Listen: DC2A Remembering Robert Treuer (Olson) Voices of Minnesota

A profile of Robert Treuer, who died at the age of 89. Treuer was a writer, activist, and a tree farmer near Bemidji. The story of his life intersects with some of the most important themes of world and regional history in the 20th century. Program presents MPR’s Dan Olson interviewing Robert Treuer, as part of our "Voices of Minnesota" series. 


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GARY EICHTEN: We learned this week of the death of Robert Treuer, a writer and activist and a tree farmer near Bemidji. He was 89 years old. And the story of his life intersects with some of the most important themes of the world and regional history in the 20th century.

So first up this hour, we're going to listen to Dan Olson's interview with Robert Treuer from our Voices of Minnesota series. This was originally broadcast exactly nine years ago today in 2007. Here's longtime MPR News reporter, Dan Olson.

DAN OLSON: Minnesota is home to many who have escaped countries where governments commit human rights abuses. 80-year-old Robert Treuer is one of those who has found a home here. Robert Treuer grew up in a Jewish family in Austria. His father was a shopkeeper and a political activist. His mother was a musicologist.

In 1938, Nazi Youth gangs roamed Austria's cities. Jews, young and old, religious and secular, became their targets. Treuer and his parents escaped Austria before World War II and before the Holocaust. Their journey eventually brought them to the United States after long stopovers in Great Britain and Ireland.

As an adult in this country, Robert Treuer worked as a laborer, a union organizer, a high school teacher, and a writer. He moved to Minnesota in 1958 with his first wife and three children and became a tree farmer in the northern part of the state. The Treuer family tree farm is 400 acres in gently rolling land near Bemidji, mostly red pine grow there.

There's a small lake and some marshland. The family home is surrounded by tall pine trees. I talked with Robert Treuer at his kitchen table. Treuer is lean, medium height, plenty of hair left on his head. He wears glasses and on this day was dressed in blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and a down vest.

Robert Treuer, you were born and raised in Vienna, Austria, and you got out just in the nick of time. Say just a word about dashing across the trolley tracks there and escaping some folks who were after you. What was that all about?

ROBERT TREUER: I was 12 years old. This was after the Germans invaded and annexed Austria and the persecution of Jews began promptly. Passes were issued that identified your religion.

I was identified on a streetcar on my way to school by a group of Hitler Youth who came after me. And I leaped off the streetcar, ran in front of it as it started to move, and took off. By the time the streetcar had left, I was gone, and out of their sight.

DAN OLSON: What do you think they were intent on doing to you?

ROBERT TREUER: I would have been beaten up at a minimum.

DAN OLSON: And you were seeing this perhaps on a daily basis?

ROBERT TREUER: Yes, I witnessed it. And fortunately, we escaped through my father's [NON-ENGLISH]. He was politically savvy. He knew what was coming, even though my mother and other relatives did not want to believe it. And he insisted that we make every effort to escape. And we did.

DAN OLSON: How did you escape?

ROBERT TREUER: My mother, a musician, a musicologist, was persuaded to apply for work with an employment agency in England. You see you could not enter another country such as England, much less the United States, unless you had proof of employment or someone's sponsor you.

And she applied for a job and did get a job as a live-in maid in an English household in the countryside. Somehow and I think through some refugee organization, a place was found for me because my mother's employers did not want another child and the household would not take me. And a place was found for me in a boarding school in London.

At the border between Germany and Belgium, the train was stopped, of course, searched. All refugees were ordered off the train. And we were standing in a cluster of about 30 or 40 people on the platform and we were immediately surrounded by heavily armed storm troopers, and the train left.

Mother, very short, blond, blue-eyed, took a quick look around. We stood in the middle of this moil of people and she grasped me by the wrist and said, "Come," and elbowed her way through the crowd between two surprised guards and on into the station. The people were removed. We sat in the station. And I got my first cup of coffee there as we sat and sat and sat.

And finally, after an interminable time, another train came. And being a child, impatient, I wanted to get up. And I took one look at my mom and she just sat there stony-faced and did not move. And people got off, other people got on, and everything in me said, "Get up, get up," but I didn't.

And suddenly my mom said, "Come." And we rushed out across the platform, climbed on the train as it started to move. And of course, a few seconds later were across the border in Belgium and on with our voyage.

DAN OLSON: If she hadn't grabbed you by the hand and pulled you away quickly into the train station, who knows what would have happened?

