From patriot to pariah in Nazi Germany: John Sloan’s journey from Hitler Youth to discovering his Jewish heritage
November 1, 2017
In 1935, John Sloan's name was Hans-Jürgen Schleimer.
He was 6 years old, growing up in Hamburg, Germany; "I thought Adolph Hitler was the greatest thing ever."
After a humbling end to World War I, Hitler had ushered in a period of growing affluence. There were new roads, new jobs, new-found pride. Sloan marched in the streets with other kids to honor the man who had resurrected Germany's national pride.
"I waved a flag with a swastika and sang the Horst Wessel song," Sloan said, speaking of the song written by a Nazi and soon to be the German national anthem.
Posters around town showed drawings of scary-looking men, with the caption "Beware the Jew!" Sloan didn't quite understand this, but "I understood enough to know that Jews were bad people."
Then he found out he was one.
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Not long after Sloan's mother developed appendicitis and died, he was told he could no longer salute The Fuehrer. Sloan was a "Mischling," someone of mixed race. His veins carried Jewish blood, a fact that had somehow trickled over from his father's native Poland. A fact that made him "impure." At 6 years old Sloan lost his mother, and his identity.
A decade before, his father had moved to Germany and converted to Christianity so he could marry Sloan's mother. Sloan, who now lives in Grass Valley, remembers his early life as happy — his father was a physician with a thriving practice, the family was comfortably affluent; they lived in a nice home and attended Lutheran services every Sunday.
And his country was on the rise.
But the edges of that privileged life began to fray. Once his father's Jewish ancestry was revealed, the medical practice dwindled. Some patients just disappeared; others came to tell him that, although he was a good doctor and they liked him, they could no longer see him because he was Jewish. He closed his office and began to practice out of the apartment they had moved to. He eventually stopped working as a physician.
"He brought us together and told us we were Jewish." Sloan said. "We were shocked — I had been marching for Hitler, against the Jews."
Soon Hitler would be imprisoning and then killing Jews in Germany's infamous concentration camps.
In 1939 Sloan's father decided that children didn't belong in this new version of Germany. He had heard of a school in England that helped Jewish children fleeing Germany — the Stoatly Rough School in Hazelmere, opened by Dr. Hilde Leon and the Quaker Germany Emergency Committee. Sloan and his sister Inge found relative safety there.
This move was made possible by their beloved nanny, Traute. After their mother's death, Traute moved in and became a nurturing, maternal presence. She later secured a position at the school as a cook, but insisted that Sloan and his sister be allowed to come with her, possibly saving their lives.
"We were 9 and 12 years old, moving to a strange place with a new language, but I was excited about taking a ship to England, about the new opportunities," Sloan said.
The staff at the facility were kind; they taught the children English while encouraging them to keep up their German language skills.
Sloan's father eventually escaped to Sweden with the help of friends; Germany was no longer safe for him.
He would send letters to the school in England: "I'm learning to be a bachelor. I cook and clean for myself, now."
And he sent them gifts — John remembers a hunting knife in a scabbard, which the school kept for him as he wasn't allowed to have it there. He also sent Sloan a violin.
Sloan and his sister were safer in England than they had been in Germany, but they hadn't entirely escaped the war.
"It was terrifying to hear air raids and bombs," mostly in London, 40 miles away, Sloan said.
During air raids, the schoolkids were herded to safety in the cellar. The teachers sang and read stories to make the time pass and distract the children until the "all clear" siren sounded.
After 5 years, Sloan's father made his way to Chicago, where he changed the family name to Sloan, wanting to leave behind his German and Jewish identity. He opened a new medical practice and sent for the kids, and for Traute, the nanny.
When their father told them he and Traute planned to marry, Sloan was happy, and unsurprised. Having been through so much with the family, Traute understood them as perhaps no one else could.
Sloan remembers Traute, whom he then called "Mutti" (a German term of endearment for mother) as a very gentle pacifist with a beautiful singing voice, something of a balance to his rather stern father.
"He was a very German family man — he was The Boss," Sloan said.
Unlike his father, Traute didn't believe in corporal punishment.
"Once she caught me in the bushes eating a can of sardines I had stolen," Sloan said. "She lectured me forever — I kept thinking 'I wish she'd just hit me.'"
At his new school in Chicago, Sloan was teased about his fluent but British-accented English,
"Especially by the girls," Sloan said. "I had to work to sound like an American."
He not only learned to speak "American," but went on to thrive academically and play his violin in the high school orchestra. After high school, he earned his Ph.D. in International Relations at Illinois State University, going on to teach for 30 years at San Francisco State University, where he eventually became an associate dean.
The violin from Sweden is still in John's hall closet, occasionally dusted off for performances with fellow residents at Atria in Grass Valley.
One of the songs he plays is a mournful rendition of "Abide with Me," a Lutheran hymn from the 1800s. The words are haunting: "When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the Helpless, oh abide with me."
One hopes these words comforted the helpless in long-ago Germany.