Refugees I’ve Known: Prof. Thormann

Dr. Wolfgang E. Thormann died at the beginning of the year,
a long, admirable life of 92 years.

It had been a decade since I had seen him last, but his obituary in my Newsfeed was a strike to the chest.

At Goucher College, where I was a freshman in 1999, I declared a German minor. I had just returned from Rotary Youth Exchange in Bern, Switzerland, where I attended gymnasium, became fluent in High German, and forgot half of it again in my last three months when I decided to learn the Bernese dialect instead. I took the German placement exam, and tested into German 103, which I knew was probably a mistake, so I made an appointment with Goucher’s only German professor, Dr. Uta Larkey. I introduced myself, in German, of course, and started to tell my story. Forty-five minutes and lots of laughter later, she said, “I forbid you to take any class below the 300-level. You’re too good. You’ll scare away all my students.”

There was only one 300-level class, but with rotating topics, so I could take it over and over. Unfortunately, the college had told Uta she had to teach this class in English for the first time, because she couldn’t enroll enough German speakers at that level. Ironically, two other students had also returned from a year of youth exchange in Germany at the same time, so Uta set up an additional 1-credit independent study component where the three of us met with her to read and discuss all the same materials as the rest of the class … in German.

I took that class three times, and sometimes I call it my Holocaust Studies minor. In 1999, I took it as 20th Century German History. In 2000, I took it again as Berlin: Divided and United. Then I went to abroad to Germany, toured Dachau concentration camp, visited several Jewish museums and Holocaust memorials, and spent several weeks touring Dresden with my cousin’s future father-in-law, who lived through the the war, the destruction of that city in 1945, and the rise and fall of East Germany. Then I returned to Goucher and took German 301 again, this time cross-listed with the film studies department as The Holocaust In Literature and Film.

Every time I took that class, we would have a special guest, Herr Thormann. (Uta called him Wolf, but I was too intimidated.) He was professor emeritus by then, after lending his name to the campus international house where I lived freshman and senior years. And every year in German 301, he would say, “I never speak German. It brings up too many bad memories. I avoid it as much as possible. Except once a year for my darling Uta.”

She would always duck her head with the fond ‘here he goes again’ smile of an old, dear friend.

Herr Thormann’s story is extraordinary. Born in Germany in 1924, he was nine years old when Adolf Hitler came to power. His family joined the resistance, his father already a known anti-Nazi writer. Little Wolf and his brother would carry messages to other resisters, racing by bicycle all over town, to all appearances just a couple boys testing how fast they could go. But it quickly became too dangerous. In 1933 in the middle of the night (I imagine), his family packed up a few things and fled to Paris … where naturally they built new connections with French anti-fascists.

In 1940, when Germany invaded France, Wolf was sixteen. By then, he spoke French fluently, as if native born. Wolf, his younger brother and their parents became involved in the French resistance to the Nazi occupation. They did what they could for as long as they could, but eventually it was again too dangerous to stay. In 1942, the Thormann family fled to the United States, where Wolf became a citizen just a year later.

Now 19, Wolf Thormann was a master sergeant in the United States Army. Speaking German like a German and French like a Frenchman, Army Intelligence sent him back to Europe, behind enemy lines, to be their eyes and ears on the enemy.

As an undergraduate, I wanted to become a simultaneous interpreter – that disembodied voice translating into a diplomat’s earpiece at the United Nations General Assembly – and I even took some coursework in the subject while I was studying abroad in Germany and England, so the next part of Herr Thormann’s story is the part that resonated most deeply with me.

When the war was over, the Nuremberg Trials commenced, with the Allies as judges and prosecutors, and mainly Germans as defendants. Massive amounts of documents had to be translated into several languages (here’s an actual sample of Thormann’s work!), and electronic systems were deployed for the first time to allow for mass simultaneous interpretation – the first use of the disembodied voice in the earpiece. As I remember the story being told to me, the young master sergeant Wolf Thormann was put in charge of the project. I was in awe.

I know Prof. Thormann best, though, in the context of another war. It was the fall of 2002. The Taliban had fallen in Afghanistan, and a new bogey man had begun to gain attention: Saddam Hussein of Iraq. I don’t even remember how I got myself invited to Prof. Thormann’s reading group. My roommate and I were the only students in a weekly circle of professors: Uta, born and raised in East Germany; my French professor, Flo Martin, raised in Cold War Paris; Russian Prof. Olya Samilenko, born and raised in Soviet Moscow; another French language professor, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary; an American-born Spanish language professor. Prof. Thormann had asked each of his colleagues to read op eds from papers in their native languages (I read the Swiss paper Neue Zürcher Zeitung), and once a week we analyzed the global view of the pending invasion.

Once, we invited Flo’s Arabic professor from Johns Hopkins University to join us. Egyptian born and raised, he brought Egyptian editorials begging the United States to withdraw support from Arab despots and return the government to the people. My professors reminded each other of growing up in East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Russia with the same belief – that only America had the power to save them.

How disappointed they must have been, I thought, to find that America, too, only acts in her own best interest.

After we invaded Iraq, I never saw Dr. Thormann again, but the impressions he made on me still color my perceptions of the world.

What if he, as a German-born refugee in 1942, had been turned away from America’s shores, as so many were?


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