Interview with Bettina Hoerlin

Interview with Bettina Hoerlin

hoerlin-parents-lettersCONVERSATIONS WITH AUTHORS

Bettina Hoerlin is the author of Steps of Courage: My Parents’ Journey from Nazi Germany to America (2011) and is currently a guest lecturer at NYUAD. While meeting in her apartment, we talk over cups of strong espresso, something I’ve come to miss while living in Abu Dhabi. She shows me copies of her book, published in both English and German, and points out black-and-white pictures of her parents taken in Germany and later in the United States. Hoerlin, who has taught courses in Public Health and health care disparities at Haverford College and the University of Pennsylvania, started the project after uncovering a collection of over 500 letters written by her parents to one another from 1934 to 1938 while they lived in two different towns in Germany. (Click here for a link to the archive.) “Here was this unfolding of a great love story,” Hoerlin tells me about the letters, “but it was in the context of the rise of fascism. I had a personal history. And through this personal lens of my parents, they were being shaped by the history that was unfolding, this horrible history in Germany.”

Brigitta Schuchert: How much had you known about your parents before reading the letters? How much of this was new information?

Bettina Hoerlin: I knew outlines. Of course I knew my parents had met. I knew they had fallen in love. I knew they had immigrated to the United States in 1938. But there was so much I didn’t know. They didn’t want to talk about their past, even though my father was sort of this Aryan poster boy. He had climbed the highest mountains, and had been celebrated in Germany. This was a golden age of mountaineering. Nobody had ever conquered an 8,000-meter peak, you know. Everest hadn’t been conquered. None of these peaks had been conquered.

He went on one of the very early expeditions, and tried to climb what they thought at the time was the second highest mountain in the world. I turned out to be only the third highest mountain. They didn’t conquer it because of extensive avalanches, but successfully climbed another nearby mountain, the highest summited to date. He had held a world record, and he was very modest about that. I didn’t realize how revered he was. And there was a movie made out of this 1930 International Expedition to the Himalaya, which was widely shown.

I certainly did not know about his protests when he was part of the executive committee of the Alpine Club. Protests about the Nazification of German mountaineering. He never told me that, so this all came out in the research.

I discovered when I was thirteen that my mother was Jewish by background. [She] had been born to a Jewish family, but fallen in love when she was nineteen with someone who was Catholic. She converted to Catholicism in 1922 and thought of herself as Catholic, as a result of that. They had three children, who were brought up Catholic. And then [her husband] was killed by the Nazis in 1934, during what was called the Night of Long Knives, which was basically the end of the rule of law in Germany, when Hitler rounded up 90-plus people who he saw as hindering him from absolute power. As it turns out, [my mother’s first husband] was killed by mistake. His name was Willi Schimd, and there were many Wili Schmids in Germany — and they confused it. So he was killed and my mother was visited by Rudolph Hess, who was a deputy to Hitler. And he apologized to her profusely for the mistake and he said, “Consider that his death was that of a martyr for a great cause.”

I was visiting my namesake in New York, a woman named Bettina Warburg. And she was talking about her own family, famous Jewish bankers, having problems getting out of Germany. I was very interested and she said, “Well your mother had problems, too.”

And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, because she was Jewish.” I came home, which at that point was Los Alamos, New Mexico, and I said, “Mutti, what’s this about your being Jewish?” And she totally dismissed it. She said, “Oh, that was in the past.”

I knew there were some Jewish roots there. I had no idea how difficult this made their relationship. And how difficult, if not impossible, it made it for them to get married. Racial laws forbid marriages between Jews and Aryans. They were the exception to the Nuremberg Laws, a rare exception. I’ve talked to historians and they say it couldn’t have happened. I show them the marriage certificate, which crosses out the part that says, “These are Aryans being married to one another,” and has written, “By special permission of the Fuehrer, she can marry.” I had no idea how much of a motivating factor this was in their leaving Germany.

The other thing I didn’t know was my parents as lovers. We all see our parents as the adults. They are the people approving or disapproving of us, or supporting us. My parents were a loving couple, but in these letters there was the passion. It was just wonderful to think of your parents that way, you know? Just clearly so in love, and breaking the rules, as it were. That was a revelation.

BS: How did your parents meet?

BH: It was total serendipity. It was the early ’30s, and Germany was very depressed. [My mother’s] first husband, was a music critic, and he was offered a job as press secretary to a major German expedition to the Himalayas. This was a big deal expedition, to a mountain called Nanga Parbat. This had huge publicity, because it became politicized by Hitler, in terms of him saying, “We are going to be the first country in the world to conquer an 8,000 meter peak.” So they were press secretaries for this expedition, and my father had been invited on the expedition.

My father didn’t go. He didn’t like the national tone of it, and his father had died and he felt that he needed to look after his mother, and sister, while he completed his doctoral studies in physics. This expedition, which was supposed to showcase Germany and Germans turned out to be greatest mountain climbing disaster to date. Ten people died over a week period. There were huge storms; people could hear their cries. It was grisly.

