The Cummington Story   (2005)

Published: 8/19/2016 7:19:57 PM

The Cummington Story (April 30, 2005)

As a perfect example of how one story can lead to another, I first heard about this 1944 documentary in Shutesbury, while working on the Hidden Tech series. As with the Quabbin stories, I was glad to discover people who had lived through this timely history of immigrants welcomed to Cummington.

 

The town meeting is like almost any other, with a stern-looking moderator looking out over a town hall packed with intent-looking residents.

But this meeting, captured on black-and-white film, is a 60-year-old propaganda piece that tells "The Cummington Story," a fictionalized account of a resettlement project that helped nearly 50 World War II refugees find their way to new lives.

Back then, 14-year-old Gloria Gowdy was a neighbor who helped the German and Austrian newcomers learn English.

William Streeter was an 13-year-old boy asked to appear as an extra in the church scene of the film, released 60 years ago to show the world how a typical New England village welcomed European refugees.

"When the refugees came, the kids lumped them all together as foreigners, not to be trusted," he said. "We'd follow them. One night, a group of them came in on a Greyhound (bus), and after they went to the red house,' I found some American Express checks rolled up. I knocked on the door, and they broke into tears, they were so happy to get that."

Stephen Howes, who was 6 in 1945, was warned to stay away from the strangers.

"There was suspicion about who they were, why they were here, what kids they were going to snap up," said Howes, now Cummington Historical Society chairman.

Several of those refugees, who appear in the film with fictionalized names, had been noted artists, craftspeople and literary figures beginning life anew. Some settled at least briefly in Northfield, although most moved on. The refugees -- most of them Jews -- navigated an uneasy relationship with the Yankee townsfolk in a time rife with wartime tensions.

From its Norman Rockwell-like images of town meeting, church, farms and village scenes, the 20-minute film produced by the U.S. Overseas War Information Bureau captures a slice of a simpler time here, when even Route 9 passing directly through this Hampshire County village wasn't enough to disturb its quiet. (The highway now bypasses Main Street.)

What did shake this town, just a stone's throw from Ashfield and Plainfield, was the initiative of its Congregationalist minister to take action as the war loomed. The Rev. Carl Sangree, a conscientious objector during World War I, asked Douglas Horton, of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches, what a minister could do other than support the war. Told to "take care of the refugees," Sangree was appalled at Horton "giving me a mop and asking me to stop a flood."

More than simply offering food and a place to sleep, Sangree wanted to give refugees a way to support themselves.

Horton told Sangree, who narrates "The Cummington Story," that the church council could provide $10,000 to set up a refugee program. That money never came, but Sangree raised what money he could from donors, including the Rev. Roland Johnson of Ashfield. The pastor also offered his own house in Cummington -- "the little red house" -- for up to a dozen refugees at a time, between May 1940 and September 1944.

Beginning with Johannes Hans' Gaides, a German political refugee who had escaped two concentration camps, the refugees arrived. Most came through New York and were part of mixed Jewish-Christian couples who Sangree felt would fall through the cracks of other refugee programs.

"I could see him every day |working in his garden," recalls Gowdy of Gaides, the large, university-trained agricultural economist who went on to study at Harvard University. "Everybody watched him in his garden."

As the fictionalized documentary film depicts, Sangree tried to melt some of the chill of townspeople toward the refugees, from the "old stove league" at Ed Hall's grocery, to a stiff reception by those attending a church service.

Mrs. Hall, for example, is shown scowling as she waits on the film's main character, Joseph. "And that wasn't acting!" remembers Gowdy.

Life in Cummington

The film captures the rhythm of small-town life: schoolchildren trudging home, and townsfolk |raking leaves, hanging out wash or stacking wood.

There's a hint, though, that this is a town where culture and common folk sometimes clash. The birthplace of poet William Cullen Bryant and the home of The Cummington Press as well as Greenwood Music Camp, the Cummington School of the Arts the Meadowbrook Lodge summer camp, which Streeter noted some locals knew as "the Jew camp."

"The town was interesting because it had an intellectual side and an old Yankee side to it," he said. "This forced the two sides to reconcile where they were in life."

Sangree's first-person narration describes the tension between locals and refugees, which he helps melt away by the film's end through a kind of occupational therapy that helps both groups feel more comfortable with one another.