ROBERT TREUER: She saved my life, just as my father saved our lives by insisting that we make every effort to get out.

DAN OLSON: Your time in Great Britain was good because you were alive but not so happy. You couldn't get into a particular school. What happened there?


ROBERT TREUER: One of the ironies of life. The school which had agreed to take me in, when the headmaster of the school caught sight of me he said I could not enter. He could not accept me. He said, "This boy is not Jewish."

This was an Orthodox school. My hair was cut. I had no knowledge of Hebrew. I had not been brought up in a religious household at all. Failed every quiz he gave me and he said, "No, we cannot compromise the integrity of the school."

And it was explained to him that even at 12 years of age if I was caught by the authorities not being where I was supposed to be, I was subject to deportation. He said, "I'm sorry. We can't take him." And I had to leave.

And another school was found for me. And that turned out to be a snake pit, something straight out of Dickens, where, of course, I had virtually none of the language. I could not be sent to classes. And before the first day was out, I had been sexually abused and I had no one to tell and no way of telling. And like other victims of sexual abuse, took it to be my fault.

DAN OLSON: You were separated from your mother. I mean, you were prevented from living together.

ROBERT TREUER: Of course. And I had no way of reaching her, not that she could have done anything. But fortunately, an uncle who had escaped and was living in London came to visit me. And while I didn't tell him, he could tell something was very wrong.

And through his efforts, he made connections with the American Friends Service Committee-- well, the English counterpart, the Quakers. And after a stay of about three or four weeks in a refugee camp for orphans of the Spanish Civil War, [CHUCKLES] which the British had provided in the heart of London, in Kensington Park, home of Peter Pan, which was run by a Viennese refugee who had known my father.

I was taken to the entrance gate of that camp from the boarding school and met by the director and his wife. And he said, "Are you Fritz Treuer's son?" I said, "Yes." "Where is he?" "Back in Vienna." "Run."

And I ran. I ran into the camp and a mass of dark-haired, dark-skinned children looking just like me came running toward me. They spoke Spanish, I spoke German, and I was swept up and disappeared. One more child in Kensington Park. And that's where I found a safe haven.

And later a legal one was found for me a few weeks later through the good services of the Quakers in a boarding school in Waterford, Ireland, which a few years ago, I went back to visit to give my thanks because they too saved my life. And that wonderful school took me in.

And there I stayed until months later, my father managed to escape from Vienna after harrowing experiences, and we were reunited. And through great good luck, we found a sponsor in the United States entirely by chance.

We had no relatives. My father had an acquaintance who had a son in New York who could not sponsor us. He had already sponsored the maximum number of people who put a 3 by 5 card on the bulletin board of the New York Athletic Club saying this family needs a sponsor to save their lives, et cetera, et cetera.

And when he came out from lunch, the card had gone, and he had no idea who took it. Somebody took it and then provided the necessary affidavit that enabled us to come to the United States. We had no idea who this man was.

DAN OLSON: Literally, you did not meet him or know him at that point?

ROBERT TREUER: No. We were met at the boat by someone he sent, a man who had waited many hours of what was late, who met us. And he said, "My name is Mr. Gemurtly.


I am agent for Mr. So-and-so who sponsored you. He sent me. Welcome. Mr. So-and-so is glad to have enabled you to escape, but he expects you will make no demands on him, et cetera, et cetera."

And my mother, being feisty, bristled, and was about to tell him that we had no intentions of making any demands on him-- Dad plucking at her sleeve. But as matters turned out, a friendship developed between this gentleman and my parents, and they corresponded.

And long after their deaths, I found a letter from this gentleman addressed to my father a few months after our landing in New York, by which time we had settled in a small town in Ohio, and the letter said, "Dear Mr. Treuer, I am in receipt of your check for $2 and some cents, and I know how hard it is for you to come up with this money. I consider this payment in full and will accept no further."

DAN OLSON: The debt was repaid as far as he was concerned.


DAN OLSON: Robert Treuer explaining how he and his mother escaped Austria before World War II.

GARY EICHTEN: You're listening to Dan Olson's interview with Robert Treuer from our Voices of Minnesota series. This was originally broadcast in 2007. We're listening back to this after we learned that Robert Treuer died earlier this month at the age of 89. Here's more from Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Olson.

DAN OLSON: The Treuer family-- mother, father, and son Robert survived and thrived in the United States. Treuer lives in a part of Northern Minnesota once covered with thick stands of white pine. The trees were clear-cut in the late 19th and early 20th century, and then white settlers tried to farm the land. But as Treuer and others knew trees, not farm crops are what the land is suited for. Here's more of our conversation.

