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Nov.5, 2008

Vol. 109, No. 4

Web Exclusives

After Kristallnacht

Ernest Stock ’49

Posted on November 5, 2008

The GI Bill of Rights, with its subsidized tuition and living grants, famously brought a new type of student to the campus: older, more mature, sobered by the war experience. I was one of them. I could even lay claim to being the most un-Princetonian exemplar of the new type, by prevailing standards. There was no Exeter or Andover Academy in my record, not even the Bronx High School of Science. My diploma was from New York’s Washington Irving Evening High School, which in all likelihood had never sent a graduate to Princeton before. The diploma was based in part on credits I submitted from the Gymnasium I had attended in Germany, until it fell victim to the Kristallnacht in November 1938, along with the other institutions of the Frankfurt Jewish community. Some of my teachers ended up in the Buchenwald concentration camp, as did my father.

I also presented course credits from New York’s City College (evening session) that I had earned before being drafted in 1943 and that added up to the equivalent of the freshman year. The evening part was born of necessity: After I arrived in the United States from Europe in July 1940, I promptly looked for a job to help my mother with the finances. To ensure that my education was not neglected, New York state law obliged me to attend Continuation School once a week. This was surely the furthest antithesis of a college preparatory course. Together with a rather rough bunch of school leavers, I was taught a single subject every week: how to wire an electric bell. It was the only time that I actually hated school, nor did I show any aptitude for the drill. And I never wired another bell.

The admission procedure, too, was a bit unconventional in my case. I had been shipped back from Europe at the end of the war and was waiting at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to be discharged. While there, I happened to read in the Stars & Stripes that the Army was administering its own college entrance exam. I took the test, which lasted an entire day, and my score was high enough to get me admitted to Princeton. Then the Army released me in time to start the spring semester of 1946 as a sophomore.

I shall always be grateful to the anonymous official who decided to admit me on the basis of the Army-administered test, and to the Congress that passed the G.I. Bill of Rights, without which I would never have applied, but would have gone back to New York and City College. Instead, I had the awakening charm of the Princeton campus in early spring waiting for me when I got off the dinky. The two and a half years that lay ahead turned out to be among the happiest and most meaningful in my life. And I like to think that my arrival signified not just a sharp turn in my own development, but was part of the postwar shift in admissions that would leave the University more open to the world and to wider strata of students.

The mood on campus that spring semester was quiescent and soothing, as though the war had been little more than an unpleasant interlude. There was scant interest among the student body in discussing its aftermath; I recall a branch of the Movement for World Federalism as the one activist group. I found myself gliding willingly into this state of mind and saw no need to make an issue of my own background and experience. Devoting myself to full-time study for the first time since I left Germany at age 14, I threw myself with enthusiasm into the course work and reading – most of all where the content was, to me at least, esoteric. In “American Colonial History,” taught by the fiery Thomas Wertenbaker, I learned about “God’s Controversy with New England,” and in his course on “Northern Renaissance Art” the gentle Robert Friend demonstrated convincingly how medieval church philosophy inspired familiar masterpieces.

If there was one thing that really disturbed me it was compulsory chapel attendance, still in force in 1946. Though billed as nonsectarian, the service was, of course, Christian, and I felt out of place in it. I shared my feelings with the Rev. Burt McLean, the associate dean of the chapel, and found him to be sympathetic and willing to help. He offered a room in Murray-Dodge Hall for Friday night Jewish services and suggested that a student group be formed as the sponsor. Soon after, I called a meeting of Jewish students for that purpose. Their names were readily available from the registrar, since the application forms at the time asked for religious affiliation. There were about 140 Jewish students enrolled, not counting some who entered “no religion” on the form. Among those at the meeting a number objected to the proposal to found a Student Hebrew Association, but when it came to the vote, the ayes had it. I was puzzled by the opposition, and attributed it to the reluctance of some secular Jews to belong to a religious framework. I was asked to chair the new group.

There remained the question of who would conduct the services. We contacted the Hillel office in New York for help, and they offered to make a rabbi available on a weekly basis. The arrangement evolved into the Princeton Hillel Foundation when Dr. Irving Levey was assigned to the campus on a full-time basis in the fall of 1948. Meanwhile, I asked Professor Albert Einstein to be guest speaker at an early meeting of the SHA, and he agreed. When I came to pick him up at his home at 112 Mercer St., I found him in informal attire, an old roll-collar sweater and slippers. I waited respectfully for him to change, but his housekeeper said he was ready. Taking his cue from what I had told him about our group, he spoke about the importance of being part of the Jewish community. When a student later asked him whether he believed in God, his reply was (if I remember correctly), “I believe in the logical simplicity of the universe.”

I did not plan it that way, but it turned out that Princeton played a part in furthering my education as an American Jew.

When I first arrived on campus, I didn’t know anybody and was assigned a room by lottery. My new roommate, also a war veteran, and I got along well enough, but at the end of the spring semester he announced that he would be moving out. “My father wouldn’t let me room with a Jew” was his somewhat embarrassed explanation.

