Thursday, March 16, 2017

August 31, 1941: We Were Born Into This

Letter from Opa to Gisela

McPherson, August 31, 1941
Dear Gis,
Now it’s Sunday once again, my last Sunday in McPherson. It’s warm here, the air is full of joyful bird songs, even the people seem happy and untroubled, but a hint of a hard future lies in the air, which only those who can and who want to look the facts in the eye are capable of recognizing. It’s hard to see this happiness and know at the same time how many tears are falling elsewhere and how many are very soon going to have to be shed here, too.  I think I can understand how hard it must be for you to sustain your life as much as you do in the midst of so much suffering and struggle. I admire you for your strength in doing so, and I know you will again remain victorious when it comes to life. We were born into a generation that demands a lot from us, but I believe that we can manage it. Every person has to manage it in his or her own way, but we’ll do it together and supporting each other, right?
Did you really think that Anni’s letter had given me a changed picture of you? No, Gis, our relationship is solid, and no one and nothing, not even Anni, could destroy something so beautiful and valuable. I think I understood Anni’s letter as it was intended; I was happy to get it and am really happy to be in touch with her, but there are no more of the feelings that held sway over me two, three years ago. It’s also preferable for Anni that that’s the case; I now feel that I can write to her as a good friend, but that my life will take another course, independent of that. It’s surely only natural that time has had this influence on me. We all, in our early youth, let a special and early experience seem big and unique, while then later, events that seemed small to us come into the foreground, and we realize the ones we have held onto forever have taken a back (if perhaps still necessary) place. Nevertheless, even I believe in the eternal value you write of. It’s like the links of a chain. We move along the chain, link by link; we see and value only the link that is right in front of us, and the upcoming ones; but if only one of the previous links were to break, the chain would be broken.
Thank you very much for the poem by Rilke. I wasn’t familiar with it; which one of his books is it in? It sounds a little like the Book of Hours. I can well understand why this “Fall” poem might help you; it’s also often the case for me that a beautiful poem or a concert can lift me up out of moods and temptations. Recently I’ve mostly been concentrating on modern American poets, but they don’t suit me quite as much. The only German poet whose poems I have here is Stefan George. I never especially liked him before, found his poems too sentimental and contrived; even now there are many other poets I far prefer to him, but I did find a couple of his poems that did a lot for me.  I’m including one for you, which, like most of his poems, doesn’t have a name and doesn’t need one. –Do you read a lot these days, or do you not have enough time? I read somewhat more this summer than before, though not nearly as much as I had planned, since I simply didn’t have the time and am usually so exhausted in the evenings that the spirit just can’t handle one more thing. In winter, naturally, I have no time at all for literature, since I have to devote all of my reading to the subject of engineering.
From the end of July up until my departure I had a very good position as a mathematician at a sub-branch of the American Department of Agriculture. From aerial shots of the land we had to calculate the size of various fields using all sorts of geometric instruments. It’s very interesting work, and finally something in my field. We work ten hours a day and get a very steady income. I’ve now earned enough money to go to Manhattan for at least one semester, then I’ll look for work again in order to be able to go for both semesters the next year. I only need four full or six abridged semesters to finish my studies, so it won’t be too much longer now.
Thank you very much for your report of the people from the [Quaker youth] group. It’s great that they are apparently still doing really well. Lotsch really did get the position she dreamed of, then. Has her illness gotten any better at all? So Guenther has a girlfriend once again. Is he still as childish as he was? But the German youth of today sure can’t be childish at all anymore; they’ve experienced too much to stay children. If you hear anything again from Werner, let me know how he’s doing. I admire him the most of all the boys in the group; he’s really, as they say here, “an all around good fellow.”
It’s good that you’ve finally found a nice friend and aren’t quite so alone anymore. Does she also work at the hospital? When I see the nurses at a hospital here, I always think of you and imagine that you must work with similarly silly and uninteresting girls. Then I often also try to imagine you in a nurse’s uniform and cap, and that works very well, I imagine that they look very good on you.
I’ve found a very good friend here, really the best I’ve ever had. I don’t know if I wrote to you about him already. He studied history and literature at McPherson College, took his exams here a year ago; now he teaches at a high school. He’s about 25 years old, short and unassuming in his appearance, somewhat severe and strict in his ways and how he comes across, but one of the smartest guys I know. What’s more, and this is what caught my attention most of all, he writes outstanding poetry; so good that I believe there’s a great future in it for him. If you’re interested, I can send you a couple of his poems, you’ll definitely enjoy reading them. This summer we got together at least once a week and read poetry or spent a wonderful evening in conversation. It’s worth a lot to have that kind of friend.
This Sunday evening it’s off to Manhattan. I’ve rented a little basement room there with a friend. We have a small stove there on which we can cook for ourselves; it’s cheaper and won’t take up too much time. We’re both bad cooks, but since no one besides us will have to eat our burnt food, we won’t develop too bad of a reputation. This friend is a very interesting guy. He was a sailor for several years and as such got around the whole world and earned money to now study electrical engineering. He’s not the most intelligent, but has a lot of willpower and is a really good guy. I admire people who have lived and endured life with its dangers and temptations far more than those who are good out of tradition, or because they don’t know any other way. –I have a really good job in Manhattan during the school year, it’s working in the library again. I’m sure almost two years’ experience in library work helped me get the job. I’ll have to work there for four hours every day, so I won’t have too much time left over to think stupid thoughts. I’ll also be sure to join several student associations, so I’ll surely have enough to do. I have found again and again that a person accomplishes more in each individual thing when they always have something to do. Too much free time works even against the things that a person could actually do better with free time. That’s a psychological issue to be sure, but it’s true.
That was a long letter, but there’s just so much to say. Let’s hope that this way at least remains open to us for a while; you have no idea how much I look forward to your lines every time, and how much joy it gives me to answer them.
Heartfelt greetings,
My new address is
c/o Mr. E Honsing, 1119 Kearney, Manhatten, Kansas

"We were born into a generation that demands a lot from us." This is perhaps the understatement of Opa's life. He is pretty poetic in his letter to his friend Gisela, with whom he has a close friendship. He focuses on their platonic relationship, but seems to hint at flirtation whenever he gets a chance. (Like commenting on how nice she must look in a nurse's uniform.)

