I was in high school when I found the letters—hundreds of them, in an antique steamer trunk in the attic of my family’s house in Midtown. Made by the Gorman Company of Baltimore, the trunk was black, with leather trimming and brass latches, and a crack that ran the length of one side. Scrawled on a shipping label were the words “Departure Port: Bremen, Arrival Port: Savannah, US America.” The trunk had been there in 1985 when my family moved in. Someday, my parents told themselves, they’d haul it downstairs and have a look. But between careers and kids, there was never the time. Then, one summer afternoon, as my brother and I were rummaging around for old baseball cards, we pried it open.
Inside were cream-colored envelopes neatly organized in rows, along with a pile of postcards from cities across Europe. There were stacks of Confederate bills, all 100s and 50s from 1863, wrapped in pink paper; reams of yellowing sheet music for cello and piano; and a series of charcoal drawings—a woman sitting in a field, a boy in a sailor’s suit, the scene of a ship at sea. And there was a passport, a Reisepass, with a sepia-toned photo of a middle-aged woman. Eyes: Blue, Hair: Blonde, Job: Wife.
Her name was Marguerite Kratina. She wore a pained expression and a dress that—I learned from her letters—she’d gotten as a birthday gift the year before.
Marguerite addressed most of the letters to her parents in Augusta—though not from the house in Atlanta. She was in the eastern German city of Dresden, where she lived during the 1920s and ’30s with her husband, Rudolf, and their young son. She wrote to her parents weekly, without fail, painting a detailed picture of daily life at a pivotal moment in history. And I was mesmerized. The letters were like a portal to the past, and to a place that no longer exists, at least not as it was.
I soon learned that Rudolf, a celebrated cellist from a long line of great musicians, had a lifetime position with the Staatskapelle Dresden, one of the world’s oldest and most highly regarded orchestras. And that Marguerite, fluent in French and German and Southern civility, was the daughter of a veteran of the foreign service, which had afforded them a foothold in the small, refined world of Dresden’s diplomatic colony.
She was also a racist, whose resentment toward Jews grew during her time in Germany. Indeed, as the Nazis ascended to power, Marguerite’s letters became increasingly anti-Semitic, with references to stereotypes of Jews as untrustworthy and as parasites who had grown wealthy at the expense of “the real Germans.”
On April 1, 1933, the new Nazi regime launched its first official act against the country’s Jewish population: a nationwide boycott of Jewish-owned businesses and professionals. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, had sought to frame the move as a retaliatory measure—a reprisal against Jews in Germany and abroad for spreading “atrocity stories” through the international press. In a letter she wrote the next day, Marguerite repeated that line, almost verbatim:
Another thing which is worrying us all sick here is the propaganda in America, evidently started by communist elements backed by the Jews. The result of all this world-lying was the boycott yesterday of all Jewish shops etc, and it was the most orderly reprisal one could imagine, for no one was molested, and the crowds of curious, which jammed the streets all day, were good-natured, as were the Nazi Sturmtruppen-men . . . It was all done so well, so swiftly and with such exemplary discipline, that everyone was impressed, and felt it must be for a good cause, as it really was.
She marveled at the Nazis’ “brilliant uniforms” and “handsome private cars,” and the “wonderful spirit” with which they paraded through the streets, singing and marching. In speeches she found “inspiring,” Hitler had promised to restore Germany’s honor, and Marguerite was sure he would. Through the radio she could feel “the strength of his personality,” and when the crowds cheered him or sang the national anthem, “it was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.” As I kept reading, I came to see how one big lie had primed Marguerite for another, and how her bigotry had blinded her to the tyranny taking root before her eyes.
• • •
A native of Augusta, Marguerite was descended from a prominent family of cotton merchants who had made their fortune on the backs of enslaved people. Her great-grandfather was Marcellus Augustus Stovall, a brigadier general in the Confederate Army for whom a street in Atlanta is still named. Her mother—Stovall’s granddaughter—was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization of Southern white women that played a key role in cementing a white-supremacist nostalgia for the Old South in the national memory.
