Bassler’s Letter: How Hollywood’s Man in Vienna Escaped the Nazis
A fascinating letter tells the gripping story of the fateful extraction of the influential film industry lawyer Paul Koretz
On the morning of March 12, 1938, Nazi troops barreled across the Austrian border, swallowing up their German-speaking neighbor in a territorial grab known as the Anschluss. Two days later the victorious forces marched through the streets of Vienna. From the balcony of the Hotel Imperial, Adolf Hitler addressed the delirious throngs who made up the fifth column that had helped doom the Austrian state. “German compatriots!” he shouted. “You all have a share in this vow, that whatever happens, the German Reich as it stands today shall never be broken by anyone again and shall never be torn apart.” Nazi-approved newsreels showed rapturous crowds waving swastikas and cheering on the goose-stepping invaders. In America, however, skeptical newsreel commentators cautioned moviegoers to remember that the pictures were taken by Nazi cameramen.
One segment of the Austrian population certainly had no reason to cheer: Jews were rounded up, beaten, humiliated. In the days to come, newspaper wire photos showed Viennese Jews on their hands and knees, forced to clean the streets under the eyes of gleeful brownshirts. “The Jewish district looked as though it had just been through a locust plague,” wrote correspondent Max Jordan, an eyewitness on the scene for NBC radio.
In Hollywood, the major studios knew what to expect—a ruthless purging of all Jews working in their branch offices and managing affiliated theaters throughout Austria. It had happened before, in Germany in 1933, soon after the Nazis assumed power. Spearheading the campaign to ensure that the art and culture of the Third Reich would henceforth be Judenfrei—free of Jews—was Joseph Goebbels, minister for Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment. Besides purging Jews from the Ufa, the motion picture production center that was the jewel of German cinema, the Reichsfilmkammer, the motion-picture arm of Goebbels’ ministry, ordered the immediate termination (at the time the word still meant only firing) of all Jews from the staffs of Hollywood’s offices in Germany, whether American citizens or German nationals. Of course, the regime was prepared to back up the ultimatum with acts of violence, official and ad hoc. Max Friedland, the nephew of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, was rousted out of bed and dragged into Gestapo headquarters for interrogation. British-born Phil Kauffman, head of Warner Bros.’ branch office, was set upon on the streets of Berlin and beaten up by brownshirts.
Neither the Hollywood studios nor the motion-picture industry’s official arm, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, offered a united response to the Nazi actions. Warner Bros. and Universal pulled up stakes early and got out by 1934. MGM, Paramount, and Fox (after 1935, Twentieth Century-Fox) stuck it out, transferring their Jewish personnel to other countries, firing the local Jews, and substituting more racially suitable employees.
Thus, when the Nazis annexed Austria, the Hollywood studios braced for a recurrence of Berlin in 1933. “Expect usual number of anti-Semitic moves directed against motion picture business,” Variety told its readers, the matter-of-fact tone indicating that a policy once shocking had become utterly predictable. “Of course [the studios’] offices have reduced their staffs considerably and dismissed all Jewish executives,” the trade weekly Motion Picture Herald noted in an on-site dispatch filed by a brave stringer who, understandably, preferred to forgo his byline. “Within days of the annexation, nearly every Jewish exhibitor, particularly the owners of the first run theaters, was taken into custody on trumped-up charges of being in arrears on tax payments. The notice ‘Under Aryan Management’ or ‘Under the Commissariat of the Reichsfilmkammer’ is seen at the entrance of almost all cinemas owned by hitherto Jewish exhibitors.”
Among the motion-picture personnel caught in the vise of history was Dr. Paul Koretz, Twentieth Century-Fox’s man in Vienna. An especially valuable company asset, Koretz was a prominent attorney regarded as the leading expert on international copyright in the film industry. Since the 1920s, he had served as the personal representative of William Fox and an attorney for Fox Film, though he also freelanced his services to the other studios. It was Koretz who arranged for the German Expressionist genius F.W. Murnau to come to Hollywood to direct Sunrise (1927), who negotiated Hedy Lamarr’s MGM contract, and who convinced playwright George Bernard Shaw that Pygmalion had motion-picture potential (a grateful Shaw dedicated the screenplay to him). Famed for his air-tight contracts, Koretz established enduring guiding principles for the acquisition of literary properties and also the rights to broadcasting films. (Perhaps the best proof of Koretz’s canny farsightedness was that his contracts sewed up broadcasting rights for motion pictures 20 years before television was perfected.) Most significantly, Koretz was responsible for negotiating Fox’s acquisition of the German Tri-Ergon optical sound system, the sound-on-film system that became the industry standard.