In the meantime back in Munich there’s my mother, and her husband has just been killed. She’s getting all these telegrams of Germans wandering the mountain, so-and-so’s killed, and we heard his voice yesterday, and she said, “I can’t do this,” and she said to The Alpine Club, “Please send me somebody who can help me sort out what is truth, and what is not, so we can do a press release on this.” And they sent my father, from Stuttgart to Munich. So that is how they met. And I think he fell in love with her immediately.

BS: And your mother was very involved after her first husband’s wrongful death with getting reparations.

BH: Exactly. She was insistent on reparations, and she was fierce. She went to Berlin, she met with top Nazi officials. The other part of this story is that she had a protector, who was the top aide to Hitler, Hitler’s adjutant. His name was Fritz Wiedemann.

BS: And Wiedemann ended up playing a pretty large role in the story, and helping your parents get to America. What was the process of researching him along your parents? Was there information in the letters?

BH: There are numerous references to Wiedemann in the letters. I extrapolated that at one point. I think almost 100 references to him. He first of all helped my mother get reparations. Then there was the question of how she was going to classified. When the Nuremberg Laws were passed, people were classified as full Jews, half Jews, quarter Jews, et cetera. And how was she going to be classified in terms of her life in Germany, and whether she was going to be able to vote, whether she was going to be able to own property, because the laws said if you’re Jewish you can’t do all of this. He was very helpful in that regard too.

Here’s another loop in the story, [my mother’s] birth certificate said that both her parents were Mosaish, which is of the tribe of Moses. But, it happened that her mother had a long-term affair with a Prussian count — who was not Jewish of course. There was this letter where this count said, “Yes, this my child,” and there was enough evidence that the Nazis did classify her as a mischlinge, which means of mixed race, which meant that she had a few more rights.

Wiedemann was also helpful to my father in getting him transferred to the United States. So Wiedemann became really kind of a savoir to them in that regard. The irony of this happening all under Hitler’s nose is enormous.

Wiedemann, then ends up as German Consul in San Francisco, for a couple of reasons. One, it became clear after Kristallnacht that he didn’t have a stomach for anti-Semitic terrorism. Furthermore, he was having an affair with a Jewish princess, a woman who was Jewish and had married into nobility. He had helped other Jews as well. It wasn’t just my mother. He was this fascinating character, neither black nor white, but sort of in this gray area.

BS: What was the process like of reading the letters between 1934 and 1938? There’s a point in the book where you mention the letters becoming more coded, and this increased awareness of how dangerous it was.

BH: Letters were being looked at all the time. My father was considered politically unreliable, because of his outspokenness, and then he hadn’t planted the German flag on the summits of his many first mountaineering ascents. So anyone politically unreliable at that point was under the purview of the Nazis. So, he was, and [my mother] was too. So both of them, I think, were under scrutiny. There are a few letters, “The clouds are forming in the sky here. How is the weather there?” Wiedemann in a lot of the letters is “W.”

BS: In the book you mention your first visit to Germany. I was wondering if you could talk about that experience.

BH: I’d grown up during the war, and it was not cool to be German. I didn’t really want anything to do with that. But I had never met my grandmother, so [in 1952] at the age of thirteen I went with my father to Germany. And it was like, opening up the world. You have your prejudice, you have your mindsets — and it was just a totally different kind of experience for me.

I could still see at that point the scars of war, in Germany. You had bombed-out sections, so there was always a little bit of that ghost there. I felt much more open to Germany after that.

BS: What are you working on now?

Well, when I wrote the book, it was such a huge emotional experience for me. It was totally absorbing. I was living these two lives. I had this life in Philadelphia, and then I had this life that I had just been writing about. So, when I started presenting about the book, people would say, “Oh, what’s your next book?” And I’m sort of looking at them cross-eyed.

I’ve really gotten very interested in Wiedemann, as a very checkered character. We are very quick to put people into corners, good, bad, and et cetera. But here was this man who was obviously swayed by the Nazi doctrine at some point, and yet ends up helping Jews and is ready to be part of a resistance against Hitler — then is regarded as a war criminal by the United States, although he had not been in Germany at all during the war.

The complexity of him as a character interests me. And to extrapolate that in terms of how we ourselves deal with the goods, the bads, the blacks, the whites — and boxes. That’s what I’ve been looking at.

BS: When was the point that you decided that you wanted to turn the story of your parents into a book, when did you decide that was the future for it?

BH: About eight years ago I said, “You know Bettina, you have to do something with these letters, and nobody else is going to do it. You’re going to have to do it.” It took me about a year to get through translating the letters, and I wrote them up in English and circulated them to my family. And then I said, “Wait a second. Here’s a story.” I said, “I have to write this, because this is a universal tale. It’s a universal tale of courage, it’s a universal tale of how people deal with a rising political movement that would affect their lives, and other peoples’ lives even more so, horrendously.” That’s when I knew I had to write a book, and that’s when I quit teaching. I had never written a book, but this was burning inside me.

 

Brigitta Schuchert graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2014, with a B.A in Religious Studies. She is currently a Writing Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi.

[Photo courtesy of Bettina Hoerlin]

Next in Conversations with Authors: Joey Bui talks with “uncreative” writer Kenneth Goldsmith.

