Travel can be a broadening experience. It can offer opportunities that you would never encounter at home. Like when Herbert Fierst traveled around Europe the year after his graduation from Yale University back in 1935 and wonders what if things had turned out differently.
Fierst was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1996. You can read other stories about World War II.
FIERST: A few weeks before graduation I was awarded a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, which provided the munificent sum, in those days, of $1500 for a year’s travel abroad. The only conditions attached to it were not to get married during that year and not to stay in any one place and study, but to broaden yourself by traveling. A wonderful, wonderful fellowship! So I changed my plans altogether and spent a fascinating year abroad traveling in 15 countries. This was from July 1935 to June 1936….
I had a very unusual experience – it almost embarrasses me in retrospect to tell you how it started… I had no intention of going to Nazi Germany, although I had been invited there by the father of a then 12-year-old boy my parents had taken into our house… But, well, we are about to have the Olympics here – this was half a year before the famous 1936 Berlin Olympics – the Nazis were supposed to be on their somewhat better behavior. There was much talk of a boycott of Nazi Germany which I was prepared to observe. In visiting the Brussels World’s Fair, somehow or other I got duped by three confidence men and they deprived me of practically all the money I had at the time. Another increment of my Fellowship money was due in a couple of months. So I decided that I would take advantage of the invitation that had been extended to me. I wouldn’t really be violating the boycott, since I didn’t have any money left (I had a little), and I would be staying in Berlin with this Jewish family. So that’s what I did.
I am a great believer at this stage of my life in serendipity. Things happen as you go along, and sometimes you can influence the course of events and sometimes you can’t. In this particular case, after I had been in Berlin, living with this family for a little while, I did have the sense of the world closing in on the Jews but not of anything really dramatic.
I wrote to the New York Times correspondent in London… I said, “I am going to see you when I came to London, but would you please introduce me to the New York Times correspondent in Berlin.” So, by return mail he sent me a letter of introduction to Otto Tolischus, whose articles I had read avidly in the Times and I thought he was a terrific reporter.
When I went to see him [Otto Tolishchus] and explained to him my circumstances – how do I go about finding out what’s really happening here [in Germany] – he took me in hand and gave me a good many practical suggestions, which I followed. I should explain, that in those days I had quite a bit of hair and it was quite blonde. I have a German sounding name. So, while I made no effort to conceal or restrict my activities because I was Jewish, I also didn’t go about mentioning it one way or another. I met quite a few Nazis, many of whom looked very non-Aryan but they assumed that I was of “Aryan” extraction.
Anyway, I’ll just tell you this one incident to give you the flavor of how exciting this trip was. He said to me (Otto Tolischus) “Do you have a document or certificate from Harvard that has a seal on it?” And I said “Yes, as a matter of fact I have and I don’t know what to do with it.” He said, “Well, do just what I say – go to the Propaganda Ministry – do you speak any German?” I said, “Pretty well.” and he said “Well, don’t speak a word of German, and just hold out this certificate with the seal on it and say that you want to see Herr Vogt.” I said, “Who’s he?” and he said, “He’s in charge of propaganda to the United States. Just be very innocent, just say you’re a student from an American college and you want to find out the real truth about Germany. See what he says.”
We are so used to being screened for security nowadays that we assume that happened way back then….I just walked in and followed instructions, and said that I wanted to see Herr Vogt. They looked a little puzzled and I had to wait quite a while. Then I was taken up one or two flights of stairs, where there was this enormous office. A tough looking man looked up from his desk very quizzically – he didn’t know who in the world I was. I went through the routine of “finding out the truth about Germany” and he took me for a sucker. He started telling me how Roosevelt was surrounded by Jews and so on and so forth.
In the middle of his talk, there was a kind of a fanfare outside. I hadn’t known it, but the Propaganda Ministry was right opposite the Reich Chancellery and he beckoned to me and said, “That’s our Fuhrer coming out of the Reich Chancellery, if you want to see him.” He went to the window, and opened the window, and there was Hitler coming in his car… He was in an open roadster and he was sitting next to the driver in the front seat with three men, probably security people, behind them. But here I was, looking right down on him! And it wasn’t somebody who whizzed right by – he had to make a right angle turn, and there I was right at that point almost directly above him.
I can’t resist telling you that some months ago, my 12 year old grandson in Massachusetts called me at 7:00 in the morning. Apparently his parents had given him some version of this and he had to do something for school, and he said, “Did you really see Hitler, grandpa?” And I said “Yes, matter of fact I had a chance to knock him off but I didn’t have a weapon.” So he said, “What happened?” I tried to describe this to him, and he said, “What about a flowerpot?”
It never occurred to me, but what would have happened if I had seized a flowerpot and used it appropriately? Anyway, it was a fascinating year, as you can tell.