Just before WWII, fresh out of college, my father left Portland, Oregon and fulfilled a childhood dream to travel around the world. He spent several months each in Cardenas’ Mexico, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hirohito’s Japan. Over the years he would recount a few stories from that series of adventures in the land of the statists as the world fell apart, dwelling on events more than people, but I always wondered about the relationships he must have formed during those times of political turmoil.
When he died in 2004, I came across letters he had photocopied and saved from one of the many travel buddies he must have come to know. Alfred “Fred” K. Hesse was a self-professed “rover,” a young adventurous German man traveling on the same boat to Japan with my father. Apparently the friendship they formed on that journey and then continued during those few months in Tokyo was strong enough to warrant quite a prolific correspondence once my father returned home.
What a pity none of my father’s letters to him remain. The two sets together would make for dramatic reading — maybe even a screenplay treatment! — on the passage of time through war by two erstwhile friends and later official enemies.
Hesse worked for a major German steel company in Tokyo. From the sound of it, he spent most evenings and desultory Sunday afternoons with various “young things”, his euphemism for Japanese women. Occasionally he’d travel outside Japan, to Egypt where the women didn’t interest him, to China, where they did, and around Japan. His long letters detailing his romantic and professional adventures usually end with a review of “the inevitable political theme” and the “racial problems as we Germans see it”. In one he provides a synopsis of the German common man’s view of race.
“God did not create all man alike, but he created many races, white, black, yellow as the three main races. These 3 main races are subdivided again and as well as they differ from another by color they also differ by phisical stature and above all by mental capabilities. No doubt, there live many an intellectual jew or negro or asiatic, but what distinguishs [sic] one race is whether they have a genius to create, to build up and to use existing strengths in union for the benefit of all. Jewish people as well as the tolerant attitude of the Vatican towards the racial problem did not serve to mankind.”
It goes on. “God created us and the prceious token we got is our blood. This is, fundamentally, on what we Germans build our philosophy of life.”
In response to what seems to have been a rebuke by my father about the treatment of Jews in Germany, he writes:
“After the great war was lost and the German people near to starvation, humilated and contaminated in its honour and literally torn to peaces [sic] by innumerable political parties, jews from all parts of the world came to Germany and began a dirty business…In this period the jews made their huge fortunes…this should however become disastrous to them, for in the old european world exists comething called national honor…I do not hate jews and I consider them in some way a clever race, although I do not like to have them as my superiors…I do not seek their friendship….Life in Europe is once again very active and the progress which is going on now is unique in the universal history.”
He tells of the harassment and even threat of blackmail of his boss, a German of Argentine nationality, by pure-blood Germans and Nazi party officials in Japan. He moves up quickly, landing a well-salaried position with Krupps Germany. Then things take a dark turn. He is watched and doesn’t dare bring girls up to his room. By 1941, his mail is being censored; foreigners are restricted in their movements; their business comes to a standstill, and they are detained in Japan. His letters implore my father to send money and shoe leather.
“Honestly I am in an awkward position, having 12 pairs of shoes, yet 8 of them without soles. Next I will have to go to the office in dance shoes or ghettas…I therefore, asked you to dispatch sTraight away sole leather for two pairs of shoes. Please, Bill, I know I bother you with this request but I cannot help, I am broke, try to understand.”
Meanwhile, Jews were begging for their lives.
“Here enclosed you find $24, they are my last stock in enemy currency and this bloody war has devaluated them to a good percentage.”
But despite his difficult circumstances, he does not waver in his core beliefs. In Yokohama he meets a German who is returning to “the fatherland” after 14 years in the U.S. “He lost within the last 2 years all his earnings and returns actually broke. The reasons are the politics, the anti-German propaganda…everybody knows the broad American masses don’t love us…as American news paper film and radio propaganda is in the hands of those, who were kicked out of Nazi Germany.”
This from a representative of a country where communications were managed by the arch-propagandist, Goebbels.
“Incidentally, in the hotel were [sic] this fellow stays, ousted German jews on their way to the USA are also staying, giving each other advices on how to handle things, in completly peaceful atmosphere, of course.”
The injustice of it all!
“The tragedy hereby is, that the Americans too have their jewish problem.” He explains that after Germany and Italy win the war, the American jews will prevent the USA from trading with Europe to the USA’s economic detriment. He suggests my father is having difficulty finding a job because of his Italian ancestry and war-time bigotry.
It is chilling reading. This man was intelligent, intrepid and probably quite charming. But everywhere he went, he carried an innate sense of superiority that drove him to a hatred of others. It blinded him to any self-awareness, any sign of irony in his position. Fundamentally, he was an unempathetic man, complaining about relatively small discomforts as his country annihilated Jews, Gypsies, the infirm and disabled and wreaked destruction on its neighbors.