One Man's Odyssey

September 15, 2009

Jackie Hartling Stolze

John Stoessinger's Flight from Hitler Leads to Grinnell


John Stoessinger posing for the cameras
John Stoessinger '50 first heard of Grinnell College from a young American serviceman whose shoes he was shining.

"He had said the magic word--America," Stoessinger remembers. "And I began to tremble."

"I went to a college called Grinnell College," Lt. Peter Dalameter told the boy. "You know, Gary Cooper went there."

Gary Cooper! That really set the shoeshine boy alight. "I'd heard of Gary Cooper!" Stoessinger remembers. "A movie with Gary Cooper had just been released in Shanghai. We'd seen it twice already.

"When I heard that, I really began to shake," he says.

The lieutenant with the polished shoes suggested then that Stoessinger, a Jewish teenager working for pennies in post-World War II Shanghai, should apply to Grinnell. And, he said, he would write a letter of recommendation.

"So I wrote a letter to this faraway place in that state called Iowa, which I'd never heard of," Stoessinger recalls. "That wonderful little school admitted me as a freshman student with a full scholarship.

"Only in America does this happen," he says. "Maybe only in Iowa."

When the Fuhrer Roared Into Town

But Stoessinger's amazing journey began long before this pivotal encounter. The Harvard scholar and former director of the U.N.'s political affairs division was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1927. He and his middle-class family lived a peaceful existence until Hitler intervened. "I stood there with my mom on the Ringstrasse in Vienna as the Fuhrer roared by in his Mercedes," Stoessinger says. "And my mom said, 'Well, it doesn't look so good--we better get out of here.'"

His father had died in Palestine, where he was trying to arrange a safe home for his family. So Stoessinger and his mother moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia, to live with her parents above their shoe store.

"Unfortunately, Hitler developed this curious passion to follow us around," Stoessinger says. "For the second time I saw the Fuhrer roaring into town."

His mother, Irene, had remarried, and her husband saw that Prague was no longer safe for Jews. "Oskar Stoessinger was a resolute man," says his adopted son. "He thought correctly that Hitler wanted to kill us all." But John's grandparents were too old to join the family's flight, and his mother was reluctant to leave them behind. Finally, Oskar convinced her to go.

But leaving Czechoslovakia was complicated for a Jewish family in wartime. "Nobody wanted us," Stoessinger says. "At last, we landed in front of the Chinese consul." The consul, a representative of the Nationalist Chinese government, granted them three entry visas to Shanghai, China.

"We didn't even know where Shanghai was," Stoessinger remembers. "It was unthinkable."

The long "schlep" to Shanghai required a trip across the Soviet Union and Japan. How were three Jews to obtain permission to enter and leave these countries? It seemed impossible, until word was passed in the Jewish community that there was hope. "A new Japanese consul had been appointed who was handing out visas like there was no tomorrow, to people like us!" Stoessinger says.

So he and his parents joined the queue, which snaked out into the street, and waited to speak with the Japanese consul. When finally they stood before the man, he asked if any of them could speak Japanese. Young John replied, "Hai, banzai!" which apparently means "Long live the emperor." That was enough. The consul--acting against the orders of his government--promptly handed them three entry and exit visas to Japan.

With the visas in hand, it was time to begin the harrowing journey. The worst part was what they had to leave behind.

"My grandparents came to the train station to tell us goodbye," Stoessinger remembers. The family had to defy several anti-Jewish laws just to get to the station. "It was a wrenching moment, because we knew we'd never see them again. And we didn't.

"My grandfather waved a flashlight in the night as we were leaving. I still see that flashlight in my dreams."

Stoessinger's grandparents died at Auschwitz.

The Long Schlep

"It was in many ways an eerie journey," Stoessinger recalls. The "express" train took a full three months to cross the Siberian plain. They saw the northern lights every night out their compartment windows. The family shared their compartment with the former Japanese cultural attaché to Berlin, Ryoichi Manabe. He was a decent fellow, Stoessinger says, who taught the boy chess.

"He let me win occasionally, so I liked the guy."

Manabe also made conversation with Stoessinger's mother. They talked about books, and passed the time pleasantly enough. Manabe, too, was headed for Shanghai. When they parted at the station, he handed Irene Stoessinger his card, and asked her to look him up if he could ever be of assistance. She thanked him and put it in her purse, with barely a second thought.

It was that card that would keep the family free for the next three years.

Three months after their arrival in Shanghai, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. After that, their escape route was closed. They had slipped through the net, just barely.

"We were very blessed, very lucky to get out," Stoessinger says.

So the family began their life in Shanghai. "We eked out a submarginal existence," Stoessinger says. His mother became a milliner, and his father a janitor. Stoessinger himself attended a good public school, where the headmaster beat his students regularly with a cane, and then taught them Shakespeare. It was, Stoessinger laughs, a very effective combination.

Then came the Japanese edict that all Jews must move to a Jewish ghetto. "Would you believe there was a Jewish ghetto in Shanghai?" Stoessinger asks. To live in the ghetto--a squalid awful place of disease and starvation--would mean the end of John's education and his parents' employment, and a long downward spiral, perhaps ending with death.

"My mom, who was a brave lady, remembered Dr. Manabe," Stoessinger says. She went to visit the now-Japanese consul in Shanghai, and he not only remembered the family, he granted them a one-year permit to live outside the ghetto.

