A Peephole into Two Sides of History

April 18, 2011 at 3:25 pm (By Amba)

Digging deep into STUFF as part of the packing process, I got into an archive of letters and photos we brought home from J’s mother’s house after she died in 1982.  I found two letters which I have translated from the German, the first in part, the second in full.

* * * *

To get the context of the first letter, you need to understand that Jacques’ family, despite some intermarriage (and despite his nom de plume, or guerre) was predominantly Transylvanian Saxon.  These were people who moved to the foot of the Carpathian Mountains in the 13th and 14th centuries at the invitation of a Hungarian king, and there, despite building hilltop fortresses where the whole town would retreat during invasions from the East (which is why the German name for Transylvania is Siebenbürgen, seven fortresses), they acquired a wide swath of Mongol genes, probably the hard way, but to their long-term advantage.  They were part of Austro-Hungary till 1918, when Transylvania was awarded to Romania.  The educated class, to which J’s family belonged, spoke 4 languages:  high German, Saxon dialect (which resembles Old English more than it does German), Hungarian, and Romanian.

In the lead-up to WWII, a number of these Transylvanian Saxons were enamored of Hitler; others, more working-class, were enamored of Stalin.  The story I got about J’s family is that they were enamored of neither; this is somewhat substantiated by my possession of an Ahnenpass, a booklet handed out to Germanic families in which they were supposed to fill out their ancestry to prove there weren’t any Jews in it.  The one I have is . . . blank.  But there were family friends who fell into the first category, and this is an excerpt from a letter from one of those, who was apparently in Vienna.  (Warning:  it’s a shocker.)

Trenyi [J’s mother’s nickname], imagine, I have seen the Führer quite close up and four times.  To be sure, we stood for four hours but as a result I got a fine view of Him [sic].  The police couldn’t hold us back anymore, we ran quite close to the car.  Then He went into the [Hotel] “Imperial” and we planted ourselves in front of the hotel and shouted that it was a joy, “We want to see our Führer,” and “Dear Führer, Ostmark’s son [the Nazi name for Austria after Anschluss], show yourself on the balcony” [“Balkon,” this rhymes in German, as does the following] and “Dear Führer, be so nice, seat yourself on the windowsill,” and lots more quickly invented things.  He did let himself be seen twice on the balcony, but we didn’t go home until He came out again and drove to the theater.  I can’t describe to you the feeling that I had when I saw Him.  I cried and screamed as never before in my life.  I believe really He is for us Germans the second Christ.  And because I believe in this his purpose, I know that only He will bring the world peace, and until then we have quite a lot to experience.  And the Jews can balk all they want, they must come together and unite themselves into one people in Palestine and then there will be peace in Europe.  I can’t feel too sorry for them.  Their fate must fulfill itself.  And they have enough infamous actions on their conscience.  All these laws that the Führer gives out against the Jews today because of the racial defilement and the blood libel they already have [deserved?] for thousands of years, and it doesn’t occur to anyone to get further excited about them.

* * * * * * * *

The second letter is one of two, written in haste in pencil on brown paper, that got through from J in the Donbas slave labor camp to his parents.

21 July 1946

Dear Tata and Dear Mama!

With an opportunity I send you a couple of lines, I’m doing fine am healthy and cheerful and waiting only to come home.  I don’t understand why I haven’t gotten a letter from you like many others here?  Well, doesn’t matter, hopefully it won’t be much longer.  Of my work here and my daily life you will learn when I am with you.  I’ll just say so much: that I have a gigantic appetite.  Dear Mama, see that in the cabinet the rows of jam jars are standing just so, for I have forgotten what jam tastes like.  Enough of that.  Hopefully Edith* is at home and healthy.  My things are taken care of, right?  I’ll conclude.  Hermann [his birth name] kisses you.

Greet all of the family, I mean all, all.  Tata, forgive my handwriting, for the letter was and had to be written in one minute.

*[J’s sister, who he did not know had been arrested a few days after him, incarcerated 50 kilometers away from him, and had by the time of this letter been dead for more than a year.]

