Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

MARTIN'S ROOM (continued)

When he learned from a friend in the police that Hitler’s storm troopers were about to arrest him, he fled to Paris, where he began making plans to evacuate the rest of the family to the United States. But instead the family spintered. Ruth, then twenty, and active in the Communist party, was herself arrested. With the help of influential friends, she escaped to Italy. Hans Jacob, eighteen, was sent to England, where he worked in a bank; within a year he moved to Chicago to study accounting.

Martin was now a tall, healthy, good-looking young man of sixteen. With his blue eyes and blond hair, he could easily be mistaken for a young Aryan. At first he remained in Germany with his mother. Then, in the fall of 1934 she enrolled him at a Quaker boarding school in Reading, England. (Among Else’s many interests was a fascination with Quakerism.) It must have felt like something of an adventure to the teenager: living in a foreign country and receiving letters from his father, a political refugee, and his mother, the only remaining member of the immediate family left in Germany.

A few weeks into his first term, Martin received an urgent summons home. The news would quash any notion that this was an elaborate game. Ruth had secretly returned to Germany from Italy and, despairing of what she found there, had hung herself in the sunroom of their grandparents’ apartment. Several weeks later, Martin’s grandfather would die of natural causes.

Wilhelm, who had since moved to New York, couldn’t risk returning home to attend the funerals. Bereaved by the deaths of his daughter and his father, missing his family, he nevertheless tried to carry on with his work, writing the occasional article and book review for the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune. He spent his days at the New York Public Library, reading everything he could, desperately trying to understand how his beloved Germany could have gone so wrong. Wilhelm had been given a $5000 advance by Knopf for a book he had tentatively titled The German Republic: How It Happened, Struggled and Disappeared. He had completed 200 pages, but English was his second language; sentences did not flow easily. Depressed and weary, he resorted to his daughter’s solution. On October 3, 1937, his body was found in a hotel room in Philadelphia, empty pill bottles by his bed.

Although Else had made regular trips to visit Wilhelm in New York, she had delayed moving to America. She had been looking after an elderly relative. And, like millions of others, she kept hoping the madness in Germany would end. Having finally decided to relocate permanently, she was en route when Wilhelm killed himself. In his last brief message to her, he said that he hadn’t wanted to burden her with his troubles. But he wanted her to know, “I’m not what I was...”

Martin Cohnstaedt, at his graduation from Rutgers UniversityMartin stands in a garden outside a residence at Rutgers University. He has attended the New Jersey school for four years, studying agriculture. The photograph captures him on his graduation day. He is wearing a gown and else is at his side.

Martin had been a student at Rutgers only a few weeks when he heard of Wilhelm’s suicide. Although he rarely spoke — then, or ever — about the deaths of his sister and father, their influence on him is clear. From his father, Martin inherited a keen interest in agriculture (much of the elder Cohnstaedt’s early writing had dealt with farming and land use practices.) From his sister came a commitment to social activism. Combining these concerns with Quakerism — which Martin had embraced after immigrating to the U.S. — produced in the young man a strong moral centre.

This strength would be tested a year before the photograph was taken, when Martin landed in the pages of the New York Times. He was a serious student, and he worked hard, struggling with statistics and English while holding down part-time jobs to help pay expenses. But when Alph Zeta, a national agricultural fraternity, asked him to join its ranks, Martin refused membership — the fraternity excluded non-whites. “When I came to this country thirty months ago,” he wrote the fraternity, “my greatest desire was to serve the country of my choice, to give it everything I have in return for its willingness to open its doors to me....But how are we to serve the cause of agriculture in this country if we lose what we esteem highest: character and tolerance? I lost home and friends due to a denial of tolerance. Prejudice may be human. But if we do not master it, what may become of our good works?”

Martin's Room, continued > 

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