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. 

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