* * * * * * *

As I look at these two letters juxtaposed, it strikes me that the second is a direct consequence of the first.


  1. mockturtle said,

    Were you able to translate that first letter dispassionately? My hands would have been shaking and the pain in my gut would have stopped me cold.

  2. amba12 said,

    Pat, it wasn’t the first time I’d read it. But it shocks and nauseates me every time. There’s something about the female-in-heat hysteria of it — as if that little rat-faced runt were a cross between the Beatles and the Messiah — that’s over-the-top disgusting. If I were a Christian I’d be extremely offended by the Christ part. And that mystical racist nationalism — there’s some reverent heavy breathing earlier in the letter about Deutschtum, Germanness. That war needed winning. Good for us.

    It’s good to see such a raw, intimate document — from an insider to someone she assumes is a fellow insider. It makes it real again.

  3. karen said,

    Having not read ~Donbas~- :and i WILL!!- and being so very ignorant of- a lot of things-… please tell me why J was in the prison to begin w/? If he was, well- i’m missing a connection, the direct consequence.

  4. amba12 said,

    Karen, Romania was allied with Germany during WWII (provided a lot of its petroleum) and then in August 1944 the Russians marched in and the Germans fled. The Romanian govt, being completely opportunistic, switched sides and became pro-Russian and Communist. The Russians had lost millions of men and they needed laborers. And they needed coal. So in January 1945 the Red Army, which was occupying the country, rounded up about 9,000 people who looked strong enough to work and put them in cattle cars and took them to be slave labor. J was the youngest. He was 16 going on 17 but already big and strong. Unlike the Nazis their goal was not to kill these people, but they were perfectly willing to work them to death on less than the necessary minimum of food and warmth because there were more where they came from.

  5. karen said,

    I can’t imagine living history so literally and as a slave- i am so fortunate.
    J’s sister couldn’t have been a slave labourer- could she?

  6. mockturtle said,

    “If I were a Christian I’d be extremely offended by the Christ part.”

    Well, I am a Christian and was more offended by the rest of the letter, to be honest. Unlike Muslims, we Christians don’t go ballistic because unbelievers insult our Lord–He has shown he can take heaps of abuse and still be victorious! :-)

    I found the letter chilling because human nature hasn’t really changed and this sort of mind-set could very well happen again. How deep an economic mess will we sink into and will a political ‘savior’ arise to lead us to solvency? God help us!

    Churchill has always been perhaps my favorite historical figure because he and he alone, at one time, was willing to take on Hitler. God bless his courage!!!

  7. chickelit said,

    Saxon dialect (which resembles Old English more than it does German)

    Do you happen to know whether this dialect was related to “Plattdeutsche” or alternatively “Niederdeutsche”? Modern Dutch and Greman dialects spoken in Northern German are also considered Saxon dialects and they are quite distinct from “Hochdeutsche.” They also have more in common with Olde English than modern German.

    Here’s a link to an older map I found link

  8. Icepick said,

    I can’t describe to you the feeling that I had when I saw Him. I cried and screamed as never before in my life.

    You know, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing that people go crazy for pop stars and movie stars and sports stars. That is MUCH better going ape-shit crazy for politicians. Pick your crazy wisely….

  9. amba12 said,

    And sports is supposed to be a good substitute for war, too.

  10. amba12 said,

    J’s sister couldn’t have been a slave labourer- could she?

    Karen, yes, they took women and men without distinction. In the Soviet Union men and women labored side by side as much alike as strength would permit. (They believed in equality!) J’s sister (and one of his female cousins too) was big and strong, but she had epilepsy. What with the lack of medication and the starvation and exhaustion, she lasted two months. His cousin survived; in fact we brought her to visit Florida at one point. She died in her late 50s, I think, of ovarian cancer

  11. Tim (former Theo Boehm) said,

    An old employer of mine is German, and his wife was something of an unrepentant longer for die gute alte Zeit. She never quite got over when she was 15, and Germany had avenged its humiliation by the international plutocrats. Ooh, der Führer war so schön, the woman said (really), thinking of the girl thrilled with the misunderstood Artist, who would ultimately be vindicated, she hoped, leading a mystical Greater Germany to its ultimate destiny at the head of an authentic Europe for European people, cleansed of foreign, cosmopolitan, racially inferior defilement.

