EXCERPTS FROM CHAPTER 7
THE THIRD REICH: OBSERVING HISTORY
A little past midnight in the early morning of June 11, 1938, I watched from the deck of the St. Louis, one of the smaller ships of the Hamburg-American Line, as Mother, Dad, my brother Doug, several family friends and the lights of New York City grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared. I made my way down to my third-class cabin to meet my roommate and get my things stowed away in preparation for the 12-day trip to Germany. All the other passengers were bustling about too, finding the way to their rooms, unpacking, and some of them rather furtively passing something to the stewards, who seemed very available and eager to help. What were those round balls of various dimensions being quickly tucked away out of sight? I found from my German roommate, who had just completed her master’s degree at New York Teachers College and was returning to a teaching job in the Third Reich, that they were rolls of tinfoil collected in the U.S. from candy and cigarette wrappers. Hitler had asked all Germans traveling abroad to bring back as much of this material as they could to aid his rearmament program!
Although the real adventures of the summer were still ahead, those days at sea were lively enough. In addition to the excitement of exploring an ocean liner and the joy and awe of being afloat for days on the immensity of the broad Atlantic, I had a taste in that shipboard community of a truly Germanic society. The food was plentiful and hearty and German, the crew was German, and most of my fellow passengers were German too. Some were returning from relatively short vacations, but others had emigrated to America some years before, had experienced hard times during the Depression, had lost hope for a better life in their adopted country, and were returning to their fatherland where they were sure they would find good jobs or at least good old-age, illness and unemployment pensions. I heard my first Heil Hitler as sailors and officers greeted each other with their right arms raised in the Nazi salute. No more Guten Tag except mine for the next three months. This could have been serious. Later in the summer I once answered Guten Tag to a policeman as he passed me on his motorcycle, giving me a Heil Hitler and a salute. He wheeled around and came back to talk. He soon satisfied himself that I was not a rebellious German but an ignorant American, so he smiled and went on his way. Only in some rural parts of Catholic Bavaria was I greeted with Grüss Gott by some older women, but I didn’t know if that was a habit that couldn’t be broken or an act of defiance.
There were some other American students going to the summer session in Stuttgart, and we made friends with the officers who occasionally invited us to tea in the second mate’s quarters. It was there I sensed tension in the air when we heard on an English language radio station that Joe Louis, the representative of an “inferior race,” had knocked out the Aryan champion, Max Schmeling. It was there, too, that one of the American students began a political discussion, saying favorable things about Hitler and Nazi Germany. The second mate stopped him quickly by saying, “We won’t talk any further about this please. As Hitler says, “Come and see for yourselves. Visit us, but don’t believe in propaganda.” That’s pretty ambiguous, I thought. Whose propaganda? I liked those officers very much and often wondered if my ability to judge people failed me at that time. Were they the decent people they seemed to be, or were they convinced Nazis conniving with Hitler to dominate the world, ruthlessly scapegoating Jews and other vulnerable minorities?
As it turns out, I know the answer to that question because the St. Louis and its Captain Schroeder played an important role the following year in the saga of Jewish persecution, so important that there is a section devoted to it in the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Eleven months after I knew those officers, in May of l939, the St. Louis left for Cuba with 930 Jewish passengers trying to escape the humiliations and ostracism, the concentration camps and the gas chambers that were their inevitable lot in Germany if they stayed. The story of that trip is heart-rending. Seven hundred and thirty four of the passengers had fulfilled U.S. immigration requirements and had quota numbers that would have permitted them to enter the U.S. in three months to three years when their numbers came up. They were planning to wait in Cuba until then, and they all had the proper official landing certificates to do so, but Cuba’s president invalidated those certificates by decree before the ship reached Havana. Only 28 passengers were allowed to disembark and the Saint Louis was eventually ordered out of Cuban waters. Captain Schroeder then tried to get the United States to provide temporary haven, at least to those who had valid immigration papers. To our shame we refused them entry here too. Finally the ship sailed back to Europe with those despairing people still on board. Some lucky few finally made it to England and the rest were taken in by France, Belgium and the Netherlands, but they were not safe for long. In the fall of that year Germany bombed Warsaw and all of Europe went to war. Most of the people who were on that ill-fated trip ended up in concentration camps when Germany occupied Western Europe and imposed Nazi policies against Jews there too. Captain Schroeder resigned from service when he finally reached Germany. Several books written about this “Voyage of the Damned” show him and some of his crew as caring people actually distraught about the fate of their passengers. But of course in 1938 I had only unanswered questions about any of the friends I was making.
