Quaker Voluntary Service is part of a long history of Quaker action and witness in the world. We want to honor that legacy and help our young adults see and frame where they fit into this story.
In this first of our Quaker Service Testimonies video series, Brigitte Alexander shares how her life was transformed by the service and witness of Friends, who helped her Jewish family escape Germany after her father was murdered in prison by the Nazis.
Filming by Oskar Castro
Transcription by Erica Schoon
Brigitte Alexander Interview Transcript:
I’m Brigitte Alexander. I live at Crosslands, which is a Quaker retirement community. And I think Christina has asked me to tell you a little bit about my life and my family’s experience of immigrating to this country with the help of Quakers. So first I will tell you my family story, and then I’ll tell you about how the Quaker help facilitated our coming and what it has meant to me.
I was born in Lübeck, Germany on the Baltic in a family that had three older boys. Late in life, one of my brothers told me, “You were an unwanted baby. You were unexpected.” My mother had always told me she wanted four children, but not in my brothers’ view. That was a complete family with these three older boys for them.
My father was a newspaper editor in a social democratic newspaper, and he was a very active opponent of Hitler. This was the 1920s, early ’30s, that I’m talking about in time. When Hitler was elected to power in January of 1933, he quickly eliminated his active opponents. He imprisoned 25,000 people within the first six months, and my father was one of them.
By the summer of ’33, prisons had been set up for political prisoners, and my father was transferred from his hometown of Lübeck to one of these prisons for political prisoners. And in September of 1933, he was murdered within that prison. That left my mother with four children. Fortunately, we had enough money in Germany so that that was not an immediate issue. But my father’s last communication to my mother in some notes was, “Flee with anyone who bears our name.”
And in the 1920s, in one of their visits to Berlin from Lübeck, my parents had attended a Quaker meeting. Quakers in Berlin were a fairly new phenomenon. George Fox had been in Germany in the 17th century, and Quakers existed in Germany until about the 1880s or ’90s. But then they died out or were absorbed by other Quietist movements.
But after the First World War, American and British Quakers, especially American Quakers I think, did a very widespread and well-known feeding of German civilians, especially children. That Quaker feeding program was renowned, I think not only in Germany. But as part of that, Quaker meetings arose again in the major cities. And that’s the kind of meeting my parents attended in 1920 in Berlin.
Mother and I and one of my brothers moved to Berlin in 1933. My mother again looked up the Quakers, and in 1934 she joined the Berlin Meeting. After she got her passport back in ’35 or ’36, she became more determined than she had been even to emigrate. And she took a trip to America in 1937 to arrange for all of our coming over. And I think it was during that trip that she made contact with Hertha Kraus and the American Friends Service Committee. I think that was facilitated by the Quaker Center in Berlin under the care of the Berlin Meeting, but I think also had participation from British and American Friends.
In the ’30s—in the late ’30s especially—the Quaker Center in Berlin helped a lot of immigrants—I think 1,000 or 1,200, particularly people who were not affiliated with established religions. So that those who were active practicing Jews went to Jewish service agencies. Catholics might go to the Catholic help agencies. But there were people who fell through the cracks, and those the Quakers helped. And our family was one of them.
I can feel in my bones still the discomfort and unease of not knowing what I want to do in my life. I finished Oberlin as a history major. What do history majors do? I had to go job hunting in Boston without any awareness of what my skills were or what I wanted to do. And the jobs that came across my plate were anything from giving allergy shots at the Mass General in come way to doing research at the Museum of Fine Arts to working at Harvard Business School. I mean they were all over the map.
So the notion of recent college graduates having some time to figure out what direction they want to go is very familiar to me and very comfortable. And I think it’s great to support people in transition. And I think you’re facilitating people growing in Quaker experience that might enable them to become leaders because I do believe in leaders. I think somebody needs to demonstrate some organizing skills and some vision, articulating a vision. So I think your helping to develop Quaker leaders is a very useful function. So those two things just make it a win-win organization that I really like. You’re a thriving organization. There’s a need for you.
Interview December 2016