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Section below transcribed Logan L (2008), edited by Joseph Werhan (intern). Please report errors to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
My name is Andrea. My name is Emma. My name is Rowan. My name is Rory. My name is Joren. We're here interviewing Mr. Walter Monasch on February 10, 2008 for the Urban School's Telling Their Stories Project in Novato, California.
My name is Walter Julius J. Monasch. I was born on August 29, 1922 in a town called Stettin—S-T-E-T-T-I-N—in northern Germany. It is now in Poland and is now spelled Szczecin—I can't spell it. It's on the Oder River—which is in fact the borderline between what's now Poland and what used to be Eastern Germany—is now general Germany. I lived there until I was thirteen. We left because my dad then lost his job there. I spent two more years in the Rhineland in Cologne at a Jewish school—where my parents lived nearby—and then in 1938 we came to America, moved to Chicago, and I finished high school outside of Chicago. I couldn't afford to go to college so I went to work and became a journeyman tool and dye maker. I was that until I got drafted. I got drafted in early 1943, stayed in the army until mid 1946. I spent most of that time—the first year and a half—in this country and then a year and a half in Europe. After leaving the army I started college under the GI Bill, which was wonderful. I went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and got a degree in civil engineering. From there I went to MIT and got a masters in city and regional planning. It was a two year program—I actually spent three years there because I took a year off in between and spent it in North Africa in Casablanca working for an American consulting firm. When I graduated my first job was in Sacramento, California after a long three day train trip across the country. By that time we had two kids which was a real pain—not the kids, but the train traveling. I worked in Sacramento for three or four years and since then have been a city planner for most of my life until I retired a few years ago. I've worked as a consultant in a Chicago consulting firm—which took me all over the country in different places—but most of the other times I've spent in California. I was a planner for the redevelopment agency in San Jose, ran the redevelopment agency in Alameda, and became the director of housing and community development for the state of California under government of Pat Brown—which was a fascinating job. When he got defeated and Reagan got elected, I left California for a while. I eventually came back, worked in Santa Cruz County as a planning director and eventually ended up in Novato as a planning director and a community development director and stayed here. The most unlikely place, but here I am.
Mr. Monasch, would you describe to us what Stettin was like when you were growing up there?
It was a good sized town—about 270,000 inhabitants. My family had lived there for at least three generations that we know of. I know my father was born there and I know his father was born there. They were well established. My father was a member of the chamber of commerce—was in business there for many years. We belonged to the local Jewish congregation, which my father was also quite active in. I had my Bar Mitzvah there, which was probably the last time all the living members of my family were together. Then it was in the fall of 1935 and shortly after that things came apart in Germany.
Let's go back, we have to do childhood. And let these guys ask questions. I interrupt a lot, but its mostly to redirect them, not redirect you.
That's alright. I'll ignore you.
My childhood was really relatively uneventful I think. We had a fairly bourgeois, normal home, a father, mother. My father went to work every day and came home tired at night. My mother was very socially active. She was a tennis player and very socially active in groups to help poor people and whatever. I went to first an elementary school in the German system at the time and I'm sure it's changed in the meantime. Everybody went to elementary school. The first four years everybody stayed. People who could not afford to go to high school—which was expensive—continued on in elementary school for eight years and then finished, and that was it. After they had an apprenticeship or went to work someplace. If you could afford to go on to high school there were two options. There was a realgymnasium and a gymnasium. The realgymnasium was more focused on modern languages and mathematics and physics. The gymnasium was much more classical. It started out in the fifth year of school with Latin and then you could go on to Greek if you wanted to, or at that point—because things had been changing—you could go on to English or French. I went to the gymnasium—the same one that my father had gone to—and studied Latin, which I hated and never did terribly well at. Then in my third year started French, fourth year started English and all that time there was also obviously the normal geography and history and mathematics. I remember in 1928 or '29—well before Hitler came to power, while I was still in elementary school—one day at the recess being chased around the schoolyard with two other kids in my class. The three of us were the only Jewish kids in the class, being chased by much of the rest of the classmates of chased Jews out of Germany. Now this was 1928 or '29, so it was well before Hitler came to power. It was something that was fairly endemic in the society.
