Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Walter Roberts: How I Got to the VOA -- "It Wasn't Simple..."

The story of Walter's path to the United States, and to a long career in public diplomacy, is both extraordinary -- a fortuitious daisy chain of small miracles and individual determination -- as well as the reflection of the hard choices millions faced under the shadow of Nazism at the outset of World War II.

"It Is a Little Bit of an Extended Story..." 

It is a little bit of an extended story – it wasn’t simple.  I was 21 years old when the Germans occupied Austria.  I came from a middle class family.   My father was editor-in-chief of an economic weekly and previously a university professor.  What was cataclysmic as far as I was concerned  -- and many of my friends and relatives -- was that the Nuremburg Laws...were extremely broad as far as Jewish origin is concerned.  My father had gone through a rather anti-Semitic era in Austria when he was at the university and one day decided to change religions.  When he married my mother, they were married in a Protestant church.  I was baptized when I was eight days old.  And so I lived my life going to church every Good Friday and assuming that I was not Jewish.  But before Austria was annexed, we all became aware of how these laws were applied in Germany, and for all intents and purposes I was a Jew.  On the day Hitler occupied Austria, I was prohibited from going to the university.  It was a Friday evening and my father didn’t go to work the next Monday. 

...The question was not how to get out of Austria.  The question was how to get into another country.  And all possibilities were basically closed.  My father, when Hitler came to Germany, was a rather prescient man.   So as early as when I entered high school, he sent me to England.  And then I took even two semesters in 1935 -36 in the law school in London and obviously made a good impression on one of the professors, a professor of Roman Law.  So when Hitler came to Austria, I wrote this professor whether he could help me get back into England.  He knew about a rather generous scholarship at Trinity College at Cambridge University.  He thought that I should apply for that and he would give his stamp of approval.  By God, I won the scholarship and was able to get a British visa, and therefore able to go to England.  

"So I Got a Telephone Book of New York, and Wrote Down a Hundred Names"

...The quota number for Austrians [to enter the United States] was very small.   The quota numbers were assigned on the basis of the census in the United States:  how many Austrians lived in the United States, how many Germans, how many Czechs and so on...The United States did not recognize the annexation of Austria, but in one respect it did.  It combined the German and the Austrian quotas, which was of great help to Austrians because the Germans had almost exhausted – I mean this was ’38, five years of Nazi regime, most of the people from Germany who wanted to go to the United States had gone by that time – so it was to the great advantage of Austrians.   The question was how to get into the United States to prove that you have enough means to live in the United States.  So somebody had to sign what was called an affidavit of support.   So I got a telephone book of New York, and I wrote down a hundred names, and wrote letters – about a hundred.  Ninety-seven did not reply.  Three of them replied and said they didn’t have enough means to support me.  But one of them said that he knows a dentist in his house who said he would like to sponsor anybody from overseas, from Germany or Austria.  And so he mentioned my name to him; he said “why not?” 

"It Was an Enormous Decision..."

So I was in England in my first year, going for a Ph.D.  Mind you, I was by that time twenty-three years old and had no degree.  I was denied a degree in Austria but Cambridge University regarded me as a postgraduate student and allowed me to go for my Ph.D.  In the spring of 1939, I got a message from the American Embassy in London that my quota number had been reached, and that my affidavit of support by [the New York dentist] is OK and I should go through a certain medical exam and come down to London and pick up my visa.  It was an enormous decision.  Do I go to the United States or do I sort of hitch my star to a British education and a British future?  I decided to go to the United States. 

...I had a girlfriend in Vienna, who had an uncle in Chicago, and she left for Chicago before I even went to England.  And we stayed in touch.  I arrived in the United States on the fifteenth of August of '39, two weeks before the outbreak of war in Europe.   We got married on the day of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which made it very clear that war would break out any day.  And indeed it did, on September 1, 1939.  So I had to make a decision.  Do I throw all of this away in England, and start anew here in the United States – or should I go back to England?  

There was a very, very unknown clause in the immigration law that allowed an immigrant to leave the country for one year, which could be extended to 18 months.  So I persuaded my new wife to go with me to England.  This was regarded by everybody in the United States whom I knew, American or foreigner who had just come to America, as the most idiotic thing you can do:  you travel in wartime from the United States to England.   But we went on an American ship, spent the next year in England, came back to the United States in June of 1940...John Harvard is a Cambridge graduate, so there is some sort of a relationship between Cambridge and Harvard, and Cambridge wrote to Harvard that they would like me to spend a third year of the PhD program at Harvard.  Which was granted.  But where was the money?  There were British Treasury regulations that did not allow Cambridge University, or rather Trinity College, to transfer my scholarship.  But the Dean of the Harvard Law School told me, one day,  I may have a job for you.  And there was a famous German-Austrian professor, with the name of [Hans] Kelsen, who wrote the Austrian constitution of 1919, who was aprofessor at Berkeley, and who came on a two-year assignment to Harvard.  And his English wasn’t very good.  And he and Harvard Law School obtained a Rockefeller fellowship; and I got that Rockefeller fellowship. 

"I Answered in the Affirmative..."

I finished the third year  -- almost –- but as I said in an article that I recently published, sometime between Pearl Harbor and Christmas, I met a professor at Harvard, a famous man, William Langer, German history, who asked me whether I knew German.  And I answered in the affirmative.  And he said:  Would you like to work for the United States government?  And I said certainly.  He said:  You will hear from us.  As I later learned, Langer immediately after Pearl Harbor signed up with the Coordinator of Information, in the intelligence area.  When I heard about it, I assumed I would be asked to join his department.  But that was not the case.  They wanted me to go to New York, where the foreign information service, which was part of the Coordinator of Information, was located.  And I was asked, in my first interview there, whether I could reconstruct the propaganda directive of the German Propaganda Ministry, Dr. Goebbels and company, as to what was being said every week to the German people, to rally them and to make them more interested in the war, be more pro-war.  I asked for certain documents that I needed, and they were supplied through the American Legation in Bern, Switzerland, like the internal broadcasts in Germany, and the main editorials of Nazi newspapers and so on.   And I reconstructed that.  And that seemed to have been satisfactory.  And I was hired.  This is how I got to the Voice of America.

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