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Iowa Quakers Save World War II Refugees

posted on September 7, 2007

To this day, the ethnic atrocities of World War II stand as perhaps the most shameful example of human behavior in recorded history. We still struggle to comprehend the number of Jews murdered and the justifications of those who chose to turn a blind eye. Amid all the shame, Iowans can be proud of the efforts of a small group of Quakers who helped keep European refugees out of Hitler’s reach.

Narrator: For the 1939 residents of West Branch, Iowa, this gravel lane served as the main route into town. But to European refugees trying to escape Hitler’s tyranny, the dusty Iowa road was a path to safety.

Luick-Thrams: Basically we're talking about Schlindler's List on the prairie. The only difference is that everyone in the world knows about Oskar Schlindler and the 1,100 Jews he saved in the middle of Europe. Almost no one knows about the 185 refugees that Iowa Quaker farmers and college kids saved.

Narrator: From 1939 to 1943, nearly 200 refugees from Nazi occupied Europe found a safe haven at Scattergood hostel, a makeshift commune on the site of what had been a Quaker boarding school. Here outside the small town of West Branch, Iowa Quakers hosted Jews as well as Hitler’s political dissidents, offering them food, shelter, and a glimmer of light in the midst of Nazi darkness.

Luick-Thrams: Admittedly 185 is a drop -- well, it's not even a drop in the bucket compared to 6 million people who perished at Auschwitz and Treblinka and all the other death camps, but 185 souls saved was more than what was being saved down the road. I mean this story is a story -- a remarkable story of Iowa Quaker farmers and college students who had no connection with these people, had no obligation, and in many cases couldn't even correctly pronounce their names, but brought them over from Berlin and Prague and Vienna and Budapest and saved their lives.

Narrator: For Michael, pictures of Scattergood offer a glimpse into just how unique the hostel really was. In fact, you'd swear these to be snapshots of a peaceful family farm rather than images of a wartime refugee camp. Unlike most service agencies, which offered limited assistance during business hours only, Scattergood operated as a full-time commune, with each refugee staying an average of four months. Here Quakers and Jews not only shared field work and daily chores, but also the tremendous burden of war's impact.

Luick-Thrams: Some of the people had been through great trauma. Some had known hunger, had been beaten. Some had been in Dachau. Another refugee would come down to the pantry at night and steal lard. He had known severe hunger in a camp and just eat lard to regain weight and to satisfy his hunger. But by that point the hunger probably wasn't just physiological; it was also psychological. Some of the refugees arrived with children or spouses still back in Europe. Some of them would pace the hallway at night when they couldn't sleep, back and forth, back and forth. None of these 49 volunteers had had any training. They didn't know what post-traumatic syndrome was. They hadn't been instructed in psychology or in counseling, and yet they came and gave what they had the most of, which was vitality and enthusiasm, idealism and love. On a practical level, that love meant I’m going to listen to your story even when I’m tired and I have five other things distracting me. Love means that when you're hurting, I’m strong enough to ask you what you're hurting about and will really listen to the answer. There's something that all of us could do to help out the life of someone.

Narrator: While Quaker representatives in Europe helped refugees secure immediate needs like visas and passage money, Iowa Quakers, with their modest resources, channeled efforts into long-reaching acts of human kindness, opening their homes to the war-torn Europeans whose harrowing escapes had led them to the united states. In addition to therapeutic social activities, the Scattergood staff provided health care, language classes, and job training, hoping to give refugees, or "guests" as they were called, a foundation on which to rebuild their lives.

Luick-Thrams: They wanted these tattered and tired people to feel that they were worthy of respect. Even if they learned fabulous English and they could work wonders with a hammer and saw, if the people had not found their own centers, if they'd not rediscovered themselves while at Scattergood, all the practical training in the world would not have made a big difference. When you're under that much attack, under that much stress, I think your soul goes on vacation. You have to vacate your life, your biography, your body, just to survive. At Scattergood hostel, people's souls, people's spirits could rejoin their bodies, the biographies. People could rest. Quakers intended this a place to be where people could regather themselves, and indeed that's what happened.

Narrator: Of the 23 children who passed through Scattergood, all but three became either teachers, psychologists, or social workers, each demonstrating a desire to share the goodness found on the Iowa prairie. For the young guests, Scattergood was an introduction to Midwestern treats like marshmallows and pony rides. But for fifteen-year-old Gunther Krauthamer, it was also a long-awaited return to serenity.

Krauthamer: After Hitler came to power, it was a frightening situation, really. I knew I wasn't going to -- I couldn't live in Germany, but you don't know where you're going to end up. So you have this -- this uncertainty because you don't know where you're going to go to school, you don't know where you're going to be when you grow up. You don't know what's going to happen. Everything is always temporary. You don't know what to expect. And you don't make any plans because there's no point in making plans because everything is too unpredictable. Scattergood made a huge impression on me, a very deep impression. And in retrospect, it sort of looms as a safe haven. I guess it would be the first one in my whole life that I had.

Narrator: While most of the hostel's original buildings are long gone, the ground still holds some of George’s fondest memories, like the tree under which the fifteen-year-old refugee spent Iowa’s hot summer nights and the echoing spirit of the Quakers who forever changed his life.

Krauthamer: Scattergood somehow has meant a great deal to me, and I can't put it into words, you know. But it must have because I’ve constantly thought about it wherever I go. Whatever it was, it was just a very unique and powerful experience for me. It changed my life.

Narrator: In the beginning Scattergood was created to counter the tragedies of racism, but ironically it was racism itself that brought the hostel to a close. In later years, as the war in Europe escalated, it became nearly impossible for European refugees to find safe passage to Scattergood. The Iowa Quakers then turned their attention to Japanese Americans who had been forced into relocation camps. However, the West Branch residents who had once embraced European refugees now vehemently refused to accept Japanese Americans into their town. Unable to fight the town's protests, the Quakers were forced to close the hostel, bringing Scattergood’s four-year path of light to a dark end.

Tags: history Iowa Quakers refugees West Branch World War II