At age 18, Tom Doeppner was smuggled out of Nazi Germany. He was 26 before he saw anyone in his family again.
Tom was my Grandfather, “Opa.” Cleaning out my Grandmother’s desk ten years ago, I found a small box where Opa had kept letters from his family, written as early as 1938.
When I opened that box, I found a story that I never knew.
This blog tells the story of what happened to Tom and his family in that decade of separation.
The worst has happened, and maybe more is yet to come: I am fired. Today was my last day of work with the National. Things have gotten a little too involved. I do not feel like writing details now, but I hope to be able to see you soon. Briefly my plans for the immediate future: As soon as I get my permit from the U.S. Attorney (which may take somewhat longer now than usually) I shall proceed first to McPherson to see my draft board concerning the possibilities for immediate voluntary induction into the army, then to Kansas City to hunt some kind of a job. On the way, of course, I'll stop at Lawrence. I shall wire you before I get there; please notify your house to inform you if my wire comes, for I may not have much time. Also, please don't mention anything about the deal to anyone.
So much for the naked facts. Margie, I feel as lousy as I never felt before in all my life, and there have been plenty of bad times. Before all this happened, I was happy. Here I had a new job, finally a permanent one and a job I liked -- had my education which I had worked for so terribly hard -- and, most important of all: had you, and with you the hope for a beautiful, happy home life; someone to love and someone who love me, who cared about me. And now, it seems as though everything I built up was blown down by a wind, to leave me alone to start from scratch. This time, however, I have no longer the ambition, the energy, or the hopes I used to have. There is a black mark against me which can never be erased.
Don't misunderstand me, honey: I still hope (how could I live without it?) that you are not leaving me and that you still have some belief in me, but our plans can't be realized any longer. It was my intention to write a long letter to you this weekend, reminding you of October 14 and of your feelings towards it, but at present I feel as though I am no longer allowed to ever ask you to marry me. I want you to be happy, carefree, and contented. Life with me would mean for you to live under constant suspicion, to be talked about by the neighbors, and looked at with the eyes of gossip. I am used to it to a certain extent, and I hate it. could not bear, however, to see it happen to you.
I do not know what the future may bring and I do not dare to anticipate. Darling, only with a burning heart can I say this: I must let you be free and find someone who can give you the happiness and the life which I wanted to give you, but I can no longer. Maybe I should not write this to you but wait and tell you next week when we see each other, but certain things are easier written than said. It will cut a deep wound into me to give you up, a wound that can never be healed. To see you unhappy, however, would be death.
I shall see you once more next week; we shall decide then after you have heard and considered everything, whether we will be walking the same road or whether our paths will never cross again.
With eternal love,
This letter breaks my heart. It is the first time in the whole process from leaving Germany to today that he genuinely loses almost all hope. He's lost his job.
It seems everything I have built up as been blown down by a wind, to leave me alone, to start from scratch.
That is the sum total of humanity's desperation. Destruction by a mere wind, leaving us alone to start from scratch.
This only healing answer to this kind of easy devastation (which is true and extant) is that we are not alone.
Even when we are, we aren't. Someone out there wants to help us. Always. I know this because I know some of these people. Sometimes it's easier to find that person, sometimes we push them away because it hurts too much to believe and hope again.
We need to give ourselves a minute, a day, a month, to recognize and grieve what we've lost. We can do that with others, and then we collect ourselves and build again, like the beautiful stupid humans we are. It's really amazing. Every time I see images of people sweeping up the dust after a hurricane or landslide, I think: how can they do that? They are surrounded by debris and destruction and they are sweeping. How stupid it must feel. But they are not alone. Everyone grabs a broom. And somehow it heals.
It's important to remember that emotions are not fact, but feelings. I don't mean they aren't valid, I just mean they aren't permanent.
It's important to know this because I think part of the reason we are afraid to express our real emotion in real-time is because people respond to it as if it is a fact that persists. We guard ourselves and others against this because it's hard enough to feel the feeling without having to add twenty caveats.
When Opa says there is a black mark against him which will never be erased, that is his most authentic expression of how he is feeling in the moment. He doesn't need someone to convince him that it isn't true. By the time the letter arrives in Grandmother's mailbox, the feeling has already softened, become less burdensome, and maybe even evaporated.