    I was amazed when I first encountered this attitude, thinking I had amusingly stumbled into an outtake of “The Producers.” It didn’t stay funny very long.

    A music professor I later became friendly with, had, in his youth, studied with a member of the Vienna Philharmonic in “Third Man”-esque, postwar Wien. He explained to me there were a lot of German and Austrian women of a certain age, teenagers during the Third Reich, who regarded our little Corporal as something of a rock stah: a misunderstood Artist, who just happened to want to create a Gesamtkunstwerk from the raw material of Germaness.

    Just as I am discouraged that I represent the last generation who had any contact with the few Victorians remaining when I was a kid, I am relieved that I am of the last generation who could have met those for whom Nazism represented, despite everything, eine Frühling ohne Ende (the name of a popular song in Germany in 1945), real believers in an actual Springtime for Hitler. At least there are hardly any of those around any longer, although there are skinheads enough in modern Germany and Europe generally. The modern continental European Right is a toxic witches’ brew, almost totally unrelated to the Burkean foundations of much of Anglo-American conservatism, but that is another story for another post.

    I suppose I wouldn’t have missed for the world my own little exposure to someone seduced by Hitler and Nazism, if for no other reasons than the insight it gave me, and how it reinforced in me the thankfulness that, despite everything, I was born an American.

    It’s too embarrassing to even begin to tell you how she explained away the Holocaust.

  12. LouiseM said,

    it strikes me that the second is a direct consequence of the first.

    I see a gigantic appetite revealed in both letters, with the hunger and emptiness of one group eventually affecting the lives and stomaches of another.

    In J’s words I hear a yearning for lived/recalled goodness along with the awareness of immediate physical hunger. A desire expressed for the basics of food, safety, belonging and connection, which fall into what I would call the “daily bread” category. His phrase, I have forgotten what jam tastes like” touches my heart.

    When I read the words, I can’t describe to you the feeling that I had when I saw Him in the friend’s letter, my skin crawls. Whatever appeal or power the Fuhrer held or exuded, something about him seems to have invited or activated an indescribable, under the surface hunger, craving or need for something more, different and other than daily bread with jam. Whatever the desire involved, it seems beyond girlish silliness or the excitement of the moment and stands apart from a serious quest for peace. I feel repulsed by lies, distortions and prejudice so casually and certainly presented in her declarations.

    This doozy of an overstatement/understatement floors me: I know that only He will bring the world peace, and until then we have quite a lot to experience. It reminds me of the twisted line presented to Eve by the serpent in the record of Moses regarding the fall of man. In both cases, “quite a lot to experience” doesn’t begin to cover the enmity, suffering and bloodshed that followed.

  13. Melinda said,

    I was amazed when I first encountered this attitude, thinking I had amusingly stumbled into an outtake of “The Producers.” It didn’t stay funny very long.

    I was thinking the same thing reading this post and thread.

    In a creepy way, it’s actually refreshing to read about this Hitler-love. After the war, every German you heard was all, “Hey, not me; I hated the guy!” It made me wonder, “Gee, how did Hitler get to be so powerful with absolutely NO support?”

  14. Maxwell James said,

    Wow. Just… wow.

  15. LouiseM said,

    Wow and something more for me, but I don’t know what it is. Digging deep into stuff I guess. Human stuff. I’ve been thinking about this post a lot. I appreciate the additional history Amba provided in response to Karen’s questions. Today a post on scapegoating over at Heather King’s blog, Shirt of Flame brought more insight (from a Christian perspective) with more to weigh and consider. Much like Eve, I would prefer to blame the snake, which ultimately inhibits awareness.