"I've always felt the strangeness between people breaks down when they live and work and meet together as neighbors," he says.

Yet the film, which was eventually translated into more than 20 languages including Afghan, Arabic, Chinese, and Urdu, doesn't convey how much Sangree himself was viewed with suspicion.

"He was an outsider," said Streeter, author of the town history. "He was an intellect, and oftentimes, local people rub the wrong way with intellects."

The pastor was suspect, as much as anything, "because he played basketball on Sundays, and those were Puritan' people," said Howes.

When the U.S. declared war on Japan in December 1941, Sangree wrote, a kind of "hysteria" erupted in town, with some villagers |threatening to shoot the refugees, believing they were spies. They were confined to the hostel, and brought their mail and food until the quarantine was lifted.

"He has difficulties with the villagers who are opposed to the presence of foreigners here, and to the existence of the hostel," refugee Paul Amann related to his wife in a 1942 letter. "On Sunday, there was hardly anyone in church to listen to his sermon. A piece of paper was circulated soliciting signatures to have the minister dismissed and to look for a new pastor, one who would take a greater interest in the community than in the refugees. Sangree seems to be an independent thinker, and a man of some means at that."

Amann wrote, too, that one refugee couple, the Koenisbergers "were able to buy a house and start their own business, which some of the villagers view with suspicion, alarmed that these foreigners might turn out to be competitors for local craftspeople."

With the help of spy rumors, wrote Sangree, "the Cummington hostel had a lot of free publicity and notoriety, which instead of destroying the project promoted it."

Some of those rumors boiled, with an FBI agent showing up one morning at the hostel to investigate a report of a Bund' meeting at which a Nazi had allegedly addressed 100 Germans. As it turned out, the speaker, exiled former Frankfurt newspaper editor Hans Kallman, had been speaking, to the local PTA about the democratic movement in Austria before the Nazi takeover.

Gowdy recalls: "There was suspicion regarding the refugees, not only because they were German or Jewish, but because they were outsiders ... and many people believed they could be spies."

Gowdy, whose Jewish father, Herman Goldsmith, ran Goldy's auto garage in town and the first to sign the hostel's guest book, recalled an incident early on:

"Some people heard a tapping coming nightly from an open upstairs window at the hostel and came to my father to wonder if someone was sending messages by wire. My father spoke to Mr. Gaides, who confessed that at night he went upstairs after a hard day's work to compose love letters on his typewriter to his lady love in England.

What won many Cummington residents over, ultimately, was seeing how hard the refugees worked, recalls Gowdy. And Sangree worked just as hard to help them find new lives

"Cummington Hostel is really a craft house -- a home where we provide all the security and friendship that an American home can provide while refugees are working in their arts and crafts," wrote the pastor. "We guide them in their work by our advice and provide materials. We try to find a market for their goods or a place for their skills."

Amann, who Sangree had speak at West Cummington Church in 1942, wrote to his wife, "I was the main attraction with my talk about our refugee experiences. People complimented me on my good English, which was good to hear, for when picking apples, I often don't speak a word to anyone for most of the day."

He later wrote to Sangree, "Looking back on my stay at the guest-house, I fully realize what a blessing have been these months of quiet preparation for an American life."

Making a film

"The Cummington Story" itself was something of an accident for the little town.

Yet in part because of a musical score written over one week by composer Aaron Copland, it is the best known of "The American Scene" propaganda films. These were envisioned as a way of paving the way for the U.S. occupation of postwar Europe by showing favorable images of Americans in the Midwest, the Northwest, the South and New England.

On his way to find a setting in Maine for the last film in the 14-part series, screenwriter and part-time Goshen resident Howard Southgate Smith stopped off in Cummington to visit Sangree, whom he had known from earlier days.

The pastor convinced him to visit the refugee hostel, and Southgate decided there was no need to travel to Maine.

Cummington's agricultural fair, cultural richness, long main street with a white church, village store, and particularly its refugee hostel won the town the title role for the "re-enacted documentary" cataloged by the National Archives this way:

"On the integration of a group of World War II refugees into the life of the small town of Cummington, Mass. The town's clergyman describes the town's initial coolness towards the diffident newcomers and helps involve them in social, church and vocational activities. Individual refugees find familiar work in printing, farming, lumbering and shop keeping and begin socializing with their neighbors, as a "new kind of respect" develops on both sides, Includes panoramic views of the countryside in and around the town."

