Paul's Perambulations a personal blog

February 28, 2009

History of the early Nazi period — personal and general.

Filed under: Family,Peace,Politics — admin @ 2:30 pm

 My father had a keen sense of history, and when my parents were in Germany in the early 1930s (he had a graduate travel fellowship at the University of Berlin), he was aware of (and peripherally involved in…another story) history in the making.  He also was something of a perfectionist, and carried not only his 16-mm Kodak but also a tripod and light meter all over Europe and the Middle East.  I am the repository for his 1930s films, all on highly flammable nitro-based celluloid.  When my parents returned to the states, he used these films and other historical material (some interesting items) for public lectures.  By the time I came along, I would occasionally set up the projector so that I could show my friends our home movies of Stalin in Red Square on May Day and Hitler in his open Mercedes. I burned up much of the Hitler sequence by stopping the projector to see things better, and then Hitler would curl up before our eyes in wisps of acrid smoke.  My father intended to get the “Big Three” on film, but Mussolini was out of the country when my parents were in Italy, and so we have a very nice sequence of the Italian square and balcony from which Mussolini used to deliver his harangues to the people (apparently the best possible shot available under the circumstances).

  It is interesting to note that my friend John Cary was in Berlin at the same time as my parents and recounts that as a young student his school youth group was required to stand on the sidewalk for Hitler’s Mercedes procession.  Additionally, his Quaker family had some connections with the University of Berlin and some of the places that my father attended. He has kindly translated some of the historical material that I received from my father.  

Additionally, I have learned much about this period through Fran’s connection (at Saul Ewing, LLP) with Arthur Solmssen, and particularly through his excellent historical novel A Princess in Berlin (1980). In this well-received book set in Germany in the early 1920s, Solmssen (writing from extensive experience) sets the scene for what led to Germany’s later Nazification.  

I recently read The Revolution of Nihilism (1939) by Hermann Rauschning. We must remember that the Prussian aristocracy (Junkers) such as Rauschning, as well as the capitalists, had made a pact of convenience with Hitler, while always considering him to be a temporary tool useful for their own conservative causes and sure of their own superiority. Rauschning served as an anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet speaker for years, but no one mentions that his goal was a return to a monarchy in the service of the traditional ruling (upper) class.  

Click the Comments link for related family stories.



    The Sheldon family farm was on Wolf Creek in Beverly, Ohio, and coincidentally I was born in Beverly, Massachusetts, the former home of the town’s early settlers. My Sheldon grandfather’s grandfather was a Civil War veteran. He and great-great grandmother would come from the family farm into town every Sunday for church. When he was an elderly man, friends encouraged him to apply for a pension, as was his right as a veteran of the Civil War if he were to become disabled (as by age). He resisted, but one time followed entreaties to check with the Veteran’s Office after church, because the office was open at that time. The government agent said that he was clearly entitled to the benefit, because of his declining health associated with his advanced age. Everyone else was utilizing the pension at his age. My Sheldon resisted – He was NOT disabled, simply a bit older now. The agent insisted that age was disabling him, and noted that he had become so old and unsteady that he was unable even to tie his own tie anymore (this was Sunday, and he was in his Sunday clothes). In disgust, grandfather tore off his tie and commenced to tie it – BUT HE COULDN’T.  The truth was, his wife had always tied his tie for him every Sunday, and now he was unable because he had never learned to do it himself! In disgust, he simply walked out.

    My grandfather, William Sheldon, kept the family farm even after he moved into town (Marietta) as a lawyer, and the land was later used by the Boy Scouts.  Incidentally, my arrowhead collection was picked up on the farm. Previously William had been a school teacher. As a young teacher, he befriended a sturdy black student who helped him keep order in the classroom, in exchange for lessons.  As the only lawyer in town who did legal work for the black community, he ran afoul of the KKK who campaigned against him when he ran for Prosecuting Attorney in Washington County. The KKK opposition was a significant factor in his defeat in the election.

    William Sheldon was prosecutor for the famous Eddie Uhl murder trial. An old .32 revolver that I received at the time of my grandfather’s death is possibly the murder weapon, although this is highly uncertain. But as prosecutor he generally kept the physical evidence in his possession. Eddie Uhl’s father was found shot dead. The son was suspected (they often fought). Eddie claimed an alibi – according to witnesses, he was in Parkesburg shortly after the time of the murder. But another witness, the toll taker for the Ohio bridge, clearly remembered a fast car skirting the toll gate and racing across the bridge, at about the getaway time. The most interesting part – there was a witness to the murder, Eddie’s sister. Is it his word against hers? BUT, she was a deaf mute. There were two issues with this at that time. Besides being unable to speak, deaf mutes were generally considered of limited intelligence. But this young woman appeared capable and was well versed in sign language. Eye-witness testimony had to be given directly to a jury, and could not be given by another because that would be “hearsay.” But she could not give effective testimony to the jury without the intervention of a translator. By dint of William Sheldon’s efforts, the testimony that she had seen the pair arguing and then saw Eddie rush out and then moments later found her father dead, was accepted as her own testimony, even when spoken by the translator to the jury. I have been told that this helped established a significant precedent.  (Incidentally, Eddie was not convicted). William Sheldon also argued before the State of Ohio Supreme Court, and I have copies of two of the cases.