Although somewhat shaken, I took it philosophically. I knew that my roommate was no anti-semite himself, and I tried to understand the environment he grew up in. His father had, in all likelihood, sent him to Old Nassau not least for the social connections, and a German Jewish refugee boy was not a great catch.

Also, I had come up against a virulent type of anti-semitism in the Army, which made the Princeton variety seem genteel. During infantry basic training in Georgia, my buddy in the bunk next to me informed the platoon one evening that he would “rather kill a Jew than a Jap any day.” This was after we spent the day running our bayonets through man-sized dolls in the shape of Japanese soldiers. “I don't agree with Hitler except for one thing,” another barrack-mate chimed in, “and that’s the way he took care of the Jews.”

Back at Princeton, the world (as I already made clear) did not come to an end. There were too many interesting things happening, curricular and extra-curricular. A friend who lived in the same dorm entry advised me to find a Jewish roommate next semester. He also guided me through the travails of the bicker process and into his club (Prospect), where I met some of the finest fellows on campus. With some a genuine friendship developed, which encouraged them to ask me some searching questions they had never dared ask before. “Why don’t you Jews like to drink?” was one, to which I had no plausible answer. To another question which bothered them, “Why are so many Jewish students ‘grinds’?” I could draw on my own experience to help solve the conundrum: “They work harder because it’s harder for them to find work.” When I first arrived in the United States in 1940 and started looking for a job, I found that most employers wouldn’t take Jews. Employment agencies said I needn’t even apply, until one found an opening for me as a typist at the New York office of MGM. (That was before discrimination on religious or racial grounds was made illegal; after that, the picture changed dramatically for the better.)

I tried out for the Prince, was accepted, and in due course elected co-managing editor. Putting the paper to bed at the old Princeton Herald press became a cherished part of the daily (or nightly) routine and steered me in the direction of journalism as a career. I also considered college teaching at one time; my German literature professor offered to recommend me to graduate school. But I told him that, even though German lyric poetry still stirred me as no other, I could not see myself devoting a lifetime to professing that culture. I believe he understood.

In the end I chose SPIA (now the Woodrow Wilson School) as a major. It was the period the Palestine problem was before the U.N., and some of it was being re-enacted at our Conference on the Near East. I was a passionate advocate of partition (now the two-state solution), but I also learned to understand the Arab point of view.

The domestic policy conference that year dealt with the House Un-American Activities Committee under Rep. J. Parnell Thomas, which practiced an early version of McCarthyite tactics on Capitol Hill. Perhaps it all came together when, while in charge of Brandeis’ overseas study program in Jerusalem in the 1960s, I wrote a book on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and also, together with a few colleagues, founded the Israel Association for Civil Rights.

I was admitted to the creative-writing seminar given by the noted critic and essayist, Richard Blackmur, to whom I submitted fiction based on real-life experience (some of it was published in the Nassau Lit). For the weekly plenary meetings, the seminar read Joyce’s Ulysses, and in the private sessions to discuss my work, Blackmur would address me, with an enigmatic smile, as “Leopold Bloom.” That of course was the hero (or anti-hero) of the novel, and perhaps I should have been flattered. But instead I felt embarrassed. When Blackmur talked in class about Bloom’s character and his meanderings through Dublin, and especially about his Jewishness, I found myself blushing. I was sure that everybody in the room was looking at me. There were other Jews present, including senior faculty members, who listened raptly to Blackmur’s exegeses, but I fidgeted in my chair and wished I were somewhere else.

I had been confident that I had left the trauma of Kristallnacht behind, but somewhere, deep down, a scar remained.

Ernest Stock ’49 was among the first recipients of a Ford Foundation Near East Area training fellowship and received a doctorate in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia. He was in charge of Brandeis University’s undergraduate program in Jerusalem and later served as executive director of the European Council of Jewish Communities, based in Paris. He now lives in retirement in Tel Aviv.

Post Comments
4 Responses to After Kristallnacht

Varda Yoran Says:

2008-11-06 10:14:33

Princeton, alumni like this one do you proud. This man is a doer, and a true success story.

Hassida Socolovsky Says:

2008-11-07 11:03:47

Mr. Stock's courage and spirit make me proud to be Jewish.

Edna Peled Says:

2008-11-07 18:31:40

After surviving the German Nazi holocaust, Dr.Stock was able to reach the top of his career. His ability is undisputable and being an Israeli he became a pride of Israel.

Richard Wenner Says:

2009-04-12 19:22:13

I was a student of Ernest Stock while attending Brandeis University's six month Satellite Program in Jerusalem in 1974. He directed a brilliant program which substantially and meaningfully enhanced the lives and futures of 44 young American and Canadian students who were privileged to attend. Dr. Stock epitomizes all that is best about America. As a 14 year old boy, he engineered, against all odds, he and his sister's escape from Nazi Germany. He arrived with virtually nothing except the clothes on his back and a laser-like focus to succeed. He learned to speak english without an accent. (As his student I initially had no idea that he was from Germany). America provided him with opportunity. In response he joined the Army, went to university and profoundly improved all those with whom he associated. His attendance at Princeton enhanced the lives not only of your student body but the student bodies of those multitude of students whom he taught over the years.
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