Greta Goes to Amerika
One fine indian summer morning in 1927, a slender twenty-six-year-old woman stood on the deck of the President Harding, watching the New York skyline expand to fill the horizon. The Port of New York was crowded with ships, many of them, like hers, arriving from Germany. After a forced hiatus during the Great War, German immigrants were pouring into the United States once again.
Greta Lorke was not an immigrant; she was a foreign student coming to America for a graduate degree. Although it was the height of the flapper era, Greta was more bluestocking than vamp. She had a slim figure but little sense of style. Her long face, with its high, rounded forehead and searching gray-green eyes, could flicker from stern to wistfully pretty. But Greta, a young feminist, claimed that she wasn’t interested in her looks; the important thing was ideas. Looking in the mirror, she commented only that there wasn’t “too much to complain about”—then proceeded to complain about her pale freckled complexion and wispy blond hair.
Greta’s attention was focused on her education. For the three children in her working-class family, it had been a struggle to attend high school, much less travel abroad for a graduate degree. Her father, Georg, was a metalworker in Frankfurt an der Oder, a grimy industrial town on the banks of a murky river, due east of Berlin. He worked for Julius Altrichter’s firm, the biggest musical instrument factory in Germany. As a little girl, Greta loved to watch her father roll out the sheets of brass to cut into patterns for tubas and flügelhorns, then wander over to adjoining workshops to observe the violin and drum makers.
Greta’s mother, Martha, was a seamstress, the daughter of an illiterate tailor. A highly determined woman, she had taught her father how to write his name. The family had inherited a small sum in the 1870s and used it to buy a tenement house on the outskirts of the city. Greta’s parents moved in when they married and rented out rooms to help make ends meet.
Greta, who was born on December 14, 1902, inherited her mother’s work ethic as well as her Catholic conscience. As a young girl, she was fascinated by the flyers for African mission work in the vestibule of their church. She decided to earn enough pocket money to save an African child’s pagan soul. She worked for a year running errands and doing odd jobs, then she tied her coins up in a handkerchief and went to the priest with her order.
“It should be a little black boy, Father,” she requested. “And please, no older than me—just about eight. And can he be delivered for Christmas? It should be a surprise for my mother.”
The kindly priest pulled down an atlas and showed Greta the long and arduous journey that would be required to bring her “black boy” from the tropics to Frankfurt an der Oder. The money she had saved,
he explained, was enough to educate an African child for a year, but not enough to bring him to Germany—if, indeed, he should even want to come. Greta wept in disappointment, but donated her pfennigs anyway.
Greta’s family made sacrifices for the sake of education. Her parents lived frugally to save for their children’s tuition at the Oberschule, a necessary prelude to a university education. Quark (a soft white cheese) with linseed oil was a frequent dinner offering. The Lorkes didn’t indulge until the holidays, when the family enjoyed meat and fowl, gilded nuts, and lots of singing. Greta’s mother sewed blankets and clothing for a Berlin department store to help with tuition, while Greta contributed by polishing shoes and helping her uncle sell religious pictures in his shop.1
Greta’s childhood struggle for working-class respectability was soon rocked by war and political turmoil. She was about to turn eleven in 1914 when World War I broke out. Many Germans greeted the war with euphoria, but it soon brought unimagined hardship. The winter of 1916 was known as the “Turnip Winter.” Germany’s food shortage was so severe that young Greta and her family resorted to secret nighttime forages to dig for root vegetables that had been overlooked in the harvest.
Toward the end of the war, Greta’s father was temporarily laid off from his job at the instrument factory. Resentfully, he walked out of the docile Catholic Workers’ Association and joined the militant Metalworkers Union, hoping it would be more forceful in defending his interests.
Greta Lorke was just turning fifteen when the war drew to a close, and talk of socialism filled the air. However, Greta, like many of her countrymen, was uncertain exactly what “socialism” meant. She preferred to experience politics through literature and the arts. “We looked for every piece of theater that gave us a taste of the new developments.”
