In the summer of 1938, a group of young Quakers in Iowa wrote a letter to the American Friends Service Committee, volunteering to host refugees from Nazi Germany at their summer camp. By the time Clarence Pickett, the AFSC’s executive secretary, responded to the letter, the situation had gotten even worse, and he asked the Iowan Friends if they could take refugees year round. That led to the launch of Scattergood Hostel, the largest grassroots relief effort in the United States in response to the Holocaust.
“It was a perfect wedding of an existing desire to help and then the need for help,” reflects Michael Luick-Thrams, a Quaker historian who has written about Scattergood. “It happened to be the Quakers, it happened to be in Iowa, and it needs to be told and preserved.”
Recently, Michael followed the example of the Scattergood Friends when refugees from war-torn Ukraine began to arrive in his German community. At Friends Journal, you can learn how he and his neighbors came together to establish a new Scattergood Center in the town of Bad Langensalza: “I just said to people, ‘Hey, can you come and help?’ And people did and then they’d call their friends. It doesn’t usually work like that here and so I think they’re sort of inspired.”
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It’s not so much that I choose to do the story of Scattergood; the story of Scattergood chose me, and so even though I’ve been insistent and forceful, often irritating, I’ve insisted that Friends listen to this. This is one of our greatest collective legacies, is what were we doing at a time of danger and peril and the rising clouds of war: what were we doing at a grassroots level? This is America’s largest grassroots response to the Holocaust. More than any Jewish grassroots attempts, more than anybody else. It happened to be the Quakers, it happened to be in Iowa, and it needs to be told and preserved. If we don’t act decisively, there’s the risk it will just disappear and go lost.
Scattergood Hostel: A Quaker Response to the Holocaust
I’m Michael Luick-Thrams. I live in Thuringia, Germany, where I’m a professor of social history at the Universität Erfurt. I’m still a member of the Des Moines Valley Friends Meeting and I attend virtually, which is great given the distance and COVID.
The Beginnings of Scattergood Hostel
Scattergood Hostel was only part of my larger research as a doctoral student at Humboldt Universität in Berlin in the 90s, and I met 40 refugees and staff from Scattergood, and I interviewed these people. They gave me their ships passage tickets, they gave me children’s toys that the little girl had carried from Paris to Marseille when they fled the advancing German troops. They gave me diaries, letters, hundreds of photographs. So it didn’t take long until soon I had this treasure trove, and the apex of all that were the interviews. These people were so kind and thorough in wanting to preserve their part of this history. They all saw that this was a bigger thing, and they wanted that this legacy be told and preserved, and that’s really my obligation still.
The way that Scattergood Hostel was created itself is sort of a miracle. Young Iowa Quakers met in Clear Lake, Iowa in the summer of 1938– I happen to come from Clear Lake Iowa. I also spent my youth summer camps, church camps, at that same camp (so did my mother in the 30s and 40s)– so it’s ironic that these young Quakers gathered in my hometown in 1938 and said the situation in Nazi Germany is insufferable. The Jews are being abused, they’re being threatened, they probably imagined some were being killed. There were others, non-Jews, who were also in bad shape. And so the Iowa young Quakers wrote to the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) and said, “you know, we could imagine bringing some of these refugees to Iowa in the summer and doing projects. We could use the closed school at Scattergood.” Ironically, the letter arrived at Clarence Pickett’s desk here in Philadelphia at the AFSC just as he was going on this fact-finding delegation to Nazi Germany in 1938. And what’s very odd is Clarence Pickett’s wife Lily, by coincidence, only arrived in Germany four days before Hitler met with Chamberlin and [DAH-TE-AYE???], and the Germans marched into the Sudetenland and annexed part of Czechoslovakia.
Anyway, Clarence Pickett returns, he writes a report. They were there September-October of ’38, they get off the ship here, he hands his report in to the AFSC proper, a confidential report, and the report is filed, stamped, and dated November 8th. On November 9th, the next day, was Kristallnacht. So Clarance Pickett has just gotten this letter from these Iowa Quakers and he’s just returned himself, and he’s seen– he’s interviewed Jews who are desperate to get out of the Nazi morass, and then he returns to Philadelphia and he gets reports that synagogues are going up in flames. So he grabs the young Iowa Quaker’s offer and he says great! But we’re not just going to send people to you in the summer; we’re going to send them to you year round.
Friends Come Together in Response
For the first time, the Iowa Quakers, so what we call the unprogrammed or FUM Quakers–in those days were called progressives, and the conservatives were the conservatives– those two branches that had split in the 1870s or so over theology (you know, the whole Wilburite Hicksite thing), they came together 50 years later to take over this abandoned school and make it a hostel, and when the Deutsch family from Vienna came, this signaled a whole new episode of the hostel’s history, that there’d be these business people, professionals, educators– none of whom could really practice their area back in Nazi Germany– they left with what they had, came to the far reaches of this country, and hoped to find a new life, and that’s what Scattergood really did help them do.
Looking at Scattergood Hostel for Inspiration Today
Our weary world is in dire need for some inspiration and for some role models and templates, and when you think of these Iowa Quaker kids, these young Iowa Quakers in 1938, they came up with the idea to bring these refugees to Iowa, it’s the most improbable ridiculous idea there is. But when Germany took over the Sudetenland and only a couple of months later they were burning the synagogues, you had to do something. And that’s when the AFSC, which had the structure and some of the means, coupled with these young idealistic Quakers out on the prairie. It was a perfect wedding of an existing desire to help and then the need for help.
The other thing that was really great– I mean we have all kind of social welfare projects and we have social activist projects but that these people were untrained and yet they gave them what they had, and that was enough, and by actually having– it was largely 30 refugees at any given time to a ratio of 15 American staff, and so the acculturation process was really facilitated and sped up by this contact of daily life together, and certainly that could be a model for today. That those who care and are able could literally live with those who need a new life. It worked without any big training or any big government investments, they worked on a shoestring and they made it happen. In the most improbable way, but it worked.
- How can the larger Quaker community work together today in response to major world issues and events?
- What can individual meetings and communities do in response to major events, like an influx of refugees?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.