    My father’s mother, Mildred Humphrey Sheldon, was a certified school teacher. The family believed in self reliance and always went to local farms to get their produce and milk, fresh! She declared that fresh milk was better than pasteurized, and completely safe if you knew the herd. Mildred died relatively young of a kidney disorder, while grandfather Sheldon outlived three wives. Her direct ancestor, Michael Humphrey, was a founder of Simsbury, CT (1670), where my sister Maria Honiss now lives. Mildred home-schooled both my father and uncle – something almost unknown in a town that was the educational center of the region and required all students to study under certified teachers (a stricter requirement than today). As a result, both were H.S. valedictorians when they eventually attended public school. Likewise for Marietta College, except that my father relinquished that role when he moved to Boston University for his last year of college to prepare for Methodist divinity school and graduate school. (My Uncle was nearby at Harvard.) The family was somewhat strict and scrupulously fair, which may account for my father’s not wishing to take such a rigid approach with his own children.

    On my mother’s side, there are stories of how her Andre family traveled from Alsace-Lorraine to this country as missionaries to the American west and Canada. They are the source of our melodeon, which they carried everywhere (my great great grandmother could not be without a musical instrument, being a musician). My mother’s uncle Herman Andre was on the Baldwin-Ziegler Expedition (see pictures) that attempted to be the first to reach the North Pole. Uncle Herman was also seeking any evidence regarding the fate of an earlier Andre who was lost in a polar attempt by balloon. (My Andre relatives considered this other Andre to be somehow related, although I don’t know the connection. His body was found later.) The expedition was not successful, but at least Uncle Herman returned alive (barely), minus only a few toes lost to frostbite (as witnessed by my mother as a child).

    Grandfather Otto always insisted on fresh vegetables (not store-bought) and kept large gardens, on two spare lots that he owned in town, a veritable farmette. He was the only businessman in my direct line, but not at all as successful as his older brothers, who founded Otto Brothers Department Store, the main department store in Marietta. During WWI Otto Brothers emphasized their patriotic commitment to the war effort, lest there be any misunderstanding. He worked at the store all his life, but not as a full shareholder because he was the “baby” brother when the store was organized. But, in a family way, they apparently assisted one another financially, and this may have helped enable the outstanding musical education my aunts Vangie and Viola received. They were first at the Cincinnati Conservatory, and then attended the Leipzig Conservatory, where Aunt Vi studied viola with Munch, They next went to Paris where Aunt Vangie studied with Pablo Casals. There is a separate story about the Ruggeri cello, which I sold for my mother.

    The old pictures in the orange family photo album come from my maternal grandparents’ house. The unexpected Chinese men are Methodist missionary guests who stayed for a while and are the source of my stone Chinese household gods. Until it burned down, Grandfather Otto owned the Surprise Store (a department store in Parkesburg that featured live models mixed in with the mannequins in the show windows – you had to guess which was live and which was the dummy…Surprise!). Well, my part of the family never was much for going into business, the going joke is that if they say “buy” it’s probably time to sell. Some of this is described in the video I made of my mother.

    My mother’s mother was very active with the children – she was one of the first Girl Scout troop leaders in Ohio. They hiked and camped everywhere. When there were rumors about two female schoolteachers who lived together and appeared too friendly for the community, there was discussion about removing them from their jobs. My mother reports that her mother spoke very forcefully that if there was no complaint about their teaching, the rest was nobody’s business. They were retained.

    Genealogy records are complete for my four grandparents except for the Sheldons’ arrival in southern Ohio in the early 1800s. A single reference to an ancient Balthazar makes no sense and doesn’t correspond with an overall pattern. The answer may lie in a reference to Anna, Wife of John (Sheldon) that I found listed in the County Records for the Haines churchyard. I couldn’t find the actual stone when I searched the rather desolate cemetery, but various known Sheldon relatives are buried there, and this particularly early one must have been part of our family. The mystery is that this Anna and John have never been connected with any other Sheldons. The Sheldon genealogy in general is quite complete from early colonial times, and a number of Sheldons were moving west out of New England in the early nineteenth century. Paper records of our genealogy are stored at 173 Friendship, and duplicate copies have been distributed to relatives.