Do you remember the time you got chased? You said it was 1928 or '29?
Yes, it was either '28 or '29, I forget. But well before Hitler took power in 1933.
Could you describe the antisemitic scene where you were growing up even before Hitler came to power?
I can't really describe a specific instance, but there was always a feeling—you're six, or seven or eight years old—that you are representing a group of people and you better behave yourself because if you don't behave yourself and you get into trouble it will color off. It will sound bad for everybody else. This is not really a very normal thing for a six, seven, or eight year old kid to be living with, but that's how we grew up. I remember on the street where we lived which was a wide boulevard—had a park strip in the middle—and on the other side of the street every morning a big—I think it was a Mercedes Benz—limousine showed up and picked up the local gauleiter. The gau is the district if you will, and he was the head of the party system in that district. Snappy brown shirts would pull up to his apartment building and salute and do all of this stuff and go through the motions very officious and official. You couldn't be there and not be aware of it. You tried to live and be detached from it as much as possible, but you couldn't be really.
How did this neighbor of yours represent antisemitism? Did he do anything in particular?
No, he didn't have to do anything in particular. My great advantage was that I was straw blond, blue-eyed and fairly tall. Not at all the typical Nazi description of what Jews looked like. The Nazis had a newspaper—Der Stürmer—which was posted on the wall all over town—all over the country—which had caricatures of Jews constantly. The all looked short, dark, big noses—the typical caricature. As a sort of funny incidence I remember in 1935-'36—Hitler was already in power—a Hitler Youth leader came into our class to recruit. He told us all about how wonderful it would be to go out marching with flags and music and camping and doing all these wonderful Boy Scout-like things. Then he looked around the room—pointed to me—and said, "There's a typical Aryan German boy." I was the only Jewish kid in class. The teacher very quickly tried to keep the snickering of the classmates who knew this down because it could have gotten them, and me and the teacher a major problem. It was a sort of clear indication how stupid some of these idiotic notions of Aryan supremacy were. Here I was, probably the most 'Aryan' looking kid in class.
Why would it have gotten the teacher and the establishment in trouble to know that at that time?
Because it would have made the Hitler Youth leader look ridiculous. They didn't particularly appreciate that, and they knew how to get back at you fairly easily because they had the power.
Could you talk about the Hitler Youth's role in the mid-1930's when you were living there, what kind of activities?
They did a lot of marching. They did a lot of singing. They had a lot of meetings. In some ways they also went around at times when they felt like beating up kids that they didn't like. They became the master folks—the master race—and made sure that everybody knew it.
Did you ever have any encounters with them, any incidents?
I spent a couple of nights in jail because we had a meeting at a Jewish Youth organization and they raided us and threw us in jail. We didn't get beat up. It didn't end up being a tragic situation, but you remember.
Describe that whole incident for us.
Shortly after Hitler came to power a number of Jewish organizations started. Those people that ended up being Zionists—thinking about eventually ending up in Palestine or in Israel—or people who were German-Jewish. They were more German than Jewish or something. There was a very strong sense of that. They and their families had lived in Germany for five hundred years. We were youth groups that met—we were having fun Boy Scouts sort of things. One day one of our meeting—I think there were half a dozen of us or so together—was raided by Hitler Youth, or by SA or whatever. I don't remember. They threw us in jail. For what? Nobody knows. It didn't really make any difference. They didn't need reasons to throw you in jail. That night somebody sent us home. It was for them almost a lark. For us, it wasn't quite. On the whole I was really relatively fortunate. I didn't get into any significant negative activities that way.
Did the Jewish community in your town stick together in the face of all the antisemitism going on?
If they didn't before 1933, they did after 1933. When you get pushed in a corner you tend to stick together. It was a fairly good sized Jewish community—3000.
Before you said that, you said something about there were two groups of Jewish parties—the Zionists and the 'German' Jews. Which one were you part of?