"My mom pulled off this stunt twice more," Stoessinger says. The family never had to move to the ghetto.

And then came the end of the war, and the Americans came to liberate the city. "These Americans, who looked to us larger than life, like somehow mythical demigods from a Greek legend," Stoessinger recalls. "They were distributing delicacies like Spam and chocolate.

"They were nice--they smiled at us with those brilliant white teeth." Like all the other teenagers in Shanghai, Stoessinger wanted nothing more than to rub shoulders with the Americans.

"How do you meet a demigod?" he asks. "You shine shoes."

What Sort of Planet is This?

To reach the United States and Grinnell College, Stoessinger signed on as a deckhand on the General Gordon, a troop ship taking American servicemen home. As he said goodbye to his mother and stepfather, he told them, "I am going to America."

When the General Gordon entered San Francisco Bay in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, Stoessinger felt he had reached paradise. "When I got off that ship, my knees gave way and I fell to the ground and kissed the American soil," he says.

"I never got over that, as you can tell."

He traveled to Grinnell by Greyhound bus, and turned up for his first class--taught by Joe Wall '41--in his best suit and tie. He was astonished to see not only casually dressed students, but also an enormous football player in the back of the room, wearing all his equipment and with a football by his side. When Professor Wall (an instructor in those days) walked in, the behemoth said, "Hey Prof, how ya' doin' this morning?"

Stoessinger was shocked. "God in heaven, where have I landed?" he asked himself. "What sort of planet is this?" He expected a purge to sweep them all away any minute. The next day, the football player was back, and again greeted Professor Wall with cheerful nonchalance.

Slowly it began to dawn on Stoessinger that he was free of the constraints that had bound him through his entire life to date. "I'm free now," he thought. "I can say what I want."

But there were still more lessons to learn. In a course taught by Joseph Dunner, a professor of political science, Stoessinger was stunned to see he had received a B grade on an exam. He had carefully regurgitated what he had read and heard in class--what had gone wrong? When he asked Dunner about the grade, the professor replied, "Where were you in this exam?"

And so Stoessinger began to learn what it meant to study the liberal arts in a free society.

The new Grinnellian had no specific ambition. "I had no idea what I wanted to do, except to do well." He was so under Dunner's spell that he chose political science as his major.

"I did it to please him," Stoessinger admits. "I would have done anything for him. Later, I began to love the field."

Wall, too, was a great influence, as was Professor of Philosophy and Religion Neal Klausner. "He made me love philosophy," Stoessinger says. Klausner also gave Stoessinger a crucial opportunity. One day Klausner was ill and asked Stoessinger to lead the class. Stoessinger was thrilled when his classmates responded positively, and that early experience pointed him toward an eventual career in academe.

"Grinnell College gave me a lot. ... I met my first love there, whom I will never forget as long as I live," Stoessinger says. He believes strongly in the liberal arts, and he emphasizes that in the courses he teaches today as a professor of political science at the University of San Diego.

"I loved it at Grinnell College, Iowa," he says.

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1950, earning a degree, with honors, in political science.

After Grinnell, Stoessinger merited a scholarship at Harvard, where as a graduate student he studied international relations with classmates Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. He earned a master's degree and a doctorate from Harvard, in 1952 and 1953, respectively. Peter Dalameter, the Grinnell alumnus who had given a break to a shoeshine boy who spoke good English, was there to see him receive his Ph.D.

"I shined his shoes one last time in gratitude," Stoessinger says.

Is This Heaven?

The man who escaped four dictators (Hitler--twice, Stalin, Tojo, and Mao Tse-tung) brings a special insight to his teaching in history, political science, and international affairs. His academic career has included stints at Harvard, M.I.T., Princeton, Hunter College, Columbia, Trinity University, and the University of San Diego, where he teaches today.

He served the United Nations as director of the Peace Corps Training Program in World Affairs, and later as the director of the political affairs division, a job he held from 1967-74, the depths of the Vietnam War. He is the author of nine books, including Why Nations go to War, a ubiquitous text in political science courses across the country.

Stoessinger travels the world to deliver lectures to groups of all sorts--corporate, academic, political, etc. In 1995 he traveled to Kobe, Japan, for a speaking engagement, and with the help of a Japanese journalist, he was able to reconnect with Ryoichi Manabe, the Japanese diplomat who had saved his family from the ghetto. They exchanged letters, and Stoessinger later traveled to Japan again, this time to thank him in person.

Manabe, Dalameter, and the Chinese consul who granted the visas--these people helped make John Stoessinger a believer in the good that dwells in mankind. "Even in the abyss of evil ... there will be good men and women," he says. "I do believe that."

As he sits in his home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Stoessinger reflects on his life and his survival--despite the despots, the dictators, and the evil they fostered. "Hitler has been dead for 50 years, and here I am, talking to you now," he says. "I feel very fortunate."

And he still holds a special regard for Iowa, the state that is home to that wonderful little school, the college where Gary Cooper '26 went. "There's something about Iowa," he muses. One of his favorite movies isField of Dreams. An oft-quoted line from the movie asks, "Is this heaven?" In the film, the answer is, "No, it's Iowa."

John Stoessinger might answer, simply, "Yes, it's heaven."


Originally published as an online web form for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2008

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