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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?

Allison Hoffman
February 20, 2013
Library of Congress
Carl Laemmle and his children in an undated photo.Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Carl Laemmle and his children in an undated photo.Library of Congress

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.

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.

I, for one, feel that every single Jew who is in a financial position to help those badly in need should do so unswervingly.

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.)

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.

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.