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Hope and fear

MY GRANDPARENTS, ALONG WITH FRIEDA, MUST HAVE APPLIED for U.S. visas shortly after Kristallnacht in November of 1938. By then--with nearly all Jews now desperate to leave-- the wait had become terribly long. Already when my father had applied in 1937, his number was something like 6,500 and it had taken a year for his number to come up. But in December of 1938 -- as my father was leaving Germany to go to Holland and then America-- a German Jewish visa applicant described the  American consulate in Stuttgart as "besieged to such an extent that the waiting number. . . indicates there are 22,344 cases ahead of us."* The waiting time was estimated to be more than two years.



MY FATHER HAD TOLD ME ABOUT HIS FATHER'S ACCOMPLISHMENTS. Opa--Kurt Sonnemann--had been a published poet, an editor and critic of music and the performing arts. (I later learned he had received a classical music education in Munich, that he played piano and also composed music.) My father recalled the pleasure of accompanying his father to theater, music and ballet performances, followed by late night dinners with such stars as ballerina Anna Pavlova and conductor Arturo Toscanini.

BOOKS OF POETRY by my grandfather, Kurt Sonnemann

As a freelance writer, my grandfather wrote for a variety of big newspapers throughout Germany:  in Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Hamburg. It was a cultured life, and though freelance work meant some uncertainty and lack of prosperity, the family was comfortable enough.  Until 1933.


From 1933, when Hitler came to power, my grandfather's career was virtually halted.  Karen Strobel, the Mannheim archivist, told me that from that point, Opa was forbidden to write for most publications and could publish only in Jewish newspapers such as "Israelisches Familienblatt Hamburg."


My grandmother joined Frieda selling sewing machines on commission to help support the family.


I DON'T KNOW HOW THEY PAID ALL THE TAXES that the German government imposed on the Jewish population, especially after the violent and destructive night of November 9, 1938, known as Kristallnacht. Just days after the brutal event, Hermann Goering and other top Nazi leaders decided to further punish the Jews by making them pay for the destruction of their own property, rather than obligating insurance companies to carry the cost of the damages. Thus, the Reich government declared that "the Jews" themselves were to blame for Kristallnacht, and imposed a punitive fine of one billion Reichsmark ($400 million U.S. dollars at1938 rates) on the German Jewish communities for the cost of all repairs. This was just one of the many fines and taxes imposed on German Jews.


In December, 1938, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) detailed the official theft of Jewish property and money: "The obligations which must be met by the emigrating Jew are (1) the 20 percent fine levied upon his entire fortune as punishment for the assassination of the German legation secretary in Paris; (2) the 25 percent Reich flight tax, payable by all persons with fortunes of 50,000 marks or more; (3) the 100 percent tax on all personal belongings purchased after 1933; and (4) sale of his remaining marks to the Gold Discount Bank at the prevailing rate of 6 1/2 percent–provided that the bank is willing to purchase."


Jewish emigrants, like my father, were allowed to take only 10 marks with them in cash.

THE LARGE RED J, FOR JUDE, stamped on my father's passport, was required on all German passports held by Jews after October 5, 1938. Jews who held passports without the J stamp were ordered to surrender them.

BECAUSE MY FATHER AND HIS BROTHER Max had applied earlier, they were able to get out on ships leaving Europe. But after the war broke out in September, 1939, travel across the Atlantic became more difficult. In many cases -- such as that of Oma and Frieda's brother and his wife -- plans to leave from France were dashed after Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939; ports in Belgium and Holland were unavailable once Germany invaded in May of 1940.


Meanwhile, measures to separate and steal from the Jews continued in Germany with the appalling process called "Aryanization." Jews were forced to sell  businesses and property for far less than their worth as new laws decreed that they could not own businesses, land or houses. A friend of my parents' from Mannheim, told how her mother was forced to negotiate a "so-called sale" of her successful butcher shop and property in 1939, "with the help of a gun which had been placed on the table where the negotiations were held."


