is entitled “An Educational Yardstick”
(Original German version published in Das Fenster; Jan 2002, USA)
[This book shows that Julia A. Traphagen (JAT) is much more than a Waldwick, New Jersey, elementary school. Traphagen is uniquely connected to the 1755 deportation of Longfellow's Evangeline from the French Canadian Acadia (Nova Scotia) after the French and Indian War and, by analogy, to Benesch's 1946 ethnic cleansing of the Sudeten Germans from the Sudetenland in Bohemia and Moravia, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), as well as Dien Bien Phu, Indo-China.]
The events of our second visit to Benke continued to unfold.
- - - -
I thought to myself, “Julia A. Traphagen is much more than a Waldwick, New Jersey, elementary school.”
The notion wasn’t misplaced as it crossed my mind in Moravia. I was in my father’s hometown standing by the structure that once was the schoolhouse. The small, single schoolroom had been one-half of the building; the other half was the teacher’s residence. In 1946 virtually the entire village was deported and the structure hadn’t been a school for thirty years. By the early 1960s there weren’t enough kids in Benke to support a school. The building was now solely a residence and extremely run-down after years of no maintenance under Communism. This was the school my father attended a century ago while Miss Traphagen was beginning her teaching career in Waldwick, my hometown.
Julia A. Traphagen was my eighth grade teacher. We weren’t fortunate enough to be her students for the entire school year because the state forced her retirement in December 1952, after a fifty-year career. My class was her last.
We couldn’t understand how Miss Traphagen knew who was misbehaving while she was occupied writing on the blackboard. Perhaps because we were her last class, she revealed some secrets. She explained how she used the blackboard as a background for classroom reflections on her eyeglasses’ inner surfaces. Her spectacles (she still called them spectacles) acted as a mirror. The spectacle of her trick was still pause for reflection.
Miss Traphagen had attributes not easily forgotten. She didn’t run a classroom. She didn’t command it. She commandeered it. She addressed students by surname. The braver students called her Trappy, but never directly. Wiseacres got a prompt comeuppance. Nobody manipulated Miss Traphagen. Her classroom wasn’t a democracy. It was a dictatorship. I now appreciate that it was a benevolent dictatorship, but it was a dictatorship. The dictator needed no army. She armed herself every day with her maple yardstick. During fire drills, her line of students was straight. Any student, seized by tomfoolery, got a nudge with that yardstick. I never saw her hit anyone, but her reputation preceded abounding rumors. Every student respected her yardstick.
One of Miss Traphagen’s idiosyncrasies was the mandatory reading of “Evangeline”. At least, so we thought. “Evangeline” had been standard literature in the American public school system for about fifty years, or throughout her career’s duration. I wondered if today’s computerized students have even heard of “Evangeline”? Whatever the reason for teaching it, we perceived Miss Traphagen and “Evangeline” as conjoined.
“Evangeline” is Longfellow’s poem about the 1755 deportation of the ethnic French settlers from Acadia, now known as Nova Scotia. The expulsion took place after England defeated France in a European war known in Colonial America as the French and Indian War. The poem is a love story about Evangeline’s lifelong search for her fiancé, Gabriel. The betrothed last meet on their wedding eve. The next day’s deportation disorder in their Grand Pré hometown separates them.
Evangeline’s search leads all over the New World, from Canada down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and many points in between. A lifetime later in Philadelphia, she finds Gabriel on his deathbed. Miss Traphagen instructed us to read “Evangeline.” So we did. I dreaded that poem. Like most kids, I didn’t understand or appreciate poetry.
I recently stumbled on the book while looking for something else at the San Diego public library. I was shocked to discover it was only 95 pages long. It had taken us a semester’s eternity to slog our way through that book. Ninety-five pages? I estimated I could reread it in about two weeks of partial lunch hours. So I did. Miss Traphagen would have been proud.
What’s the connection with Benke, Moravia? The collapse of the Iron Curtain enabled my trip to where the Red Collectivist Ogre lived during the Cold War. In my father’s youth, Benke was in Austria. It was no longer. After World War I, the village was in the First Czecho-Slovak Republic. Later, it was in Nazi Germany. Then the Russians came, followed by Communist Czechoslovakia (CSSR) and post-Communist Free Czechoslovakia (CSFR). Benke, renamed Benkov, is presently part of the new Czech Republic. In the twentieth century, seven different countries governed Benke.
My rereading of Evangeline had prompted factual research concerning the Acadian deportation. I wondered how many people were affected. Estimates vary, but the total lay between 12,000–18,000 deportees. The Acadians weren’t newcomers to Canada. They were present for 150 years. All were unconscionably torn away from their homeland. 18,000 people are not an insignificant number. However, it is a small crowd at a Major League baseball game.
In 1946, the number of Sudeten natives deported by the post-war Eduard Benesch Czech government hadn’t been 200% greater than the ethnic French of Acadia. It had been 200 times greater. The government expropriated the real and personal property of three and a half million people and deported them, many of them in open railroad cars. That is a lot of people. It is a prosperous baseball franchise’s yearly attendance.
Some Sudetens never saw their hometowns or family elements again. The total number of deportees constituted the single largest population expulsion in recorded history. Stalin’s mass deportations of ethnic groups to Siberia (collectively involving an estimated 1,500,000 people) are small in comparison. Yet, even today, the Sudeten deportation is almost a historical secret. The post-war justification was that these people were Germans.The notion was, “The Germans are getting what they deserve”. These people, however, were birthright Czech citizens. The Acadian deportation was cruel. It was, at least, the result of the spoils of war between combatants. The incongruity between the Sudetenland deportation and World War II remains blatant. Its historical equivalent would declare that because the French lost their Indo-China War at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the entire French-Canadian minority (6,500,000) was to be deported from Quebec and returned to France in 1955. There are factual differences in the analogy, unless one takes the viewpoint that colonial France started the Indo-China war. In any event, in both cases, the acts of third parties would have been determinative in the deportation of a whole group of people. The Sudetenland deportation made no sense in 1946 and makes no sense to me now.
Contemplation of these disjointed, unrelated impressions in my life were bizarre. All occurred at different times. Yet all were connecting up in a flurry of thought in front of Benke’s former schoolhouse. I agonized through a mandatory reading of Evangeline with Miss Traphagen with no understanding that people of my own heritage suffered a similar fate in 1946. I wasn’t unaware of the Sudetenland expulsion. My parents discussed what happened in their homeland. Yet they were unaware of the Acadian deportation. Within my family, I served as the link between the two historical events, but I didn’t perceive their similarity. I missed the subtle connection between Acadia and Sudetenland. What was it?
It is simply this. “Evangeline” is the poetic description of historical fact. It is art imitating life. The ironic subtlety that eluded me as a child was that the Sudeten expulsion is the mirror image of Longfellow’s plot. It is life imitating art on a grand scale.
Now I understood the obscure similarity and historical significance of the Acadian and Sudetenland deportations. I was in the virtually deserted Benke nearly fifty years after the Sudeten German deportation. Still, I saw and sensed its effects even now. My heritage lies in Benke. This is my Grand Pré. I felt a kinship to Longfellow’s heroine. “Miss Traphagen,” I now could honestly say, “I understand “Evangeline.” In a historical sense, we’re distant cousins! I finally get it!”
Education is the meaningful connection of otherwise meaningless facts. In 1992, forty years after being my teacher, Miss Traphagen was still educating me.
Copyright © 2005 by Frank Koerner
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