One leader who embodied the “breath of the new” was the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, the daughter of a small-town Jewish businessman in a Russian-controlled region of Poland. Luxemburg was active in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), but left in protest of its early support for the kaiser’s war. In 1916 she cofounded a splinter group called the Spartacist League, which later evolved into the German Communist Party (KPD). In November 1918, as the revolt gathered steam, Luxemburg helped to found and edit a newspaper, the Rote Fahne (Red Flag), to coordinate strikers’ councils.
Luxemburg was a reluctant participant in the 1918 revolt, and she paid a heavy price for her involvement. On January 15, 1919, paramilitary Freikorps forces captured, tortured, and killed Luxemburg and her colleague Karl Liebknecht in Berlin. Luxemburg’s allies continued to fight for a revolutionary government, but they were finally defeated by the Social Democrats in concert with the Freikorps.
Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy would loom large in Greta’s life. Like Luxemburg, Greta would be caught up in the tensions between Socialists and Communists and forced to choose between the roles of scholar and activist. Luxemburg’s letters displayed her brilliance but also revealed that she loved deeply. (Greta called them “deeply moving.”)3 Her passionate feminism did nothing to abate her longing for a home and children—the same tensions that Greta experienced throughout her life.
Germany settled into an uneasy, poverty-stricken peace. Some 2.4 million German soldiers had died in the Great War, and many left destitute widows and children.4 In the winter of 1919, Spanish flu settled on the country like a curse fulfilled, preying upon the weak and the hungry. Hundreds of thousands died. On urban streets, the ranks of the have-nots festered and grew. The marketplace near Greta’s home in Frankfurt an der Oder filled with mass demonstrations, rallying three thousand workers at a time.
Munich’s malcontents included an embittered young Austrian veteran named Adolf Hitler. He had struggled as a painter of sentimental landscapes in Vienna before the war, then served as a courier on the horrific front lines, earning a medal for valor. He was shattered by Germany’s surrender and the dissolution of his native country, and after the Armistice he joined other angry veterans in the street-fighting Freikorps. In September 1919, Hitler was assigned to report on a political meeting organized by a small, muddled group calling itself the German Workers Party. Sensing an opportunity, Adolf Hitler signed up for membership—and the future Nazi Party was on its way.
By 1923, Germany had entered its infamous phase of hyperinflation. The government’s presses ran overtime printing worthless bills, and the value of German currency sank to over four trillion marks to the dollar (valuing a U.S. penny at 4 billion marks). Millions of citizens lost their life savings. Pensions, accumulated by workers through decades of struggle, vanished overnight, along with their trust in the middle-class values of diligence and thrift.
All in all, it was a depressing outlook for an ambitious Catholic schoolgirl. Nonetheless, Greta persevered. In 1924 she began her studies at the university in Berlin. Greta enrolled as an economics student and got a work-study job in an orphanage among the grim tenements of Neukölln, an industrial neighborhood in the southern part of the city. There she looked after twenty-three boys, helping with everything from nitpicking their head lice to tutoring them for school.
On the nightmarish streets of Berlin in the mid-1920s, one could see crippled officers reduced to begging, decent girls driven to prostitution, and aged pensioners forced to sell off their few possessions. But the cruelest sight was the children suffering from hunger and cold. Most of Greta’s “orphans” had parents who could no longer support them. An international relief worker described children like Greta’s in Neukölln: “Tiny faces, with large dull eyes, overshadowed by huge puffed, rickety foreheads, their small arms just skin and bones, and above the crooked legs with their dislocated joints the swollen pointed stomachs of the hunger edema.”5 Neukölln was one of the most ravaged areas of Berlin. Greta suffered along with her young charges, angrily wondering who should be held to blame.
Still, her experience did not convert her to the orthodox left. In fact, she found the Communist students at the university to be obnoxious and rude. “They struck me as loud, with the way they said hello by ostentatiously slapping each other on the shoulder, trying to show off how ‘proletarian’ they were,” she wrote later. She tried to engage them in conversation, “but the first thing they did was demand, ‘Are you with us or not?’ I was also put off by the way they expressed their disapproval in the lecture hall by noisily shuffling their feet.” Greta decided to keep her distance. Nor did she get very far with their literature. She managed to read Marx and Engels’s brief tract, “The Communist Manifesto,” but she had less luck with Marx’s exhausting tome Das Kapital. “I just couldn’t get through it,” she confessed.
