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.

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