Freddie Trenkler, War Refugee

Comic skater, Austrian Freddie Trenkler, a cast member in the Sonja Henie Ice Shows, drew countless laughs, and more than a few gasps with his slapstick and death-defying style. This young man, only 27 years old, his identity concealed behind grease paint and rags, ironically shared much in common with his vagabond alter ego.

It was early in the Second World War, and the German war machine blazed across Europe; blitzkrieg overwhelming the Low Countries and France. Freddie’s homeland had fallen much earlier–Nazi occupation of Austria bloodlessly completed in 1938 (think “Sound of Music”). It appears that the Jewish Trenkler had escaped to America, tragically leaving his family to suffer a calamitous fate.

The investigation of papers, pictures, letters, and other mementoes I used in writing River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, revealed that many of the talented skaters who performed in the Henie productions arrived in America desperate war refugees, who had escaped certain death at the hands of the Nazi’s.

Enjoy this clip of Henie, Trenkler, and the company of ice skaters, (one of whom is Helen Thompson, a subject in both books). However, keep in mind the desperation and harrowing narrative that Trenkler and many others carried to the ice.

 

 

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From The Top Balcony

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A gentleman called the house last week asking to speak to me. Since I was out, my husband began chatting with the caller, and once again, as has so many times before, something magic happened related to my books.

This man had discovered “River of January: Figure Eight,” through a series of clicks on social media, and found enough information to phone our home. He had hoped to gather more about the professional Ice Shows at Center Theater during the war in New York. The reason he asked was that his aunt had skated in the productions, (created by Sonja Henie, and choreographed by ballet mistress, Catherine Littlefield) and that his aunt was still living!

On Sunday night, following my own conversation with the nephew, I had the honor of speaking to Gertrude, “Trudy” Schneider, now a young 93 years old. This grand lady, residing in Canada, apologized that she had only known Helen Thompson, my central character in the memoir, from the theater dressing room. Though Trudy skated evenings with Helen, she attended school during the day, as she was only sixteen years old. That made sense since Helen was close to thirty when she began the show, and a mother by that time.

Trudy further detailed her life story, adding that she and her family, with relatives already in America, came to the country from Vienna in 1939. Under Nazi occupation, Austria was not a safe place for Jews any longer, and so she, her parents, and one brother made their way to the US. A skater since childhood, she had been ‘discovered’ skating at Madison Square Garden, and promptly signed by the Center Theater front office. Her parents weren’t thrilled about their daughter working, but according to her nephew, Trudy earned $45.00 a week, making her income vital.

I also found out that one of my favorite character’s in “Figure Eight,” Vera Hruba, a Czech skater,  advised Trudy to always remember her false eyelashes. According to Hruba that was all a girl needed.

As our conversation progressed she seemed to recall more details about her experience at the theater, including how a typical rehearsal transpired. Catherine Littlefield, the  choreographer mentioned above, would climb to the top tier of the fourth balcony and critique the final run-through from her lofty perch. Trudy implied an aura of imperial omnipotence in Miss Littlefield’s seating choice, judging the performance from on high.

Conversing with Trudy felt like time travel; that I had reached back and touched 1943 New York. When I find this book business overwhelming–when I wonder why I bothered to take on the project, a “Trudy” moment presents itself.

Then I remember.

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Helen Thompson (Chumbley) first girl on right, Trudy Schneider, second girl from right.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a memoir in two volumes.

 

 

 

A Tattoo?

My husband got a tattoo. I don’t like tattoos. He’s too old for a tattoo. And I didn’t approve until he showed me the result.

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This sweetheart chose the Sopwith Camel from my book cover, River of January.

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I can’t be too annoyed, dammit.

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a memoir. Also available on Kindle.