Still, Greta was serious about economics. It was a volatile period in the field, as massive social experiments were launched in Russia and the American economy roared. The young people of Europe believed that the old European institutions—monarchy, aristocracy, church—had made a mess of things, and it was time to start over. The world was no longer subject to the old models of autocratic command and control; instead, human society was to be documented, analyzed, and rationally organized. Greta, fresh from the front lines of Germany’s slums, was ready to join this intellectual army to set the world right. “My idea about life in general,” she recalled, “was to make the world a better place through scholarly research.”
In 1925 one of Greta’s American friends at the university made a startling proposal for Greta to come back to America with her and apply to Columbia University in New York. Greta saved up five hundred marks in newly adjusted currency and began to plan her adventure.6 She was more than ready to leave the university in Berlin, whose rector was so hostile to women students that he refused to shake hands with them.
Still, it wasn’t easy to say good-bye. On the night before her departure, her father sorrowfully asked her where he had gone wrong, raising a daughter who would rather wander the world by herself than settle down to a nice teaching job, a good husband, and some apple-cheeked children.
Greta was susceptible to such guilt, especially since her father had lost his job in the instrument factory. He now got by with marginal work, commuting twice a day to Berlin to pick up bundles of Catholic newspapers, returning to sell them in Frankfurt.
The ocean voyage was a novelty, but nothing compared to the sensation of New York. Greta roamed the city with her friend, inhaling the experience, from the streets of Harlem to the glitter of Broadway. New York was compelling, but it was also expensive, and Greta realized that her modest savings would not go far at Columbia. Her friend had just received an assistantship at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which was becoming a magnet for progressives, reformers, and freethinkers. It would be easier for Greta to earn money there, too. Greta was dizzied by the precipitous change in plans; as a German she was used to endless layers of bureaucracy. These Americans, she marveled, didn’t even require residence permits. She took a deep breath and boarded the train for Madison.
Wisconsin was a pleasant surprise. In Germany, professors were proud and remote; a mere student didn’t dream of a personal conversation unless he had excellent family connections. American academia was more democratic. “In Madison not a week went by without a number of professors coming by and sitting on the carpet in our small dwelling,” Greta wrote.7 “They nibbled cheap peanuts and drank equally cheap coffee, wanting to hear every possible new detail about post-war developments in Germany.”
Greta was dazzled by the sheer diversity of the people around her—“Japanese, Chinese, South American; Mormons, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterians,” she noted breathlessly in her memoirs. They were all interesting, and they were all full of questions about Germany. But Greta was disturbed by the white students’ reluctance to socialize with her black friends. In Greta’s tally of America’s virtues and flaws, race relations went down in the debit column.
Greta’s sociological field trips included a visit to a Ford auto plant, where she got to see an assembly line for the first time. She thought the workers looked miserable, driven for hours on end at breakneck speed. She contrasted their situation with the memory of an early morning in the sleeper car on the way to Wisconsin, when the train woke her up with a sudden stop. She stuck her head out of the window just in time to see young Edsel Ford step out to meet his father, Henry, on the platform—“at a small private train station reserved for the Ford family and their guests,” she noted pointedly. Such privilege seemed to mock democratic principles. America, too, she thought, was ripe for reform.
The University of Wisconsin was full of people who agreed. Greta was pleased to be invited to “The Friday Niters,” a weekly discussion circle hosted by John Commons, a distinguished professor known for his explorations of the relationship between economics and law. Her friends among The Friday Niters included Elizabeth Brandeis, the daughter of the first Jewish justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, who later joined Roosevelt’s Brain Trust herself. Greta’s roommate, Elsie Gluck, later became a prominent American trade unionist and labor historian.
There were relatively few German students in America at the time, and Greta enjoyed her air of exclusivity. Thus she was less than pleased one day when another student addressed her in flawless German. This, she learned, was the other German on campus, Arvid Harnack.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Red Orchestra by Anne Nelson. Copyright © 2009 by Anne Nelson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.