The American Adventure
Wilhelm (Willem), born Groningen 1st June, 1884, died 1942, America
Willem became a distinguished cellist, with a fondness of Russia. He worked there ‘in the service of a Russian monarch’. There, he also met his wife, Maria Loekina (Moescha), probably born 14th April 1897, died 23rd February 1978 in California, America.
After the revolution of 1917 he had to flee Russia and went to America. In the archives of the city of Groningen a marriage certificate can be found, dated 16th May, 1921. It proves that Willem married Maria Loekina in Jalta, the Crimean, Russia, on 10th September, 1917. In Moscow, their daughter Moesja, was born, shortly after which they fled to the Netherlands. They found accommodation at his parents’ in Groningen. Willem did not stay long in the Netherlands. He was offered a contract with an American orchestra and left for America, probably in 1920. Both his wife and his daughter had to stay behind in Groningen, also because there was something wrong with their papers. They followed him in August 1921.
An American newspaper, the Oakland tribune, reports that Willem went to the Amsterdam Conservatorium (Academy of Music) after finishing his secondary school. After the Academy of Music he worked in Russia for a number of years. Another newspaper reports a ‘private string quartet’ of a Russian princess: Czetwertinska in Kiev (the Oakland Tribune, 20th June, 1926).
After his escape from Russia he toured through Europe for a number of years. In 1920 he ended up in America with a ‘professional tour’ and he decided to stay there.
The American adventure
Willem, Moesja and Moesja
We find out something about the life of Willem, the oldest son of Willem and Klaassien, and his wife Moesja, thanks to some preserved letters and postcards, which were sent mostly from Groningen to the United States. Of course, these letters also give one an idea of the lives of the senders: Willem, Klaassien and their daughter Anna. We also see the little Moesja growing up at Damsterdiep and Westersingel.
The oldest preserved card was sent by Willem from Antwerp to Groningen in Ocotober 1920. Part of the text is specially meant for ‘Musya’ and is written in Russian. Willem is enjoying the journey and the lovely weather. Later on he will leave for America by ship and inquires about life in Holland. ‘How is your passport getting along? I want to hear something from you.’ He asked her to write ‘poste restante New York’ and explains how that works. ‘I kiss you a thousand times. I love you. Your Wim.’
Willem was successful in America. Anyway, he earned so much that he could save money for his wife’s and child’s crossing. Furthermore, he sent money to Holland regularly, in order to help provide in the cost of housekeeping and the cost of living of his wife and daughter. The fact that they did not travel with Willem to America was mainly due to the mills of government that grind slowly. The Russian marriage between Moesja and Willem was not recognized in the Netherlands, because certain papers were missing and because there was uncertainty about Moesja’s personal data.
Little Moesja was born in Moscow and that birth certificate also caused problems. That is the reason why, initially, an American visa cannot be obtained. Several people are called in to help solve this issue. Father Willem travels to The Hague several times and eventually, with the help of a certain Viëtor, one succeeds in acknowledging the marriage and arranging the visa.
Father to Willem (in dialect): ‘As thou has told me that Wap married you in Moscow according to Dutch law is not correct. If he has told you that in Moscow, he has deceived you. A lot of trouble is being taken to set things right. It is a difficult job, all the more because the signature of the marriage certificate in your passport is illegible. Maurits Levie does the paper work and Mr Viëtor travels to the Department of Justice almost very fortnight’.
It was not easy for Moesja in Holland, especially in the beginning. As a Russian refugee in Groningen, she had to survive in the house along Westersingel, not being able to speak the language, separated from her husband, with a newborn child. We do not get to know much about the first couple of years, but they must have been lonely ones. She must have settled in gradually, though. In November 1920 Anna writes her brother (after having received a letter from him again after a very long time). She couldn’t read it immediately. I first told her in Dutch what was in the letter and after that she calmed down emotionally enough in order to be able to read the letter composedly. Later, when I said goodnight to her (she now sleeps in a small room next to mine) we talked together about all the letters from her mother, sister and husband and then she said rapturously: ‘Yes, Anneke, one big happiness everything!’
‘… and she doesn’t feel lonely anymore, but more like a daughter and sister. She is happy, cheerful, and develops a talent for sewing’.