I regret that airplanes have made passenger ships obsolete because a long sea voyage can make you understand how far you are from home. Those 12 days made me realize too how far apart our cultures were. I got accustomed to a different language, enough to show me that my two years of German would be highly inadequate to my needs when I reached port and was on my own. I felt safe on board the Saint Louis, but I began to sense the uncertainties I would face when I bade farewell to my all-too-transient shipboard friends in Hamburg.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
My German cabin mate shepherded me through customs in Hamburg, helped me buy a ticket to Heidelberg at the train station, and got me on the right train going in the right direction. I was certainly glad she was there because my German failed this very first test. Hamburg was a sudden nightmare. The first thing I noticed was that everyone was wearing a uniform – even young boys and girls – all ages being in a high state of excitement, on the move. The train I took south was crowded with young policemen returning to their posts from a sportsfest. One of the nicer ones sat next to me for much of the day, describing the passing scene. I was able to catch a word now and then and could at least say Danke and Auf Wiedersehen as he helped me change trains in Frankfurt. On that second train, a young woman who spoke English told me about a women’s hostelry, something like our YWCA, near the station in Heidelberg where I could spend the night and get myself organized. The next day I could introduce myself to the Weisses, my future host family, leave my trunk with them, and then take off for 10 days of exploring the Rhine River area until the university summer session began and the Weisses would be expecting me. I took her advice and spent my first night in a women’s dormitory in that very foreign country. Several of us there spent the evening up on the roof watching some astonishing festivities. I had arrived at the beginning of a week-long celebration when students from around the country, all wearing beautiful uniforms, gathered “to make plans for the coming year,” and the sight was spectacular. Down below along the streets beside the Neckar River, thousands of students carrying torches marched briskly to the music of German bands. And above us, part way up the mountain side, the ruins of the old castle suddenly burst into flames as bonfires were lit in every turret and courtyard and in every gaping window. About midnight, fireworks erupted into the sky on both sides of us, from the bridges across the Neckar and from the castle above. It was magnificent. After that, I crawled into my assigned bed in a large dormitory room and fell asleep. It had been a long, exhausting, exhilarating day. I knew that tomorrow and for many tomorrows I could expect the unexpected – and I knew that I would be experiencing it alone.
That was the beginning of months full of kaleidoscopic impressions and emotions. I kept a diary, and here are a few excerpts from the first week:
June 23 – I met my future landlady and left my trunk there. She’s extremely jolly . . . . I’m terrifically happy.
June 24 – I felt on the top of the world this morning, so I climbed around the ruined castle and then on up to the top of the mountain behind . . . . This trip is like a movie . . . geese paddling around a peasant Frau, herds of sheep, cobble-stoned, narrow, high-walled streets, ivy and flowers, church towers and woodsy mountains! This morning I came upon a market place in full swing. One woman was selling fish, live ones in water-filled wooden buckets. I watched her throw a tremendous squirming eel onto the cobbles and then cut off its head. When her knife grew dull, she used a cobble as sharpener. I bought my lunch there for 30 pfennigs ( 7 cents) . . . . [Later that evening] I’m in my first Jugendherberge [youth hostel] in Dilsberg. I walked about 10 miles to this small, walled hilltop Dorf . . . . I’ve taken pictures of some of the peasants driving cows hitched to queer wagons . . . . It’s only about 4 cents to stay here overnight and the meals are also amazingly cheap. What a view of the Neckar Valley!
June 26 [In Mannheim Youth Hostel] – Every German man is almost too friendly. If I had a bike I could get rid of them, but on foot it is impossible . . . . I don’t feel as happy now as I should, but with some sleep and some time away from the city I’ll feel better; June 28 [In Lorch Youth Hostel] – Yesterday a funny painter helped me find a second hand bike. It cost 18 marks, but I think I can sell it again for almost as much . . . . today I found a good spot to see the Mause Tower and the Rheinstein . . . but I contracted a most awful case of homesickness and had to leave before anyone saw me . . . . if I feel like that often, the U.S. will see me sooner than it expects.