ROBERT TREUER: This had been when we moved here in 1958, a truly abandoned farm. Several families had tried to make a go of it farming here, and in the sandy soil and the short growing season, it just didn't work out for them.

DAN OLSON: Because when we dig down a foot, what do we find underneath?

ROBERT TREUER: You don't even have to go a foot and you find sand. And of course, when the white settlers first came here in the early 1900s, there was a covering of humus, some rich black dirt. But it didn't take very long to used that up.

And then in the drought of the 1930s and the Dust Bowl and the forest fires that swept through this country, through the slash left behind by the logging, the timber barons, there wasn't very much left, and people tried desperately. When we moved here, we saw the remnants and the signs of it in the abandoned farm machinery and the many, many attempts to make a go of it.

DAN OLSON: Yeah, part of me wants to say, what were they thinking? They must have known something about farming, looked at the country and saw its trees, not fields. Why would we try to make a living farming?

ROBERT TREUER: When they came, there were no trees. When the settlers came, the logging companies had come and gone. And it didn't take them long at all.

Across a little lake from here on the hillside is the site, I'm told, of the last log drive on the Upper Mississippi, and that was in the early 1920s. And a very old man who participated then as a boy told me about it, and that was the end of it.

The logging boom was so short-lived in the span of 20 or 25 years. It started and went to a full boom-- and no pun intended, and ended.

DAN OLSON: And the area has changed forever, still not recovered, or recovered in a different way?

ROBERT TREUER: Recovered perhaps in a different way. 40 miles from here, there's a 40-acre tract, which, through a surveyor's error, was missed when the logging companies came through. It's referred to as the Lost 40.

DAN OLSON: Have you seen it?

ROBERT TREUER: I have seen it and I have taken my children to it and they have gone and shown it to their friends. And it gives you a hint, a little teasing insight of what this country would have been like.

I was told once by the late Roger Jourdain of Red Lake that he had been told when he was a boy by a very old man-- now this goes back when the storyteller was a boy walking from the village of Redby to the village of Red Lake before the timber was cut, it was at high noon on a clear day so dark that you did not see the sun. And it was almost like evening.

DAN OLSON: The canopy of the great white pine.

ROBERT TREUER: The canopy of the great white pine.

DAN OLSON: Planting trees, how did you learn to become a tree farmer? That must have been a very steep learning curve.

ROBERT TREUER: Through the good offices of the County Extension Service which at that time had a forester on duty. I'd worked on a farm as a youngster and I knew that I didn't know-- I knew enough to know I didn't know enough. And I didn't fully appreciate the climate or the shortness of the growing season and so on.

But the foresters said, look, this used to be forest around here. The state has a program. Tree seedlings are available at low cost. The County has a tree-planting machine. I didn't know at the time what that was.

It was a device that you pull with a tractor which plows a furrow and you sit astride the furrow and set the seedlings into the furrow which closes behind you through the packing wheels of the planting machine. And we thought, why not?

That was something beyond the why not that we never talked about, but that was there. And that was the idea of giving something back to the land that took us in. In the day-to-day efforts that seemed pretty remote, we couldn't even begin to picture what it would look like. But I see it today and I go out and walk in the tree plantation and I am in a cathedral.

DAN OLSON: You did have to go off and get a paycheck sometimes from different locations. You worked in the federal government Office of Economic Opportunity someplace else, too. What was that all about?

ROBERT TREUER: Well, in the beginning, I took any job that I could get. I think the first job I got around here was in construction, labor. I didn't last very long because the contractor found out I had been a union organizer and was afraid I would organize the workforce and I got fired.

I then got a job as a radio announcer at less than minimum wage, et cetera, et cetera. You do what you have to do.

DAN OLSON: You burned out on the labor organizing in Wisconsin, in Sheboygan, I think it was. That was a rough time. That was rough stuff. You were up against-- did you describe this person as a feudal baron?

ROBERT TREUER: It was the coal and plumbing fixtures company, which is to this day in a company town and owned by one family, very paternalistic. And the strike there was very long. It was said at the time to be one of the longest and most violent strikes in American labor history. I think that's overstated.

Eventually, the strike was one of the-- at least seven or eight years in the courts because the company had violated federal laws in deliberately causing and creating the strike. And eventually, the union won. It's back in the plant now. Relations are amiable, and the wheel of history has turned a few cogs.

