Thursday, June 16, 2011

Martha Gellhorn's First Encounters with the Nazis

Martha Gellhorn in Spain in the 1930's. JFK Memorial Library

Martha Gellhorn first knew she wanted to be a writer when she was a 16-year-old student at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri. Encouraged in her writing endeavors by two of her English teachers, she decided to send several of her poems to the celebrated poet Carl Sandburg. He wrote back saying, "If you must be a writer, you will be."

Her mother, a suffragette leader and social reformer, and her father, a medical doctor who at the time was one of the only whites in St. Louis to regularly invite black people to dinner with his family, had instilled a strong desire to learn in their three sons and their daughter. But after three years at Bryn Mawr College, Martha decided that her thirst for knowledge could not be satisfied in a college setting. She wanted to write novels in Europe and thought that journalism would be a way to make a living while doing what she loved . . .

In 1934, while living and writing in France, Martha was included as part of a special delegation of young French people invited to Berlin, Germany, to strengthen ties of friendship between France and Germany. After the train of young people arrived in Berlin, Martha and her friends were shocked when German border guards walked into their train car and confiscated their books and newspapers. They responded by singing the "Marseillaise," the rousing French national anthem.

The rest of the trip did little to change Martha's negative opinion of Nazi Germany. The Hitler Youth movement seemed too boisterously patriotic, and everyone seemed obsessed with race, especially the supposed superiority of the Aryans over all others, particularly the Jews. As Martha's parents were both half Jewish, she found this very disturbing . . .

Opening paragraphs of "Martha Gellhorn: War Correspondent" from Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

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