July 2 [Back in Heidelberg Youth Hostel] – I had time to go further along the Rhine, but I had too many longings for letters from home. I turned back . . . and continued on to Zwingenberg where I found 65 Hitlermädchen . . . and helped them peel potatoes for supper . . . . In the morning I found that I was getting supper and breakfast free for the potato peeling! I wandered down to the village and passed the village smithy hard at work at his forge . . . . In the town I bought some marmalade from a woman who thought America was in Austria . . . . It began to rain just on the outskirts of Heidelberg, my first bad weather. I limped into the YH and walked to the Weisses for mail. Heard from Bud and felt better . . . . Nothing from Mums, though. I hope Monday’ll be another story.”
HEIDELBERG SUMMER SESSION
As you can see, every day was full of excitement and feelings of exhilaration, vulnerability, anticipation and loneliness. I sometimes had trouble believing I was not dreaming and sometimes I wondered how I had ever dared risk such an adventure. This may sound melodramatic to today’s young people who do so much traveling to more exotic places than Germany, but in the 1930s it was rare for women my age to travel by themselves. Besides, I don’t think I had ever before been alone for more than a few hours at a time. Almost always there had been family members, nearby neighbors, or friends within hailing distance. And I had rarely been out of New England before that summer. Two years earlier, I had travelled to New York City for the first time in my life and that is only 2 hours away from Hartford. To be sure, I was accustomed to making many of my own decisions, but I was always within a short bus ride or a quick telephone call to Mother or Dad if I needed reassurance, or within easy access of a friend’s good advice. Now suddenly I was about 3000 miles away from anyone I knew. Any trip back home would take days at sea. No chance for a quick flight home – there were no planes to take me. And there were no available telephones to use either.
I have never been homesick before or since, but I certainly was that summer. But the lump in my throat left sometimes. It helped when classes at the university started and I had more structure to my life, a family to stay with, and a schedule to follow. I liked the women in the Weiss family, especially Frau Weiss. She was from peasant stock and I got to know her best. She liked to walk in the mountains with me, and I helped her with her housework, especially when she had one of her frequent migraine headaches. The two of us attended Sunday services at her Lutheran Church several times, and she taught me how to cook Schinkennudeln and Heidelbeerkuchen. Her 18-year-old daughter, Ella, helped me make a dirndl and took me to her gymnastics group where I got acquainted with some of the friends who went with her to a huge Hitler rally in Breslau at the end of July. Herr Weiss was a janitor at the university and a member of the Nazi party. I didn’t get to know him much, but he seemed boorish to me; and Fritz, the 15-year- old son, who trained his own group of younger uniformed Hitlerjugend in military maneuvers under my window, was also unapproachable. But I was treated well, ate good breakfasts, and felt comfortable and safe.
I did a lot of traveling on weekends, exploring other parts of Germany and staying at different youth hostels where I often met merry company and usually felt secure. One problem was that I didn’t have adequate clues about men in that foreign culture. I learned to be cautious. I never did discover when it was safe to go walking with a soldier. Should you be friendly to that group of men that are passing? And if you’re not will they be angry at you for being “stuck up”? Yes, I had some anxiety there, but not so much that it kept me house-bound. However, whatever the cause, I lost my nerve by the end of July and went to a travel agency in Heidelberg to swap my September 9th ticket for an earlier one. Not a chance! I tried seven different ships but every bunk was taken, undoubtedly by people who needed to leave Germany more desperately than I. My only recourse was to continue with the plans I had made for the rest of the summer and hold tight to the ticket I fortunately already had.
There are some advantages to traveling alone. There is nothing like it to sharpen your awareness of people and situations. There’s no one to distract you with their needs or attentions. Also, I was forced to learn German because I seldom was with anyone who spoke English. I soon managed street conversations with some confidence, but the lectures in the university were usually too difficult for my complete understanding. I did record a rather detailed lecture on the social aims of the Third Reich. This is from the July 29th entry in my diary:
Most of the lectures are very worthwhile listening to – packed full of propaganda . . . . Everything encourages a back to the land, simplicity movement. The German “folk” is glorified – the folk art and songs and dances. Such a movement is part of the effort to make the people realize that they are bound together – are one in tradition, feeling, and needs. The Gesellschaft of Hitlerjugend and all the uniforms, the jolly songs they sing are all for this one main purpose. Hitlerjugend all have maps of the 19th Century and must learn where so-and-so wood is, the old streets of Berlin, this-and-that famous castle. K.d.F. [Kraft durch Freude, Strength through Joy, was a workers movement that provided workers with cheap tickets to various cultural events and arranged outings to Germanic historical spots.] Groups going around the country are really getting to know their fatherland as a whole.
