When Dorothee Lottmann-Kaeseler of Germany reminded me by email, that 60 years ago, she was spending Christmas in Kent and the United States was awaiting the inauguration of its newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, the memories flooded my mind.
As Kent’s first American Field Service exchange student, Dorothee was a pioneer. She attended Roosevelt High School and received her diploma, but the following year had to finish up in her college prep program in Giessen with an academic curriculum far more rigorous than anything she would have experienced in an American high school. Significantly, she remembers her English literature class and transferring out of it second semester to a Speech class heavily peopled by African American students.
“It was clear African Americans were treated differently, but I learned my English by talking with all — students and grownups — and I have kept it up,” Dorothee said.
She knows our language so well that she does not mentally translate as we talk. Even after 60 years, Dorothee still spots my errors when I share Along the Ways with her and corrects them.
I was a sophomore at Oberlin College planning to spend my junior year in a study program in Germany when she attended Roosevelt. Socially shy, I had never had a girlfriend as a teenager and the grand dames of Kent, eager that a typical American male befriend Dorothee, designated me as the likely candidate. Eager to meet internationals and improve my understanding of the world, I readily accepted the assignment. Sixty years later, she and I are still friends although we have both married and had our own families in the interim. Nevertheless, we continue our conversations about our world and where we are heading.
Obtaining a law degree, she then studied sociology. A generation of young Germans who came of age in the 1960s began questioning their parents about the Holocaust and their roles in that atrocity. That became Dorothee’s obsession. As a preschooler in the Ruhr area, she knew Lisa, a Jewish gymnastic teacher who had survived in hiding. She gave Dorothee first hints about persecution.
In Kent, she had been befriended by the family of Kent State Professor Martin Baron and his wife, Shirley, who were supportive of AFS. They invited Dorothee to attend a Shabbat service at a synagogue in Cleveland. It was the first time she had ever entered a synagogue. For a young German whose countrymen had murdered six million Jews and destroyed their synagogues, it was an unforgettable experience. Eventually, she began pursuing what became a lifelong passion: exploring the history of the Jews of her adopted hometown of Wiebaden, a beautiful old imperial city in southwest Germany near Frankfurt that for centuries has been a popular destination for its hot-springs baths.
Jews were never numerous in Germany. Most European Jews resided in Poland and lands between Germany and Russia. German Jews became prosperous and as a minority incurred the envy of Germans who did not do as well. Hitler, not unlike other politicians we have come to know, exploited resentment. He told Germans they had not really lost World War I, but were betrayed by wealthy Jews in agreeing to an armistice. When the worldwide Depression hit, Hitler kept stirring German hatred as he finagled his way into the chancellorship and then the dictatorship of Germany. World War II and the Holocaust followed.
Guilt stricken and perhaps seeking German redemption, Dorothee co-founded a “museum” dedicated to the Jewish community that prior to Hitler had prospered in Wiesbaden, contributing to the city’s cultural richness and well-being. With municipal funding, the so-called “Active Museum for German Jewish History” provided Dorothee a modest income enabling her to pursue contacts with Jewish families who were lucky enough to get out of Germany – and to a few survivors of the death camps.
She established contacts with families who have resettled in New York City, Chicago, London, Buenos Aires, Tampa, Washington DC, and Los Angeles. She reached out to a rabbi in Tampa whose father had a congregation in Wiesbaden, but who fortunately fled Germany before the Nazis began their extermination campaign. She visited Chicago several times to establish contacts with families who left Germany. She has provided countless tours for visiting descendants of Jews either murdered by the Nazis or of those fortunate enough to get out. When the Soviet Union in the 1980s advocated Jewish emigration, a manifestation of Russian anti-Semitism, Germans like Dorothee promoted their resettlement in Germany and she said, “it has helped us recover some of the cultural richness German Jews have contributed to our national fabric.”
Four years ago, Janet and I were lucky to visit Dorothee in Wiesbaden. She gave us a wonderful tour of her city including, among many stops, sites where the community’s Jewish citizens congregated for worship, even stopping at a small cemetery outside Wiesbaden — one of seven — that was being restored thanks to her efforts and those of her colleagues. Reading over the years about my own country’s shortcomings in how we have treated minorities has made me less judgmental. The Holocaust, so evil, is unforgiveable, but its origins are not incomprehensible.
Each of us has moments where we are presented with moral issues that define us as a nation or as a community. Had I been a German in the 1930s, I wonder if I would have had the courage to oppose Hitler and his brutal Nazis?
With an eye on global issues that humanity faces, Dorothee has focused locally, doing what she can to heal the awful cruelty that came to Wiesbaden with Hitler and his rabid followers. Her life’s work has been an admirable effort by Kent’s first ever American Field Service exchange student.
David E. Dix is a former publisher of the Record-Courier.