Hollywood’s Unknown Rescuer
Before Schindler’s List, an L.A. studio boss saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust. Why was he alone?
Laemmle also had more reason than most powerful Hollywood Jews to take Hitler’s actions personally: He still had close relatives living in Germany. And when the Nazis came to Laupheim, they put Hitler’s name on streets and buildings that had been dedicated in his honor. “Mr. Hitler comes to power, and all of a sudden Laemmlestrasse was no longer Laemmlestrasse,” a former employee, Joseph Roos, told interviewers from the Shoah Foundation in 1995.
Laemmle immediately brought his siblings and their extended families from Germany to Los Angeles and soon began pestering friends and acquaintances to accept his help in getting visas so they could leave, too. “In 1935, my father went to visit him in Zurich at the hospital, and he said, ‘Wilhelm, you have to get out of Germany,’ ” Max Obernauer, the son of Laemmle’s closest childhood friend, told the Shoah Foundation in a 1997 interview. “He felt that all the Jews of Germany were going to be exterminated, and he felt that whatever he could do on his own he would do to save as many lives as he could.” In 1936, he sold Universal Pictures and, at 70, was more or less retired from the film business, with an estate worth $4 million—about $65 million in today’s dollars. He told interviewers that he planned to improve his poker game, and he also invested in racehorses.
But Carl Laemmle’s response to the impending mass extermination of European Jewry—an event that he foresaw with rare clarity—united his high position and personal capacities in a way that made him America’s most important Holocaust rescuer after Varian Fry, the American who ran the European operations of the Emergency Rescue Committee (and who was the subject of a Tablet Magazine feature by novelist Dara Horn). By 1938, Laemmle was spending, in his estimation, 80 percent of his time trying to rescue Jews, one by one, herding people through the visa process from his hilltop Beverly Hills compound like the Noah of Benedict Canyon. All in all, he quietly rescued, in his estimation, more than 200 Jews from the Final Solution. The actual numbers may be far higher.
Laemmle wasn’t entirely alone. In November 1938, the director Ernst Lubitsch and film agent Paul Kohner established the European Film Fund, through which they issued affidavits and provided financial assistance to newly arrived refugees. For the most part, those associated with the group helped fellow intellectuals and artists, many of them friends and former colleagues. But, according to historian Martin Sauter, they also collaborated with Varian Fry to find additional people they could help. And it wasn’t only Jews who volunteered to provide affidavits: According to Salka Viertel, a writer and protégé of Lubitsch who gave Greta Garbo elocution lessons, the list of those who wrote affidavits for the EFF included Dorothy Parker and her fellow parodist Donald Ogden Stewart.
But Laemmle proved willing to devote equal energy to people who were not famous, nor likely to become so—people like Margerete Levi, from Stuttgart, whom Laemmle had never met but whose aunt, he told the State Department, he had once promised a favor. The obstacles in Laemmle’s path were not insignificant. According to documents retrieved from the National Archives by Laemmle’s German biographer, Udo Bayer, the retired studio boss spent months engaged in terse correspondence with the American consul general in Stuttgart, Samuel Honaker, and his deputies, who doubted that Laemmle would follow through on his promises to provide support to people like Levi in the absence of any blood relationship. In one, Laemmle told Honaker he would provide her with letters of introduction to his friends in New York, who would find her a job if he asked. “I, for one, feel that every single Jew who is in a financial position to help those badly in need should do so unswervingly,” he wrote in August, 1937, from Beverly Hills. Laemmle said the same in a subsequent letter to Cordell Hull, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary of State, whom he personally lobbied for a general relaxation of the rules governing the acceptance of affidavits by consular officials abroad. “Your consuls,” he wrote in April of 1938, “can give the law a little more liberal interpretations which I think, under the circumstances, is permissible.”
That same year, Harry Warner was also working hard to push American policymakers to save Jewish refugees from Hitler but from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. In October 1938, after hearing that the British were considering restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine, he immediately sent a telegram to his brother Jack in London, instructing him to go see U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy for help. Warner sent a second missive directly to President Roosevelt—addressed “My dear president”—asking him to personally intervene. (The stress of the episode, according to Warner biographer Michael Birdwell, put Harry Warner in the hospital with bleeding ulcers that same month.)
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