| Home |

Michael Luick-Thrams: TRACES' Executive Director

 Resume | Dissertation | Friends Journal article

current projects

[under construction]


A historian, writer and lecturer, Michael Luick-Thrams’ work with TRACES began in 1989, when he began to research and record the experiences of eleven U.S. Americans who lived, worked or traveled through Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. In 1993, when he settled in Berlin for eight years and earned a doctorate in modern European history, he researched the lives of refugees who fled the Third Reich and later found a safe haven in non-occupied continental Europe, Britain, Latin America or the United States. The complex legacy of that historical migration fascinated him and served as a motor for further research. That on-going research came to include the experiences of the 10,000 German prisoners of war (POWs) imprisoned at Camp Algona in Iowa and its 35 branch camps in four neighboring states, and the stories of Midwest soldiers and airmen captured by the Germans and kept as POWs in Nazi Germany—as well as biographies of American journalists, diplomats, internees, school girls and others who encountered Germans or Austrians during the Hitler period. The research increasingly documented the deadly disasters wrought by the failure of democracy, the establishment of fascism, and the rise of hyper-patriotism, militarism and war—be that in Germany or elsewhere, in history or at present.
        Over the years Michael has appeared as a guest lecturer at hundreds of middle- and high schools, colleges and universities, and cultural and religious institutions across the U.S., and in Germany, England, South Africa, Australia and Uruguay. A captivating and moving public speaker, he actively facilitates empathy among his audiences for those affected by the Nazi “experiment” and helps his listeners apply lessons of the past to current situations and to their own lives. To understand how this Iowa farm boy came to spend over a quarter of his life living in Europe, one must retrace Michael’s movements for the last decade and a half. After student teaching at New York’s Friends Academy (a Quaker prep school founded in 1876) for a year (1990-91), Michael worked in San Francisco in battered women’s and homeless shelters, soup kitchens and AIDS clinics with Mennonites and the Brethren before volunteering for the United States Peace Corps. About that pivotal experience, Michael writes:

“On the Fourth of July 1991, 44 other Peace Corps volunteers and I flew from Atlanta to then-existent Czechoslovakia. After a summer of grueling Czech lessons in a sleepy provincial Bohemian town, U.S. ambassador Shirley Temple Black swore in us tired yet excited volunteers. I immediately left Prague for Ostrava—the Gary/Indiana of Czechoslovakia—to teach history, pedagogy and English in that dirty, desperate industrial town of almost a million sad, broken souls. Stranded there among them, I spent two of the most demanding, desolate years of my life. The so-called Velvet Revolution had taken place only some 18 months before our arrival; it was a tumultuous, unsettling juncture in the history of the ‘Wild East’. The Iron Curtain had fallen abruptly and shattered into messy shards, which lay rusting all around us.

“Ostravska Univerzita housed me and other foreign lecturers in a former communist big-wig’s vacant villa on a mountain top overlooking the smog-cloaked city—the republic’s third largest. Although another mountain chain lay a mere 16 kilometers across the valley, from Hostalkovice we could see the opposite peaks only a handful of days a year—so filthy were the former Stalinist regime’s coal mines, iron foundries and chemical plants. The still-state-owned shops in the colorless city center offered nothing worth buying and people hardly had money to buy the few things that one could find. The woods surrounding the villa where we foreign “guests” resided were sick and dying from industrial pollution; in summer our skins broke out in rashes due to the toxin-soaked soil where we unthinkingly grew a humble garden to supplement the meager fare offered in the pitiful markets.”

       During those years Michael traveled to Israel and Egypt, to Spain and Portugal, Slovakia and Vienna, and to Greece and Turkey via the Balkans. Since then he has spent a month each in India and Nepal, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Vietnam and Indonesia/Malaysia, Russia and the Baltic, Chile and Argentina, and Uruguay.
        In summer 1993 Michael moved to Berlin, where in 1997 he completed a doctoral dissertation at Humboldt Universitaet titled “Creating ‘New Americans’: WWII-Era European Refugees’ Formation of American Identities”. Concurrently, he wrote Out of Hitler’s Reach, a documentation of Scattergood Hostel, the abandoned Quaker boarding school in Iowa where from 1939 to 1943 185 refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe found a new life. He also began a series of speaking tours across the United States—at institutions including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington/D.C., universities and private high schools, museums and archives, churches and Quaker meetings and synagogues, etc. Michael notes that “invariably, regardless of where I’ve told this tale, audiences’ responses have been warm and enthusiastic—for which I am glad, since I got to know 40 surviving refugees and former staff and now feel obliged to share their story.”
        Michael adds: “The Berlin city council supported the Scattergood Hostel project from the start and generously, enabling me to travel to ‘Amerika’ twice to interview survivors, plus scour relevant archives in London and Munich as well as Stateside. Beyond that, the monthly stipend the Berliner Senat granted me for two years more than paid my cheap rent in a tumble-down, pre-war tenement near the almost-vanished Wall. Having spent the first 18 years of my life stranded on a farmstead-island in a sea of Iowa cornfields (I was 12 before I met an African-American, 16 before I saw a mountain, 17 before I saw an ocean, 18 before I knew what a nuclear weapon was, 20 before I met a Jew, etc.), I felt obligated to be a ‘good steward’ of the funds awarded me. Honoring the Quaker tenet to ‘live simply so that others might simply live”, all my adult life I have treaded as lightly on the Earth as I could—for example, I haven’t owned a car from 1988 to 2001 and only submitted to acquiring a credit card in 1998 (I got it to be able to rent cars when traveling). And traveling I do, as I have lots of catching up to do in order to see even a fraction of this fabulous, swiftly changing world of ours which I mostly missed during the first half of my life.”
        Now based in St. Paul, Minnesota, with frequent and long sojourns in Germany, Michael continues to research the causes and effects of fascism—especially the role of the “little people” who so easily fall prey to clever propaganda, blindly support demagogues and unthinkingly carry out their leaders’ cynical, often murderous policies. Increasingly, as a scholar and a Quaker, Michael feels compelled to draw contemporary comparisons with past evils and to speak out in a world where democracy is increasingly threatened, where hyper-patriotism and fundamentalist religion are co-opted by insincere politicians for illicit goals, where militarism once casts a destructive shadow across the lives of millions and where war is sinisterly peddled to the enabling masses as “peace”.


| Home |