How the Depression Blinded American Jews to Their German Relatives’ Pleas for Help
In 1936, Nazis celebrated Easter with Judenrein eggs—but a new book of family letters shows the crisis didn’t translate
Normally a month filled with the joy of both Passover and Easter, April 1936 was colored by occurrences both depressing and bizarre. It was reported that 75,000 German Jews, including 25,000 in Berlin, had received food relief in the form of free matzo. Never before in the history of German Jewry had so many taken Passover relief.
The Easter holiday also had an ignoble distinction that spring. It was the first Easter when Germans could go to market for the holiday and know that they were buying “pure Aryan eggs.” Der Angriff, Berlin’s Nazi paper, proclaimed that the egg trade, one-fourth Jewish before the Nazis assumed power, was now Judenrein—free of Jews.
On April 12, the middle of Passover, the holiday commemorating the Jewish exodus from Egypt, a young Berlin native named Luzie Hecht renewed her efforts to appeal to her American relatives for help leaving Nazi Germany. Luzie had first written to her great-uncle Nathan in Albany, New York, in the spring of 1933, amid a disturbing string of events. On March 23, only two months after Adolf Hitler had become chancellor, the Nazis maneuvered the Enabling Act through the Reichstag, thereby granting Hitler dictatorial powers. It had taken Hitler little time to transform himself from chancellor to dictator.
Nathan Hecht had left his native Bavaria for New York in 1873, where he Americanized his name to Hatch and became a successful underwear manufacturer in Cohoes, outside Albany. To his relatives back in Germany, as the Nazis continued to accrue power, he was perhaps their one and only avenue out of the darkness. Yet he was ill—in his letter, he referred to his convalescence from surgery as “a 43-week-long journey”—and proved unable, or unwilling, to help the Hechts in Berlin.
To: Hecht Family, Berlin
From: Nathan Hatch, Albany, New York
Date: May 10, 1933
(translated from German)
My dear family,
It is very difficult for me to write after a 43-week-long journey, and my letter has to be quite short. Either you don’t understand the situation here or you don’t want to understand it. Business in our company has come to a complete halt. Where we needed 1,000 workers in the past, we now need approximately 150 workers per week today—and let’s not even mention profits.
Your intention of coming to America is sheer insanity and you would find the situation horrible. Concerning me: I cannot help you at the present time. You must not under any circumstances rely on me. We are faced with unemployment of 15 million and some have almost no income.
In general, I am over 76 years old and am not taking on new burdens, have enough old ones. I am dearly sorry and I hope that better times are ahead. Everyone is waiting.
With love and best wishes,
Your old uncle Nathan
Nathan Hatch’s hope of “better times ahead” never materialized. On June 3, 1933, just four weeks after he penned his blunt reply to Luzie and her family, Nathan Hatch died. He left behind his wife, Ida, and their two American-born sons, Arnold and Stephen. As the older son, Arnold assumed the presidency of Fuld and Hatch Knitting. His younger brother, Stephen, served as vice president.
By 1936, three years after the Hechts had asked Nathan Hatch to help them emigrate, their situation in Germany had worsened. This time Luzie’s request would be sent not to Nathan but to Arnold. Luzie’s immediate family in Berlin, along with other relatives in Essen, Baden, and Cologne, were by definition part of Arnold’s extended family. But he had not grown up with them, played childish pranks with his cousins, had his aunts ply him with home-cooked food, shared Passover seders and birthdays, or made visits to sick family members. All of these experiences, events that weave the threads of strong family bonds, were missing. Yet even without these everyday contacts, at some level, his German relatives had become part of his consciousness. And so he did respond to Luzie when she first wrote to him, even though they had never corresponded before. She knew so little about him that she inquired whether he was married and had children.
To: Lusie Hecht, Berlin
From: Arnold Hatch, Albany, New York
Date: April 23, 1936
I have received your letter dated April 12th and I can appreciate how little prospect there is in the future for a girl of ambition, situated as you are. I should very much like to help you in the way that you mention, and will try to see what can be done.
However, there are certain things that you should bear in mind. One of these is that the Depression which is afflicting Germany to a certain extent at this time is world-wide and has hit America very hard.There are in this country today between 10,000,000 and 12,000,000 unemployed, and these include plenty of people of ability and training who are willing to work at almost any job and almost any salary. I have countless friends struggling along on little or nothing, thrown out of work by reason of economic conditions here and unable to find anything which will even give them a bare subsistence.