    Fran’s family stories are recorded elsewhere, and there are many. Fran’s grandmother’s first cousin was O.W. Holmes Jr., the Supreme Court Justice, and Fran’s mother was brought up in Washington DC not far from the Holmes’ home on I Street and visited there often. Fran is named after Holmes’ wife, Fanny Dixwell, who (happening to be childless) befriended the young Ann Bradstreet Clark (named after her poetess ancestor). The painting of the young red-headed boy is of Austin Hobart Clark, Ann’s father. It was painted by an MIT architecture student of Austin’s father in the 1880s. Although we have no details concerning the painter/student, it is interesting that the painter was always referred to as a woman, and woman students with an MIT connection would have been a rarity at that time.

    I put various family stories on cassette tape years ago, but am not sure how convenient that medium will be in the future and so have typed up a few here. Material above does not include more recent stories of my parents or Fran’s parents.

    Comment by admin — March 1, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

  2. A Sheldon Berlin Story (direct from my mother, Emily Sheldon),

    In 1933-1934, members of the theology department at the University of Berlin were greatly concerned about the new Nazi regime, both in general and more directly concerning its effect upon their academic program and faculty. This was particularly in response to the Enabling Act of 1933, by which Hitler effectively seized absolute power, including power over church organizations. In response, one of the major Berlin churches announced a service at which a well-known clergyman would speak about the obligations to God and state, with primacy belonging to God. My parents made a point of being there, and the large church was full (which my mother stressed was most unusual). The service commenced in the usual way, with prayers, singing, and the like. When it came time for the sermon, the minister entered the pulpit and began his address on the responsibilities of Christians to God. He was hardly well started on this topic when the service was interrupted by the huge clatter of hob-nailed boots as uniformed soldiers marched in formation from the rear of the church down the long stone center aisle and up to the pulpit. My mother says she will NEVER forget that scene. The troops surrounded the minister and marched him out the same way.

    I asked my mother what happened afterwards. “People left.” “That was it?” I asked. She looked at me a bit, probably thinking I didn’t get it. I think she was right; it took a while to sink in. My mother doesn’t remember the exact name of the speaker, although Niemoeller is a likely candidate, or perhaps Bonhoeffer (both were centered in Berlin, although Bonhoeffer was in London most of this period). My mother was familiar with these names when I questioned her about this half a century later, but it confused her to try to recall the name exactly. In any case, that was not the relevant point for her. I have not yet read enough of my father’s diary of the period to know how this event may be treated there.

    There are other stories.

    People who disagree with my views often insinuate that I am not appropriately grateful for my freedom and its defenders. Indeed I am grateful, and it is something that compels me to speak my mind publicly and take action in defense of that freedom rather than sit idly by. For me, the great defenders of American freedom are such people as John Peter Zenger, Eugene Debs, and Martin Luther King,

    Comment by admin — March 1, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

  3. very interesting dad! of course i remember the north pole stories. they were always my favorite. but you should add how the first explorers did not die when the hot air balloon crashed, but of carbon monoxide poisoning from lighting fires in their tents to keep warm. at least that’s what you used to tell me. i told that story to emily pope when we were camping one year because it was pouring, so i started the grill (just started it!) in the tent and then moved it out. there was no danger of us passing out.
    also, was your great-great grandfather quaker? or did you mean his “going to church suit” instead of “going to meeting”?
    i don’t think you ever gave me a copy of the genealogy; i would be interested in having a copy. oh, and you should scan in and post that picture of your uncle with kennedy, that is awesome.

    Comment by alsheldo — March 4, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

  4. Uncle Bub,
    Mom and I read the family stories together tonight. Thanks for recording them. Some were new to me. Great to have a written history of the Otto/Sheldon families. Keep it up. We look forward to reading more.

    Comment by Wendy — March 6, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  5. Here’s an anecdote concerning my mother, now entering her 100th year. In speaking with her about her schooling, she mentioned (to my considerable surprise) that she had been a math major when at Marietta College and in fact was Marietta’s first female math major (the college had been founded more than a century earlier). When I commended her for her trail-blazing interest in math, she replied, “Well, I really didn’t have that much interest in it, but math was easy for me and your father was a math major, so it seemed like a good idea.” Way to go, Mom.

    Comment by admin — March 13, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

  6. Here’s a story about my father. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, and after discussion with my mother, my father went into Boston to volunteer for service in the chaplaincy. The officer in charge was a gruff career priest, obviously of a very different temperament from my father. Although my father could offer outdoor camping experience and an ability to speak German (from his time at the University of Berlin), this was offset by having a Ph.D. plus liberal and pacifist tendencies. When my father suggested that he would be interested to teach religion classes to soldiers, he was told, “Soldiers don’t want religion classes.” (I remember that quote from my father.) The Chaplain seemed mainly concerned with maintaining military discipline. He told my father the army didn’t need any more chaplains and advised him to go and tend the home front.

    I was born somewhat more than a year later.

    p.s. My father volunteered for civilian defense and was an air/sea warden. He would drive to the shore and spend hours atop a concrete tower, looking at the ocean and composing his thoughts (and perhaps sermons). He considered it a good opportunity for thought and contemplation. I still have his white helmet.

    Comment by admin — March 14, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

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