For most of 101-year-old La Jolla Shores resident Marianne Burkenroad’s life, there has been a connection to the sea. Born in Berlin, with summers spent near the Baltic, Marianne has lived in La Jolla for the better part of 50 years — walking distance from the Pacific Ocean.
But, as a youth with a Jewish father in the rise of Hitler-era Germany, some parts of her life were far from idyllic. Surrounded by her son and three of her nine grandchildren, Burkenroad (nee Schweitzer) sat down with La Jolla Light last week to discuss her life.
As a child and early teen, she said she saw the impact of Nazism and its brainwashing effects first hand.
Her father was a doctor for the German army, but was imprisoned when she was a child. Despite being a Lutheran, her mother was also imprisoned during Marianne’s early life.
“I remember the smell my mother had when I saw her in prison,” she said. “I didn’t like seeing her like that.” To make matters worse, it was a close friend who led to her family’s imprisonment.
That friend, author Melita Maschmann, wrote a book about the experience called “Account Rendered.” (Online book descriptions call it a “memoir to help former Nazi colleagues think about their actions and to help others better understand why some had been drawn to Hitler. Written as a letter to an unnamed Jewish girl, this memoir details the trajectory of a socially-conscious, well-educated, middle-class girl as she joins the Hitler Youth.”)
That “unnamed Jewish girl” ended up being Marianne.
“I read it and was appalled,” she said. “Melita was my best friend in middle school. When Hitler came to power, it was really bad. My classmates were decent people, until they were persuaded to become Nazis.
“Melita wanted to make friends again later on, but I didn’t want to.” When the book was re-released in the early 2000s, Marianne wrote the afterword.
As a result of this troubled upbringing, Marianne lived with her grandparents. She recalled: “My grandmother often had people staying with her. One of them was a wonderful pianist who played music every day, which was very interesting to me. She was from America, so I knew that was where I eventually wanted to go.”
During the summer, Marianne stayed at a house next to the Baltic Sea, where she practiced long-distance swimming.
When she finally did make it to America in the tumultuous 1930s, it was by sea. “I had no chance in Germany to do anything,” she said. So she took a risk and departed by boat to England, bound for America on her own, and took advantage of the opportunities before her.
“I landed in New York from England. I got a job at a restaurant, and there was a Quaker woman I befriended who asked me if I wanted to go to college. I said yes and we went to Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. I studied anthropology and my major was philosophy. One of the professors got me into Yale, so I went there for my master’s degree in anthropology.”
There, she met her first husband, Martin.
Because Martin got a job in North Carolina, and wanted her to come with him, the two married. “In North Carolina, they were famous for moving houses … and our house was closer to the highway and we wanted it to be closer to the water, so we moved our house,” she said.
Their son, William, added that Martin was a marine biologist who observed that hurricanes had shaved off some of the coastline over the years: “So although they wanted a house near the ocean, they put the house a few hundred feet back. But when we visited in the 1970s, it was right on the ocean.”
Their oldest son, David, was born in North Carolina. Following Martin in the course of his job-related moves, the Burkenroad family lived in Pacific Beach; Texas, where William and his sister Andrea were born; and Panama, where Marianne pioneered the immersion method of language learning in the early 1960s.
Later that decade, the family moved to La Jolla Shores, just a few blocks from where she lives now. “My husband worked on some Scripps projects, so we wanted to be close to the campus. It reminded me a little bit of the Baltic Sea,” she said. “I liked that. Who wouldn’t like it here?”
By the 1970s, she was enmeshed in the community, giving time and money to museums in Balboa Park, and participating in the La Jolla Rough Water Swim, now the La Jolla Open Water Swim. (After the heavy discussion about her upbringing, Nazism and betrayal, mention of her involvement in the La Jolla Rough Water Swim brought a room-illuminating smile.)
“I was never a fast swimmer, but I was a long-distance swimmer, having practiced in the Baltic Sea,” Burkenroad said. “I still have the trophy to this day.” True to her word, she produced the trophy for her 1974 win in the category of Women 55 and Older. “The woman that came in second place was so far behind me, when she came out of the water, she didn’t see me, so she thought she won!” Marianne laughed.
Always active, she would swim, play badminton and ping pong, and exercised at the YMCA every day, until her eyesight started to go. “Now she only plays backgammon,” William said, to groans from other family members, due to her legendary, merciless skills.
“She has beat me eight times in a row, since yesterday,” said her granddaughter Christina, who is a professional soccer player in Prague.
“Well, you beat me yesterday,” Marianne noted. She pointed out that she still exercises every day, and instilled in her family the mindset to maintain an active mind and body. But other than that, she said there are no secrets to her longevity.
But on second thought, she reconsidered, suggesting it could be her belief in the sun and living in a place where she has seen thousands of sunsets.
“I grew up saying the prayer that ‘If God wills it, I will wake up tomorrow.’ Then, I thought, ‘If God wills it? What if God doesn’t will it?’ So I said goodbye to that God, and explored the sun gods I learned about when I studied anthropology. So I believe in the sun,” she said.