Fridays with Fred: the letters of a professor in post-World War II Germany

Story on a collection of letters archived of former associate professor of zoology Joel Carl Welty on post-World War II Germany.

One of the treasures in the Beloit College Archives is a voluminous collection of letters typed on fragile, nearly transparent paper. The writer, Joel Carl Welty (pictured above), began his career at Beloit as associate professor of zoology in 1934, noted for his fine teaching and dedicated work in ornithology. When World War II ended, he asked the college for a year’s leave of absence so that he could help with relief efforts in war-torn Europe. The American Friends Service Committee accepted him and he trained in the U.S. and France before heading a Quaker relief-team in the French Zone of divided Germany. Along with the many items packed in a Gladstone bag and steamer trunk, which included a Leica camera, seven flashlight batteries, one pair of seersucker trousers, and a box of maple sugar, among other things, he brought a typewriter. In lieu of a diary, he typed lengthy, meticulously detailed letters to his wife Susan.

From France through Luxembourg and into Germany, Carl began to see stark examples of the devastation of war. He arrived at headquarters in Koblenz in late October, 1946. He wrote:

“Even after dark, Koblenz turns your stomach. It is a terrific desolation of gutted architecture. I guess every German city is the same. I’ve not seen a great deal of the city by daylight, but I’ve seen a few miles of streets, and it is very rarely that one sees a building damaged slightly enough that a family can live in it. The streets are cleared of rubble, or at least the main ones are. People simply pile enough rocks in the windows and doors to make a wall, and then shovel the rest of the rubble inside the burned-out building. Nothing seems to have been spared by the fires and bombs; even the huge churches are empty shells, although one of them has a spire still standing…There are little narrow-gauge railroads running along the main streets which are used for nothing but rubble removal. It will be a monumental job, taking years and years at the present slow rate…There are trucks and a few cars running about the streets, and one streetcar line is operating; each car clogged with people hanging on the way they did in Mexico City, only more so. But the city looks so sick that one doubts its recovery…The French are rebuilding some of the larger buildings for their own use, and the householders are making pitiful efforts to patch up their own places. They lack materials except for stone and used brick…”

Carl and the other relief workers found barely habitable living quarters, renting rooms among German families. For most of his stay in Koblenz, he slept in a tiny room in a partially bombed-out, nearly roofless apartment building. While boarding with a German family, he became aware of the acute shortages of food, clothing, fuel, and other material goods. French authorities rationed available goods and attempted to clamp down on the lively black market, as Carl mentioned in his Nov. 16 letter:

“Just the everyday chores of ordinary living take unbelievably long. Everything is done by hand. You see people everywhere carrying sacks, handbags, bundles, packs, armloads; or wheeling carts, bicycles, even wagons, all by manpower. The loads are mostly wood or vegetables from the country. This noon Frau Otto asked me if she or Ilse might ride with one of the trucks if it made a trip soon to the country along the Mosel. She has just negotiated with a farmer to buy fifty pounds of flour. I didn’t get all she had to pay for it, but here is a partial list: 300 marks ($30), some stockings, some of her husband’s shirts, a zipper, a blouse, and a list of about ten drug store items which her daughter will have to get where she works. Flour is about the hardest thing to get. She could send Ilse out for it on her bike, since it is only ten miles or so away, but she wants it to come back in one of our trucks since the French police never stop trucks but often stop people coming in from the country carrying hand-luggage: bags and packs, whether they come afoot, by train, bicycle or what. Paying 300 marks indicates that the Ottos must have a goodly amount of money left, but it rarely buys much except rationed items, and then the supply is of course limited. An ordinary loaf of bread costs less than a mark, but a black market loaf of the same bread costs about thirty marks.”

Carl noted that his host’s daughter worked all week in an apothecary’s shop for 180 marks a month, but the money did not stretch very far:

“Butter is cheaper now than it has been for some time; it is down to 500 marks a pound; coffee is now only about 700 or 800 marks a pound. Yesterday I got a first-rate haircut; cost: 1 mark. That gives you an idea…”

People frequently bartered goods and precious cigarettes acted as currency –

“When [the barber] was through I offered him a couple of cigarettes in addition to the 1 mark fee. He was so overwhelmed that I ended up giving the proprietor two, and each of the other men in the place one. Cigarettes are still rare and highly prized, especially American cigarettes…I’m against smoking, but when people are so low and have such few pleasures left, I can’t bear to deny them that little sunshine if I have it to spread. Even the top public officials – burgermeister, school head, chief of city doctors, all grab eagerly when you offer them a cigarette or two. Two cigarettes are considered a generous tip at restaurants…When we leave five or six on the table when we depart we nearly wreck the gold standard.”

As leader of the relief team, Carl arranged for the distribution of care packages and supplies. A partial list shows the range of the donated items the American Friends Service Committee brought in: thousands of pounds of wheat flour, baby food, chocolate fudge syrup, powdered whole milk, macaroni, granulated sugar, canned meat, dried fruit, peanut butter, cocoa, coffee, sardines in oil, shoe repair materials, used clothing, used bedding, surplus army blankets, men’s twill work-pants, used shoes, sewing kits, and used cloth remnants. Carl visited schools and organizations, meeting with officials, checking over conditions and setting up distribution. On Dec. 3 he described his reactions and impressions after visiting a series of schools:

“Before I forget it entirely I’d better return to the school visit Dora and I made with the new superintendent of schools here and Director Fechler last Wednesday. Here are some of the facts we dug up: Between 25 percent and 50 percent of the students in these grade schools can’t come to school on bad days because they haven’t any shoes or sox, or else very poor ones. We saw all sorts of miserable make-shift footwear. About a third of the students (6-14 yrs old) walked on wooden soles with crude canvas, string, or even wire fastenings to hold them on to their feet. Some were wearing shoes much too small for their feet. Others had big shabby clod-hoppers from older brothers, or discarded army shoes. One small boy wore split and broken rubber boots that were just short of knee length; their tops so rubbed his legs as he walked that he had large bloody and scabbed patches on his legs. And even now in December you see youngsters walking around the dirty slimy streets barefooted…We saw many youngsters with thin, pasty-white faces, watery eyes, thin arms and legs…Fortunately the Paris truck brought in thousands of vitamin pills, and I shall get them into the hands of the best channels for reaching the children as quickly as I can…”

Carl’s letters depict the tensions between the American, British, French, and Russian sectors of occupied Germany, the squabbles between relief organizations, and the hardships and daily struggles of the people. Throughout his year in Koblenz, Carl maintained his perspective and sense of humor despite the unpredictable nature of his work, as he reflected on Dec.12:

“Each new day brings new experiences, and new material for stories, novels, even sagas and epics. I’m beginning to feel like a chip of wood with no motive power of my own, tossed about on a sea of troubled but terribly interesting waters. It gives me a fatalistic sense of ‘Well, here’s another day. I wonder what I’ll be doing and where and with whom, five hours hence.’”

Carl’s wife Susan joined him for his final weeks in Koblenz and they left for Beloit in August 1947. He continued to teach at Beloit College until his retirement in 1967 and became well known for his influential ornithological textbook, The Life of Birds. Although he passed away in 1986, his work lives on with the Welty Environmental Center, located at the Beckman Mill County Park, west of Beloit.

Welty’s Koblenz letters remained tucked away for nearly 50 years until 1993, when Susan Welty donated the letters and related material to the Beloit College Archives and arranged publication by the college of a selection, entitled The Hunger Year in the French Zone of Divided Germany, 1946-1947.

Fred Burwell ’86
November 17, 2011

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