Opa's opening paragraph hints at the inevitability of the US' involvement in the raging war. He feels a sense of superiority? prescience? as he glances around at what he considers to be his somewhat ignorant comrades at school. Little do they know, he thinks, that war is coming. I think they might know, they just might not know to what degree it will affect them. But can anyone know the future? The war is an old story for Opa, but he's a little condescending to his American friends. I can't fault him for it, he is right in a way, very soon the entire nation will be invested in this world war in ways they would not imagine. I think Opa honestly feels a little bit of what they call "survivor's guilt" by living in the relative safety of middle America while his friends are literally in the crossfires of conflict. 

Opa's optimism for the demands that the world has put on his generation is that they will get through it together. I love this.

Opa talks about Anni. It sounds like Anni might have said something nasty about her sister Gisela or at least not helpful. That sounds about right. And smartly, Opa doesn't let Anni affect his friendship with Gisela. He acknowledges that he's glad to be back in touch with Anni, but that he no longer feels the same way about Anni (he was in love with her), and that passing time has made that First Love feel less important. I love his chain link image- that we go along in life feeling that the link in front of us is most important, and then as we pass over them they fade, but to break it is to break the chain. It's a nice way to capture that no experience is wasted, but that it becomes less pressing. I wonder if he came up with that himself.

Then Opa talks about poetry, and I think he's putting on a little bit of a show for Gisela, but I don't doubt he loves poetry. Here is the Rilke poem, Fall (a translation):
THE LEAVES are falling, falling as from far,
As if far gardens in the skies were dying;
They fall, and ever seem to be denying.
And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,
Into a starless solitude must fall.        5
We all are falling. My own hand no less
Than all things else; behold, it is in all.
Yet there is One who, utter gentleness,
Holds all this falling in His hands to bless.

It's a beautiful poem, with the last stanza offering hope to us in the Falling. Opa talks about his new best friend, a person that we think is Winton Sheffield. Winton is older, a bit wiser, and a gifted poet it seems. It makes me happy to think that Opa has finally found a person that he can be real with and share his thoughts with. 

Opa hears from Gisela the scoop on everyone from the group. Lotsch is the girl they called Lotte (short for Charlotte) who had some form of disability, perhaps a weakness in the limbs of some sort. In most pictures, she has crutches or is being carted around on their hikes in a wheelbarrow. I love that they had someone among their group who was not physically as robust as they were, and they managed to find a way for her to be integrated into their activities. 

I emailed Bern (another Quaker group alumni) to ask him about what happened to Werner and other folks in the group. I don't know Guenther, but Bern knew him: "Guenther Gaulke who, after the war, married a Bremen girl and became a Bremen policeman." Bern visited him a few times after the war.

Werner's is a sad story. This is the boy that Opa has high respect for, he was the same age, maybe a year older. You might recall me saying the line that "Gisela loved Tom, Tom loved Anni, Anni loved Werner, who fell in the war." I asked Bern if this was the same Werner. It is. Here is what he wrote about him:

Werner Saxe (Sachse?) who fell on the eastern front... I did Ask Anni about detals of his death but other than that he fell with a Straf Batallion, a punishment military unit, she either didn't know or didn't want to tell me. ...(we have a copy of) his father's last letter before his execution in Ploetzensee, Berlin... As I recall it, I think Anni told me that Werner did not want to marry while the war was on. Perhaps he was aware even then that he would not survive.  She also told me that he loved his violin. 
So Anni's love died, unmarked, on the Eastern front in a punishment military unit. I'm assuming (but don't have a paper trail to confirm) that his placement in this unit was a result of his being half-Jewish, which enabled him to be sort of what we might called cannon fodder- front line folks that Germany didn't mind sacrificing. This was the very type of assignment that Opa was escaping when he left Germany. This was the death that very possibly awaited him if he remained in his home country.

But Opa doesn't know all of this, as it all hasn't happened yet. But I doubt we'll hear about Werner in the letters much again. Opa's focus then switches to Gisela in a nurse's uniform. Because, she's his friend. Right? What a flirt. 

He talks about his new best friend, his move to University of Kansas, his old job doing cool engineering things (first I've heard of this!), his job at the library, etc. He catches Gisela up on all the details of his life. His letters must give her a joint feeling of gladness that normalcy exists somewhere, and sadness that her life has been sort of usurped by the war at hand. She continues with everyday living, but everything is shaped by the war.

So Opa continues to write, to speak hope, to work hard, to keep himself busy, "so I won’t have too much time left over to think stupid thoughts." 

No one can rest too long, because they were born into a generation that demands a lot.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, your Opa, seems a very bright fellow. I know many engineers and not all of us have such a broad knowledge of things outside our engineering passion. I love that he is so 'wise' in his assessment of the American view of the conflict. I am going to relish his description of the Americans when we put our minds to winning this war. Then, I think, he will finally be impressed with his new countrymen. This letter, it seems, gives us more insight into Tom than any other to this point. Wanna share your grandfather?


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