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Hollywood’s Unknown Rescuer

Before Schindler’s List, an L.A. studio boss saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust. Why was he alone?

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Carl Laemmle aboard the Leviathan in the 1930s. (Bettmann/Corbis)

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.

Continue reading: The powerful Jewish studio bosses of Hollywood

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marjorie says:

fascinating story.

PhillipNagle says:

The knowledge of the Holocaust was wide spread, but those willing to act were few. One who refused to do anything was FDR, and yet Jews remained loyal to this evil man and his party. A true mystery.

Carla Sarett says:

A great piece, and once again, I can only read this in Tablet Magazine!

Carla Sarett says:

It is a mystery that persists to this day….a legacy of evil, untold.

Jacob Arnon says:

FDR was no savior, but anyone who thinks a Republican President would have
done better is deluding themselves. Besides a Republican President would
never have gone to war against Germany.

Antisemitism was as strong among among Republican voters as among Democratic ones with this
difference. The antisemitism in the Republican Party was at the top
while among Democrats it was at the bottom.

tendilla says:

It was the almighty “dollar uber allas” that kept MGM & the rest from helping their landsman escape the GAS!!!
I hope they paid for it in the end!!!

Goldstein

Noahson says:

Although Dorothy Parker’s mother was a Gentile, Parker considered herself Jewish — and she was Jewish enough for Hitler to have murdered her.

Contemplative observer says:

Harry Bingham, who assisted Varian Fry, also deserves a mention in this context.

fred capio says:

I recommend a very good book that describes in great detail the “pari delicto” crimes of FDR and the State Department. In my opinion a “must read” for all Jews. “The Abandonment of the JEWS – America and the Holocaust 1941 – 1945″ by David S Wyman (Wyman also has an interesting web-site)

Thanks for the comment, Noahson. The piece has been amended to reflect the broader contingent of advocates who wrote affidavits.

Baba_Metzia says:

Anti Semitism in the USA through the end of the Second World-War was rampant.

Martin Dies Jr. in the House of Representatives went on a Jew bashing tirade, arguing that “This war is a Jewish War,” a slogan taken right out of the mouth of Joseph Goebbels. His speech was so vitriolic that the Congressional Register had to be edited in order to “not offend the sensitivities of the public.”

Father Coghlin and other anti Semitic voices were filling the radio airwaves. The press went out of its way to identify Jews as Jews–for example, Hank Greenberg, the baseball great, was always referred to in the press as “the Jewish . . . ,” (a practice which ended soon after the end of WW-II).

Still, where was the average Jew? Where were the wealthy within the Jewish community when the SS Saint Louis and its human cargo were trying to find a port of safe haven? Sunning themselves on Miami Beach–ninety miles away, totally oblivious to the scenario.

In 1944, Jewish leaders such Rabbi Stephen Wise stood in front of a filled to capacity crowd at the old Madison Square Garden in New York, and insisted that the only way to help save Europe’s Jews–other than the Jews of Hungary, most were already dead–is to win the war (a line taken directly from Roosevelt’s talking points).

Bottom line: Jews in position of authority, Jewish spiritual leaders (other than the Orthodox), Hollywood moguls, Jewish industry leaders, Jewish Philanthropists and those Jews close to Roosevelt, could have done more.

Like the propaganda promulgated today (which insists that we as Jews ignore over three and one-half thousand years of our history and “trust the world ‘s good graces for the safety and security of Israel”), a Progressive American agenda and environment contributed to the death of European Jewry. The number of Jews here who refused to take the path of puppets and useful idiots were few at best. And the American Jews of today who have not learned from history are no better.

The Israelis give the “Righteous Gentile” title to the non Jews who helped rescue Holocaust victims. Frankly, they should also have an award for American Jews who did likewise–the numbers are significantly fewer!

Bullshit, If Wilkie had won in 1940 we would have still gone to war.

Jacob Arnon says:

Bullshit, back Pearlman. Wilkie would not have gone to war if his Republican colleagues would not have agreed. That party was full of isolationists and antisemites like Charles Lindbergh.

You like so many pro Republican Jews don’t know much about antisemitism in the 1930′s and 1940′s.

My late father in 1938 wrote from Vienna to one of the motion picture studios and he asked for help for himself and his three brothers to come to America. My father was professionally trained in interior decoration and he offered his services as a set designer or in some related field. He never received an answer, as far as I know, However his letter was later found by a friend of mine who bought a collection of such letters that were offered at auction. My friend gave me a copy of the original letter in German together with an Englsh translation My father and his brothers were able to eventually leave Austria and my father took refuge in Shanghai during the war before coming to Canada.

