Demonstrating The True Meaning of Christmas
[Editor’s Note: This column was originally published at Christmas 1989 in The Glade Times and Mountain Mirror. It is reprinted here with permission.]
It's 1929. The Nazis are on the march to control of Germany. The Kaiser had been defeated 10 years earlier and the new German government was still struggling to keep pace with the rest of the world.
Hans Marc Simons had joined the Kaiser's army as a 16 year old. He learned to fly and became a spotter for the heavy guns of the artillery division. Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the famous "Red Baron," was counted among his friends.
But now, as Hitler drew ever closer to control of Germany, Simons had to rethink his destiny.
Upon completing his college education and technical training as a mechanical engineer at universities in Dresden, Karlsruhe and Munich, he became the chief engineer of Blau Weiss Works Ltd., in Tel Aviv. While in Jerusalem between 1923 and 1925, he helped construct the largest electrical power plant in the Middle East.
He returned to Germany in early 1926, taking a position with Berlin Municipal Power Plants, Inc., to help construct Europe's largest power plant. His intimate knowledge of this Berlin facility was to prove more than valuable as World War II erupted.
The Brown Shirts, the Nazi party's recruiting arm, tried unsuccessfully to lure Hans into their fold. Many times he told them "No!" And it wasn't long before he realized how ruthless these men were as attempts were made on his life.
He was a private pilot and flew all over Europe for his employer. One afternoon he gassed up his plane and took off. Soon he suffered engine failure and crash landed in a grove of trees. Unhurt, he examined his plane and found the fuel lines had been cut.
He knew now that it was time to leave his homeland for good.
Stealing a plane from the German Army, he flew to England, changed his name from Simons to Simmons, and proceeded to New York.
Unable to find work in the engineering field, he took a job as a caretaker for a wealthy family near Cornwall, N.Y. His new wife, Annelise, whom he had met as a schoolboy in Germany and with whom he had become reacquainted while in New York, worked with him as a maid.
But their dream was to be independent, to enjoy the freedom America promised. In early 1932 they headed south to Florida to establish their own business. But when they got to Petersburg in Virginia, Annelise went into labor and they were forced to stop.
Their son Jimmy was born and they decided to remain in Virginia. Hans had been enraptured by the stories he had read as a child in school about this cradle of democracy. And he desperately wanted the freedom so well demonstrated by Virginia in the history books.
Little did he know then that he would have to struggle the rest of his life to be accepted. And this dream never really came true.
The Simmons bought a little piece of land along U.S. 1, five miles south of Petersburg in Dinwiddie County. Immediately Hans knew that he was in trouble. He had spent his last dollar for the land and no one would give him credit.
That is, no one except Arthur Richardson, who owned several saw mills in the area. (Richardson would later be elected to the Virginia legislature.)
Mr. Richardson, for some unknown reason, accepted Hans at face value. He had faith in this robust German and believed that he would be repaid for the materials he would provide.
And so begins the tale of Ye Blue Tartane, a craft shop in the beginning, but later a motel, a model for travel stops on this major highway between New York and Miami. But that, too, is another story.
When World War II began in 1939, or so the family story goes, Hans drove to Washington to see the Secretary of War. It wasn't an easy trip. Hans had to sit in the secretary's outer office for weeks before finally getting in to see him.
But when he did, Hans gave the man plans for a high altitude aircraft engine he had helped design in Germany.
At first Hans was dismissed as some sort of crackpot. He was a powerfully built man with a barrel chest and a heavy – almost guttural – German accent. And because of his heritage, American officials were skeptical of his motives. Was he a German spy? Why would he give America the plans for such a sophisticated engine?
You see, during his last years in Germany, Hans had worked with a team of engineers (among them Wernher von Braun) developing this engine which they believed capable of powering a plane from Berlin to New York in just six hours.
But when the engine was finally tested and proved capable of just such an accomplishment, the German government declared it a national secret. The team had been assured that their efforts were for civilian use.
It was just another dagger in Hans' heart. He had seen the ravages of war and he was fearful of a repeat. He now realized the application of this new engine was military.
So, after his meeting with the Secretary of War, Hans returned to Dinwiddie and watched as war drew closer for America.
And he, too, was being watched.
In building Ye Blue Tartane, Hans had had a dispute with Vepco, the Virginia Electric Power Company, over whether or not he should have a commercial rate. So he built a small power plant of his own and each day he had to service the twin diesel engines.
His neighbors observed him entering that small outbuilding every day. He was reported to the FBI and was pickup up, taken to Washington and questioned as if he were a German spy.
Foreigners, particularly Germans, drew the wary eyes of all Americans as war approached. Neighbors thought that Hans was relaying information to his homeland when in actuality he was just maintaining his own electric plant.
It finally became clear to the FBI that Hans was not a spy and he returned home.
Throughout all his years in America Hans gave of himself. A service club needed a headquarters and Hans was asked to use his considerable skills to build it. He did so. But he was never asked to join the organization.
He was a man easily angered. But Annelise only had to touch his arm and say, "Now Hans, that’s enough," and it was easy to see the anger leave him.
During the war years Hans frequently traveled to Washington, revealing location and design of the many power plants and bridges he had helped construct in Germany. This information was used in carrying out bombing raids.
Perhaps others provided the same data, but Hans had helped build these plants and bridges and was far more familiar with them than anyone else in America.
He never asked his adopted country for anything in return. He had been turned down for U.S. military service four times and he just wanted to do his part as all other good Americans were doing at the same time.
And after the war, until his death in 1958, he continued to give to his country and his neighbors. He and Annelise designed and made elaborate costumes for a Christmas pageant held each year at St. John's Episcopal Church in Petersburg.
Hans loved America. It was a place of freedom, freedom to say and do as you please, to express your thoughts and not expect retaliation from the government.
All he ever really wanted was to fit in. He never really did. He just gave to others from his soul.
Hans Simmons was an inspiration to me as I grew up. After my family moved from Dinwiddie, I only saw Hans a few times before his death. But I constantly heard the stories of Hans' "gifts."
To me, Hans demonstrated the true meaning of Christmas. He constantly gave and asked for nothing in return. He followed the example set 2000 years ago in a land he knew as a young engineer in Jerusalem.
And Hans Simmons was a Jew.