DAN OLSON: But you did encounter violence at one turn in the strike, which I think you've written and gave you a very disconcerting, discouraging insight into human relations and how humans react.

ROBERT TREUER: If violence solved human problems, we wouldn't have any left, would we? And sometimes when you get very angry and very frustrated and you think of retaliation and eventually if you live long enough, you find out that's counterproductive and destroys a part of you as well as of the enemy.

So choices have to be made. And my choice was I did not want to live a life of retribution. I wanted to find a different way of living.

DAN OLSON: Writer and Northern Minnesota tree farmer Robert Treuer. You're listening to Voices of Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm Dan Olson.

Robert Treuer second wife was a member of a Northern Minnesota Ojibwe band and Treuer was adopted into an Ojibwe family. He has four children by the second marriage. Treuer has written several books and one titled The Tree Farm.

He recounts learning traditional Ojibwe ways, including gathering wild rice. Ricing is a late summer activity in a canoe. One person sits in front and uses two sticks to bend and knock the rice into the canoe, while the second person propels the canoe forward with a long pole. Here's more of our conversation.

ROBERT TREUER: You and your partner are quite often debate on who is the best knocker that is knocking the rice into the canoe as against who is the best puller. And the traditional way of sorting this out is that the person who does not want to pull-- well, that's usually both of you, will drop the pole on the head of the one who is knocking rice sitting in the seat. And you do that often enough then the one knocking rice says, here, let me pull, and that settles the argument.

DAN OLSON: So I'm looking into the personality of Robert Treuer and trying to get to the bottom of it. And here you're pulling along and some metal piece on the end of the pole has gone into the bottom.


And you'll be darned if you're going to lose that. And so what did you do? You jump in and you're up to your neck in water.

ROBERT TREUER: Yeah. And all you had in the water is you dive down and try for the duckbill at the end of your pole.

DAN OLSON: Now, why is this such an important piece of equipment?

ROBERT TREUER: Well, it makes it a lot easier. And you need either a fork stick tied to the end of the pole or one of these store-bought, the duckbills, one or the other. And once you are in the middle of a rice field and you lose, say, the duckbill or the fork stick, the only remedy is to retrieve it, or you leave the rice field, you go back on land, you cut another one, you lose most of the day and the harvest.

So, yes, we lost the duckbill. And yes, I jumped overboard and I dove down and I dug around in the muck and I found it. And we were back into ricing. Yes.

DAN OLSON: Robert Treuer's voice and eyes fill with emotion when he reflects on his life and on the many people who have helped him along the way, starting as a child when his parents let him out of Nazi-controlled Austria, and including people who helped him make a life in Northern Minnesota 50 years ago, and then marrying into and being adopted into an Ojibwe family. Here's more of our conversation.

ROBERT TREUER: One of the greatest beauties of Northern Minnesota and largely unrecognized is the beauty of traditional native culture. And I have been truly blessed to have been permitted to participate in it. I'll share just one little anecdote with you.

One day, a few years ago, a neighbor stopped by. He said, "Did you know that so-and-so died?" A fairly young Native woman with five children who had died of cancer. She fought it as courageously as she could and finally succumbed.

And he said, "We're going to keep fire for her. We'd like you to come." And this means in the traditional custom building fire and keeping it going day and night for four days and four nights throughout the burial process. And as we sat around the fire and it was a somewhat damp cool evening, the woman's five children sat with us. And there were perhaps 10 or 15 of us sitting around the fire at that time.

And the woman's sons kept the fire going. And as the children sat there, sandwiched between adults, some of whom were relatives, some of whom were neighbors, it didn't have to be said, it was just there-- you will be cared for, you will be sheltered, you will be loved. This attitude is so embedded in part and parcel of Native culture.

There is a richness and a love here which I relish. And I am indeed blessed in this long life of mine, not only by the love of my large family but of the larger family which has taken me in, and the land that was taken away from the Indians made room for me, and the Indian people of this area who have taken me in, and I am grateful.

DAN OLSON: Robert Treuer, a pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much for your time.


DAN OLSON: Northern Minnesota tree farmer and writer Robert Treuer. One of his books titled The Tree Farm recounts his family's escape from pre-World War II Austria and his time in the United States.

You've been listening to Voices of Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm Dan Olson.

GARY EICHTEN: You've been listening to an interview with Robert Treuer that originally aired on this day, January 22 in 2007. Treuer died earlier this month at the age of 89.


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