Local link to German family brings exchange student to Purdy
Hannah Falter's visit may help forge future international connection
A foreign exchange student association that has grown into a lasting friendship took another step with a German family returning the favor and sending their daughter to spend four months in Purdy.
The story began 26 years ago, when David Mareth, son of Bob and Marlene Mareth, now of Monett, spent a year as a foreign exchange student in Germany. The Mareths developed a lasting friendship with the Switalski family, visiting them three times over the years. David returned two years ago with his daughter, Chelsea, when she was the same age he was on his first visit. Last summer David visited the family's 500-year-old farm in Bavaria, in the southern part of Germany, with some of his agriculture students from Purdy.
There, the idea developed to reciprocate the gesture. Martina Switalski, who was in the same class as David during his exchange tour, and her husband, Stephan Falter, decided to complete the circle by sending their oldest daughter, Hannah, to America for a first semester exchange.
They came last in mid-August. Hannah will stay with the David Young family and attend school where David Mareth teaches, in Purdy. The Youngs also have three children, who are the same ages as the Falters.
David Mareth's visit was made in coordination with the FFA and the Carlduisberg agricultural organization. Hannah's stay is more of a collaboration between the two families.
"David never lost the impression that we were living in the 19th century," Martina said. "We have a small farm, a baby version of what we have seen here."
David recalled Martina's grandmother had always been suspicious of his stories that his family had moved to Missouri from Illinois when he was four, and that they had 150 dairy cows. The grandmother adamantly declared, "Farmers don't move," and, having only 20 cows, the idea of owning such a herd was unthinkable.
During their visit, David took the Falters out to some area farms to see some of the big equipment in use. The Falters also met with Purdy Superintendent Steven Chancellor to explore reciprocating the relationship further, possibly building an exchange program for students to visit them. Stephan teaches cabinet making, offering potential for a vocational exchange in an old world craft.
"Our impression of Purdy High School is that it's very familiar, well organized, and they gave us a very warm welcome," said Martina, herself a teacher of history and literature.
Hannah also had a positive impression.
"Purdy is smaller than my school and kind of different, in how you go to the same classes every day," Hannah said. "I like it. We can do what we want and teachers don't speak for 40 minutes.
"It's all very big here, even the drinks. People have been very kind. I'm looking forward to making some new friends and learning more English."
In making their first trip to the United States, the Falters made other connections along with way. Martina, who has a doctorate in history, has made telling the history of the Jewish community in her town, a community largely wiped out by the Nazis, one of her projects. She has studied extensively in the document center opened 12 years ago in Nuremberg, where an effort has been made to contact surviving Jewish families.
Albert Kimmelstiel is the last survivor from her village. Kimmelstiel survived for four years as a laborer in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where 1.1 million Jews were killed and only 400 survived.
"When I read this report, it so touched me," Martina said. "I felt I had to find him."
One of the other survivors was Kimmelstiel's best friend, Norbert Wollheim, an attorney who after the war won a suit for reparations for the Auschwitz survivors. Students from Johann Goethe University in Frankfurt honored Wollheim by interviewing him on film and placing a memorial to him with the taped interview in the entry hall of their building. During the war, their building had been company headquarters for I.G. Farben Industries, which profited on slave labor of the Auschwitz internees. Wollheim, who died in 1998, lived with Kimmelstiel in Queens, New York.
Martina began writing to Kimmelstiel two years ago. He wrote back in English, keeping his distance. At one point she sent him a photo she had found from 1932 of Kimmelstiel's school class with him in it, a scene Kimmelstiel had never been able to share with his family. That broke the ice. He opened up about his experience, visited the Falters, and they visited him during their trip.
Finishing her book on her town's Jewish community has been both difficult and rewarding. Martina recalled residents in her town criticized her for printing pictures of their family members in their Nazi uniforms. Even though Germans don't want to talk about that part of their history, Martina has made it a mission to get the stories on record, before the World War II generation is gone.
"Sometimes you have meetings with people, and sometimes afterwards you can estimate the meaning of the meeting," Martina said. "I see this connection with Hannah and the Mareths that way. It's part of the melody of the future."