Hollywood’s Unknown Rescuer
Before Schindler’s List, an L.A. studio boss saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust. Why was he alone?
On Dec. 27, 1938, a young woman in Berlin named Johanna Rockmann sat down and wrote a desperate letter to a stranger in California. In the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, it was clear that things were only getting worse for Germany’s remaining 550,000 Jews, of whom Rockmann was one. Appeals to Americans with influence or money, whose names and addresses could be culled from newspapers or encyclopedias, were one of the few avenues for escape that most German Jews had left. “With the greatest desire of my life I take the liberty to address you,” she wrote, in fluid English script. “I politely address my petition to you, asking you for your kind assistance in getting to a transatlantic country. At the same time, I may be permitted to ask you for an affidavit.”
The man to whom she addressed her plea was Harry Warner, one of Hollywood’s Warner brothers. President of the studio that bore his family name, he was ranked by Fortune as the second-most-important man in the film business—a man with production schedules to meet and high-powered egos to manage and little time left over to help people he didn’t know.
What Rockmann needed from Harry Warner was something quite involved: a signed and notarized guarantee of financial support that she could offer to U.S. consular authorities as proof that she would not become a burden to the American public. Such an affidavit, signed by the head of a major Hollywood studio, would seal her application for a precious visa that would allow her to escape from Nazi Germany.
To further her case, Rockmann described the 14 years she spent working as a bookkeeper for a lighting-supply company, Siegel & Co. She added that she was fluent in foreign languages and also a diligent housekeeper and seamstress. “Hoping you will be kind enough to consider my petition for which I will always be thankful to you,” she concluded. Below her signature, she added a postscript—“Please turn over!”—whose final exclamation point belied her anxiety. On the reverse side of the page, she wrote that the Dominican Republic was allowing refugees to land as long as they had $50 in hand, so if Warner was not inclined to offer an affidavit, perhaps he would loan her the cash? “I will return you the money with my thanks after my admittance,” Rockmann pledged.
Nowhere did Rockmann make reference to the one thing she shared in common with the powerful studio chief in California: their Jewish heritage. But she addressed the letter to H.M. Warner—the initials for Hirsch Moses, the name Warner was born with in Poland. The missive, mailed in care of Warner Bros. Studio, Los Angeles, Cal., USA, made it to Warner’s office and eventually into a manila folder marked “1938 correspondence” that today sits with the rest of the Warner Bros. archives, which reside in Los Angeles, at the University of Southern California.
That the Jews of Nazi Germany responded to the gathering storm clouds in Europe by writing to strangers halfway around the world is a measure of how dire their circumstances were. But these desperate correspondents weren’t fantasists. For the most part, they were educated, sophisticated city people trying everything they could to save their own lives.
Warner Bros. was one of the first American studios to stop doing business with the Reich, in 1934—the same year Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer’s right-hand man at MGM, famously said, “Hitler and Hitlerism will pass, the Jews will still be there.” The Warners, meanwhile, became known as the most anti-Nazi studio heads in Hollywood, with Harry—the oldest and most observant of the Warner brothers—assuming the role of elder statesman.
But could the powerful Jewish moguls of Hollywood’s Golden Era—people whose successors have been happy to leverage their political clout and star power for causes from electing presidents to ending the conflict in Darfur—done more to save their co-religionists from the Holocaust? The answer is yes. Just how much more the Jews of Hollywood could have done is shown by the deeds of another studio boss whose personal sense of urgency and activism outstripped even that of the Warners, but who never made it into the history books as one of America’s most important Holocaust rescuers. His name was Carl Laemmle.
Carl Laemmle is well known to historians as one of the most important studio heads of Hollywood’s Golden Era. A German-born Jew who got his start in the garment business, he managed in middle age to jump from being a mid-level schmatte salesman to founding Universal Pictures. Unlike other studio bosses, who wanted to leave Europe behind them, Laemmle stayed in touch with life in the country he left. He underwrote the reconstruction of his hometown, Laupheim, following World War I and was appalled and frightened by Hitler’s rise to power. Unlike most Western leaders, and most Jews, in Hollywood and Europe alike, Laemmle had no illusions about who Hitler was and what he had in mind—for Germany, for Europe, and for the Jews.
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