Of course, such reports were also given to set Wim’s mind at ease in distant America. ‘You can see that there is no need to worry, that she couldn’t get along with us. We fear the day that she is going to leave us.’ Her husband sent her money regularly – sometimes at the family’s request. ‘Wim, when you send Moesje money again, then tell her it is meant to be a St. Nicholas or a Christmas present. She will like that. She loves presents so much.’
There were quite a few financial problems in Groningen. ‘Father just writes that the rent has been raised by 70 guilders, now 550 guilders in total. Anyway, that problem will be settled. Fortunately, we can stay.’ (April, 1921) Father also complains about how expensive everything is in those days, certainly taking the compulsive buying of both women into consideration … Yet, despite high prices, there was always a domestic servant in the house in Groningen. Anna: ‘I hope the new girl who will arrive on 20 May, will not be a disappointment. Lina has improved a bit, but she will always remain a German ninny.’
In preparation for the trip to America Anna taught Moesja English. March 1921: ‘She has had three lessons so far and according to me she will master the language quickly. I would like to teach her every night, but she does not want to. She was not in the mood because of all the sewing, the speaking Dutch and the effort of understanding everything. She says that once she is there she will do her utmost. Now she has to learn so many things at the Industrial School. And she cannot learn these things in America, whereas she can learn English there’.
‘The Industrial School in Groningen was a private initiative. The School had a building of its own (1904) and schooling was primarily aimed at teaching girls how to sew. Later, many of them found employment in the Groningen clothing industry.
The Industry School for girls at the Kruitlaan, around 1917
‘The first few days following her departure, Moesja was not feeling very well and this had a retrospective effect on her surroundings. But that only lasted a couple of days and at the very moment the relationship is as it should be. She really enjoys it there and would not like to miss a single day. And she acquires an enormous amount of knowledge there. She has already manufactured a beautiful cloak there.
The Russian Familiy
A great worry to Musya was the situation in Russia, where her mother, sister and brother-in-law had a hard time. November 1920: ‘Have been waiting anxiously for some news from Russia for a long time now. The latest letter caused quite some emotion for Anna, dad, mum and Moesja. They talked about all the letters from her mother, sister and her husband. Oh, if life in the Krim would not be some difficult and hopefully her family will remain healthy. When she received the first letter from Russia, I would hardly dare give her the letter’.
Sometimes letters from distant Russia arrived, but the news was never very cheerful. In March 1922 – Musya was living in the USA by then – some terrible news arrived. Anna wrote: ‘My dear poor sister, what terrible suffering happened to you (…). We had always nursed the secret hope that Jalta was not so bad at all. In Europe a lot is being done for Russia at the moment (…) Poor sister of yours, she has not had a very good life so far.
It does not become clear what exactly happened in Russia, but it must have been terrible. ‘(…) what I cannot understand is that you were sent pictures of that terrible trauma. What was the reason and who did that? You were extremely lucky to escape that fate’.
The letter refers to the kind of charitable activities that were organized for Russia. Nansen, the Arctic explorer, gave lectures all over the country to inform people about the situation in Russia. Collections were also organized. ’We have several lists and if we knew the correct address of Moesja’s family, we would certainly try to send a parcel there.’ Moesja’s mother seems to have survived the atrocities there, but the husband of Moesja’s sister died.
Little Moesja was a source of pleasure for everyone. In every letter Willem is being informed in detail about her progress and carryings-on. ‘Little Moesja was doing really fine and talked about daddy a lot. Your portrait is on the mantel-piece and if she is a bit naughty, Daddy is watching you and disapproves of it and then everything is all right again. Mother was winding up the clock this weekend and then she quickly went to get a footstove in order to support mother. Isn’t she lovely! It is really something for you, having to miss her and your wife, but in this way you do have some more space.’
‘And then your child. I have never seen such a sensible and lovely creature. You would love to see how she was able to discern good from evil gradually and learn how to bend one’s head. If she hits someone, she does know that she is doing something wrong; at first she doesn’t want to admit it, is grumbling about it, lingers for a moment, and then, finally, she approaches you affectionately and says: “Moesja won’t do it again. Moesja gives little kiss.’ You do not hear her cry a lot anymore, she is always kind and walks along splendidly.