Card Games in Nepal

Card Games in Nepal

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The game is reasonably straightforward. Pass cards around from one player to another until someone collects a set of four. Each player can only hold four cards in her hand at once, and choosing to keep a new card means discarding another. Once someone has “four of a kind,” she grabs a spoon and the rest of the players follow. There are four of us and only three spoons – the only goal is not to end up “spoonless.” It is a game with the perfect combination of skill, eye contact, and clanging silverware. It is also a game our guide, appropriately called Happy, is particularly good at, and he spends most of the time with a half smile on his face that is transformed by his grin when we each lunge forward, scrambling for the silverware on the slanted table in the mountain side restaurant in Nepal.

We have one day left of trekking on the Annapurna circuit, and my arms are one of the few parts of my body that aren’t excruciatingly sore. Today has been one of our longest days, with a 4:30 am climb up to see the sun rise from the 3210 meter Poon hill, followed by a full day hike to Ghandruk, the town where we will spend the night before finishing the trek in the morning. We should be exhausted, but Happy’s enthusiasm is infectious. Spoons proves to be an easily translatable game, which Happy well knows: only in his mid-twenties, just a few years older than I am, he regales us every night with a seemingly endless collection of stories about the groups from around the world that he’s led through treks. After we leave he’ll lead a group from Poland – I tell him on one of our hikes that the only thing I can say in Polish is “give me a kiss,” which we agree probably won’t be the most useful phrase in the mountains of Nepal.

2014-10-schuchert-nepal-02On our last night of the trek I am astonished that I have somehow tricked my body into hiking through mountains for four days. The night before leaving Abu Dhabi, I woke up with the realization that growing up outside New York and going to college in the Philadelphia area had done nothing to prepare me for any sort of trekking. My travels before mainly involved navigating foreign public transportation  systems, but not trails through the woods. Even when I arrive in Nepal, I am initially more comfortable in the streets of Kathmandu, where rickshaws and motorcycles swerve around messy-haired, baggy-pants clad tourists like myself, than I am at the base of the mythic mountains. I decide on the plane ride over that the best strategy for approaching the physical challenges is to ignore them completely until it is too late to turn back. Although probably far from a practical “life philosophy” this seems to work for the 32-mile trek. Granted, the daily Snickers bar that Happy took out of his bag when we were particularly tired probably helped as well.

Despite my trepidation when first putting on my backpack at the base of the mountain range, in less than an hour I am completely captivated by the trail – the way the landscape is a mixture of surprisingly humid jungles, complete with rushing rivers and overgrown ferns, to stone cliff sides looking out at mountains that are at times almost indistinguishable from the clouds that surround them. When we ask Happy how many times he had done this trek, he tells us the number is too high to remember. I wonder if we stop in the same places, feel awestruck in the same moments as every other novice trekker Happy guides, and how many times Happy has smiled and said, “just you wait” when someone gasps at the first view of a snowcapped peak.

The morning of our last games of Spoons, Happy woke us up for the view we had been told the whole trek to “just wait” for. In the darkness groups of walkers that we had seen throughout the trip moved in the cold, up the steps to the hill, guided only by pinpricks of light from nearby flashlights. Finally at the peak of Poon Hill we stared transfixed by the moonlight falling on the snow of remote mountaintops and by the countless stars above. With a combination of awe and exhaustion I tried to remember the last time I had seen the sky so clearly. I had seen nights of stars before, spent summers lying on grassy lawns to count the few that weren’t hidden by the street lights, but for some reason all I could think of was a time when I was younger and swimming in a river and I had tried to focus on each of the pebbles on the bottom. The pebbles were impossible to look at all at once and the way they drifted past turned floating on the water into flying – it was same combination of unsteadiness and an unreachable clarity. Turning my head from the sky was like lifting my face from the water, drinking in air that was fresh and cold.

I turned back to the mountain, and am momentarily surprised that I am not alone, and we sit as a group along the edge of the viewpoint and wait for the loud cheer from the crowd when the sun starts to peak from the edge of the horizon. For the next hour, as the mountains are slowly immersed in sunlight, we share moments of breathlessness with the crowd atop the hill.

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On the last night, in the restaurant playing Spoons, I cannot remember where in the sky the stars were, or the shape of the pebbles at the bottom of the river. Instead I am fixated on the movement of the cards, the concentrated, furrowed brows of each player, and tension in our hands before someone reaches forward and creates a brief moment of chaos as silverware spins across the table out of our grasp. I try to memorize the smell of the local dish Dal Bhat from the kitchen, the lines on the increasingly familiar faces of fellow trekkers, and the way Happy’s hands move as he shuffles the deck.  Like watching the sunrise that morning, none of it feels real, and the occasional clattering of the spoons is the only thing that reminds me where I am. In the morning we will return to the city, and in a couple of days I will be back on a plane to Abu Dhabi with stories of indescribably beautiful mountains, aching muscles following a climb up over 3,000 stone steps, and the best Snickers bar I’ve ever tasted. When I return, my stories will echo countless poetic tales of this romanticized country but for now Happy is passing me a card, and we are, for a however brief a time, cradled by the mountains.

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