    Last week, I was intrigued when the post about Great Ideas for Someone Else resulted in recognition and the affirmation of a new Great Idea for one of the commenters who showed up to share her idea for someone else. In this way, Karen unexpectedly and delightfully (from my point of view) became another Someone Else. What I saw happen seemed like recognition, a conferring and passing on similar to the process involved with scapegoating, but opposite. Life giving. Inviting.

    The two letters are each powerful; but with the addition of context and history, they become more than what they are alone or together. A third thing happens. What more can result from these bits of stuff remains to be seen.

  16. A said,

    I’m stunned into silence.

  17. callimachus said,

    Those are necessary testimentary documents to the 20th century, the first not less than the second. It should not be despised, and not be admired. It is testimony, no less than … I suspect writing what I’m thinking for the rest of that sentence is unwise to write. I’ve had to learn that lesson.

    But to those who wish to understand, and to learn, it is utterly necessary to read and study much such material. To see not just what was done, but how the minds turned in that course.

    Maybe, too, I’ve spent more time around this sort of thing. You can find absolutely fascinating defenses of American slavery, or Napoleonic conquest, or use of atomic weapons, or deliberate mass starvation of Germans, among the current literature of those sundry times.

    Borges has a line, in “Garden of Forking Paths,” I think, but it’s not in front of me. Something to the effect of: If you are going to do a monstrous deed, the key thing is to convince yourself you’ve already done it. In other words, get into the mindset of the person who has crossed the line and come to grips with being the person who has accomplished that crossing.

    What was the date of that letter? Also, is it a missing or blurred word or a difficult one to translate that you’ve hesitatingly taken as “deserved”?

    Few people even try. The writers, who ought to do the work for us, at the risk of their souls, generally do not. Now it’s fading out. The 20th century, the Cold War, the living memory of how these things felt, of how the human world had such realities in it. The looks in people’s eyes. If you ever find a short story by Guy Davenport titled “Bronze Leaves and Red,” check it.

    And, you’re right, the two go together. Eastern Europeans of all sorts dwelt in the ghostlands between Hitler and Stalin.

  18. karen said,

    All i did, Cal- was click on a blue name- honest!!!
    Now- i see such a treasure trove of —wealth.
    Holy cow.

  19. amba12 said,

    There’s no date on the letter, but it would be after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria, because after that they called it the “Ostmark.” That was 1938, so this is perhaps 1939. There’s the sense of an infection coming to a head.

    There seems to be a missing word in the sentence (dropped out of pell-mell vicious enthusiasm?) and “deserved” seems like the logical one.

  20. amba12 said,

    Yes, it makes it so bloody fresh.

  21. Danny said,

    Fascinating–especially reading it today on Hitler’s 122nd birthday. I was watching the new “Upstairs, Downstairs” this weekend–not as good as the original but I like the historical accuracy in that it takes place in 1936 and several of the British characters were very attracted to Hitler and fascism. Of course later on, after the war, I’m sure these people would deny that they admired Hitler (lie) or at least say that they had no idea what he was really up to (partially true). I wonder if certain people over there such as Wallis Simpson and Diana Mitford secretly admired Hitler for the rest of their lives even though they stopped being vocal about it.

  22. mockturtle said,

    I see something similar happening today with some Brits in high places–a fascination with Islam and, in the case of Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, adoption of the Islamic faith.

  23. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    That’s why they call it “Islamofascism“!

    And speaking of the British upper class infatuation with same, here is Christopher Hitchens’ scathing take on The King’s Speech.

  24. mockturtle said,

    I have both volumes of ‘The Last Lion’ and, while I haven’t read it in a while, I’m not sure to which ‘relevant pages’ Mr. Hitchens refers. Of course Churchill maintained a congenial relationship with the man who was to be king but there was never any admiration there. Stanley Baldwin certainly had no use for him. As for the film, ‘The King’s Speech’, I rented it from Netflix and plan to watch it tonight. Having read at least half a dozen biographies of Churchill and several accounts of the abdication, I shall be interested to see for myself.