Born in 1890, Marguerite came of age at what the historian Rayford W. Logan dubbed the “nadir” of American race relations: the period after Reconstruction that saw widespread violence aimed at terrorizing Black people and restoring white supremacy across the South. Marguerite was, as she put it in one letter, “unreconstructed,” and she clung tightly to the mythology of the Lost Cause—the revisionist narrative of the Civil War that held that the Confederate states fought on the side of righteousness, and that slavery was a benevolent, even civilizing institution.
When a Black American academic studying in Berlin, a “‘Mr.’ McMillen of Charleston,” gave a talk in Dresden on “the negro of today in America,” it made her ill, Marguerite told her mother, “to see how some pretty German girls from good families curtsied when introduced to him.” Part of his address was “in rather decent German,” she allowed, “and almost without notes,” but he’d led the “uninformed Germans” to believe that “all slaves were beaten, maltreated, tortured” and that the Northerners “were the noblest product of American civilization.”
Coming from the Jim Crow South, Marguerite arrived in Dresden in 1925 possessed of a worldview not unlike that of the Nazis then just emerging as a political force. She regarded white supremacy as an organizing principle with the logical necessity of confining “lesser peoples” to their place, and didn’t let her Catholic faith get in the way. “Maybe it is un-Christian not to let the negroes vote in the South and for people not to want them in high positions where they would command the whites,” she mused in a letter to her mother. “But the fact remains that self-protection makes it necessary and that is a problem which no European can understand or is just in judging.” By the same token, she added, “Americans should try to be fair in judging Germany’s big racial problem today.”
The likeness between these “problems” was not lost on the Nazis. As they developed a legal framework to racialize citizenship, the Nazis looked to the global leader in race-based lawmaking: the United States. In his 2017 book, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, Yale legal scholar James Q. Whitman shows how American racism informed the design of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935—the anti-Jewish legislation that stripped Germany’s Jews of their citizenship and forbade marriage or sexual relations between Jews and non-Jewish Germans. Whitman notes that Hitler himself took a serious interest in the U.S.’s racist legislation, praising the country in Mein Kampf as “the one state” that had made progress toward the creation of what he regarded a healthy racist order.
Marguerite met Rudolf in Paris in 1919. They had been introduced by her father, a lawyer named Charles Pressly, who had been appointed vice consul to France by President Woodrow Wilson, a friend of the family during his time in Augusta. In March of the previous year, Marguerite and Charles had taken cover as the Germans shelled the city with their long-range guns, and took turns attending to Marguerite’s mother, then in the hospital with pneumonia. Now, Marguerite was engaged to a veteran of the Imperial German Army, and one below her social station—an entertainer, no matter how distinguished. Though her mother at first disapproved of the match, she and Rudi married, moved to Dresden, and had a baby boy named Friedrich.
When not performing at the Semperoper, Dresden’s grand 19th-century opera house, Rudi taught pupils in the apartment they’d rented from a couple “who had heard of us and how nice we were,” as Marguerite wrote. There was a large square balcony at the side “where one could have meals in the spring,” a kitchen “with the loveliest built-in sink,” a study with stained-glass windows and repousse ceilings, and each room with papering “in good taste.”
Dresden had long been considered one of Europe’s most picturesque cities. Germans called it the Elbflorenz—the Florence on the Elbe. A cradle of arts and culture, it was known for its Baroque cathedrals and the Renaissance palace, the Schloss, where Saxon rulers had amassed one of Europe’s largest collections of princely art.
These were the golden years of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s 14-year experiment in democracy, when, for a brief time, the economy stabilized and the arts flourished—the calm before the Great Depression and the chaos that followed. In her letters, Marguerite wrote about shopping on the Prager Strasse and strolls through the Grosser Garten, games of bridge at the Bellevue and tea with the baroness who lived down the street. In the evenings, there might be a play at the Schauspielhaus, or a concert at the Belvedere, or a film at the city’s fanciest cinema house, the Union Theater Lichtspiel.