Agreed. FDR may have been no savior, but he was hardly evil, as someone upthread has said. There was virtually no political will in either party to do something. A President Landon or a President Willkie would have had the same lack of political will FDR apparently had as to saving the Jews. In fact, an argument could be made that the GOP had MORE anti-Semites than the Democrats did at the time.

Jacob Arnon says:

Here, here!

philly gal says:

Oh you are so wrong…if anything the democrats are not any better than the worst racists…they are the modern day slave masters . Their treatment of the blacks is abysmal. They keep them down by telling them they need the government to take care of them…not giving the message that the republicans do…if you work hard and study you can achieve anything you set out to do….just look at obama….supplying the muslim brotherhood with F-16′s and abrahm tanks….and then having the nerve to suggest that Israel go back to the ’48 armistice lines. His vile treatment of the Prime Minister of Israel is abhorrent as is his arrogance.Thank G-d I am one Jew who has been free of the shackles of the left….Roosevelt ,according to Morganthal,was throwing away the memo’s about the concentration camps that he was forwarding to him. Have you ever asked yourself WHY Roosevelt closed the doors of the U.S. to the Jews that were trying to flee the nazi’s? What about the infamous St. Louis?. And why was he so hesitant in bombing the railroad tracks that led to the concentration camps.? Do you think it was because he loved Jews?Time to grow up Jacob…you are siding with the devil.

philly gal says:

I am a proud republican and also the child of a survivor…I know more than I ever want to know about the war. …the democrats have their fair share of haters obama among them.

philly gal says:

May I suggest another good read about pre war Germany and the American Ambassador.to Germany who was anything but pro Jewish…..”In the Garden of the Beast:” by Erik Larson.

Jacob Arnon says:

I never argued that Democrats didn’t have among their supporters many, many antisemites. I am only saying that it’s ignorant to believe that a Republican President would have been acted to save Jews.

We will never know how a Republican President would have acted. It’s my belief and I am speculating here a Republican President would have done whatever he could to avoid a war in Europe. He might even have sent Lindbergh to negotiate with Hitler.

Jacob Arnon says:

“Oh you are so wrong…if anything the democrats are not any better than
the worst racists…they are the modern day slave masters .”

How silly, Philly. Have you forgotten that Republicans have had control of the White House for most of the 80′s a good part of the 21st century. Are you telling me that they liberated Black people in all those years?

Besides, you really must believe that most Black people are stupid or inferior because they keep voting for Democrats.

Your post is all over the place and is incoherent, Mr. Gal.

Jacob Arnon says:

“Still, where was the average Jew? Where were the wealthy within the
Jewish community when the SS Saint Louis and its human cargo were trying
to find a port of safe haven? Sunning themselves on Miami Beach–ninety
miles away, totally oblivious to the scenario”

I agree that Jews in that nightmarish period acted like scared rabbits and didn’t challenge the US government to do something real to help Jews.

After the war they acted like brave souls who helped Jews. A few did but most didn’t. Now some of their children join anti Israel groups for ‘humanitarian reasons.”

Here is a very interesting talk on Jews and anti-Antisemitism.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m77-vud0ZtY
.

check this out too:

http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/88130/the-rescuer

This will tell you the reality of Jewish life in the US in the 30′s and 40′s.

Allison, This piece is great and sheds light on the uneven American Jewish response at the moment when so many in Europe desperately needed help.

erevrav says:

may all the assimilated whores of the golden calf rot in motherfucking hell forever with their nazi spawn ……..

deserteagle says:

11 per cent that were snuffed had no idea they were Jews. Let that be a lesson to the liberal camp who think a pro palastinian stance will keep their throats from being slit, a loaded eagle will. Do you think Noam Chomsky WOULD BE SPARED BY THE TALIBAN.

Beatrix17 says:

Um. Wasn’t Lincoln a Republican?

Beatrix17 says:

Jacob, We got into war because we were attacked by Japan and Germany and Italy declared war on the US two days later. It didn’t matter if our leader was a Dem or a Rep. Lindbergh ceased to matter as well.

Jacob Arnon says:

Bea, you are assuming that Germany would have declared war on a sympathetic Republican as he did on a Democratic one who was also an ally of the British.

Beatrix17 says:

Germany declared war because they were the allies of the Japanese who had already attacked us. Germany always hoped to win over the British. He was astounded they didn’t side with him.

Beatrix17 says:

Jacob, I’m surprised at you.

Jacob Arnon says:

Bea, by 1941 even Hitler would have had to realize that Churchill would rather spend a few years in hell than ally himself to Germany and that most Brits felt the same way.