    The British upper classes [and, today, what used to be called the middle class] are prone to trendy causes. Remember Vanessa Redgrave? Communism was popular for a while. These repressive systems seem to appeal to the rich and clueless–from a comfortable distance, of course.

  25. mockturtle said,

    PS: I was referring to Edward VIII above.

  26. callimachus said,

    or possibly it’s to be read: “because of the racial defilement and the blood libel they already have [i.e. possess — is it German haben here?] for thousands of years”

  27. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    They love the idea of limits — for somebody else. And of some kind of guilt-assuaging revolution that they perhaps think they will be spared if they are sympathetic to it.

    Will be interested to hear your take on the movie. Most of its audience (myself included) aren’t nearly as knowledgeable as you are about recent English history. It is a touching and stirring movie, but that may be where the resemblance to reality ends.

  28. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Cal — working now, but later will copy the sentence in German.

    Actually blood libel is not the right translation. Blood libel is the accusation. The terms in German were “Rassenschande und Blutschande.”

  29. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Schande is related to scandal; it means shame or disgrace, something scurrilous and outrageous, a violation.

  30. mockturtle said,

    And, of course, there is a lot of German blood in the royal family, as Victoria was 1/2 German and her offspring 3/4. There was probably a lot of ‘family’ loyalty to the nation of Germany–at least to their cousin the Kaiser–and later to the notion of a strong, unified Germany. This bond led to Germany presuming, prior to both world wars, that they had a sympathetic friend in Britain, ascribing far more power and influence to the royal family than they actually possessed. .

  31. mockturtle said,

    Watched ‘The King’s Speech’ tonight and thought it was highly overrated, as did my neighbor, who watched it with me. Christopher Hitchens’ ‘scathing take’ was oddly misplaced, as the story was far too superficial to warrant criticism for historical inaccuracies. I found the first half plodding. The main characters were well acted, though, particularly that of Lionel.

  32. Danny said,

    And what about the claims, echoed, by the way, in this “Upstairs, Downstairs” sequel, that Wallis Simpson, before Edward VIII abdicated, was having an affair with von Ribbentrop? She (and the former King) were certainly admirers, as were many Brits. So interesting to look at all of the upper class flirtations with fascism in light of how they later chose to portray themselves and their responses to Nazism. As an aside, does anyone know anything about Kate Middleton’s politics? Why, whenever I see her, do I get the feeling she’d identify more with Wallis Simpson than Princess Diana?

  33. mockturtle said,

    The movie seemed to portray Wallis as a casual, bohemian type, which she was decidedly not. If nothing else, she displayed elegant manners and dress and was considered the perfect hostess. Excepting the royal family, she found a comfortable niche in British upper class society.

    I don’t follow current royal news–the royal family bores me to tears. Nor did I understand the mania surrounding Princess Diana–almost a cult. I try to follow Parliament, partly because my husband is British [though an American citizen since 1995] but have no interest in the heirs apparent. Once Elizabeth is dead, the monarchy should probably be abolished.

  34. wj said,

    The phenomena is not limited to the British upper (and middle) classes. I recall quite clearly the events of the late 1960s. The most enthusiastic radicals (at Berkeley) were kids from upper-middle class backgrounds. They actually had no clue about the gritty reality of how the world worked, having been sheltered by their up-bringing from having to deal with it. (Lower-middle class kids had mostly had to deal with economic constraints already. Much less possibility of ignorance-is-bliss in their worldview.)

    From a cosy and cossetted background, it is easy to generate simplistic solutions to everything in the world which deviates in the slightest from your ideal. Simplistic, and totally unworkable. Not to say that one shouldn’t have ideals, and try to accomplish them. But nobody who has actually had to work to earn money for food, or even jsut to pay for their education, was going to get all-over misty-eyed at the promise of communism. We knew more, first hand, about people who deal with limited resources. And communism’s expectations/requirements simply don’t reflect real people.

