La Jolla Monthly Meeting remembers with fondness our beloved member, Edith Elizabeth Wagner, who died on October 12, 2012, a month before her 98th birthday.
Edith was born in Lemgo, Germany on November 17, 1915. She was haunted all of her adult life by the atrocities that happened in Germany during her youth and made it her life mission both to understand what happened and to deal with the collective guilt she felt. Edith wrote a memoir in the late 1980’s which explained her conflicts and attempts to comprehend them. Much of the information in this minute is taken from that memoir.
Born 18 years before the Nazis came into power, Edith described her childhood as idyllic. She was raised a Catholic in a large family of modest means. From an early age, she described being moved by social injustice, having first become aware of it in fairy tales. She witnessed the effects of the Depression on the German economy both in her home and in the long unemployment lines in the cities. Schools did not teach about recent historical events and people did not know politically what had happened in and after World War I. Edith said that the Germans didn’t read much for lack of reading materials and that the radio was used and misused by political parties. Hitler’s propaganda machine used the radio to reach the hardest hit laborers promising a strong country again. People slowly became sucked in by the propaganda. Edith said that church attendees were declared stupid. While believing in the promised social reforms, she became uneasy with the slogans which stated that Germans belonged to a super race. Rather than serving the Fatherland by working in a farming camp, she volunteered as a Red Cross helper. As a teenager, she was horrified when her neighbor was forced to walk on the street with a star over his heart signifying a “Jew.” She realized that the man was a scapegoat and had to pay for others’ mistakes. That day she became an anti-Nazi.
In 1937 she became engaged to Wolfgang Karlinger whose father was a professor in a university without a party membership card. He suffered great discrimination and attempted suicide. She moved to Munich to be close to that family. Wolfgang and Edith were married in November, 1939. A promising architect, Wolfgang was drafted into the army a few months later and she stayed with his family. During that time she gave birth to Crystl. After the birth of their second child, Wolgang-Peter, she moved back to Lemgo to be with her family as the countryside was less dangerous. She worked on a farm and brought people home who were living in misery; her family had to figure out how to feed them.
Wolfgang and Edith were married only 11 years and were separated more than together. Their third child Susanne, was born in 1948 after his release from prison camp. He died two years later at the age of 37 of a large brain tumor.
Edith said the family really didn’t know what was happening in Germany, and she first saw the pictures of the concentration camps in newsreels in movie theaters after the war. A shock wave of horror ran through her. Her Aunt Elise invited her to attend two eight-day Quaker meetings organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1945 and 1946. Attending were people from several countries and ethnic groups, representing extremely conservative to extremely liberal views. Discussions were loud, angry and frightening. But when the Quakers called for silence, everyone was able to return to their inner need to reconcile. She learned that many problems had their roots in misunderstandings and misconceptions about the “enemy.”
In looking at herself, she realized that she had been more often patriotic than humanistic and that she experienced great conflicts while her husband was forced to be a soldier. However, she stated that she never felt that she had added one ounce of hatred towards the Jews. She decided that her role in life would be that of a mediator in a small and humble way. She felt it was important not only to be against something but to be for something. Thus, she became a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Edith remarried in September 1951, knowing it was too soon after Wolfgang’s death, but her new husband Freidrich Wagner had received a job offer at the University in Kansas. The family moved to the United States three months later. Assimilating was difficult, but in time Edith realized that Americans did not blame them personally for the horrors in Germany. She learned English very slowly. They moved to Pennsylvania and then to San Diego. It was in San Diego that Edith at the age of 53 decided to leave her 17- year marriage which had been turbulent. Her daughter and son-in-law took her and the younger daughter in.
Adjusting to being single and managing financially was difficult. In time Edith made many close friends who helped her deal with her grief as well as shared her joys. She also found spiritual strength and learned to recognize a power within her given by her Creator. She described it as a power to endure, to create, and a power even to change things that needed to be changed.
Edith immersed herself in community projects over the next 40 years. She believed in unconditional love and simple living, and her life became devoted to making the lives of others better. At her memorial, someone said that her middle name was “social justice.” She supported many social service agencies and churches, both as a volunteer and with her minimal finances. She made quilts for children in Tijuana and St. Vincent’s Children’s Center. She supported foster children, and volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul and Mama’s Kitchen. Her generosity touched the lives of many Bolivians through her long time support of Quaker Bolivia Link. She packed lunches and handed them out to her homeless friends. Edith also was a nature lover and found great solace and pleasure in nature. She walked all over until the age of 96.
Edith became a member of La Jolla Monthly Meeting in 2004. A memorial was held for her at the apartment complex in which she lived on November 18, 2012.The statement given by her family at the time of her death was: “Edith passed with the same dignity with which she lived. The faith and spirituality which guided her life remained a constant and her last days were filled with gratitude for the blessings, love and friendships she experienced.”
La Jolla Meeting Friends will miss this loving, effervescent, deeply spiritual woman.