A good many people abroad have the idea that jobs are easy and plentiful in this country, but I assure you that this is not the case and I would hardly know where to turn right at this minute to find a post for you suitable to your training and abilities, which would even give you a living.
In addition, there is the question of the American immigration quota. Under this, as you probably understand, only a limited number of Germans are allowed into this country and since thousands of people are in the same position that you are, anxious to get out of Germany and into a land of greater promise, I have an idea that the quota is pretty much filled up.
You must not get the idea from what I have written so far that I am simply turning a deaf ear to your plea and tossing your letter aside forever. I shall really look into this thing carefully and see if there is any position where you could be placed in this country later on this summer. If I could receive some assurance that you would have something waiting for you when you got here, I would very gladly furnish the necessary affidavits to enable you to assure the immigration authorities that you would not become a public charge and would do all I could to help you get in under the German quota.
Of course, there is no use in saying right now come along as fast as you can, because that would be reckless and foolish and unwise for both of us. However, I think that a girl of your intelligence, education and training should have a chance, and I am not unmindful of the fact that you are a blood relative and are entitled to my help out of sentiment for your dear grandfather, whom I remember well.
In conclusion then I want you to let this matter rest a while until I can see what I can do for you. It will not be easy and in the end it may turn out to be impossible, but if there is a chance in the world that I can take you out of Germany and help you build a new life in this land; I give you my promise that I will do it.
I would suggest that you talk this matter fully over with your father, because there is no sense in secrecy over this and not the slightest reason why you should not have written to me and asked me to help you in your problem. I am glad that you did write to me and as I said before, if there is any possibility of bringing you over here so that you can be reasonably secure, self-supporting, and with a future, I will send for you, execute any papers that may be necessary, and help you in every possible manner. In the meanwhile, my dear cousin, with my sincere love to you and your family, I am
Your devoted cousin, Arnold
Although Arnold had stated that he needed time to investigate the matter of emigration properly, his response had been quite positive overall and must have been reassuring to Luzie. Slightly less than two years later, in the winter of 1938, the one letter from Albany that Luzie had always hoped for finally arrived in Berlin.
To: Lusie Hecht, Berlin
From: Arnold Hatch, Albany, New York
Date: February 8, 1938
Dear Cousin Lusie:
The time has now come after almost a year’s delay when I am prepared to bring you over to this country. I am starting measures at once through the American Consul to vouch for you, and while these things take several months, nevertheless, the matter is being started, and I wanted to inform you of that fact so that you could at least begin to set your house in order and make preparations for coming to this country.
This does not mean that you would be wise to give up your present job or do anything at all until the German Consul notifies you that matters are arranged. You can simply begin thinking about it because I am willing and have agreed to it.
I do not know how you are fixed financially. If you are unable to finance for yourself the trip across, I should be only too glad to do so for you, when the time comes. Once you are in this country, I may be able to get you a job… However, whether you get a job immediately or not, I will look after you and see that you are not in want or in trouble in any way.
There is no need to write at greater length now. I know that you will be happy that I have finally agreed to what you have wanted so long. Later on, when things get nearer the time for your departure, we will arrange all matters…
I extend to you and your family my love and hope that everything is well with you.
Your devoted cousin, Arnold
Luzie was 27 when she boarded the Manhattan, a steamer bound for New York, on November 16, 1938, just one week after the Kristallnacht pogroms. Those 14 hours of rioting and destruction were a bolt that struck the consciousness of German Jews, making it impossible to cling to any notion, any fantasy that they could somehow accommodate themselves to the Nazi regime, that it would eventually become more moderate, and that Germany could still be their home.
Four months after her arrival, she found employment in New York at the American Jewish Committee. Hired for a temporary position, she had a hunch—a correct one—that she might stay longer. Luzie worked at the AJC from 1939 until her retirement in 1977, and passed away on Sept. 16, 2001, at the age of 89.
From Exit Berlin: How One Woman Saved Her Family From Nazi Germany, by Charlotte Bonelli. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2014 by the American Jewish Committee. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Abbas is facing an internal challenge to his leadership, and that—not Israeli housing plans—is why he’s bailing on Kerry