The Museum of Modern Art described the film as "as unaffected and moving a sermon against insularity and intolerance as could well be imagined." As a propaganda film, it never mentions that these refugees are Jewish, nor where they come from nor the persecution they suffered.

In the final days of the hostel's operation in the fall of 1944, swarms of film crew members rolled into Cummington for three months, complete with a 17-ton electric generator truck to provide 30 kilowatts of power.

Streeter, who was called in for the "stern-faced" church scene at the last minute to help fill up the pews, remembers the "carnival" atmosphere when the production crew came to the tiny town.

"It was like Hollywood, with big trucks, big generators, everyone peeking to see what was going on," he said. To this day, "They're so damned proud of it, you can't imagine."

Using government station wagons, the crew shot actual footage at the Cummington Fair, horse-race scenes in Great Barrington and exterior and interior church scenes at the West Cummington and Cummington Village churches, respectively.

"The people in the church scene," said Gowdy, "probably half of them had never seen the inside of that church. The people were given a church supper for hanging around all day."

Virginia Caldwell, who lived next door to "the red house" recalls that her father, Leon Stevens, was shown in the town meeting scene standing up to speak. The scene was shot over two days, and he was sent home on the second day to wear the same tie he'd worn on the first.

"It was a big deal," said Caldwell, who was 18 at the time. "Here was a small town, in a film that's been translated into a number of languages."

The film, which was shown at Tanglewood Music Center in 2000 as part of centennial tribute to Copland, and is presented in Cummington each summer but is rarely seen elsewhere, is being considered for presentations in the future by Pothole Pictures in Shelburne Falls as well as Greenfield Community College's Pioneer Valley Studies program.

"What would be better than to make a documentary about Germans and Austrians who were forced out, to show the richness of American culture, its tradition of civil responsibility and democracy, to show how people coming from their own lands could be assimilated into the culture, how they learned to negotiate its values into their own background," asked Smith College Professor Gertraud Gutzmann, who emigrated from Germany to learn English in Pittsfield 1960. "The irony was that it shows Koenigsberger returning to Austria, bringing home democratic values. He never returned."

The aftermath

Sangree, who served as minister in Cummington until 1946, didn't end his peace work with Cummington.

After the death of his wife, he and his second wife, former Northfield School Assistant President Florence Lyon, met with Andre Trocme, whose French village's rescue of thousands of Jews from the Nazis was later portrayed in the book, "Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed" and the documentary, "Weapons of the Spirit," to discuss how they could help his Collge Cvecol in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

In 1947, the Sangrees began helping the school -- which had been set up on a shoestring in 1938 to help children of clergy, peasants and refugees -- by establishing The American Friends of the Collge Cvenol to raise money and launch work camps in which Northfield Mount Hermon students and faculty were participants year after year.

(Among the NMH volunteers there was Richard Unsworth, who later became headmaster.)

As for Cummington, the refugee hostel played an important role in the changing attitudes of some townspeople.

Sangree's granddaughter, Connie Talbot, was born two years after "The Cummington Story" was released. But she recalls, "When I was a kid, it was big thing what my grandfather had done," even though she couldn't appreciate the implications until she grew older.

Although her grandfather's lifelong goal of "making connections" was controversial in Cummington, where today she is a potter married to the pastor of the West Cummington church, she said, "It was an experience of welcoming difference and the other' into your community."

Gowdy recalled, "It was a great education. So much had been hidden from us. For those people to be suddenly thrown into a New England town was hard."

Gowdy, who has spoken about the film at some of the Cummington Historical Society's annual showings, said, "It took me years to understand what they were going through. They hid it from us. It wasn't that easy to live together over there; they weren't used to the close circumstances. There were so many pressures on them. Their guard had to be up."

Reflecting on the current air of suspicion in this country, particularly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she questioned how the same refugee situation in a small town would square today. "I wonder how open we'd be?"

She recalls one interaction with a refugee she knew, a Mr. Greenbaum who asked the 14-year-old girl to borrow a recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony from the Pittsfield High School library. He sat in their living room, with the girl and her mother, their wind-up Victrola playing the 10-inch recordings. She can still remember him, with eyes closed and tears streaming down his face during the final movement.

"You can only imagine what he heard," she said.

– RICHIE DAVIS


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