 

My Work, My Calling

 

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Senate – May 12, 2005)

Congressional Record, 109th Congress, Vol. 151, No 62

 

A LIFE OF TEACHING, A LOVE OF LEARNING, A HEART FOR CHILDREN

 

Mr. CRAPO. Mr. President, I am honored to recognize a truly remarkable individual today. Gail Chumbley is a history teacher at Eagle High School in Eagle, ID. A high school history teacher; there are many individuals who can claim this job title but few who have done so much. Gail is an amazing teacher, passionately devoted to teaching our American experience to her students. Not only does she teach about events in our Nation’s history, she has ventured into the next realm, moving the tenets of American citizenship into the real world for her students.

I first heard of Gail’s efforts 4 years ago when she became actively involved in the Library of Congress’s Veterans Oral History Project four years ago. At that time, she had organized the recording of over 300 oral histories for Eagle High School’s library alone. She expanded the effort to include other Idaho schools and collaborated with local civics groups to record literally hundreds more interviews that went to both the Eagle High School archives and the Idaho Oral History Center. One of the most significant accomplishments of Gail and her students was their participation in the Veterans Stand Down in Boise where homeless veterans were given the opportunity to record interviews. Her efforts were not confined to veterans of past wars. Gail and her students also have sent gift boxes and cards to our current service women and men in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. She was instrumental in making Eagle High School the top school donor for the World War II Memorial, with a donation of close to $25,000. The list of her accomplishments, enhanced further with her national recognition by the Daughters of the American Revolution this year is long, but that is not the focus of my remarks today.

Gail has turned the teaching of history and civics into the action of patriotism. Perhaps the most compelling and significant accomplishment of Gail Chumbley is not her esteemed list of awards and honors, which are many and richly-deserved. Her most important contribution is her role in creating a sense of citizenship within the hearts and intellect of many Idaho young people. This citizenship lives on in these students as they grow into adulthood and manifests itself in their actions, commitments and convictions. It is an entity that grows exponentially and of its own volition, eclipsing plaques, certificates and statuettes. These gather dust, but what they represent are the pillars upon which our country stands firm. This living citizenship is immortalized by the marbled statues of men and women not far from here,

and in words carved of the same.

I honor Gail Chumbley today: American patriot, exemplary citizen and

role model for all of us.

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a memoir, also available on Kindle. The second volume in the epic, River of January: The Figure Eight is coming this fall.

 

 

 

“Set their Feet on the Firm and Stable Earth”

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My mother has made it quite clear that she wants to live at home until the very end. Any member of our family daring to even think ‘assisted living’ can expect a reaming on the scale of a super nova. Mom has no reason to transplant elsewhere. She has her recliner, her adjustable mattress, her crossword puzzles, and her memories in that house. After 53 years under the same roof there is no other place–that home is the center of her universe.

Oddly enough her story somehow broaches the subject of why people do move—in this instance, the story of immigration to America.

The 19th Century American humor magazine, Puck once declared that “Princes’ don’t immigrate,” and that truth has found a lot of support in our historic record. Just a glimpse of current film footage along southern European borders powerfully demonstrate this 19th century truism. The vulnerable from Syria and other destabilized regions of the Middle East grapple with hate, fear and barbed wire to carry their families to safety.

Immigrants to American shores have all shared similar reasons to exchange the familiar, for the unknown. A brief look at America’s earliest settlers well illustrates this dynamic from 1620 to the present.

Some folks were pushed, some were pulled, but all European newcomers set foot on Atlantic shores because there was no reason to remain in the familiar.

Challenges to the Catholic Church provided the first steps toward the flow of populations to leave Great Britain. The Protestant Reformation essentially secularized the English Church, rejecting and replacing the Pope for the British sovereign as leader. Devout believers felt that King Henry’s English Reformation did not go far enough in ridding sacraments for deeper Biblical understanding. This faction became known as “Puritans,” those who wished to cleanse the English Church of all vestiges of Catholicism.

The religious struggle in the British Isles was long and complicated, but ultimately resulted in systematic Puritan persecution. Two phases of believers departed Great Britain as a consequence. First, were the Separatists led by William Bradford, who believed England was damned beyond redemption. This group settled first in Holland, then acquired funding for a journey on the Mayflower to Massachusetts Bay. Americans remember these folks as the Pilgrims.