    I suspect that, in its day, fascism exercised a similar attraction: it offered a simplistic answer to all problems. And if you were comfortably removed from the real-world implications, that could be attractive.

  35. mockturtle said,

    I totally agree, wj! Even as I wrote that I realized I was talking about privileged classes everywhere, not just in the UK. As a former radical from the ’60’s myself, I see the warped idealism we displayed along with the moral smugness that infects the far left today. Our naivete was appalling but our hearts were in the right place, I think. Ah, but that’s another topic and one that Annie covered, oh, so well, in her terrific book.

  36. wj said,

    I would point out that moral smugness is hardly limited to the radical left.

    At the moment, the radical right (i.e. a huge chunk of the Republican base — as a Republican myself I can say that) has moral smugness in spades. In fact, that is in many ways their defining characteristic, since it spreads across the theocons, the neocons, the birthers, the Tea Party, etc. Anyone who disagrees (whether Democrats disagreeing on political grounds or independents and moderate Republicans disagreeing on practical grounds) is not only wrong but evil.

    Why they choose to be evil is less clear-cut than I recall the 60’s left’s explanation for the evil of those who disagreed with them. But I suppose opponents as evil is part and parcel of the moral smugness.

  37. mockturtle said,

    Both sides are guilty and, since I am a political Independent, I can enjoy my own independent style of smugness :-).

  38. Tim (formerly Theo Boehm) said,

    Anyone who disagrees with me is merely sadly mistaken.

  39. wj said,

    Far better to accuse one’s opponents of being fools than of being evil. Fools can be dealt with in a number of ways, many of them relatively benign. But evil can only be opposed — vigorously and to whatever extreme is necessary. Which embrace of extreme measures, of the end justifying the means, pretty much makes those who demonize their opponents, by definition, as evil as their claimed opponents.

    My rationalization/excuse for this attribution of “evil” (immediately after denouncing it) is that it is strictly a self-selected label. If you don’t label your opponents as evil, then you don’t have to be considered evil yourself. You can oppose them all you like; just don’t insist that they are evil, rather than merely stubbornly wrong.

  40. karen said,

    I saw an e-mail excerpt of the Willoghby girl @Althouse. I saw no smugness there- maybe it’s just not yet ~ingrained~ through the ~indoctrination~ of her folks, yet- eh? She is her own person, banded w/like-minded folk that want to solve a problem and the dialogue is talking past, over, through and freaking louder than the other @this point. No hope. All said as a Conservative, w/a tad of sarcasm.

    I did have a tamped down inkling of Obama w/a halo as the 2nd coming to peacefully(peaceably?)solve all the world’s ill- including rising tides– but…

    Full disclosure- all IMhumbleO.

    ps and totally O/T: i hung two huge loads of clothes out on the line to dry, i made peanut butter cookies that actually taste really good(i remember trying once before–crumbly and tasteless) AND i made deviled eggs from my fresh egg stash- laid daily(heh) for the very 1st time- ever. They are so messy, but as a prize, i put olives in the bottom of the inside of the outsides- only of the ones i wanted to eat. MMmmmmm- i love olives.

    I’ve always wondered what they taste like fresh:0).

  41. mockturtle said,

    When I had chickens I found that, hard-boiling really fresh eggs, I could not get the shell removed cleanly. What’s your secret?

  42. karen said,

    I thought that that would be the case, but it didn’t happen. My eggs were only about 1-3 days old since i just picked a carton, not knowing the order of the laying. Maybe because i ran very cold water into the pan after spilling out the hot? And i let them soak a tad in the cold. The shells peeled off wonderfully. One thing, though that i didn’t know- i just let the eggs lie and gently boil, and they seem thinner on the side they were lying on(lay-lie- never could get that correct)when the whites were cooked. Very funny-shaped eggs to fill up w/yolk stuffing.

    I should not have made so much food- as today is a fast day for Catholics, but i didn’t get much of the cookies and thankfully the eggs really fill you up, so no supper.

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