In the Zionist group. No. We—fairly soon after 1933—joined the Zionist Youth Movement and were at that time preparing and planning to go to Palestine.
Why didn't you go to Palestine?
Because by 1936 my parents were leaving. My parents visited Palestine in 1935 to—if you'll excuse the expression—case the joint, to figure out what they wanted to do and when they wanted to go and so on. They applied to the British for a visa. By 1938—three years later—the British still hadn't deigned to give my parents a visa and my father says it's time to get the hell out of here. We can't wait any longer. He planned to leave from 1933-'34 on, but by 1938 he said, “We can't wait any longer.” Stepping back a moment, when he was a young man in 1902 to 1906 he lived in America. He had an uncle in Denver and he went to live with his uncle in Denver and learned his trade there. Obviously therefore he spoke fluent English. I don't remember—ever—my father reading German books, German magazines or German newspapers. He always had Collier's. He had Evening Post, Cosmopolitan—American newspapers and magazines. He kept up his English that way. When it became quite clear that the British wouldn't give us a visa to go to Palestine he said, "We gotta get out. America." I remember driving down—by that time we'd moved from Stettin to the Rhineland—to Stuttgart to the American consulate and sitting there and being interviewed or interrogated and eventually given our visa.
Could you describe what it was like when the situation—being in Europe, being in Germany—was starting to get worse into the 30's?
I told you even in 1928 I was being chased around the schoolyard. I remember also going voting with my father. I didn't vote—I was too young—but between 1928 and 1933 there must have been an election in Germany every two weeks it seemed like. The government kept changing and there was the German National Party, the Nazi Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Social Democratic Party. They were all running for election and they kept forcing each other out of the parliament constantly, and so it was turmoil. There was nothing solid, steady. In a sense, looking back on it the desire of the German people to have stability no matter what—of having the Nazi Party being stable—I can understand. They happened to pick the wrong one to be stable with, but I can understand their wishes to have a sense of stability.
Are there any vivid memories you have of the uprising, parades or any kind of speeches that you saw?
There were speeches every two weeks. As the governments change there were the red parades, and the brown parades, and the black and white parades and they all had different colored flags. The Communists had the red flag and the Nazis had the red flag with the swastika and the German National Party had the black, red and gold flag. All the parties had stormtroopers. The Nazis had the Brown Shirts—the SA—and the SS which wore black shirts. The Communists wore red shirts. I can't keep track of all the different color shirts they had. Everybody had there own little storm-troop protective guard because they were beating each other up on the streets constantly. They never talked to each other. They were beating each other up and it ended up the Nazis had more people beating other people than anybody else so they won.
Could you describe what kind of stuff went on in these parades? Think of one specific parade and describe it for us.
The most impressive parades were the Nazi parades. They knew how to put those on. They all had brown shirts or black uniforms—SA and SS. Each little group had its own standard—either a standard or a flag [gestures: holding flag in front of chest]—and they'd all come marching down, “Bump-Bump-Bump-Bump.” You could hear them down the street. German police, military and party organizations all had high boots and it was always fascinating. I'll jump a little bit ahead of things. If you hear an American Army platoon coming, you can't hear them cause they all have rubber soles. Army boots have rubber soles. German Army boots have leather soles with hobnails on them. When they come down a macadam street or a paved street it goes “womp,” “womp,” “womp,” “womp.” I mean you hear it. Remind me of that a little later and I'll tell you a little story about something like that just at the end of the war. They loved the parades and the flags and the uniforms. Each unit had its own little drum and bugle corps, or a big band. If they could get the army involved in this it would be even better because then they had cavalry bands where the horses had big kettle drums on either side. Guys were banging the drums on both sides—and trumpets. It was very spectacular. They knew how to put on a show. Have you guys ever seen the Nazi Party movie Triumph Of The Will? That was absolutely perfect—Leni Riefenstahl was the director doing this spectacle—and they knew had to put on spectacles. They were great about that. Scary as hell but they were great, very impressive.