Feeling your emotions and expressing them in real time with an open hand so they can leave when they need to, that's the way to do it. Shutting them down and locking them in a vault- bad idea - you create your own Pandora's box of some super charged emotions. Expressing them and having to defend them over and over to others only creates a groove for that emotion. You're required to keep feeling it in order for it to be real, in order to defend it. The truth is: you don't have to keep feeling something for it to be real. That's what we need to remember.
Emotions are perhaps the most real thing in the world, and because of that, they can't last too long. If they are trapped, they become something else.
The real facts I did learn in this letter, through the lens of Opa's authentic emotion, is that he really loved Grandmother so much that she was both the reason for his holding on to hope, and the reason he might lose it all. I learned that even optimistic and resilient Opa felt like it was too much at times. I learned that this moment, which felt like the biggest tragedy and destruction, created a path which altered the entire course of Opa's life.
I never heard about any of this. These were not the stories Opa chose to share. He talked about his life after this, he talked about his life before this. The important thing was not this hinge, but the opening it allowed.
In this moment in this letter, he doesn't know any of that. All he knows is how fragile life is, how fragile his freedom is, and how deeply in love he is.
He hopes he is not alone, because when he was not alone, he was happy.
Today was a nice day to work, cool and calm, so that we got to shoot 15 holes in spite of a rather late start. The day didn't end up so nice, though. An official from the F.B.I. came here, to investigate in that old story where I was supposed to have been window-peeking. I got a bad start with him; he was at the office of Mr. Davison, the fellow who owns the house into which I believed I had seen Mary Wallen go. I was supposed to call his number and was sort of disgusted that Davison would start that stuff again, so I didn't call him at first. He called me down for that, probably rightly so. Then, I told the story, just as I told it in court, but he too didn't believe it. Well, I can't help that. I am afraid they may do something about it, don't know what yet. The F.B.I. man was rather unpleasant compared with those officials from the F.B.I. who come for routine investigations. He said he didn't like my "attitude," thought he had caught me in lies, etc. I was terribly nervous, but I don't think I said anything that wasn't so. Probably, the thing will be all over town by now. I believe I'm going to ask for a transfer.
This is just a short letter, honey; pardon me for it, but I am still kind of upset and also have to go and fix a cable break.
Lots of love,
Opa didn't sign this letter. I don't want to read too much into it, but I think it indicates just how upset he was. He was always the supreme editor, and would read things over before sending it out. This didn't get read over very much, if at all.
This is bad news. The FBI is back, asking questions about the window-peeking incident (which happened July 31). It seems they came at the behest of Mr. Davison (what does he have against Opa?). The FBI officer is not kind to Opa and interrogates him with the assumption of guilt.
Here's my question: how is this still a thing? Opa went to court and was fined for the event. He literally paid his dues. Isn't this some kind of double jeopardy thing? What else could they do? We'll find out.
I just found out that typewriter paper, when folded this way, gives a much more personal appearance. So that's the way I'm going to use it from now on.
Tell Skunkie I certainly enjoyed his cute and sweet letter. I guess he will be admitted into the Doeppner family; anyone with sufficient intelligence to be a better speller than his mistress will qualify, even though he is derived from the canine family. So you told him about the farm and about cats to tease. Skunkie, don't let her feed you that stuff; if there will be any teasing done, it will be the cats who tease you, and not vice versa. Also, each time you chase chickens, your mistress is going to spank your little behind with a folded-up newspaper. If I were you, I would forget about the farm and become a city-slicker. Here in St. John, there are some nice looking she-dogs to play with who will be tickled to death to associate with an aristocrat like you. Bob has a she-dog with whom he will let you play; she could be your grandmother, though, for she is already eight (or twelve?) years old. Anyhow, she will be glad to get you acquainted with the rest of the canine society of St. John.
I really rated the mail today. Your letter, a letter from Winton, and one from Mrs. Zimmerman. Winton is still at Ft. Leonard Wood and, naturally, does not care a bit about his work. Occasionally, he has time to go to the Lake of the Ozarks, which, of course, is quite an event. Zimmermans are doing all right. Clif is now at Las Vegas, Nev.; Mrs. Zimmerman is cook at the college hospital.
This letter had to be interrupted for a rather embarrassing reason: I had a female girl in my room. Lois, the girl who says here, had heard about my new record (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2) and wanted me to play it for her, so I did. Any objections?