It was at the latter, Marguerite mentioned in one letter, that she’d learned of the young Nazi stormtrooper allegedly murdered by members of the Communist Party—a young man named Horst Wessel. Goebbels had set out to exploit Wessel’s death by transforming him into a martyr for the Nazi cause. And Marguerite, seemingly unaware that the film was a fictionalized account, was moved to tears. “For it was real life and so wonderfully done,” she wrote afterwards. “All the more so as the incidents were historical, and the young man so pleasing in his enthusiastic earnestness for the big cause he later fell a martyr to.”
• • •
The Night of the Long Knives marked a turning point in the Third Reich. On June 30, 1934, Hitler ordered a bloody purge of the Nazi party, eliminating those he perceived as threats to his power in a series of extrajudicial assassinations. In one fell swoop, he had established himself as de facto ruler of Germany, with only the ailing president, Paul von Hindenburg, standing in the way. After Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, Hitler was officially Führer.
In previous years, Marguerite had fully supported the Nazis’ agenda. “Don’t worry,” she wrote her father in April 1933, “we mind our step all right. In fact, we’re very enthusiastic over the reform[s] which have been introduced, and the general cleaning up politically and morally. Theaters, movies, everything is going to be purged, and it was very necessary.” She had even renounced her American nationality, trading her U.S. passport for a document declaring her a citizen of the German Empire.
But about a year later, while on vacation in Norway, beyond the reach of the German censors, she poured out her fears in a letter to her father. “Brutal is what I call their entire outlook,” she wrote. “You may think I am rabid and have changed, but I assure you I was of good faith until the executions last June . . . when my eyes were suddenly opened.” After the Night of the Long Knives, Marguerite had seen, she said, that “what pretended to be a national reawakening was simply the beginning of a reign of terror.”
That terror, Marguerite realized, might someday find its way to her: Her soul was “filled with dread,” she wrote, by the specter of Catholic persecution. Her fears were compounded by rumors that the Hitler Youth might soon be made compulsory. “I tremble,” she wrote her mother, “to think of having to give my only child into the hands of a party which has no feeling for my standards or ideals . . . that indeed would be the end of everything, and life would no longer be worth living.” She was desperate for a way out, she said. “But no one will have a foreigner now anywhere at all . . . Do get Papa to find out, if I took back my nationality, if it could help either Rudi or Friedrich to get into the States if matters become worse?”
At the same time, large numbers of Jews in Germany and neighboring countries were lining up at U.S. consulates and embassies to apply for immigration visas. In July 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt organized an international conference in France to address the issue—but, while they expressed sympathy for the refugees’ plight, almost none of the 32 nations that sent delegates agreed to increase the numbers of immigrants they were already admitting. In the U.S., the possibility of resettlement was restricted by the Immigration Act of 1924. Drafted by Washington state Congressman Albert Johnson, and cheered by the Ku Klux Klan, the act created a permanent quota system based on national origin, favoring immigrants from Western Europe and prohibiting those from Asia. It was this law that Hitler cited approvingly in Mein Kampf. Even by the end of the 1930s, when the United States was admitting the full share of German and Austrian refugees allowed by law, there remained a waiting list nearly 10 times larger.
Friedrich was 12 years old in 1938, the year the Kratinas packed their belongings into the steamer trunk and set off for Savannah. With her father’s help, Marguerite had managed to regain her American citizenship, and Rudolf had joined the faculty at the music department of the University of Georgia. They lived in Augusta for a couple of years, moving in 1941 to Atlanta, into what would later be my family’s house. A weekly society column in the Atlanta Constitution extended a “hearty welcome” to the new arrivals: “Possessing personal charm and intellect, Mrs. Kratina fits into any social gathering she elects to adorn, for she has been accustomed to associating with the elite all of her life.”
• • •
By the time they arrived in Atlanta, Marguerite’s mother had passed away, and soon, her father came to live with them, taking the room next to Friedrich’s. Rudi, who had enjoyed a highly distinguished career in Dresden, became the principal cellist in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and gave private lessons in the downstairs library.
