McPherson College plays a prominent role in a newly opened exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibit features the story of how students raised money to help an 18-year-old refugee escape Nazi persecution and attend McPherson College.
The exhibit, “Americans and the Holocaust,” is a panoramic portrait of American society in the 1930’s and 40s, which examines all influences that shaped the American response to Nazism and the Holocaust.
Rebecca Erbeling, a researcher for the exhibit recently wrote about the McPherson College story in an article for the Kansas City Star:
“Undergraduates from at least 200 colleges and universities raised money to aid refugee students, many of who were Jewish and in need of student visas to enter the United States. The 200-person student body at McPherson College, a small Christian school in McPherson, Kansas, raised $250 (about $4,500 today) to support a refugee student,” she wrote. In her research, she also found a statement made by an aid worker stating: “The student body of the college has raised this money at some sacrifice, since it is not a wealthy school, and they are looking forward to the arrival of a German student.”
The 18-year-old student, Tom Doeppner, was German-born and targeted by the Nazis for his Jewish heritage. According to research compiled by Sarah Snow, Doeppner’s granddaughter, the students at McPherson College were moved to take action after learning about the events in November 1938, known as Kristallnacht – violent anti-Jewish protests throughout Germany and Austria.
“This was an action out of compassion, but also sacrifice and amazing coordination on the part of the students,” Snow said. “Opa (what she called her grandfather) was in a very precarious position, so this scholarship and acceptance to a school in the United States was literally a life-saving invitation.”
Doeppner had escaped Germany and joined his father in Holland when he asked the Quakers for help to immigrate to the United States. He worked through the American Friends Service Committee, an organization formed by the Quakers to assist refugees escaping Nazi persecution. According to the museum’s exhibit, the AFSC worked to get Doeppner admitted to McPherson College. He struggled to obtain a student visa, since he technically did not have a country to return to after graduation.
“The acceptance and financial assistance to McPherson is what enabled him to get a visa, which is how he left Europe,” Snow said. “Immigration was all about obtaining the ever-difficult visa. He was part of a small percent of refugees able to get the visa he needed and left Holland mere months before it was overtaken by Nazi forces.”
Doeppner did not talk much about his past until later in his life, according to his granddaughter. He did share more about his past in an autobiography, where he remembers McPherson fondly. From his first simple greeting of “welcome to McPherson, Tom,” by Phil Myers, president of the McPherson College Student Council, to adapting to a co-educational learning experience, he writes about initial memories of coming to the United States and attending McPherson College.
“The student body, as well as the faculty, welcomed me with open arms,” he wrote. “And whenever the immigration officials gave me a hard time – which occurred frequently – the college President went out of his way to assist me with recommendations and letters.”
Snow said she also experienced how welcomed her grandfather must have felt when she also visited the college a few years ago. It was shortly after she had been to Berlin to see where her grandfather grew up.
“I was able to appreciate how different McPherson must have been for Opa,” she said. “And yet, how welcoming and kind the people were to make him feel at home. There are three generations of my family that would not exist if McPherson did not offer Opa this chance to come to the United States. I have become endeared to the hard-working kindness of a group of students in the middle of Kansas and say thank you for embodying the spirit of what it means to treat others how you would want to be treated. They have done that for me and my family beyond expectation.”
Doeppner attended McPherson College for two years then transferred to Kansas State University where he completed a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. After graduating, he joined the U.S. Army, fought in World War II, and spent his career in the military.
“This is an incredible piece of McPherson College history to uncover and share on a national stage,” McPherson College President Michael Schneider, said. “It’s an example of the college’s long-tradition of service to others that continues today through efforts like supporting students studying at the college from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
Research for the exhibit began two years ago when the museum launched a crowd-sourcing project called “History Unfolded.” Museum staff asked students, teachers, librarians and history buffs across the country to research their local newspapers and determine what kind of information their community could have found about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
In addition to its national search for information, extensive documentation by Doeppner’s granddaughter, which included articles from the McPherson College student newspaper led museum researchers to Mary Hester, director of library services at the college who oversees the college’s archives. Hester helped the museum track down information from the school’s archives and supplied one original copy of the student newspaper “The Spectator” that is on loan for the exhibit.
This exhibition comes at a critical time, according to a statement made by the museum. A recent study found that two-thirds of American millennials could not identify what Auschwitz was. Doeppner’s personal story is also featured in the museum’s accompanying online exhibition: ushmm.org/americans.