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A German Class Christmas Party in 1940, Schubert, and the Miro Quartet

75 years ago this week my mother, Joan, wrote about a German class party she attended at college.  She was almost 18 years old when she wrote about the fraught political undertones at this end-of-the-semester celebration for her class taught by Herr Jolles.  Her best friend, Betty, dislikes the Germans, but Joan hopes people don’t overreact against all things German in a kind of faux patriotism.  She praises Schubert, whose amazing string quartet you can hear part of as performed by the miraculous Miro Quartet who fortunately for me live in Austin.  First, Joan’s commentary, then…music!

[Written between Dec. 11 and Dec. 14, 1940 by a 17-year-old Joan]

…Went to German Christmas party last night—Santa Claus, a pretty tree…marzipan that I like, etc. Betty came too…They sang German Christmas carols, “Tannenbaum”…We joked about it sounding like a Bund meeting and Betty wanted to get up and shout, “We’re all Americans!” But we mustn’t even pretend to have that kind of patriotism. God, keep us wise and cool.

Joan at age 17 when she was keeping her diary.

Joan at age 17 when she was keeping her diary.

Then they sang—a male quartet — old songs in the faintly meaningful language (I can understand about one quarter)…and I leaned back dreamily…I like to hear their strong male voices—deep and proud—singing the good songs. Schubert—“Silent Night”…. The tree brings out the Nordic, the Scandinavian, in me and I think of my ancestors. Betty whispers, “What an ugly language it is!” The world’s spinning outside, the moon is gleaming on the white snow… In here we are separate…warm—out of the world. Someone opens a window and a chilly blast sweeps in…Herr Jolles sees me and nods, smiling…. He makes an announcement and it is only afterwards I learn he has said the punch is spilled. My German is none too good. But the almond paste cookies are. I eat a great many.

Betty says, “Let’s go”—we go—just as Santa Claus returns…with bells…. Someone stops me at the door and says, “Are you a high school girl?”

            I say with dignity, “A University woman.”

            Herr Jolles looks up laughing and recognizes me, “Oh, yes, indeed she is,” he corroborates. “But aren’t you going to stay?…. No?…Then Gute Nacht.”

            Young men like him…they are all killing..lots of them, all over…..

            Betty and I race over the cold, gleaming Midway…Our breathe curls in the air…The white clouds, like curly feathers, seem to be behind the moon….Orion is a fantastic diamond necklace in the sky….We dance in the dark at her house: the Conga. Do our Sociology: Hobbes, Locke. God, this is 1940 A.D. Good Night, World!

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