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The war began for the Hagelman family in Kansas in 1939 when Daniel made the decision to leave his family. Newborn daughter Maggie was just minutes old when he left her, his wife Ida, and their home above their grocery store in Topeka, Kansas, to travel to England to volunteer with British forces to help defeat Hitler.
Daniel’s grandparents had left Germany to eventually settle in Topeka two generations before, when anti-semitism drove them from Heidelberg, where they operated a kosher meat market in the Jewish quarter. In 1935, more Hagelman relatives came from Berlin as the Nazi threat to Jews became increasingly ominous. Long evenings of serious discussion among new arrivals, Cousins Berta and Jacob Hotzel, and Ida and Daniel, brought sharp focus to the evil that was brewing in Germany. “Adolf Hitler und hees Nazis are devils,” Cousin Berta declared. “Hees thugs come in night to bookshop next door to our market, throw stones through vindows, burn books in street. They break vindows in our market und steal meat, butcher tools, wreck everyting. Jews not safe on streets. Hitler lie about us. Ve not lif in dirt or haf sickness. Ve not steal babies to make Jewish.”
“Yes,” Jacob added, “und verse, so many Germans belief dees lies: “Jews steal our wealth, Jews sell us out in the Great War. Our German friends and neighbors turn against us.”
“Dere are stories of labor camp und Jews taken avay in middle of night, never to be see again,” Berta added. “Und verst of all, many Americans not vant us here. Tank God ve haf you to come to!”
Every Saturday at temple, at coffee or lunch in the local deli, around dinner tables, the Jewish community in Topeka spoke with growing concern about the horrors of Hitler’s antisemitism. Other strong voices spoke out about the necessity of opposing Hitler’s policies. One evening on the radio, the Hagelmans heard the editor of The Emporia Gazette, a small-town newspaper in Emporia, just fifty miles south of Topeka. That editor, William Allen White, Progressive friend of former President Teddy Roosevelt, influenced Daniel with his words. As Chairman of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, White described the Nazi threat by saying,
“It stands just beyond our borders waiting. What your sacrifices will be, what hardships you may meet, what anguish you may know, I cannot prophesize. I only know unless that beast is chained upon the fields of France, your lives will be maimed and mangled by its claws.”
White’s warning and the experiences of Daniel’s own family convinced him to act, to do what he could to help stop Hitler’s assault upon human decency. “I know Americans are struggling to do the right thing,” Daniel stated one evening at dinner. “The Isolationists want us to stay out of the fighting. That’s understandable. So many died in the Great War. Memories of thousands dying of disease and mustard gas in the trenches remain vivid. They think the broad oceans will keep us safe, but modern aeroplanes and U-boats can reach us. Meanwhile thousands are suffering. My heart breaks to leave you, Ida, and our little child, but I must go to keep my country, my people, and you—my family—from harm.”
Daniel would make his decision in March of 1939. The Japanese, allies of Hitler’s German Reich, made the decision for America on December 7, 1941, when they launched their deadly attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. By then, Daniel Hagelman was already in Lyon, France with a British commando unit helping the French Resistance.