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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)

Two weeks later, Jack Warner traveled from London to Paris. There he learned that the German-born sister of one of his employees, Joseph Westreich, had been seized from their parents’ home in Frankfurt and deported to Poland. Westreich’s sister Rosalie recalled Warner’s response. “He said, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ and fortunately my brother had the presence of mind to say yes, if you give an affidavit, my sister might be able to emigrate to the United States,” she told an interviewer for the Shoah Foundation. “So, he went to the American consulate in Paris, and being Jack Warner he didn’t need any of the formalities that were necessary in those days.” Warner quickly filed an affidavit. Regina Westreich arrived in the United States safely, before the war broke out.

Through September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and war was declared between Britain and Germany, Harry Warner continued trying to open the door for large numbers of refugees. His strategy was informed by his years as a movie tycoon who had helped build an empire based on influence and leverage. He sent a film crew to Alaska as part of a plan to convince Roosevelt to resettle Jewish refugees in the territory in a real-world antecedent of the fictional mise-en-scène of Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union. (After the war, Warner lobbied Truman—unsuccessfully—to revisit the idea as a means of moving Jews out of the DP camps in Europe.) His studio produced a short film, The Nine Million, to promote the idea of lifting American immigration quotas for refugees from fascism. Warner Bros. also put out the explicitly anti-Hitler Confessions of a Nazi Spy, despite intense opposition from the censors responsible for keeping American films politically neutral.

There’s no question that the Warners—and Harry Warner in particular—cared about the fate of Europe’s Jews, far more than most of their fellow Jewish studio heads. While Harry Warner was lobbying Roosevelt, the producer David O. Selznick, always hesitant about being too publicly Jewish, was busy burning down a studio backlot for Gone with the Wind, which swept the 1939 Oscars. That year, Louis B. Mayer was the highest-paid executive in America, a man who, for the price of his annual dues at Hillcrest, the Jewish country club just south of Beverly Hills, could have sent 60 German Jews like Johanna Rockmann the $50 they needed to land in Santo Domingo. Instead, in June of 1939, he hosted a delegation of German reporters on the MGM lot, in an effort to maintain his favor with the Nazi regime; MGM was among the last three American studios to have their hugely profitable distribution rights in the Third Reich revoked, in 1940.

Yet the Warner archives contain no hint, aside from the survival of the letter itself, of whether Harry Warner ever responded to his supplicant Johanna Rockmann. Her heartrending plea for an affidavit wasn’t the only one Warner received. On Jan. 22, 1939, another letter came, this time from Vienna, newly annexed into Nazi Germany. “I came across the speech you held lately in Hollywood and it made a great impression on me,” wrote Sigmund Zucker, a 52-year-old engineer, whose British-born wife Gladys had, unfortunately, adopted Austrian citizenship, trapping them both with passports issued by Hitler’s Reich. “By helping me with an affidavit, you would be doing a good deed to a worthy man.” He attached a small black-and-white photograph, presumably of himself: a handsome man with dark hair brushed back, wearing a suit with a waistcoat and a white handkerchief. He was not smiling.

If Warner did attempt to rescue the Zuckers, he was only partially successful. According to passenger manifests kept by Britain and Australia, the couple left Southampton, England, for Australia in May 1939, stopping in Ceylon en route. Johanna Rockmann wasn’t so lucky: On Jan. 29, 1943, she was deported from Berlin to Auschwitz, where she was killed the following month.

It’s impossible to know how many Hollywood moguls and stars received appeals from strangers like Johanna Rockmann and Sigmund Zucker. As the situation deteriorated in Germany, the country’s trapped Jews became desperate enough to ask the ultimate favor from people they barely knew—in letters that in some cases still exist, buried in archives and in family correspondence. Doctors wrote to colleagues they’d met at medical conferences decades earlier, asking for help. Others scoured the Manhattan phone books, available at the Berlin public library, for people with the same surname—an idea popularized in an underground handbook written by Joseph Wechsberg, a Czech journalist who fled Germany via Montreal. “If you were an American Jew of German ancestry then you were going to get these appeals,” said Laurel Leff, who in writing about the New York Times and its coverage of the Holocaust came across affidavit requests sent to the Sulzberger family by people claiming distant family relationships. “People found themselves in this situation where if they did nothing they could die, and all they could do was write these pathetic letters.”

Along with committing to future financial support, American visa regulations required an affiant to provide proof of assets—arguably easier, or at least more palatable, for a retired mogul or a contract writer than for the working head of a large corporation, or for the head of a family trying to make ends meet. “A lot of people said no,” Leff said. “That’s the dirty secret.”

But, as Carl Laemmle’s story shows, they could have said yes.


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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!!!


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 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.

check this out too:

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?

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