Jewish World Review May 16, 2007 / 28 Iyar, 5767
Search led to family, diary and a cause
By David Casstevens
An amazing true tale that has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster
OLLEGE STATION, Texas The treasure is stored inside a bank vault, locked in a safe-deposit box.
He brought it home for one day to show to a visitor.
"It gets more fragile every year," the man reminded himself, and gently lifted the object from its carrying case.
Robert Scott Kellner, 66, is a small, mannerly man with soft brown eyes and full head of graying hair.
He talks in a whispery voice, as if careful not to wake a baby.
One might assume this soft-spoken figure has tiptoed through life, trying to blend in, hoping not to be overheard or noticed. In truth, he has devoted his adult life to telling everyone who will listen about the significance and value of the heirloom he possesses. Sharing the message is his vocation, his calling.
Kellner believes with all his heart that the entries meticulously penned in old German script on page after page of accounting ledgers are historically illuminating and relevant today and belong not only to him and the Kellner family but to the world, to every one of us.
In his hands he held a sacred trust: the secret diary of Friedrich Kellner.
From 1939-45, his German grandfather risked imprisonment and possibly execution by writing about the political atmosphere in his beloved homeland during the reign of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
A midlevel government official and member of the Social Democratic Party, which Hitler banned after coming to power in 1933, Friedrich Kellner denounced the Fuhrer as a "peddler and fanatical rabble rouser" in his diary. He passionately challenged the falsehoods of Nazi propaganda and related eye-witness accounts of atrocities committed against Jews.
In the 860 pages, Kellner called for America and other democracies to stand together and fight against terrorist regimes.
Fearing a repeat of history, he urged future generations to combat the resurgence of mindless prejudice and totalitarianism.
A former Texas A&M English professor, Scott Kellner has spent more than 35 years translating Friedrich Kellner's legacy and fulfilling a promise.
The 10-volume diary, filled with hundreds of newspaper clippings, was displayed last year at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station.
A Toronto television company recently produced an hourlong documentary about Friedrich Kellner's journal and life.
The grandson is so committed to his mission that he wrote to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year after the Iranian president publicly stated that the Holocaust was a "myth" and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
In his letter, Scott Kellner asked to meet the Middle East leader so he could hand him a copy of the diary.
"I'm not foolish. I'm not an idealist," he said, as if to answer those who might label him as such. "I don't expect anything I say to Ahmadinejad would change his mind. But any ideology, such as Islamic fundamentalism, that doesn't have as its first value human life, and personal liberty for human beings, is an evil ideology.
"It sounds corny, I know. But the reality is we must confront him. I can do so with the diary. With the truth."
Gazing at its brittle pages, Kellner faintly smiled in private thought.
The handwritten words of his grandfather call up fond memories of the white-haired author, a man who was 75 when they first met.
Kellner also thought of his own father, a flawed and tragic figure.
And in his mind's eye he glimpsed the image of himself an orphan who never knew the gift of family love until, by a stroke of fortune, he found his grandparents, in a tiny German village. And so began a story of discovery that is as remarkable as the diary itself.
Fred Kellner deserted his family when son Scott was 10 months old.
At age 4, Scott and his older brother and sister went to live at a Jewish children's home in New Haven, Conn. They were left to that cheerless existence by their mother, who went off and became a carnival dancer.
He quit school after the ninth grade, and he joined the Navy at age 17.
Two years later, in 1960, the young sailor found himself in Frankfurt, Germany, en route to duty in Saudi Arabia. During a 48-hour layover, Kellner asked and was denied permission to leave the base so he could look for his German grandparents, on his father's side. Impetuous and strong-willed, he ignored orders and went AWOL.
Kellner didn't speak German. He began his search with only one clue: a scrap of paper on which was written "Laubach," the name of several German towns. Traveling by bus, he went to three villages, stopping strangers to ask whether they knew of a Friedrich and Paulina Kellner. In German, the family name means "waiter," so some mistook the American's inquiry and directed him to the nearest cafe. Kellner departed each town in frustration, wondering whether he might be leaving his relatives behind.
On the third day, Kellner sat in a train depot in Hungen. When a teenage girl greeted the U.S. serviceman with a flirtatious smile, Kellner introduced himself and asked for help. Ursula Cronburger spoke English. She lived in a small town 10 miles away called Laubach. Not only that, she told Scott that an elderly couple named Kellner lived in her neighborhood, and so they took a bus to the town. Uncertain that Scott Kellner and the couple were related, Cronburger and her parents went to the home of a reclusive man and his wife and told them that a young sailor from the U.S. was looking for his grandparents and wanted to meet them.
Dressed in his Navy whites, Kellner felt excited and apprehensive as he walked up a dirt road toward the cottage on that October day, with winter in the air.
He assumed that Friedrich Kellner, a former justice inspector, had been a Nazi during World War II.