Here was Germany’s Romantic movement, a unifying of the country with myths and propaganda for what purpose? Of course, part of such a process employs “enemies,” people who are outside so that the rest can feel in, and that was obvious too. I saw Juden sind verboten signs posted at city boundaries, and some shop windows were smeared with chalk and had Juden scrawled across them, but a much more terrible campaign to destroy all Jews began a few months after I left. Another story I heard that exemplified this scapegoating was told to me by an American businessman who lived with his wife in an affluent suburb of Heidelberg. I had a letter of introduction to them from a Windsor family friend and they invited me to their home several times that summer. Dr. Allen told about a prominent Jewish doctor friend, a professor at Frankfurt University, who had saved many German children suffering from malnutrition during World War I by feeding them greens and exposing them to the sun. In spite of this service to his country, when Hitler declared all Jews anathema, especially those in the universities and the rest of the education system, the Frankfurt professor’s colleagues stopped talking to him, he dropped out of the university and disappeared. I found that a horrendous story of cowardice. How could the government have taken such action if everybody had refused to cooperate with it? I tucked that away for future consideration.
Heidelberg University was rumored to be a Nazi stronghold, and what I understood of the lectures bore that out. One professor dwelt on German history and claimed that Germany had not lost World War I militarily but had been stabbed in the back by the press and liberal civilian defeatists back home. Another lectured about genetics, explaining why German Aryan blood was so superior to that of other “races.” One of our courses described German economics but I was unable to follow that at all, although it might have been more informative than any of the others, which were so predictably slanted. The Lutheran church sermons I heard with Frau Weiss were helping the Nazis in their way too. One pastor spoke about how small our little earthly worries are in comparison with the tremendous Universe of God. We should forget them and be concerned with joining the heavenly kingdom. Don’t get involved! I met students from many different countries at the university – Latvians, Lithuanians, Finns. Danes, Swedes, Swiss, Japanese, a few French, English and Americans. No Russians, though. Once I brought Vanda, a dainty Polish student, back to my room to eat a lunch we had bought in the market. She asked to use the bathroom and while she was there, Frau Weiss, looking very distressed, whispered to me that all Poles are dreckig – all Poles are filthy! – and would I please not bring her into their house again. That was an ominous note. When biases like that came up in our conversations, I would suggest there were good and bad people in any group, and she would murmur an unconvincing assent.
There was more entertainment than just the university for us that summer. The people of Heidelberg proudly hosted a drama festival held in the ruins of their castle, important enough for Goebbels himself to preside over the opening ceremonies. That led to another surprise. Ella, knowing from her father what Goebbels’ route would be, took me into the street to watch him go by. As luck would have it, his car was held up by a passing train right in front of where we were standing. An S.A. guard who had been flirting with Ella thought he would do us a kindness by making way for us to shake hands with the Propaganda Minister of the Third Reich. Goebbels had cold eyes, my diary says, and a narrow, impassive face a bit like a weasel’s. I didn’t dare write home that I had been that close to one of the most fanatical and notorious members of the Nazi dictatorship.
However, I enjoyed the festival. Herr Weiss got Ella and me some inexpensive Kraft durch Freude tickets through his workers council, and we went to two of the plays being offered that season, both of them by Goethe. Faust, which I had read in a sophomore German course, was the first, and we watched, open mouthed, sitting out in the open courtyard, stars overhead, with the castle walls and doorways for props. Then two nights later, we walked up the hill again to the castle and watched Götz von Berlichingen. This was perhaps even more awesome for me. The action of the play took place in the very villages and mountains I had been wandering through, and there were real horses pounding over the castle yard!
As if that weren’t enough excitement for one night, we walked home with a boy who wore a Breslau pin, so he and Ella had something in common. He turned out to be a German Czech, and I wrote in my diary (note the German sentence structure), “Such bitterness against the present arrangement I have never before heard. He reads mostly German newspapers but . . . Czech papers too and he told what lies the Czechs have printed. I imagine Goebbels has done here another prize bit of propaganda, but there’s no doubt that this proud Sudetendeutscher who so fervently Heiled Hitler was heart and soul for an Anschluss (for joining with Germany), and he said that there were 6 thousand of them at the Breslau Fest.” None of us knew at the time that Czechoslovakia would be swallowed up by Germany in a very few months. By the end of November, the Sudeten territory had become a part of Germany and the rest of Czechoslovakia an undefended satellite of the Third Reich.