Almost ten years later another group of mistreated reformers made landfall further north, closer to Boston. This wave of settlers, unlike the small trickle in Plymouth, came to Massachusetts Bay in a metaphoric deluge. Thousands upon thousands of Puritans departed England, driven out by an intolerant, albeit re-Catholicized crown. Called the Great Puritan Migration, refugees from religious bullying settled from Cape Cod, to the Caribbean.

The Quakers, or Society of Friends, made up another group pushed out of England. In a stratified culture of forced deference to one’s “betters,” this faith recognized the innate equality in all people. Quakers, for example, refused to swear oaths or ‘doft’ their hats in the presence of “gentlemen,” and that impudence made the sect an intolerable challenge to the status quo.

William Penn (Jr.) became a believer in Ireland, and found this punitive treatment of Quakers unjust. However, as a wall to wall adherent to peace and brotherhood, Penn used his childhood connections to the aristocracy to depart to America. King Charles II granted Penn a large tract of land in the New World, where Penn and his followers settled in the 1660’s. “Penn’s Woods,” or Pennsylvania set up shop establishing the settlement upon the egalitarian principles of Quakerism.

The father of President Andrew Jackson, Jackson Senior, stands as an excellent example representing another wave of humanity dispensable to the British Crown. Dubbed Scots-Irish, these were Scotsmen who resisted British hegemony and unification for . . ., for . . ., well forever. (Think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.) First taking refuge in Ireland, this collection of rugged survivors, by the 1700’s, made their way to America. Not the most sociable bunch, these refugees found their path inland, eventually settling along the length of the Appalachian Mountains. Tough and single minded this group transitioned from exiles to backcountry folk.

Now the settlers in Jamestown and Georgia offer a different explanation for permanent human migration.

The London Company of Virginia, a corporation, funded an expedition to Jamestown in 1607. Soldier of Fortune, Captain John Smith and his compatriots crossed the Atlantic to get rich. Inspired by the example of Spanish finds in Mexico, these English mercenaries were hopeful of finding golden cities of their own. Almost a disastrous failure, the Jamestown colony survived, not by precious metals, but from cultivating a Native crop . . . tobacco. Eventually arrivals outnumbered departures in the stabilizing Virginia settlement, and the addictive crop paid handsome dividends for London investors.

Georgia, the most southern colony came last, founded in 1732. The brain child of social reformer, James Oglethorpe, this colony of red clay became a dumping ground for victims of England’s byzantine criminal codes. Those of the lowest rungs of English society, from petty pickpockets to hardened felons found themselves “transported” to Oglethorpe’s colony for second chances, and out of the hair of English jailers.

On a side note, slavery explicitly was forbidden in the Georgia charter. And that raises the issue of the last group forced to American shores; African slaves. These unfortunate souls did not want to leave their homes in West Africa. Much like my mother, this group did not wish a new life in a new land. Economic demands brought about this “Middle Passage,” the despicable trade in human cargo, kidnapped for the New World. Force, brutality, and exploitation wrenched these people from their lands to serve those who for contrasting reasons came to live in America. The injustice of this “African Diaspora” still plagues an American society grappling to resolve this age-old injustice.

Caution ought to guide current politicians eager to vilify and frame immigration as an inherent evil and subverting occurrence. No one lightly pulls up roots. Leaving all that is familiar is an act of desperation, a painful and difficult human drama.

Americans today view our 17th Century forebears as larger than life heroes, but their oppressors saw these same people as vermin–as dispensable troublemakers who threatened good social order. This human condition remains timeless, and loose talking politicians and opportunists must bear in mind the story of the nation they wish to lead.

Oh, and my 84-year old mother just remodeled the house, keeping her Eden fresh and new.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and the newly published River of January: Figure Eight.