember when asking Gisela for them, she was hesitant to give all the copies to me because he didn't think they would be of much interest. I understood what she meant, most of the letters are the mundane, every day stuff, void of very much drama. (Except the juicy pieces where you see that Opa and Anni definitely had some sort of relationship that was tense at best.) This mundaneness is precisely why I love them so much. They show me Opa as a 21 year old man who was still writing his friends in Germany and described his job as a harvester. It's the mundane that becomes fascinating. No one reports on the details of daily living, they skim to the highlights and add a little spice where needed. So much so that our accounts of history are often missing the key element that makes it real: normal people. 

Here is Opa, a normal guy who had some extraordinary experiences, but honestly- was quite regular. I could dramatize the harvest work, and it was really quite strenuous (I certainly balk at hard labor from 8am-10pm), but we have an entire history of regular people doing hard labor for less. He chose the work because it paid well, it fed him, and he got some muscles out of it. 

I can see how Ella was not super excited to hear how Opa had been doing such hard labor. She imagined her son as a man with superior intellect who could and would achieve great things with his mind. Yet, if we are able and the work is not exploitive, isn't hard labor an amazing lesson in strength and humility? I don't know about you, but when I carry a crazy heavy box - I feel like superwoman. It's why people get all crazy about working out in the gym. There's something visceral about being able to achieve a feat of strength. The gym doesn't do it for me. I can't lift something for the sake of lifting it. But harvesting acres of wheat and seeing that my work has accomplished something that contributes to the feeding of a nation? Pretty satisfying. 

Opa talks about friendships, how hard it is to make those intimate friendships where someone can share more than just laughs. It reminds me of how powerful those Quaker youth group connections were. They feel lonely without each other. Nothing can compare to their connection. If you think about it- it makes sense. They were each other's oasis in a dry landscape of nonsense and hate. Outside the Quaker walls were "heil Hitler" and an unquestioning love of nation and leader. Inside the walls were a space for exploration, questioning, different faith and maybe no faith at all. Opa goes to church and Sunday school for diplomatic reasons, and because this is as close to the Quaker group as he can find. His clubs have filled in some of the gaps of spiritual and intellectual growth that he received in the Quaker group. 

Has this ever happened to you? You had that amazing experience and tried to recreate it in as many ways as you could? But it's never the same is it? I remember for the first few years out of seminary, I mourned the loss of that community of learning and growth. I tried to make new friends and engage in the same kind of conversations, but it never worked. Eventually I let go of recreating the past, and was able to embrace a present and future with new and equally meaningful experiences. But it was hard. So hard. And I felt lonely. 

Opa starts to wrap up his letter with an update on his visa search. I'm realizing that he had hit a stumbling block on the naturalization process, as a pacifist, he could not promise that he would be willing to defend the United States in the military. At the same time, he knows that his success in receiving permanent residency in the US was the best chance of helping his mother. I'm frankly surprised at how much of a dilemma this was for him. 

The last part Opa reserves for encouraging his friend and confidant. "Keep fighting life." He knows that Gisela is on the front-lines of a devastating way of life, and he also believes that she is a piercing light for that darkness. Keep fighting.