Again, we didn't work much today. After three holes, the drill had to go to town to get a rod welded on, and we stayed in the field, pitching pennies, playing poker, and talking. After a while, we found a place where watermelons were for sale (I want you to note that we did not swipe them) so we put together and bought a 30-pound melon. It didn't take long for it to disappear. Anyhow, we still got twelve holes shot, for after the drill got back, things ran rather smoothly.
This is the kind of climate I like; the only surprising thing is that Kansas has it. For the last three days, it has been raining here at night to cool things off, and was nice and cool, but dry during the day. Right now, it's thundering and raining and lightening outside; a fresh rainy breeze comes into my room to make it extremely comfortable. My landlady is scared to death of the lightening, while her husband and I are making fun of her. (That's what's going to happen to you; Skunkie and I will make fun of you when you are afraid of lightening. I only hope Skunkie won't be scared himself.)
Have you ever written to the Rogs? I think I'll shoot them a letter one of these days, maybe this weekend. Naturally, I won't mention anything about the job he's going to have, but it might be a good idea to keep in contact with him. Have you written to Eileen? I haven't either.
Thanks for the two bucks. I had forgotten all about them and just couldn't figure out what you were sending me money for, where it's me who owes you some. By the way, how much do I owe you? I hope you kept track of it.
Well, it's time for me and Morphus again. Tell that ignorant, uneducated, stupid, low-eye-kewed dog of yours that Morphus is the God of Sleep, the one god in whom I believe with all my soul. Ever heard of morphium? Well?
Good night, darling; come to me!
When you write letters everyday, you talk about things like 30-lb watermelons, fear of lightning, and morphium.
Something I appreciate about Opa's letters is that he always has something to share, something he wants Grandmother to know, even if it's not important. I think that's a good sign of being in love with someone, when you need them to know the stuff that isn't important.
Also, I'm starting to think that Opa was a cat person (did he have cats growing up??). They never had cats in their married life that I am aware of. And my Dad is strictly anti-cat. He barely tolerates dogs, but cats are a no-go. Kind of funny to think about why your family has one or both- it does seem to be almost a family tradition sometimes. My family's tradition is definitely dogs, and not little ones. (We broke that tradition and got a little one and a giant one just to be weird.)
A Nickelodeon was playing, a dog barking, six million girls and seven million boys talking, squeaking and fighting in the drugstore when I was trying to talk to you, so I couldn't understand much of what you said. I did hear your voice, though, and that's what the main purpose of the call had been. Had you realized that we had been talking over six minutes? When the operator asked for the overtime, I could hardly believe her. It's about time that television gets into the Southwestern Bell Telephone System, so that I can see your crystal-ball eyes when I talk to you.
Except for the telephone call, nothing exciting happened today. We didn't work as long as ordinarily; got home by six o'clock because of muddy roads which made us get stuck about six times during the day. Also, we shot only nine holes all day long.
Apparently, my little trick with the employment agency worked, for I have not had an answer yet to that registered letter I wrote the other week. It seems as though they know that they were wrong in their demand and just thought they try whether they can get by with it. I am surely glad I was no sucker to pay it.
We had a big argument in the crew today concerning negroes. Most of the boys are from the south and almost got a hemmorhage when they saw a negro man and a white man sit together on a bench in the city park. How these people can condemn Hitler for his super-race idea and then talk about the negroes the way they do is an inconsistency which I will never understand. It's a matter of tradition and education, though, and most of the boys have the wrong tradition and almost no education, so I guess we can't blame them much. The argument got pretty hot, however. Even Bob and I don't see eye to eye on that question. Bob was born in New York, but lived most of his life in the South.
Wonder if the Nazis are going to defend Paris? You know, there is a possibility that the war may be over just about the time of our wedding in October (if we have it then): wouldn't it be a coincident to get married on armistice day? I shall write to Hitler about that and ask him to give up on the 14th. So far, Hitler has been awfully nice to me. If it hadn't been for him, I would not have come to America and, therefore, would not have met you.
Before closing, just a few pedagogical advices and suggestions concerning that she-he Skunkie. The following things he must never do: (1) live up to his name; (2) run after cars, barking and howling at them; (3) continuously change his mind as to whether he wants to be outside or inside; (4) beg at mealtime; (5) be too dependent on us. If he refrains from these five sins, I'll adore the beast.