TWO ON THE ROAD
A few days later, after packing a bit and saying goodbye to friends, Ella and I set off together on our bikes. She seemed eager to travel with me through the Schwarzwald and Bavaria for several weeks, staying at youth hostels as I had done so often on my weekend roamings. That arrangement didn’t last long. We parted, still good friends, five days later after spending two nights at Frau Weiss’s cousins’ farm at Pfullendorf in the Black Forest. Although very poor, the family there took us in and sheltered us through a rainy day. We all ate together – Mama, Papa, two daughters, hired hands – from a central bowl of stew, passing big loaves of bread from one arm pit to another as we each cut ourselves a hunk. The older of the two daughters had become a farm laborer herself, working in the fields and barn, as strong and subdued as the men. The much younger one was lively, graceful, and petted, obviously with the expectation of a different future. The independent- minded father took us with him into town where we joined his friends at a local pub for a glass of schnapps. I got the impression these peasants gathered together almost daily to exchange news and discuss politics, and for the first and only time that summer I heard Germans openly and fearlessly criticize their government – to be sure only for its agricultural policy.
The next day Ella, homesick herself, took the train back to Heidelberg and I headed south to the Bodensee and then east through Bavaria. I had a letter of introduction from Aunt Elizabeth Butterworth to her sister, Trixie, who lived in Murnau, south of Munich, with her husband, Baron von Hirschberg, a German general. I hoped I would be as hospitably treated by Clare and Ann’s aunt and uncle as we had been by Ella’s peasant cousins.
ON THE ROAD ALONE
There were five more days of biking from youth hostel to youth hostel before I knocked on Aunt Trixie’s door. Along the way, I toured the factory in Friedrichshafen where the Graf Zeppelins were made. These were huge rigid airships, shaped like sausages, propelled by several motors and held aloft by hydrogen gas. They had been used up to that time as weather observers and in warfare during World War I for raids on England and were being developed in the ’30s into strategic weapons. One of the largest, the Hindenburg, had crossed the Atlantic in 1937 with 97 people aboard. Many of us had seen newsreels of the big lumbering airship as it approached the Lakehurst, New Jersey, airport and then exploded and became engulfed in flames as the highly flammable hydrogen caught on fire. No wonder the tour guide looked at me with hostility because my government had refused to sell the Germans helium that would have been a safe substitute for the hydrogen gas. And no wonder my government was refusing to sell the helium that would have made that new zeppelin we were looking at, already almost three quarters built, a safer military weapon. I believe the airship I saw was never finished, and by World War II, only a year in the future, zeppelins were considered obsolete.
In Immenstadt I saw another facet of Nazi Germany. I reached the youth hostel there about 1:00 P.M. and sprang up onto an alpine trail for an afternoon climb. I soon realized I was being followed and looked around to see a young blond German who was also staying at the Immenstadt youth hostel. He didn’t look too dangerous, so we climbed together and I discovered he was an enthusiastic pilot in Hitler’s newly organized air force, on Rest and Recreation after spending half a year bombing for Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. I knew Hitler was aiding Franco against the legitimate, freely elected government of Spain and incidentally giving training to his untested pilots, but it took me awhile to grasp that the man walking beside me had enjoyed killing men, women and children while staying relatively safe himself (the Spanish Government Forces had no antiaircraft weapons), and that he was preparing himself for future killings of Poles, French, Belgians, English. Is “murderer” too harsh a word for him? He was licensed, to be sure, because he wore a uniform and thus represented his country, but was a murderer nonetheless. On the way down the mountain, we came to a roadside shrine and my pilot companion did some random damage to it as we passed. “In our country,” I told him, “we think everyone should have the right to worship in whatever way they please.” “Here,” he said, “we’re going to have only one religion, a state religion.” I think he meant worshipping the state.
And then biking on through miles and miles of Bavarian Alps, passing hillside huts, cows wearing their brassy bells, alpine meadows, mad King Ludwig’s astonishing castle, a Rococo cathedral, the Staffelsee, and finally to Murnau and the von Hirschbergs. When at last I introduced myself to Aunt Trixie, her first words were, “When did you last have a bath?” Did I look that bedraggled? At least we were discussing my personal habits in English!