Quaker Universalist Conversations

Recovering History: Hans Albrecht & the Quakers of Nazi Germany

In 1995, I decided to explore the Holocaust with my German classes. This was shortly before I was selected as the first world language teacher and German teacher to be a Mandel Teacher Fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 1997.

I made my decision because I wanted my students to realize that if the Holocaust could happen in the land of poets and thinkers, it could happen anywhere. Ideally, the unit culminated with a trip to the Museum itself.

In 1998, after meeting Etta Albrecht Mekeel through a mutual friend, she told me about her father, Hans Albrecht. I asked her if I could interview her as an outreach project for my tenure as a Teacher Fellow at USHMM. She agreed, and suggested I interview two of her German friends whose lives were dramatically affected by the Holocaust.

American military police help three little girls find their parents at the Fort Oswego Refugee Center. (Photo courtesy USHMM)
American military police help three little girls find their parents at the Fort Oswego Refugee Center. (Photo courtesy USHMM)
On her recommendation, I was able to interview her friend Gabrielle Derenberg Schiff.

Gabrielle became a psychiatric social worker for the only refugee center established in the United States during World War II, the displaced persons camp1 in Oswego, NY. From 1944 to 1945 the shelter housed almost 1,000 European refugees, predominantly of Jewish descent.

After World War II, Gabrielle was the director of Selfhelp in New York. Selfhelp assisted victims of the Holocaust in getting their lives back together.

Editor’s note: Selfhelp Community Services, Inc., was founded in 1936 to help waves of émigrés fleeing from Nazi persecution find new lives in America. As this population reaches their 80s and 90s, Selfhelp remains in their lives, enabling them to retain their well-earned independence and quality of life as a not-for-profit. Selfhelp continues to serve as the “last surviving relative” to its historic constituency, victims of Nazi persecution.

After interviewing Etta Mekeel in State College and Gabi Schiff in Queens, I went to Germany, where I conducted research on Hans Albrecht and interviewed Annemarie Glücksmann in Hamburg. Annemarie was 19 when the Albrecht household took her in because she had nowhere else to turn. The Nazis considered her a Mischling, someone deemed to have both Aryan and Jewish ancestry. Her stepmother was gassed by the Nazis in Riga, and her father immigrated to Brazil.

Note: See the USHMM’s website archive page, “Mary Mills oral history collection,” for the three oral history interviews of Gabrielle Derenberg Schiff, Annemarie Glücksmann and Etta Albrecht Mekeel.

In Frankenau, Germany, Prof. Hildegard Feidel-Mertz invited me to her home and gave me access to her files of the 1933-34 correspondence exchanged by Rudolf Schlosser, Berhta Bracey, Piet Kappers, and Hans Albrecht. I learned from these letters about the efforts of Hans Albrecht in establishing the Quaker school in Castle Eerde, near Ommen in the Netherlands.

During its operation, the school enabled about 300 Jewish children to complete an education that would have been denied them by the Nazis, one free of hate-filled propaganda and full of encouragement to inquiring young minds.2

Sadly, In September of 1941, the Nazis segregated the Jewish pupils from the rest of the school and sent them to De Esch, a house on the school premises. By September of 1944, the German military was forced to leave Eerde because the Allies were advancing. The fourteen Jewish children attending the Quaker School at Eerde were murdered. Most of them perished in Auschwitz.
A Garden Grows: Quakerism in Nazi Germany, by Mary Mills Prof. Feidel-Mertz also allowed me to photocopy the manuscript of The Little Gardeners’ Album, an account written by children who attended the Quaker School at Eerde. Through The Little Gardeners’ Album, I learned about the lives of the children who became Little Gardeners at the school. Their stories stand in stark contrast to the awful anti-Semitic propaganda that infiltrated German schools and was even available in story books, such as notoriously insidious book, Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom).

Note: Mary Mills has also published an essay titled “Propaganda and Children during the Hitler Years” on the website of the Nizkor Project. The Nizkor Project is a Holocaust research resource intended for educational purposes to teach about the Holocaust and to combat its denial. Nizkor is a Hebrew word which means “We will remember.”

In the course of our friendship, Etta Mekeel gave me copies of her father’s discourses and his deposition in behalf of George Grosz. While at home recovering from surgery, I decided to translate the deposition, and it was later published in the April 2003 issue of Friends Journal (pp.24-28). I find Albrecht’s deposition uplifting in the manner that it counters the charge of blasphemy with the revelation that the real blasphemy lies in the act of war.

Later after I retired, I decided to translate Albrecht’s discourses and The Little Gardeners’ Album. The album, I think, offers, to an extent, a practical application of some of the concepts in Albrecht’s discourses, such as meeting and encounters. The Album is not a philosophical treatise but rather a journal written by children about the activities of children during a most difficult period in recent history. It is characterized by simplicity, creativity, and practicality.

The most striking aspect of the Album is the total lack of fear on the part of the children in a country that had just been overrun by the German war machine. Though German Quakers could not stop the machine, they still created a haven for these bright little lights.


Notes and Image Sources

1 Fort Oswego Refugee Center near Oswego, NY – See the following sources:

2 “When the Second World War began, about 300 children had found refuge and, in many cases, completed an education from which German racial legislation would have excluded them.”

Hans A. Schmitt, in “Quaker Efforts to Rescue Children from Nazi Education and Discrimination: The International Quakerschool Eerde,” Quaker History, Volume 85, Number 1, Spring 1996, pp. 45-57, published by Friends Historical Association

Hans A. Schmitt has the following note: “This calculation is based on a detailed list of students compiled by Peter Budde, to date the author of the only substantial historical account of Eerde, “Die Internationale Quäkerschule in Eerde/Holland. Im Geiste praktischer Nächstenliebe und kraftvoller Toleranz,” in Feidel-Mertz, Hildgard, ed., Schulen im Exil. Die verdrängte Pädagogik nach 1933, Reinbeck/Hamburg: Rohwolt Verlag, 1983:151-67.