‘You will hardly recognize your daughter, she has become a sturdily built sister, with a will of her own occasionally, who you would spoil, if you didn’t restrain yourself. We have kept your image alive for her. Daddy Willem is often talked about and she has your portrait beside her bed.
Anna: ‘Little Moesja is a darling, although she does drive us to despair by all her questions every now and again. An example: you are sitting or rather lying on the chaise longue, according to her the sofa. Then it starts: Anneke on the sofa? Anneke a headache? Oh, Anneke cold? Anneke, little blanket, yes, a puppet – no, a cup of tea maybe, will Moesja pour it for you, really very nice, it is not hot, Anneke, really, Anneke taste, now Moesja sleep alongside Anneke, just for a while, so, will give you a kiss – everything without waiting for an answer and for as long as you stay on the chaise longue. She doesn’t stand still for a moment, but she is running up and down, back and forth. And all that with that pretty little face of hers, you can hardly become angry.’
Anna: ‘Little Moesja becomes more lovely every day. She loves funfairs and riding the merry-go-round. Even when she is angry, which doesn’t happen often, she is adorable. When I have finished teaching in the morning, she comes along – she already knows this – and we walk for an hour and a half. She has so many thing to tell me then. We walk to the ships and trains and watch suitcases and she is full of enthusiasm then; it’s Dad’s ship.’
‘I would love to observe her in Groet, to watch her together with her cousin Emiel (my father). She christened one of her dolls Emiel and she took this young man along on a trip. It is a lovely child; she is very lively, but we are certainly going to miss her.’
The preparation and the trip
On 2 July, 1921 Father informs Willem that the money for the journey has been received and that Viëtor has reported by telegram and all papers were found to be in order. Moesja had to pay 737,50 guilders for a cabin, including the fare for little Moesja. The old Russian cabin trunk was repaired, Dad managed to get hold of a beautiful sample in Amsterdam.
On Tuesday, 16 July, the two Moesjas had to report at the office of the Holland Amerika Lijn for a medical examination. After the investigation, together with father, mother and Anna, they will stay in Rotterdam till the day of departure. This morning I picked up a copy of the Russian birth certificate of your daughter, so now you have all the official papers that you need.
From the records of the passenger lists we know that the two Moesjas travelled to the United States on 26 August, 1921. Their names were listed on the ss Rotterdam as Maria Dehé and her three-year old daughter.
In America they would be received by a certain Jan. He writes Willem from Mont Claire: ‘I will do whatever I can to get your wife to San Francisco as soon as possible. He complains about how busy he is: his wife (Alba) is about to conceive, he has just bought a car and he has a business partner who retreats to his farm in hectic times. A letter from him, dated 1 September, 1921: ‘Dear Willem!! Today you will be reunited with your two Moesjas and I do not doubt that will be forever!’
At first it was difficult to adjust to America. Little Moesja slept in the kitchen. Moesja Sr. had to manage without a domestic servant. The advantage: you have the place all to yourself.
Moesja described San Francisco as ‘a true paradise’. The many electrical appliances and devices, which were much more common over there than in Holland, were a revelation too. In Holland they wondered how little Moesja had experienced the long train journey from New York to San Francisco. What did she think of all the black people?
Many letters from the correspondence that has been preserved have been written by Anna, Willem’s sister. She lived in with her father and mother and had one big dream: to follow Willem to America. In the Netherlands she earned her living by teaching piano; she had enough pupils, but days were long and strenuous. April, 1921: ‘Do you know how many lessons I taught from 4 January till 25 March? 520. But by doing that more bricks of the house have become my property.
Furthermore, she had quite some problems with her health, problems that would be much less in the milder Californian climate. On 1 April, 1921 she writes that she has become exhausted by teaching so many lessons.
