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A Promise To Keep

—Marietta Pritchard

Scott Kellner
Scott Kellner ’77G and his grandparents, Paulina and Friedrich Kellner, in Germany, in 1986.
IN A QUEST TO TRANSLATE and publish his grandfather’s wartime diaries, Scott Kellner ’77G found his own history

How do you pay tribute to your forebears? How repay a debt of gratitude for their trust, for their encouragement and inspiration? Scott Kellner put himself through college and graduate school, and raised funds for needy children. And most important, he translated his grandfather’s secret diary from wartime Germany, spending 37 years in the effort to get it properly displayed and published.

This year, after decades of struggle and reams of rejections from publishers, the diary of Friedrich Kellner was put on display in the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A & M University ( http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/ ), just eight minutes from Scott Kellner’s home in College Station. His story was the subject of a big spread in the Houston Chronicle and has been picked up by United Press, the Jerusalem Post, and the German magazine Der Spiegel, along with several newspapers in Germany. Scott Kellner is well on his way to completing a biography of his grandfather, and a documentary film is under consideration. (Holocaust Museum in Houston: http://www.hmh.org/ )

But there is more. As a result of the article in Der Spiegel, the Justus Liebig University in Giessen will publish the diary as a book in Germany. A museum in his grandparents’ hometown of Laubach will also hold a special ceremony honoring the couple and will create a permanent exhibit there.

Scott Kellner, a 1977 Ph.D. in English from UMass Amherst who became a professor at Texas A & M, had a rough start in life. His father committed suicide, and his mother consigned Scott and his two siblings to a cheerless life in a children’s home, then took off, as Scott puts it, “in search of fame and fortune” as a carnival dancer. The young man was a high school dropout, alone, and on a road to nowhere when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1958. In 1960, he was posted to Saudi Arabia, with a stop in Germany on the way. While in Germany he decided to see if he could find his father’s parents, about whom he knew almost nothing except for the name of the place where they lived.

Armed with a tattered photo of his father and a piece of paper on which was written the word Laubach—the name of several towns in Germany—the young sailor went AWOL. After several tries, he located Pauline and Friedrich Kellner. So began a very long journey, a growing relationship of trust and encouragement between two elders and their newfound grandson. So began, too, the grandson’s lifetime quest to live up to his grandparents’ expectations and fulfill his promises to them.

He describes the walk up a long hill in Laubach to a small house in the woods: “It was cold outside, and I felt cold inside, too, and wondered what warmth could possibly await in the house before me, a house owned by strangers I had never met who just happened to be my grandparents.” When he started his search, he writes, “I was prepared to forgive my grandfather for a myriad of imagined crimes, because what else does one do with a German grandparent who had been a justice inspector during the Nazi era? I quickly learned how wrong my assumptions had been when he showed me his diary and told me of his resistance to the terrorism of his time.”

The 19-year-old Scott spoke no German when he arrived on his grandparents’ doorstep, but he was warmly received by the astonished pair, both in their 70s. They were still grieving the suicide of their son, Scott’s father, whom they had sent to America for his protection before the war broke out. He had joined the U.S. Army, returned to Germany in 1946, and shortly thereafter committed suicide, evidently in despair at being in the country of his birth in the uniform of its enemy.

Over a number of years and return visits, Scott and his grandparents learned everything they could about one another. Friedrich Kellner had served in the German army and had been wounded in World War I. During the 1930s, he had been an activist in the Social Democratic Party in the city of Mainz, and a vocal opponent of the rising Nazi power. He had often stood up in rallies waving a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, shouting “Gutenberg, your press has been violated by this evil book,” for which he endured harassment and beatings from Nazi thugs.

When the Nazis took power, they banned Kellner’s Social Democrats, and the family moved from Mainz to the small town of Laubach. Here Kellner became chief justice inspector at the local courthouse, where he could observe firsthand the ways the Nazis were perverting his country’s laws. But after being threatened with internment in a concentration camp if he continued to speak out, he took his protest underground.

As the grandson came to know his Lutheran grandparents, he learned that they were capable of selfless bravery in helping a Jewish neighbor’s family escape from the country. He also came to know of the diary that his grandfather had kept hidden throughout the war.

The 10 notebooks, nearly 1,000 pages, had been kept in a secret chamber in the back of the dining room cabinet. It was not until 1968, when Scott was well on his way to completing his undergraduate degree at UMass Boston that his grandfather entrusted the treasured documents to him. From that moment forward, the diary became a sacred trust, a promise to keep.

On their first meeting, grandfather told grandson that he must learn German in order to read the diary, titled Mein Widerstand—“My Opposition.” Friedrich would someday hand the notebooks over, he said, in hopes that Scott would carry on his work of opposing tyranny and injustice. “I could not fight the Nazis in the present, as they had the power to still my voice, so I decided to fight them in the future,” said Friedrich. He hoped that his eyewitness account would give coming generations “a weapon against any resurgence of such evil.” 
It was a heavy charge, but a life-giving one. The grandparents became an anchor for this drifting young man, insisting that he take himself seriously for the first time in his life. They asked him to promise to get an education and to take charge of the diary. In addition they asked him to find a way to take care of children in need of the kind of help he himself had lacked. Scott Kellner took up these promises as a kind of holy vow, completing college and earning a doctorate, and eventually raising substantial amounts of money for the Christian Children’s Fund.

In 1969, he married Beverly Stein, whom he had met at UMass Boston. In 1970, he began his doctoral studies in English at UMass Amherst, studying with Harold McCarthy and Stanley Kaplan, among others, and writing a dissertation on Herman Melville. The university held a special meaning for him, he says. “Because I was a high school dropout and had been in the Navy, I saw that this was my lifeline to safety. And because I hadn’t spent my whole life in school, just walking across the campus was a thrill every single day.”

In 1973, Scott Kellner began translating parts of his grandfather’s diary, an arduous task, not only because he was still learning the language, but also because it was written in an old-fashioned gothic handwriting style, known as Sutterlin script. At various times over the years, he tried to engage others in the work of translation, but wound up doing most of it himself. He also approached dozens of publishers, foundations, and universities about translating and publishing the diary, but found that the publishers were uninterested and that the others wanted him to hand over the documents to put into their archives, with no promise of disseminating them. Kellner was not willing to let control of the diary pass out of his hands. So his recent successes in publicizing and displaying them have felt like a true triumph.

Unlike some other wartime diaries, the writings of Friedrich Kellner do not even peripherally concern themselves with his household’s day-to-day life. Rather, they provide a running commentary on the depredations of what he called “state-sponsored terrorism,” with the inclusion of photos and clippings from newspapers. And although the Kellner documents are private meditations, they have a very public tone. What the reader hears is the voice of a speaker at a political rally, exhorting his audience to rise up in opposition to a brutal regime—something Friedrich Kellner was no longer able to do.

For Friedrich Kellner, the diary was a way to preserve his inner dignity in the face of the unspeakable. For Scott Kellner, it has been a calling, a vocation, an obsession even, and a way to a kind of personal redemption.


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