Sunday, March 18, 2012

Found and Lost

On the most recent Orphean voyage into the parental basement, I found several items of interest, or at least fleeting interest, or passing interest, and some of no interest at all, but I will not mention them.
Among the items in the first categories are:
• Rand McNally 1929 Auto Road Map of the New England States, in which the following roads frequented by me do not appear: Saw Mill Parkway, Routes 684, 84, 95, Massachusetts Turnpike. What does appear: Route 9 threading north from NYC through the western side of Westchester.
• 13 pictures of H.G Wells extracted from newspapers and magazines
• Jeroboam of Chateau La Tour du Pin Figeac Saint-Emilion 1962 (I have Googled this vintage and it appears that people are still paying money for this wine, but that does not mean it is actually drinkable. And if it is anything like some other venerable bottles found in the basement, it will not be. Sadly.)
• Box with best label: Old (but not antique) corkscrews
• 47 empty jam jars
Harvard Lampoon, November 1949 “In this issue: Yale societies” by G. A. Plimpton ’48. Cigarette ads feature the best graphics. (Soon to appear on eBay)
• A wad of 50 Deutschmark bills, circa 1919
But one thing affected me most: a copy of Max Kraus’s 1941 Honors Thesis at Harvard,”The Alexandrian Poets in Rome and the German Minnesingers”, still clamped between the hard black covers of those folders we were still using for our theses in the 1970’s. On the second page of the thesis I read this endearing note: “Since my command of Middle High German is extremely limited, I was forced to use translations into modern German of the Minnesingers as source material.” Which leads me to believe that he had some command of Middle High German, and that is impressive.
What was Max Kraus’s thesis doing in my parents’ basement, in a cabinet that appears to have been untouched since the 1940’s? And who was Max Kraus?
I asked my father who presumably should know as he was living in this same house in 1941. He told me about his father, Hans Lehner, who was born in a small village outside Augsburg, Germany. Hans was quite smart and soon outgrew the schooling in the village, and went to Augsburg to study. In Augsburg he lived with the Kraus family, and to pay for his room and board, he tutored their young children. By 1909 Hans was working for a German bank as a cotton grader and broker, and came to work in the United States. He stayed. He married, had sons, started businesses. Then in 1937 Hans was able to help several old friends emigrate to the United States, and among them, he brought over the Kraus family. Now Max was the smart young man away from home, and Hans sent him to Harvard, where he wrote this thesis in the basement.
Where is he now? I asked my father. What happened after Harvard? My father said they didn’t know because after Harvard they never saw Max Kraus again. Or they must have, at least once, because here was the thesis. Why would he disappear? I asked. No idea.
Because it is ridiculously easy, I Googled Max Kraus, then added Augsburg and Harvard to the search, and voila, I found an obituary for Max Kraus, a retired USIA official, whose posts included that of a US spokesman at the Vietnam peace talks and the SALT II talks, and head of VOA in Africa. During World War II he worked on psychological warfare projects. Later he wrote a memoir called They All Came to Geneva. I couldn’t find the book in our library, but I bought it online for $1 plus postage. Perhaps the book would explain.
It did not. On the subject of his early life he is cryptic and terse in the extreme: “I had come to the United States from my native Germany in January 1937, a refugee from Hitler’s Reich. After graduating from Harvard in 1941, I volunteered for the U.S. Army…”
Max Kraus went on to travel and dine out with the likes of Henry Kissinger, Harry Belafonte, Vernon Walters and Jane Fonda, but once upon a time he cared about Alexandrian poets and Minnesingers. Once he spent serious time reading Hellenistic elegiac poetry and lyrical seven-line love songs in Middle High German, and also in modern German translations. But he never retrieved his thesis from the basement.


Anne said...

This is a particularly beautiful post.

Mickey and Flea said...

Did you read the thesis? Maybe therein lies a clue as to why he left it..