Note: Key background information about this story can be found in the post immediately below this one. This entry documents the beating received by my uncle, Robert Sellmer, at the hands of Nazi sympathizers in Klaipeda, Lithuania on the night of December 11, 1938.
In August of 1938, Bob wrote a letter to his family from Tallinn, Estonia, describing his idyllic summer in Finland. In December, he was covering a parliamentary election in Memel (Klaipeda), Lithuania, where the following event took place. It’s not at all clear where he had been during those intervening months, but the ominous beat of the war drums must have been clearly evident wherever he had been. It was the season of attempted appeasement of Germany by Great Britain; the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany, the terror of Kristallnacht across the territories sympathetic to the Reich, and the announcement of the Franco-German “peace declaration” on the 6th of December.
Less than a week later, the New York Daily Sun reported: “The 150,000 or so inhabitants of the autonomous Memel Territory in Lithuania went to the polls to-day to elect a new Landtag. As when they last voted, three years ago, the result of the election is not in doubt. The German party can rely on obtaining at least 24 of the 29 seats, the same number as they had in the last Landtag. They may even win one or two more, but what is more important, perhaps, is that this time the German members will enter the Landtag as National-Socialists, with far-reaching demands to press on the Lithuanian government.” In short, a vote for the German party was a vote for the Nazis AND a vote to leave Lithuania and rejoin Germany politically, not surprising considering the centuries of cultural and even linguistic ties between the coastal city which had been the northern most outpost of the Prussia and the German Hanseatic League. The Lithuanians, needless to say, were not amused.
Bob was apparently in town to cover some aspect of this election in his role as a free-lancer “for several American magazines.” Versions of the events of that evening and the following day were chronicled by several stories in the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel on December 12th and 13th, 1938. They reported that he had been attending a press party following the election and was headed back to his hotel in the wee hours. Bob was reported to say:
“I was walking on the street about 2:00 am when I passed three Memel German order preservation men belonging to the Member kultur (Kultur-Verband: a group of Lithuanians who were Nazi sympathizers, down to the black shirts.) They raised their arms and shouted “Heil!
“When I did not reply, they seized my arms. I tried to pull loose and they called the police. Two ‘landespolitzei,’ or territorial police, immediately hurried me to the police station (note: only two short blocks from the theater) where I showed my American passport. They asked me questions in German and I was only able to answer in English, which seemed to make them angry, so they clubbed me to the floor about six times. One policeman, who knew a little English, used it to call me ‘an American Jew’ and abused me with unprintable words.
“After an hour I was literally thrown into the street.”
The German press, understandably, had a different perspective on the events. The Journal wrote “The newspaper Angrieff (Attack) Monday carried a headline saying “Impertinent Insults by American at Memel Election.” (It) “alleged that Sellmer insulted German police. It asserted that his treatment by police was beyond reproach. The incident assumed more importance, the newspaper said, because Lithuanians broadcast a ‘tendecious’ (biased) report of the affair.
“The attitude of the Lithuanian broadcast bespeaks great naivete,” the newspaper added. “Let the Kaunas government (note: Vilnius was at that time in Polish territory; Kaunas was the capital of the country), while there is still time, be aware of the consequences which may result from such provocations.”
News spread quickly. By the following day, the Associated Press had disseminated some version of this story across the country and in various European outlets. Bob’s mother, my grandmother Violet, as well as her daughters, my mother and aunt, were apparently “sitting peacefully in (their) parlor, listening to the radio and…having the staccato voice of a news broadcaster announce that your only son, or your only brother, had been beaten by the Nazis in far off Lithuania.”
‘I can’t understand it at all,’ Mrs. Sellmer said.’It doesn’t seem possible that they would dare attack an American just because he didn’t return a salute. And it doesn’t seem that they could have been laying in wait for Robert, even if he did write several magazine pieces that were anti-Nazi.’
‘I only hope,’ she went on plaintively, ‘that Robert will let me know how he is. I know the stories say he just got bruised, but I’d like to hear it from him. But I suppose he doesn’t even know that the story got back to his country, so he doesn’t know we’re worrying.’
The Sun ended their article by saying “reports that epithets hurled at Mr. Sellmer included ‘American Jew’ puzzled his Germanic family, ‘good Congregationalists.’
Bob himself finally did drop his mother a line from Kaunas where he filed a report concerning the incident with the American Legation:
“Just a short note to tell you that I’m perfectly all right in case you’ve been alarmed by any reports in the newspapers. I was in bed for a day, but I’m O.K. now and have almost regained my pristine beauty. Nothing is broken or bent, and the Sellmer nose still stands forth in all its former glory. It was the Sellmer nose, in fact, that caused most of the trouble, because the police thought I was an American Jew, and the Germans are sore as the devil at American Jews for defending the Jews in Germany, so when they got me in their hands through an argument I had with some storm troopers they couldn’t resist the chance of getting in a little revenge.”
“I was terribly sore about it at first, of course, but I am not going to make any official protests and I am discouraging all other people from making protests, because if too much publicity was given to my complaints I’d be barred today from half the countries of Europe, and that’s something I can’t afford. And as long as I can’t get even with the police personally, I don’t see any sense in trying for second-hand revenge through the government, especially as the Germans will naturally deny everything and only make the protester look foolish because he can do nothing about it. I’m going to drop the whole thing as soon as possible and prevent the Lithuanians from making a martyr out of me – as they want to do to further their own cause — and just chalk the whole thing up as an interesting journalistic experience.”
From Kaunas Bob headed to Warsaw, where he spent the holidays with family members posted there with Palmolive. In a borrowed tuxedo with sleeves too short, he attended the Grand New Year’s Even Ball at the home of the American Ambassador, one Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Jr.”who bowled me over by remembering my name and condoling me upon my recent misfortune.”
Shortly thereafter Bob departed for Prague and points south.