When Mark Kiefer comes to the Beacon Hill Friends House on Wednesday, April 11, to discuss the life of Nora Waln, his great-aunt, as well as a Quaker and accomplished international journalist, he believes her story will have just as much relevance today as it did when she came of age nearly 100 years ago.
“Nora went to college when women couldn’t vote, yet she was able to affect change at a time when it was a daunting challenge for women in particular,” said Kiefer, who chairs the Beacon Hill Civic Association board of directors. “She was what we would call today a ‘feminist.’”
Born in 1895 and raised in rural Pennsylvania, Waln became aware of her family’s connection to the Philadelphia China trade through a chance discovery that would compel her to forgo her college career at Swathmore College to live in China for the next 12 years with the Lin family, whom Kiefer likened to the Chinese equivalent of the Rockefellers.
“Nora was the first Westerner to set foot in the homestead, gaining unprecedented access to the highest echelon of one of the most noble and wealthiest families in China,” Kiefer said. “She got to experience the very elite Chinese society, which most Chinese people never got to experience.”
When a member of the Lin family contacted Waln with the invitation to join them in China, she didn’t have the money to make the trip, but all that changed through a stroke of good fortune. Waln was sitting at a lunch counter outside of Philadelphia in 1920 when the woman sitting next to her noticed her leafing through a Chinese dictionary. The woman, as it turned out, was the head of the Red Cross in China and offered to pay Waln’s way there.
The Lins were considered “exiles” after 13th century Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan ordered them to move north from their Canton homestead to work with the Grand Canal in Hopei. Her insider’s look into Chinese customs and culture following the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty became the basis for her memoir “House of Exile,” which was translated into 14 languages and became an international bestseller.
“House of Exile” earned Waln celebrity status, and enthusiasts of the book included Adolph Hitler, who bought 35 copies to distribute to his friends. She lived in Germany from 1934 to 1938 and was allowed access to members of the Nazi party before narrowly escaping the country’s descent into war to author “Reaching for the Stars” in 1939, which was republished in paperback in 1992 under the title, “The Approaching Storm: On Woman’s Story of Germany, 1934-1938.” “Nora loved the German people and felt that their culture was being hijacked by a violent ideology,” Kiefer said. ‘In Germany, her Quaker conscience was awakened, and she learned what it means to be embrace the main Quaker tenets of pacifism and the notion that war is wrong while surrounded by militarism.”
Kiefer and his brother, Jonathan, have adapted “The Approaching Storm” into a feature-length screenplay.
During World War II, Waln served in the Friends Ambulance Unit in the UK and later was a correspondent during the Korean War with the Saturday Evening Post and the Atlantic Monthly. She returned to Germany to cover the Nuremberg Trials and also wrote extensively about post-war Japan.
“Nora was a young woman trying to find the courage to speak out against the violence and intolerance all around her,” Kiefer said of his aunt, who died in 1964. “One of the great Quaker proverbs is, ‘speak truth to power,’ which in a way was the story of her life.”
Mark Kiefer will discuss “The Remarkable Life of Nora Waln, Quaker and International Journalist” at the Beacon Hill Friends House at 6 Chestnut St. on Wednesday, April 11, at 7:30 to 9 p.m. Admission is free.