That's what Scott's mother had called Fred Kellner her husband, the man who walked out on her and their three kids. "That Nazi (expletive)."
Fred Kellner grew up in Germany and became enamored with the Nazi ideology as a teen. In 1935, Friedrich and Paulina sent their wayward 19-year-old to America to save him from being drafted into Hitler's army. Fred became involved with the German-American Bund, a pre-war American Nazi movement, and was reported to the FBI for making anti-American statements. To demonstrate his allegiance to the U.S., he joined the Army and late in the war served in France as a guard and interpreter at a camp for German prisoners.
Scott's father never returned to America. After the war, he became involved in the European black market. In 1953, having failed as a parent and feeling like a man without a country, he turned on a gas stove and killed himself. He was 37.
Friedrich and Paulina grew despondent. They felt as if their own lives had ended with their son's suicide.
Now, amazingly, the child of Friedrich Kellner's only child stood at his door.
His presence was like sunlight filling the grief-darkened home of the elderly man and wife.
Any doubt that Scott had come to the wrong place vanished when he produced a photo of his young father.
The tears came for all three when Friedrich Kellner opened an album and showed his grandson the identical picture.
"I knew I had found them," Scott Kellner recalled, eyes shining as he retold the story.
His visit lasted four days. Within the first 30 minutes together, his grandfather went into the dining room and knelt before an ornate antique hutch. With the turn of a small key, he opened a compartment door. Reaching inside a secret place, he withdrew a thick sheaf of papers ledgers meticulously written in the old man's hand. Even in 1960, he kept the document hidden. Friedrich had penned two words on its cover: "Mein Widerstand." It means "My Opposition."
In a moment of dawning, the young American understood. This was a journal, his grandfather's diary, written at great peril during one of the most dangerous periods in history. Friedrich Kellner fixed his grandson with his gaze. He desperately wanted the young man to know that he had resisted and rejected the madness of Hitler's dictatorship.
"Ich war kein Nazi!" the grandfather said, his voice rising. "I was no Nazi!"
He emphasized "no" by making a slashing gesture with his flattened palm.
In the 1930s, Friedrich had spoken out in opposition to the rise of Nazi power. He defiantly held up a copy of "Mein Kampf" at rallies and ridiculed Hitler's autobiography and political ideology.
Friedrich would tell his son's son, "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." The wartime diary, he explained, was his gift to future generations, to be used as a weapon "against any resurgence of such evil."
For hours, the old man and his grandson sat at a table. Using dictionaries, they patiently conversed, translating word by word. Scott learned that after the war his grandfather was appointed deputy mayor in Laubach, where he helped to restore the Social Democratic Party. Friedrich told his grandson that one day he wanted him to take the diary to America, but first the grandfather was emphatic the young man needed to return to school. He must get all the education he could. He simply must.
When Kellner returned to the military base in Frankfurt after a week's absence, he was placed under guard but not severely punished for his insubordination.
"I would have willingly spent a year in jail," he said. "It was something I just had to do."
Eight years passed before Scott would see his grandparents again.
During the interim, he earned his GED and put himself through school at the University of Massachusetts, majoring in English and European history. He also studied the German language and later earned a Ph.D. He returned to Germany in 1968 and brought the diary home. Two years later, as promised, he took the first painstaking steps of transcribing his grandfather's old German handwriting into a more readable form and then translating that manuscript into English.
Needing help, he wrote to every major publishing company in the U.S. but received form-letter rejections.
"This is not like the Anne Frank diary," Kellner said. "My grandfather deliberately chose not to write about himself or his daily events what he had for breakfast that morning."
As Kellner read the entries, he longed for hungered for just that: some personal information about his grandfather.
Yet the more he read, the more his respect and admiration grew for the man's wisdom and foresight and for his abiding love of country.
Kellner continues trying to use the journal for good. He still hopes to get the document published in English and widely distributed before offering it to a prominent museum, possibly the soon-to-be-built Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
Passing along the gift that was given to him will be the last chapter in what is at its core a love story.
Kellner's grandfather was 83 and his grandmother 81 when he returned to Germany in 1968.
Two years before their death, they took their grandson to a singing festival in a majestic castle on the Rhine River. A German choir performed, as did singers from America. That evening, as the joyous music filled the ancient fortress in the town of Mainz, where the couple had lived before the war, Friedrich Kellner felt so moved that he began to sing along.
Some seated nearby shot him disapprovingly looks.
The man who was wounded as a soldier during World War I, this poet and artist who once scuffled with Nazi brownshirts, this eloquent, freedom-loving patriot blithely ignored those who told him to hush.
He would sing if he wished. And why not?
In German and with a smile, he told Scott seated next to him, "The entire world should be singing."
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes inspirational material. Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment by clicking here.
© 2007, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
© 2007, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services