Letters from Isolation:
It is always a good day when you receive letters from old friends, and this time the messages came in the same envelope. Jackie is now in her 90s, and her handwriting is as good as it was in the 1950s plus she had enclosed a few of her favorite cartoons and stories about life in assisted living in Tucson, Ariz. On a phone call in April she had mentioned eating in their apartments and having their temperatures checked morning and evening. This time she wrote about being scolded when she went for mail or activities and had forgotten her mask. She mentioned she was not lonely as most of the residents there had company every day, and they can go out and visit in the large social room. Activities are down to groups of 5 at a time now, and you must make an appointment to attend. One of the staff had tested positive for the virus so they had come around this week to do tests on the residents – the first time that had been done. She no longer drives, but her neighbors had been out to the malls to shop.
Included in the envelope was a neatly typed letter from our mutual friend, Leora, who lives in retirement in Tennessee and drives each day to a nearby park where she can walk for exercise, and then after a nap and visiting with friends by phone, she can drive to a nearby store for groceries. She was hoping to make “Quarantine Stew” – a recipe passed on by others looking for ways to use up leftovers in their refrigerators. She watches the evening news to see how many have died from the virus and which towns the rioters have destroyed the night before.
Both of these ladies are people I have known since the 1950s who try to remain upbeat and cheerful even if some days their high points are just completing another bird in the jigsaw puzzle set out on a card table or a phone call from a friend.
As it happened, I had a phone call from a third friend who now lives in Arizona who told me about the heat and the new iPad her son had installed. While the two ladies above have been using e-mail for everything but Christmas cards for years, it was her first personal experience with internet. She had many questions about friends in this area.
All three mentioned missing church so when they asked what I was able to do, I was happy to tell them we have had church. Yes, the congregation wore masks, hummed the hymns and avoided shaking hands. Sitting at the piano I am used to people waving as they walk to their favorite pews, but it is nice to see them in attendance. In the meantime any who know me know I am trying to read and in recent weeks have read more about World War II than I thought I wanted to know. The following are some books that readers might like to check out themselves.
One Christmas a friend sent me a book with “Potato Peel Pie” in the title. I read it a couple of times, recommended it to others and finally gave it to the Cavalier County Library. Since I no longer know the author a search is still underway to find it again, but the story line has ties to kindertransport and the island of Guernsey which was captured by the Germans early in the war. Children were taken or sent to what was thought to be safer places like England, Canada and even Australia. The US had quotas on how many foreigners they would allow in so only a few of this group made the journey to Denver where they were taken under the wings of JCRS (then a Jewish Rescue Service) and because their parents often did not survive the war were still residents and, at times, co-workers when I lived in Denver. The book is the story of the parents (often mothers since the fathers were needed in the military) and how they survived on a small island without needed supplies and assistance.
Jennifer Chiaverini is a long-time quilter who began her writing career with stories about lost quilts, a quilting guild and quilts with special histories. Chiaverini lives in or near the University of Wisconsin at Madison which just happens to be a repository for many books and records dealing with World War II. Part of the reason for this is that in the 1920s, numerous European students came to Madison to work on doctoral degrees. One of those special students was Arvid Harnack from Germany, a cousin of a young Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonehoeffer.
While looking for his economics classroom, Arvid went down a wrong hall and came to a room where a pretty young blonde teacher was lecturing. That teacher was Mildred Fish, and a year later the two were married. His fellowship expired, and he returned to Germany. Eventually she was able to get a visa to join him. The stock market crash in America plus the world wide depression followed and life was difficult for the family in Germany, but with his large extended family there they did not want to leave. Mildred did translating and lecturing but was not always allowed to teach so she had many other jobs. Through those connections and their distrust of Hitler and the Nazi regime, they ended up spending the rest of their lives working with resistance groups.
A classmate at Madison, Greta also returned to Germany and married Adam Kuckhoff, working initially with the German theatre. A third woman involved in their resistance work was Martha Dodd, daughter of the American ambassador to Germany stationed in Berlin near the Tiergarten district (a 630 acre park) and the famous Brandenburg Gate on Unter den Linden. This most famous street was well-known in German poetry so an early Cavalier County resident, Herman Allert, who had been born in Berlin, asked to name the township where he had his homestead Linden, and the name remains today. Allert was also the first elected superintendent of schools in our county.
Chiaverini’s book weaves the real-life stories of these three women (Mildred, Greta and Martha) with that of fictional Sara Wietz of Jewish heritage in her book “Resistance Women”. The stories in a different format appear in Erik Larson’s non-fiction book “In the Garden of the Beasts” (the title is the translation of Tiergarten). I ended up reading the two books together for different points of view of the same historical events. Larson’s book has the best coverage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics – an event ignored by many other writers because of its controversial impact.
The short version is that Arvid and Mildred Harnack, Adam Kuckhoff and many of their associates lost their lives after being imprisoned in concentration camps. After pre-sentenced trials some were shot, some hung. Mildred, who was born in Milwaukee, died by guillotine. The state of Wisconsin honors her with Mildred Harnack Day on Sept. 16 each year. Greta survived and became an East German social worker helping to unite families after the war as well as a busy career a president of an East German bank. Several of the descendants of their resistance group spent time attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
There are many other books about this same era that readers might enjoy which include Jodi Picoult’s “Storyteller” and Kristen Hannah’s “The Nightingale” both published in 2015, Hannah’s “Winter Garden” (WWII in Russia), Bill O’Reilly’s “Death of Patton,” Susan Wigg’s “Map of the Heart" (2017) and her Orchard series, “All the Flowers of Paris" (2019) by newer author Sarah Jio, and Barbara Taylor Bradford’s “Letter to a Stranger” and “Secrets of the Past”. I always smiled over Bradford’s characters who lived in a Berlin basement during the war because. in spite of no food, their telephone was never disconnected, and there was always another bottle of wine in the wine cellar off their basement. “While Still We Live,” by Helen McInnes is Poland’s sad story along with the movie “Cassandra Crossing” and a teen book “My Mother’s Secret,” recommended to me during a recent Reading Bingo.