Germany did have an alliance going with Japan but he also had an alliance going with Stalin. Both of these miscreants honored alliances only when they were useful. Roosevelt a pro labor Democrat was an anti-Nazi and Hitler knew it. Ergo his declaration of war. The other factors were important but not decisive.

Jacob Arnon says:

Why because I don’t turn the other cheek?

Beatrix17 says:

By 1940, England and Germany were at war. They were officially enemies. In June of 1941, Hitler invaded Russia. That was the end of their pact. In Dec., 1941, the sides were divided between the Axis powers, Japan, Russia and Italy, and the Allies, England and, after Pearl Harbor, the USA.

When Japan attacked us their allies, Germany and Italy declared war on the USA. This was not a casual pact, it was a firm alliance that held until the end of the war.

The Republican party was American, not an ally of the Nazis. Some people on the right thought the Nazis were okay just as during the cold war, some people on the left thought the commies were okay. Very few went over to the other side.

Jacob Arnon says:

Bea, the Republican party in the late 30′s was an isolationist party. I never said it was a party sympathetic to the Nazis although many of its members were.

There were many leftists during the cold war who were sympathetic to the Communist ideal but those sympathetic to Russia were booted out by people like Hubert Humphrey.

While both the right wing pro Nazi and left wing pro Stalinist Russia were equally repugnant there is no way equate the two because on the left as I said thee were many anti-Stalinist Communist on the left. There was no comparable system on the right since all Nazis were either pro German or anti-Nazi. Nazism is not a coherent ideology as is Communism. The closest thing to Communist ideology would be Christian ideology (or Islamic) with their many systems. (This made the left more dangerous than the right since some pro Stalinist element hid behind the anti-Stalinist label)

In any case, I don’t thing we will agree on whether the Republican party would have gone to war with Hitler after Pearl Harbor, I think not. I think they wold have tried to fight only the Japanese and come to some understanding with the Nazis in Europe. You think yes, lets leave it there.

Beatrix17 says:

I lived through WW2. There is no comparison to the amount of
loyalty people feel after they’ve been attacked and what loyalties or lack of them you feel during a cold war. Once we were attacked , there was no separation in loyalties of Republicans or Democrats or determination on the part of Americans to destroy the Japs, the Nazis and at first the Italians. (Later, Italians overthrew Mussolini until the Nazis took over).

You’re making things up based on your beliefs today and during the cold war. This has nothing to do with how people felt during WW2. There was no compromise, no negotiation, no hesitation about using 2 atomic bombs to bring the bastards to their knees. We were going to use the bombs against Germany until they surrendered.

Jacob Arnon says:

Bea, if you lived through WW2 you would know that Republicans had more Jew haters in their ranks then Democrats. Are you that naïve that you think that the Republicans would have behaved the same way towards Jews on the home front as did the Democrats?

In any case, living through doesn’t mean that you can see the whole picture better than someone who has studied the period.

Take care, Bea. I will not respond any more on this subject.

Beatrix17 says:

What are you talking about? Republicans were on the home front, and were side by side with my father, uncles, and cousin who fought in the front lines. against the Japs and the Germans.
And who could have treated Jews any worse than Roosevelt who let 6 million Jews die rather than allow Jewish people into America. He wouldn’t even bomb the railroads so the Nazis couldn’t take Jews to the camps.
Republicans hated Roosevelt. They felt he was a traitor to his class. But that wasn’t the battle every day people were fighting.
I don’t know what you’ve been studying—The Jim, Jane and Spot version of WW2, but so much of what you’ve said has been inaccurate.

Jacob Arnon says:

Enough, Bea. Have a great life.

Beatrix17 says:

I’ll have a great life if I can add a few more things. I’ve lived
through the war; you’ve studied it. Jacob, we’ve all studied it: In school, in books, magazines, newspapers, TV shows, online blogs and movies. It wasn’t a secret. It will continue to be studied as long as there is an America. And it’s especially important now while those of us who lived through it are still alive.
I appreciate that you an intelligent man and I hope your studies are productive.

Allison, Just got a chance to read this excellent article. I’ve always wondered whether it was callous indifference or the fear of seeming “too Jewish” that stymied Hollywood moguls pre-war reactions to events in Europe. Your story is another crucial piece of the puzzle.

susan meyers says:

a long time ago when i was about 12 my grandmother showed me a photo of a really pretty young woman. she said that this girl had looked through NYC phone books and found our last name, deckinger, and traced the family history. by the time my grandparents were able to muster the resources to bring her here she was gone. apparently fleeing before german troops into checkoslovakia. they never heard from her again and i have not been able to find any information at all.

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Hollywood’s Unknown Rescuer

Before Schindler’s List, an L.A. studio boss saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust. Why was he alone?