Of course, international reputation and professional accomplishments were no protection for a Jew in a nation that was now part of the Greater Reich. So, Koretz’s employers at Fox—in some ways, more alert to the dangers than Koretz himself—moved with dispatch to facilitate his escape. The story of Koretz’s extraction from Vienna is chronicled in a remarkable letter, dated May 10, 1938, written by Robert Bassler, who headed up Twentieth Century-Fox’s story department in London. Bassler’s letter was graciously shared with me by Sharon Leib, great-granddaughter of the motion picture pioneer Sol M. Wurtzel, who worked at Fox from 1914 until 1949; it tells a tale more suspenseful and dramatic than any scenario that the executive reviewed in his London office.
A former editor for the Reader’s Digest, Bassler had been sent to London by Fox in 1936. It was a cushy assignment, requiring first-class travel to the studio’s branch offices across the continent. Bassler was soon known by name by porters and hotel managers in every major capital in Europe.
In early March of 1938, mere days before the Anschluss, when the newspapers and radio were full of ominous news and the tension throughout Europe could be cut with a knife, a concerned Bassler traveled to Vienna to size up the situation on the ground. He arranged to have lunch with Koretz in the doctor’s “delightful apartment on the Ringstrasse,” the grand boulevard encircling the inner city. Also in attendance was George Marton, a well-known literary agent in Vienna, whom Bassler described as “a very smart young Hungarian.” The three men “argued about what was best to do.” Reading the signs, the Sorbonne-educated Marton was determined to flee to Paris immediately. Koretz told Marton that “he was crazy, that nothing could possibly happen, that Mussolini wouldn’t let Hitler get away with” grabbing Austria, ostensibly an Italian sphere of influence. In retrospect, but perhaps only in retrospect, it seems amazing that Koretz—a sophisticated and well-traveled attorney in possession of one of the sharpest legal minds on either side of the Atlantic—could be so blind to geopolitical realities that he still hadn’t realized that Mussolini was very much the junior partner in the Axis alliance, and so oblivious to the menace lurking on the doorstep. (Marton was indeed smarter. He ignored Koretz’s advice and escaped to Paris.)
Looking back two months later, Bassler ruefully reflected on the missed opportunity. He also mourned for a nation that no longer existed. “In three weeks there was no more Austria, and we were making frantic efforts to get Koretz out,” he wrote to Harvey Klinger, in Fox’s New York office. At the Foreign Office in London, Bassler obtained the necessary visas for Koretz, his wife, and the couple’s two daughters. Everything seemed in order, but then all went silent from Vienna. The only communications Bassler received from Koretz were “very brief letters, quite guarded in their phrasing.” Anxious for Koretz’s safety, Bassler decided to act. “I finally could wait no longer, so I wired [Koretz] I was coming and hopped on the Orient Express.”
Bassler traveled by the Arlberg section of the Orient Express, a first-class-only ticket via London-Paris-Zurich-Innsbruck-Vienna. The romance of the trip and the wonders of the landscape where not lost on Bassler as he sped over the Austrian Alps, still snow-covered despite the late season. Yet the picture-postcard scenery was blackened with grim portents. “Every station was draped with Nazi flags, cut-out Swastikas, and signs saying, ‘Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer’ [“One State, One People, One Leader”—the Nazi motto] and celebrating ‘99.75% JA’ ”—a reference to the April 10 plebiscite held throughout Germany, including Austria, in which voters were invited to answer the question: Are you in favor of the Anschluss? The announced result: 99.75% “Ja.”
Bassler was in for a greater shock when he arrived in one of his favorite cities. “Vienna was changed more than I would have thought possible,” he shuddered. “I arrived the day after Hitler’s birthday [April 21, 1938].”
Bassler checked into his usual digs, the plush Hotel Sacher (“my favorite hotel in all the world”), where he was relieved to be greeted by the usual staff, though their once-voluble gemütlichkeit seemed to have vanished. “Everyone seemed less smiling and more solemn than formerly, but I told myself that was only my imagination.” It wasn’t. After phoning Koretz and arranging for a meeting an hour hence, Bassler slipped into the hotel bar for a drink. “Then I knew it was not my imagination.” The amiable, bustling bar, once lively with smart Viennese women sipping coffee and young couples chatting happily, was nearly deserted. “I had a Martini and sandwich and departed hurriedly for Koretz’s.”
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