Of course, for people suffering from rheumatism Groningen has a miserable climate. It seems as if it was always cold in Groningen. Anna writes (October, 1920): Unfortunately, winter is already setting in here and it is not even November yet. And that is not appealing, considering the shortage of coal. One should really wear 5 flannels on top of each other.’ Anna: ‘I play tennis nowadays, or rather try to play tennis. I do not have much time for it, so it will probably not get beyond that. My throat is all right as far as it goes. One time a little better, another time less, a tedious and annoying thing. The only solution is to leave this place and move to a better climate, but that will never be possible, unless I draw first prize in the Dutch State lottery.’ December, 1921: it freezes tremendously, I am half frozen all day long, but my health has improved somewhat. The last remains of the Spanish fever have disappeared.
When the Moesjas’ trip takes more definite shape in July, 1921, Willem promises her that he will do his utmost to arrange a crossing to the paradise of Frisco for his sister. She might become part of the music society. In any case, she can help him do the housekeeping, so that Moesja can accompany her husband when he is giving a concert somewhere.
It is difficult to avoid in such a musical family: the music scene in Groningen and the U.S.A. is discussed quite often in the letters. ‘Kuiler has been a conductor for ten years this Wednesday! It is going to be quite a party. He is going to play pianoconcert no. 4 by Grieg and the pieces of music that he was conducting then. We will all go to the party. Moesja has become a member, too.’
At the moment there is a lot of commotion in Amsterdam about Mengelberg and his orchestra . Since his return from America he has become as true dictator for the members of the orchestra. He does not only have rehearsals in the morning, but also in the afternoon and in the evening. Some orchestra memebers have already had a nervous breakdown. According to letters to the editor in the Telegraaf orchestra members will have to be paid 5000 guilders overtime (for extra rehearsals). Mengelberg says that the quality of his orchestra has deteriorated so much since his absence, that extra rehearsal time is an absolute necessity. The people in Amsterdam say that Mengelberg has become insane because of conceitedness and that he should go to America forever as soon as possible. (…) So that job in Amsterdam would not really have been very attractive for you either.
The house in Groet
Anna bought the house on the Achterweg. It was not a transaction without financial worries. ‘I am totting up the balance for buying the house (November, 1920?). I hope I will be able to get a reasonable mortgage. I need to economize this year, so the house will be my property as soon as possible. I really think it wonderful that Mum and Dad will have their own cheap house and dad does not have to lug his entire life. I consider it a blessing that I am not married and can earn a lot of money. Still useful for something.’
‘I have to go the notary on 28 December (1920?). I will get 2000 or 2500 guilders as a mortgage from the Harmonie pension fund (Dad’s idea) and we hope to raise the rest of the money.’ There was also some rumour of Willem taking part in the project financially: ‘Willem, do you consider it a good idea, that we invest the money in the cottage and that I have the deed of sale changed by the notary and register the purchase in both my name and yours? Then you and your wife will have something too and it will also be yours; you will not waste your well-earned money. I would really like that and administer everything carefully.
The purpose is that Anna will follow her brother and his wife to America. The house in Groet will offer father and mother Dehé and opportunity to leave Groningen after his retirement. Father: I think it best, that when I stop working, we will go to Groet and try to live the rest of our lives there quietly. I can keep myself occupied with all sorts of agricultural activities and by breeding poultry. It is not very appealing to me to go to such a big city (he means San Francisco). Of course, that will mean we will only see each other a single time, but that is the way things go in life.’
The bond between Anna in Groningen and her brother Wim in far away America was warm and close. She is a bit more critical about her other brother – Emile – every now and again. There is a lot of appreciation about the work he does in Groet in order to renovate the house and clean up the garden (in exchange for free lodging), but every now and again she is somewhat grumpy. In any case Moesja and Maria, Emile’s wife, do not get along very well.
December 1920 (?): ‘Emiel unexpectedly came to stay for a couple of days with little Emiel. Moesja was going out with ‘her brother’ all the time and was delighted by the present she gave him. For that matter, we have all been spoiled by him. His arrival concerned the cottage, the changes in the house and the garden, the painting of the house and some carpenting. He manages everything so well (that feeling of being the true owner myself, like a chatelaine), that we let him carry on.
In July 1921 mother writes that Groet is coming along fine. ‘Emile is also beginning to understand that work has to be done. At the moment he works at Redeker’s and has made a facing brick for the front of Redeker’s new house. He now earns 25 guilders a week. I also talked to Redeker and thanked him for taking care of Emiel so well. ‘No’, he said ‘it is wonderful for me to work with him.’I really liked hearing that.
