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Article 8
Kingston Daily Freeman, Sunday, Nov. 1, 1998

A flood of memories on visit to Frankfurt on Main John J. Neumaier

Second of two parts

In the playground of the Frankfurt Woehlerschule boys’ school I could see a dozen or so youngsters surrounding, taunting, and hitting a Jewish fellow-pupil. They were playing “concentration camp” and the year was 1934, the year after Hitler became the dictator of Germany. The scene came to my mind when I was invited to speak to a senior class at the same Woehlerschule during my recent stay in Frankfurt. In my childhood I had spent six years there - four, in elementary school, and two, in the Gymnasium (high school) and recently I became friends with Waltraud Giesen who now teaches there and who in 1995 helped organize an exhibit, memorializing former Jewish Woehlerschule students who had been killed or exiled by the Nazis.

The school now occupies a new modern building, and upon my arrival with Waltraud and my son John Fredric, we were greeted cordially by the school’s director Martin Hilgenfeld and deputy-director Heidi Schaeme . The latter excitedly told me that she had been present when I lectured as a visiting professor in 1965, at the University of Frankfurt (Goethe Universitaet). The students in Herr Hilgenfeld’s senior class of about 25 boys and girls were of diverse backgrounds, reminding me of how different Frankfurt is from what it used to be when I lived there (a point born out by the recent statement of the newly elected coalition government that Germany is now “a country of immigrants”).

The students seemed interested in my description of schooldays back in the 20's and early 30's, and eagerly engaged in a lively discussion. One got into a debate with the director, arguing that the fact that he came from Morocco did not make him Moroccan since that was not part of his cultural background or self-identification. We had been talking about how German Jews once considered themselves to be just as German as the rest of the citizens of Germany. The students listened with empathy to my account of the pogrom called Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938) and how it marked an intensification of the persecution of Jews and foreshadowed the horror of the Holocaust in which so many millions were murdered, including my mother and other members of my family. Since that terrible history will forever be associated with Nazi Germany, it is perhaps not surprising that these young students are better informed about it than their American counterparts.

Though my son does not speak German, most of the students understood English, and were curious about his views on such issues as Israel, nationalism, and religious practice and in how he and I occasionally differed. Some of the students were critical of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians and of Israeli Arabs. I detected no anti-Semitism, however, in the ways in which they expressed their views. Most of them seemed to approve my explanation that my experience with Hitler’s supremacist nationalism led me to a lifetime of opposition to such sentiments as “Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles in der Welt” (Germany, Germany over everything in the world), or for that matter, “America, America over everything” or “Israel, Israel over everything”, or “Palestine, Palestine over everything”.

Another encounter during my Frankfurt visit was a meeting at the Erzaehkafee) Narration Cafe) where three senior citizens were telling tales of the 30's when, as they put it, they were ordinary young people who got into trouble with the Nazis and the Gestapo (Secret State Police). At the event, which was held at the Karmeliterkloster, they shared the program with an excellent jazz band which included two seniors, one being the popular jazz musician Emil Mangelsdorff. He and his friends recalled the days when they were members of the “Harlem Club”, gathering in secret to play jazz and other “non-Aryan” music.

Two associates of the Institute for City History, Dr. Michael Fleiter, the director of the monthly Erzaehlkafee programs, and Dr. Konrad Schneider, the institute’s archives director, spoke about the ways in which young people had resisted the Nazis. Recently discovered Gestapo files (most were destroyed) contain surveillance reports on the Harlem Club and similar groups which the Gestapo characterized as “politically unreliable”. With humorless literal-mindedness, the Nazi police had set down as treasonous the young people’s preference for English and American rather than German fashions and music -- unconventional trousers, long hair, carefree attitudes, and of course jazz music. Severe punishments were imposed, including incarceration in concentration camps.

The Harlem Club members recalled how they rejected the ugly anti-Semitism and racism of the Nazis, and gloried in the kind of jazz music the Nazis called “Negermusik”. In the days when they were playing jazz tunes in backrooms of restaurants and taverns, they would post a guard so when the Gestapo or Hitler Youth approached they could promptly switch to popular German tunes. Along with members of other nonconformist groups, the Harlem Club loved to go on excursions, especially in the nearby Taunus mountains. There the rebellious boys and girls would play their favorite music and enjoy the carefree time that’s craved by young people the world over. Sometimes, being better at music than fisticuffs, they got beaten up by Hitler Youths. Though the dissident youngsters were accused of immorality, Mangelsdorff stressed that whatever sexual freedom there was couldn’t be compared to the organized illegitimacy of the Hitler Youth and BDM (German Girls’ Association).

One of the club members described what his home life was like under the Nazis. He was one of nine children; his father was Jewish and his Christian mother persisted in her refusal to give the obligatory “Heil Hitler” greeting. With dry humor and a strong Frankfurt dialect he told hair-raising stories of what happened to his working-class family - beatings, arrests, punishment, and narrow escapes. During the Kristallnacht pogrom he had observed the horrible fate of Jews. His experiences wandering through Frankfurt on November 10, 1938 were almost identical to mine, except that the Nazi hooligans had done even more damage in his neighborhood than in the Westend, where I lived.

Of course the persecution of young people who showed any resistance to Nazi regimentation was not confined to Frankfurt. Mangelsdorff read excerpts from official correspondence of Heinrich Himmler, the infamous head of Hitler’s SS and chief of the Gestapo. In response to a January 1942 surveillance report from the “Youth-Fuehrer of the German Reich and the Reich Youth-Fuehrer of the NSDAP” (National Socialist Party) about “the ‘Swing Youth’” (as the Nazis called the non-political jazz clubs) in Hamburg and elsewhere, Himmler gave orders (on Hitler HQ stationery) that “All ringleaders, male and female, as well as teachers with hostile attitudes who support the Swing Youth, are to be ordered into a concentration camp” (2-3 years). “... they must first get a beating”, be made to “exercise in the most strenuous ways” and “not be permitted to ever study again.” Parents who were identified as supportive “must also be taken to a KL (concentration camp) and their fortune is to be confiscated”.

It was a jolting reminder of Nazi totalitarian oppression and the havoc it wrought. Once more I appreciated how important it is not only to champion freedom but to practice it - not only for one’s own welfare but for that of one’s fellow human beings, regardless of race, religious belief, social status, or sexual orientation.

Poughkeepsie resident Dr. John J. Neumaier was president of SUNY New Paltz from 1968-1972 and of Moorhead (Minn.) State University from 1958-1968. He is philosophy professor emeritus of Empire State College, New York City. His column appears in the first Sunday Freeman of each month, and is broadcast by short-wave station Radio for Peace International.