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The Hollywood Mogul Who Saved My Father’s Life

Universal Studios chief Carl Laemmle helped hundreds flee Nazi Germany

Sandy Einstein
September 24, 2014
The author's father, Herman Einstein. (Photo courtesy of the author)
The author's father, Herman Einstein. (Photo courtesy of the author)

A few years ago, looking through my late parents’ papers, I spotted something I’d never noticed before. It was a 1937 letter from my father addressed to Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios. I knew a little about Laemmle’s relationship with my father, who had passed away in 1965 and never spoke much about his past. He had told me that Laemmle had helped him leave Germany, and that he’d gone on to teach Hebrew to Laemmle’s son, Carl Jr. But after I came across that letter, I wanted to find out more.

An Internet search led me to a scholarly article titled “Laemmle’s List.” The author, Dr. Udo Bayer, was the vice principal of a school in Laemmle’s birthplace of Laupheim, Germany. His paper detailed how Laemmle had issued affidavits during the late 1930s that saved more than 300 European Jews from probable extinction. Laemmle not only pledged to support the newcomers; he followed through when the immigrants arrived.

After I contacted Bayer, he offered to translate the rest of my father’s letters, and I soon found out more about my his escape from Germany, and his relationship with the man who saved his life.

My father first met Laemmle in August 1929, when he was invited to attend a celebration for Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen, Germany. At that time, though Laemmle was 62 years old and had been living in the United States for more than 40 years, he still made annual trips back to Laupheim. Bayer told me that Laemmle was very connected to Laupheim’s Jewish community and was likely aware of my father because of his prominent role as a Hebrew teacher and cantor.

It’s not clear how much contact my father had with Laemmle over the next decade. Through Bayer’s translations of the 40 or so letters I had, I learned that my father had continued teaching at the Jewish school in Laupheim until 1932. When he left, the school’s head administrator wrote him a heartfelt note, apologizing for not being able to throw a farewell party and praising him for all of his contributions to the community. “We think of how you had the skill to not only to be a teacher but also a friend to our children who were entrusted to you,” the administrator wrote, “and you will find your greatest reward in how much our children regret your transfer. Surely they will never forget you.”

My father went on to hold various teaching jobs over the next five years, but by 1937, when he wrote to Laemmle, his life in Nazi Germany—particularly as a Hebrew teacher—was becoming increasingly precarious. The letter indicates that my father had reached out to Laemmle for help, and Laemmle had responded with an offer to move to California:

I owe you much gratitude, not just since today, and I want to again give you the assurance, that I will use all my power, to repay you my gratitude over there in my new home. You should not ever in your life be disappointed in me.

I now know that my father was one of hundreds of Jews who received similar offers. Some, like my father, were casual acquaintances of Laemmle’s. Others were complete strangers. “It is simply a matter that touches me deeply,” Laemmle explained in a 1937 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, “and I, for one, am willing to go the limit in helping these poor unfortunates in Germany.” He persisted even as German officials became more and more stringent, demanding exact addresses where each applicant would live and intricate details about how he would support each one. Eventually, the authorities began rejecting many of his affidavits, and he urged other Hollywood moguls—both Jewish and non-Jewish—to take up his cause.

My father was fortunate enough to benefit from Laemmle’s help before the authorities made it next to impossible to leave. In February 1938, he left Le Havre, France, on the S.S Champlain, personally accompanied by Laemmle himself. Once my father arrived in the U.S., he took up residence with Laemmle at his home on Benedict Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills. Over the next 19 months, he taught Hebrew to Laemmle’s 30-year-old son, Carl Jr., who was in charge of production at Universal Studios. He also likely played an active role in the Laemmle family’s religious life, including their annual Passover Seders.

When Laemmle passed away on September 24, 1939, my father was still living in his home and served as a pallbearer at his funeral. An obituary published in Variety mentioned my father’s presence, describing him as a “refugee he brought here from his native Laupheim.”

After Laemmle’s death, my father apparently had a falling out with Carl Jr. I never learned the details of the rift, but my family paid regular visits to Laemmle’s daughter, Rosabelle, and her husband, the horror film producer Stanley Bergerman. We also visited William Wyler, the director of Ben Hur, who was Laemmle’s cousin. I was very young at the time, but I remember how those two beautifully landscaped Beverly Hills homes contrasted with our own home in Boyle Heights, an ethnically mixed area of East Los Angeles. My father worked in the warehouse of the Friedman bag company, and we lived behind a storefront in an alley.

My father went on to get a job as an oiler at the Chrysler Corporation, and, in 1955, he was able to buy us a house in Fullerton. Living in Orange County, I was always conscious of his German accent and the Old World way he dressed. I was eager to assimilate, but my father, who served as acting rabbi and cantor in our community, insisted that I have a bar mitzvah. When I wanted to by a .22 rifle for target shooting, he said, “A Jewish boy with a gun—I won’t allow it!”

Late last year I visited Laupheim for the first time. I stayed at Zum Rothen Ochsen (The Red Ox), the same inn where Laemmle stayed when he visited Laupheim. Bayer was the ultimate host and tour guide; he took me to the Jewish school where my father taught, the synagogue where he was a cantor, and the Museum of Christian and Jewish History, where there is an entire wing dedicated to Laemmle. We traveled to the nearby town of Buchau, where my father’s childhood home once stood, and visited the local Jewish cemetery, where 99 Einsteins are buried. I also met the town genealogist, who gave me a copy of my family tree reaching back to my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather in 1665.

Though my father’s American life was often hard, he lived out his days feeling content and grateful. He never complained about his work or the 25-mile commute, even when he had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. for an early shift. He was enthusiastic about sports (especially baseball) and an avid supporter of the Democratic Party. But he never stopped wearing his dignified European clothes, never abandoned his religious values, and he never forgot the magnanimity of the Hollywood legend who saved his life.

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