The Kratinas had been living in Atlanta for close to seven years when, in February 1945, British and American forces staged three days of bombing raids over Dresden, resulting in a firestorm that engulfed the city center and destroyed many of its iconic buildings. Marguerite spent much of her time making care packages for survivors still in Germany, including several in camps set up by the Soviets to hold prisoners of war. Among the letters left in our house were dozens she received from the people she helped, including this one from an American friend named Dot:
Where should I begin? It’s such a long story . . . The evening Feb. 12, 1945 we were in such a wonderful concert in the Schloss. Everyone said it was a farewell concert because the oncoming Russians were making things uncomfortable. But everyone was dressed so elegantly and wanted to forget the War . . . And 2 days later I crossed that very square down there, where those broad beautiful stairs come down from the Bruhlsche Terrasse . . . The Hofkirche was completely burned out, the Opera too, the Bellevue a small pile of debris, the Schloss itself had lost its shape entirely, a few snags standing up against the dim sky was all one could see through the smoky air. And not a soul in the streets except an officer on the Neumarkt who had gone out of his mind and was trying to dig his wife out from under a pile of stones.
Days later, Nazi propagandists declared the bombing a “terror attack,” claiming there had been as many as 200,000 casualties. With the inflated figure, they sought to turn Dresden into a symbol of German victimhood, and to cast the bombing as an act of wanton mass murder, with no strategic value to the war effort. Nearly two decades later, the British historian David Irving echoed those claims in a 1963 bestseller, The Destruction of Dresden, arguing that the bombing was “the biggest single massacre in European history.” Irving was later convicted in an Austrian court of denying the Holocaust, and the book has been largely discredited. But the figure didn’t go away.
Concerned that right-wing ideologues would try to exploit speculation about the bombing, the city of Dresden set up a commission to study the matter. A five-year investigation determined that approximately 25,000 people had perished, roughly the same number reported by local officials in 1946. At the same time, doubts about Dresden’s legitimacy as a target were put firmly to rest; historians demonstrated the city’s importance as a transport hub and industrial center, documenting the many factories engaged in the production of precision military equipment, like bombsights and fuses.
• • •
Marguerite died in 1971. I don’t know what became of her after the war, or how she spent the final decades of her life. For a long time, I didn’t give the letters much thought. They stayed at my family’s house while I went off to college, moved overseas, and mostly forgot they were there.
Then, one December weekend in 2008, I picked up Frederick Taylor’s Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 in a Buckhead Barnes & Noble. As I read it that night, I realized what a terrible historian I’d been: After all that time, it had never once occurred to me that Friedrich Kratina could still be alive. I googled his name. Nothing. I tried again, and again, and again. Still nothing. A few weeks went by. And then one morning, a hit in the newsletter of the Oak Hammock retirement home at the University of Florida. A new resident, Dr. Fred Kratina, was leading a class on opera for the continuing-education program. I sent him a copy of a letter his mother had written on his eighth birthday, almost 75 years ago: “Could this be you?”
Hearing Fred’s voice on the phone was surreal. And suddenly, I felt embarrassed—I had (literally) pried into his life. I apologized. But Fred told me it was all right, that he was glad I’d found the letters. They had unearthed memories. For the first time in a very long time, he said, he could remember sitting on his mother’s lap as she rattled off lines and the click-clack of the typewriter keys and the sound of his father’s cello.
Later that week, I loaded the steamer trunk into my car and made the five-hour drive down to Gainesville. I was running a few minutes late, and when I arrived, Fred was standing outside in a trenchcoat and a crisp white shirt, chatting with neighbors. He was tall and lean, with a gaunt, angular face and a full head of wavy white hair. I hauled the trunk up to his room, and we talked for a bit about the house we’d both lived in as kids. “Would you like to see it?” I asked. “Come for dinner?”
He did. He came with his son and two granddaughters about a year before he passed away. (I also gave him the trunk and many of the letters, which are now archived at the University of Florida.) After a tour of the house, we all sat down in the dining room. At one point, Fred appeared to be lost in thought, his head tilted up to the ceiling. Then, he reached into a briefcase and pulled out a picture, a black-and-white photo of an apartment in Dresden. “Would you look at that,” he said, and passed it around the table. There, in the background, was the chandelier now hanging over our heads, the centerpiece of our family gatherings. “Looks like she left that, too.”
This article appears in our February 2022 issue.