It's time for my date with Morphus.
Love and both my arms around you.
I was trying to remember if Opa did ever see the ease with which technology allowed face-to-face phone calls. I'm sure it was up-and-coming technology, but he did not see the likes of what we have now with smart phones and computers allowing us to instantly see and hear our loved ones. I can't imagine making a phone call with a pay phone in a crowded place. With my hearing loss, there is no way I would have been able to do that. I'm so grateful for the technology we have today!
Life is weird. We wish and hope that tragedy and disaster never happen, and yet so many of us are alive today because of disaster. It's hard to try to make anything all good or all bad.
Covid has been an absolute disaster at globally devastating levels. But I know I would be lying if I said that I didn't glean something good from the time we had during our quarantine. It feels evil to say that. Just like it felt evil to read Opa's words that Hitler had been nice to him because he was able to meet Grandmother. It doesn't do us much good to try to untangle the web or trace a pure thread from each good thing to each other good thing. Goodness always shows up. No matter how evil the tapestry, something beautiful always seems to make its way through. Not because the disaster was good for us, but because good is always peeking through everywhere, and won't stop just because something isn't perfect. That gives me hope. Maybe this is what is meant by the biblical phrase "light pierces the dark."
I appreciate that Opa had his time with the Quakers in Berlin, where he learned about apartheid in South Africa and the racism of the United States. He was able to recognize the hypocrisy of those who condemned Hitler and still held themselves as superior to Black people. It makes me grateful that he was a voice of disruption when that Kansas crew could not comprehend a Black man sitting with a white man.
There are still inconsistencies which I will never understand, and I hope I have the courage to be the voice of disruption.
I received your letter of August 16, 1944, and also your letter of June 12, 1944, in which you sent me an application for extension of my student stay.
My reason for not having filled this out was that I am no longer a student, and also that I believed your letter to be superseded by the correspondence I have had with your office in Philadelphia as well as with the State Department concerning an application for preexamination. I am sorry about this misunderstanding.
Since I graduated from Kansas State College on May 21, 1944, I am no longer a student and therefore cannot apply for the extension of my student visa. It was for this reason that I asked to have my status changed to that of temporary visitor, until such a time as I am admitted as permanent resident. Please advise me as to what steps I should take to obtain this change of status.
At present, I am employed as Junior Observer with the National Geophysical Company. Our crew operates at St. John, Kansas, and I received a renumeration of $175 per month.
Very truly yours,
Thomas W. Doeppner
National Geophysical Co.
St. John, Kansas
Please note my change of address.
Letter from Opa to Mr. A.W. Elieforth (American Consul, Canada)
St. John, Kansas
August 20, 1944
Mr. A.W. Elieforth
American Consul General
Dear Mr. Elieforth:
Enclosed please find a photostatic copy of my birth certificate, in duplicate, and letters from the chiefs of police of McPherson, Kansas, and Manhattan, Kansas, respectively, setting forth the non-existence of my court record. These letters cover the period from November 1939 to July 1944. Due to the fact that prior to November 1939, I lived in Holland and Germany, it is impossible for me to produce police records for that period.
I have written to the Visa Division of the State Department to request forms C and B, and shall execute them as soon as received. The other documents required by you in your letter of May 29 will be sent to you as soon as I receive them.
Very truly yours,
Thomas W. Doeppner
National Geophysical Co.
St. John, Kansas
In the first letter, Opa writes to the INS to communicate kindly, but repetitively to make sure the point is clear, that he is NOT A STUDENT anymore. He writes the phrase "I am no longer a student" twice in this short letter. And yet, I'm still not sure he won't get a renewal application for his Student Visa.
Meanwhile, in the second letter Opa skirts the issue by providing police records for the entire time (except the last month or so) of his clean court time in the U.S. He distracts by saying the previous time he cannot prove because, well, obviously the war. And he does not draw attention to the fact that he does not have a police chief report for the town he currently lives in.
If you've been keeping up, the incident that happened to Opa where he was (falsely) accused of being a peeping Tom (and charged for it), has been conveniently left off this report to the American Consul in Canada. I don't blame him. He's not technically lying, and he's desperately trying to be an American for all the right reasons.