Father Willem, October 1921: ‘We have not heard much from Emiel lately. When they do not need anything they do are as silent as the grave. A habit I am going to use now too.’ Mother: ‘It is a pity that Emiel hardly ever writes, he probably thinks that as things are always miserable here (in Groet) it is not worth writing about. But we are interested in everything that takes place and in that way contact remains. Please, write him again, Wiilem. He is not very lucky in life, and sometimes he gets stuck and does not know what to do. It is a pity, he does have some qualities.‘
November 1921: ‘We finally received a letter from Miep again, in which she asked us for 35 guilders (living on credit, too, the poor souls). They seem to have worried very much about the little boy (= Klaasje). They have taken him everywhere, which has cost quite some money, but now things have improved a bit and they hope Klaasje will survive. For these 35 guilders, they were able to buy a double bed for the boys and some furniture for the cottage in Groet. We have given it as a present, because paying off doesn’t work with them anyway. One of these days we will expect Emiel here with paintings, wood carving and statues. We are anxious to find out if there will be any buyers.’
Anna, November 1921,: ‘Emiel is now regularly at work in a small studio that he made at Raedecker’s. There is no money left, so he should get back to work. I – personally – think it irresponsible towards your wife and children to spend 80.000 guilders so quickly, even if you divide it among others. Suppose he will become ill; then they will not have an income. His wife has never learned a trade, so she can’t earn any money.
Emiel sr. and Maria (Miep)
The first couple of years it was all about building up connections and getting yourself known. He was asked to play for orchestras and ensembles every now and again. The earnings were neither big nor small, but it did yield some publicity. He also gave lessons. When Moesja had joined her husband, she sometimes accompanied him to performances, if she could find a babysit.
In September 1922, Willem Dehé is mentioned as a musician in the Berkeley String Quartet. In 1923 he was already a member of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The newspaper writes: ‘one of the finest artists on this instrument that the coast has welcomed in a long time.‘
On 25 June, 1926 he is mentioned in the Oakland tribune as a ‘cellist in the San Francisco Symphony’. Willem had acquired his American nationality; he was accompanied at that ceremony by (among others) Antonio de Grassi (‘local violinist’) and A.W. Widenham, ‘manager of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’. The newspaper published a picture of this special event on 28 June. Willem associated with famous musicians.
He was also a member of the another renowed ensemble, the San Francisco String Quartet, conducted by Robin Lampson.
San Francisco String Quartet in 1937 (‘Four Gentleman of the Symphony’):
Naoum Blinder, Eugene Hayes, Willem Dehé (second from the left), Nathan Firestone.
In ‘My First 79 Years’ the famous violin player Isaac Stern describes the influence of Naoum Blinder on his development. Just like Naoum Blinder, Willem Dehé had fled Russia together with his wife and daughter. First to Japan (during a tour) and from there to New York. He taught at the Institute of Musical Art. In the beginning of the thirties he went to San Francisco, where he became ‘concertmaster’ of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1931.
The conductor of that orchestra was Pierre Monteux (in 1932 or 1933). Stern: ‘one of the truly great conductors of our time, was the first great conductor whom I met and with whom I played.’ Willem also knew Monteux very well. When he was in Holland for a concert, he often visited the Achterweg, where Emiel sr. was living.
Stern about Blinder: ‘He was my first true teacher; my only real teacher, as a matter of fact. I studied with him for five years, until I was seventeen, and I haven’t studied violin with anyone else since.’ Willem Dehé also played with Blinder and must have known Stern well.
Stern: ‘Blinder organized a string quartet, first with Willem Dehé as cellist and later with his own brother, Boris, who had become the first cellist of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. I would listen to them play. Through him I got to know all the first-chair players of the symphony. At thirteen, I began to play chamber music once or twice every week with the best musicians in the city, who adopted me as their mascot. I played with Herman Reinberg, cello; Willem Dehé, cello; Al White, viola; Mafalda Guarnaldi, violin; Lev Schorr, pianist; and Frank Hauser, a pupil of Blinder’s who in time replaced him as the concertmaster.’
Special Thanx to Mr. Herman van den Bos for this translation