Student survivor: 78-year-old student brings insight to the classroom

Fred Flatlow can still remember when they took his father away. On Nov. 9, 1938, Hitler’s secret police, the Gestapo, arrested Flatlow’s father. The crime? Being Jewish. His father was one of the many Jews rounded up on Crystal Night, when the Nazis destroyed Jewish shops, homes and synagogues across Germany.

Broken glass littered the sidewalks throughout his neighborhood and beyond, as the swath of destruction wound its way through the city, ending at the torched ruins of the New Synagogue where Flatlow attended school and worshipped. Flatlow describes the scene in his book “Loss and Restoration.”

“I was aware of the irretrievable loss. Everything that I loved … gone forever,” he said.

Within a year of Crystal Night, Flatlow and his family fled their home in K?nigsberg, Germany, and began a long journey across three continents, which finally brought him here to Washington.

At 78, Flatlow does not look like a typical GW student. Although he received his masters from GW in 1964, Flatlow still rides his bike to Foggy Bottom twice a week to audit and attend classes.

“I always wanted to broaden myself,” he said. He has taken courses ranging from philosophy to German literature.

Now, Flatlow is taking Professor Beatrix Pollack’s honors course on the post-War German writers G?nter Grass and Heinrich B?ll.

“Because he lived through the time period in German history that we’re discussing, he makes the sometimes-abstract concepts addressed in the literature more real,” said sophomore Heather Jones, who is in the class.

Born in May 1928, Flatlow grew up in the former German province of East Prussia, known for its rabid anti-Semitism. Even as the Nazis seized power in 1933, most German Jews, the Flatlow family included, remained devoted to their German fatherland.

“We were like Jews in America today, part of society, not separate. My parents were so Germanic,” Flatlow said. “Even after Crystal Night they didn’t wake up.”

During the 1930s, restrictions against the Jews increased, eventually forcing Flatlow to withdraw from the public school where young boys in Nazi uniforms hurled stones at him. Many of his closest childhood friends boarded death trains, never to be seen again.

Amid this atmosphere of constant fear, Flatlow struggled to find a sense of security.

“I had a recurring nightmare of being buried in a sand dune by the seaside,” Flatlow said. “I was very much aware. Whole villages had signs which read, ‘Juden nicht erw?nscht (Jews not desired.)'”

At night he begged the heavens for help, crying, “Dear God, please save us. Please get us out of here. Please let us escape.”

Flatlow’s prayer was answered in 1939 by a Nazi who worked as chief clerk at his father’s factory. Herr Meyer had embezzled money from the firm, and in order to cover up the theft, he placed an illegal firearm in the office of his boss, Flatlow’s father. When Meyer happened upon the planted weapon in the presence of witnesses, he phoned the Gestapo, who once again questioned his father.

Fortunately for the Flatlows, the Gestapo did not believe Meyer’s story, and instead of deportation to a concentration camp, Flatlow’s father was given two months to leave the country. In September of that year, the German army rolled into Poland. The Flatlows had little time.

The K?nigsberg Jewish community swiftly arranged passage to Chile for the Flatlow family. In Genoa, Flatlow boarded a ship hoping to begin a new life.

“I left a fear behind. I did not know what would happen in the future, but I knew we were safe,” Flatlow said. “If it had not been for Herr Meyer, we would have stayed and been killed.”

After a long sea voyage, the Flatlows joined other German immigrants in Chile. Though free from Hitler and the Nazi death factories, Chile did not prove to be a promised land for the Flatlows.

“Poverty was staring us in the face,” he said.

In these harsh conditions, Flatlow’s father worked himself to death, and Fred had to stop school after ninth grade in order to work. This left him with an insatiable hunger for knowledge.

“My ambition to get an education was and continues to be important,” he said.

After nearly a decade struggling in South America, Flatlow and his wife Ursel, a fellow German Jewish refugee, decided to journey to America in the search for greater opportunity.

“The Chilean government would not give us citizenship; however, they did issue us passports that allowed us to leave Chile, but we could not come back,” Flatlow said. The newlyweds arrived in America stateless, jobless and with a limited knowledge of English.

Flatlow smiled as he remembered how “the Statue of Liberty waved ‘good morning'” to him as he arrived in New York harbor.

“I still remember the emotions that went through me – the exhilaration, joy, hope, and yes, the worry and fear over what the future would bring,” he said.

His future in America turned out to be very bright indeed. In 1954, he received American citizenship, the same year that his first son was born. After graduating from GW, Flatlow pursued a career with NASA.

He maintains that his greatest accomplishment was the creation of an international satellite-aided search and rescue program, which has saved more than 20,000 lives. With his life spared, Flatlow was able to devote much of his career to developing a system that could save other’s lives.

Flatlow recognizes that “while the Nazis were terrible,” his journey has “broadened my horizons, my view of peace and tolerance.”

The flight from Nazi Germany left an indelible mark on Flatlow, and to this day he views world events through the lens of his experience with the not only Nazi terror, but his first-hand view of the power of totalitarian ideologies such as Communism.

Flatlow expressed concern that religious fundamentalists from Washington to Riyadh act as an outlet for youthful idealism, the way that Communism and Nazism did for his generation.

“Young people have a need to express their ambitions. You could become a Nazi or a Communist. That no longer exists,” he said.

He added that fundamentalist religion is one example of the ideologies that sometimes act as an outlet for irrational beliefs, and said, “I do not see any cause to which I can give everything.” For Flatlow, this includes his support of Israel.

“Some of what Israel is doing is terrible; there is too much provocation and disregard of the plight of the ordinary Palestinians,” said Flatlow, who stressed his belief in tolerance and peace over irrational idealism.

The memory of loved ones who suffered due to the Nazi ideology is ever present in his mind, and he draws strength from telling his story, especially to students.

He humbly opened his book “Loss and Restoration” to the dedication page, which reads, “I dedicate this book to the memory of my murdered friends and family, and to all those unknowns, German and Chilean, Jewish and not Jewish, who more than half a century ago made it possible for me to survive when so many others died.”

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