My grandparents and Frieda were also profoundly affected by these measures, as I found out from the devoted Mannheim city archivist Karen Strobel who researched the details of my grandparents’ residences.  “It is a cruel story, and sometimes I just stopped as I shivered,” she wrote me, a remarkable statement for an archivist. She attached a long document she'd prepared with a full account.

My grandparents, after living for nearly 22 years in a flat with a balcony in the central part of town moved, along with their two sons and Frieda, in September of 1938. The reason wasn’t known, but perhaps they could no longer afford the rent since my grandfather’s income had all but disappeared. Their new dwelling was the third floor of a house on the outskirts of town owned by A.S. Baer & Sohn, a 92-year-old Jewish-owned company that traded in hops.  

The family had moved to this new address less than two months before Kristallnacht. My father always told me that this relocation had been instrumental in helping them survive the pogrom: they hadn’t yet registered their new address with the city.  The day after Kristallnacht my father kept his appointment with the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart, and just weeks later he left Germany forever. But by then, the Jewish company had sold the house for a low price, probably in anticipation of an ordinance of December 3, 1938, which required all Jewish companies to be sold or closed by the end of the year.



Under the ingenious and recently improved Nazi system of restrictive laws, special taxes, enforced loans and capital levies, the Jew leaving Germany today is stripped of anywhere from 96.5 percent to more than 99 percent of his fortune.


                            -- Jewish Telegraphic Agency. December 25, 1938

As I, dear Erich, do not know if and when I will see you again, I send you, through your brother Max, this picture of me in happier days. . .


If I do not see you again, then hold your protecting hand over Max, and make your mother's remaining years comfortable, just as she deserves for all she has done for both of you and for me. . .


with love, hugs and kisses from your Father



IT WAS AUGUST OF 1939 when my grandfather inscribed the words above  (in German)  on the back of his photo, and gave it to Max, who would soon leave for Belgium and a ship to the U.S. where he would join his brother, my father. At the time, my grandparents had no way of knowing whether they'd be able to get out of Germany, or to see their sons again. 

It’s likely that my grandfather, knowing that many Jewish men were arrested during Kristallnacht, prepared himself for the worst.




THE BUYER OF THIS GOOD DEAL was the Protestant Church for its "Deaconesses Motherhouse." And the pastor who signed the contract, Wilhelm Scheel, who lived with his family in the house at various times, was the father of Gustav Adolf Scheel, who as a student at Heidelberg University had been a Nazi propagandist and a main speaker at the university's book burning in May of 1933. By 1934, Scheel belonged to both the SS and the SD (the secret intelligence agency of the SS and Nazi party), and in October of 1940 he would organize the deportation of the Jews from Karlsruhe (about forty miles from Mannheim) to Gurs, France.


Whether my father’s family ever had contact with Gustav Adolf Scheel is a mystery, but in any case, their stay in this residence was less than a year. Once the house had been sold to the Protestant Church, it was Aryanized, and under the "Law of Tenancy Contracts with Jews" of April 30, 1939, landlords had the right to terminate contracts with Jewish tenants at any time. So Jewish families were often forced to move from homes owned by non-Jewish landlords, and were then concentrated together in Judenhauser, Jewish houses. 


In August, 1939, Frieda and my grandparents had to move from their home to such a Judenhaus. The address was Moltkestrasse 6.


"They used a square block and just stuffed the Jews in there," my father said. "And this way, they had total control over them and they could take them one by one or more to concentration camps and get rid of them."


This is certainly what happened on October 22, 1940, when 33 people were deported from just that one address, Moltkestrasse 6.

Although my grandparents and Frieda would not have predicted deportation and death, they must have felt desperate. The Hitler regime was closing its dragnet in on them, herding them together in a trap. 

"WHAT NEEDS TO BE UNDERSTOOD is that all this occurred in the open, in the midst of an advanced civilization, writes Richard Wielheimer, whose mother performed violin with the orchestra at the same concert hall of Mannheim that my grandfather went as a critic, before Weilheimer's family was deported to Gurs in 1940. "It was done with enthusiasm and great publicity and propaganda by a shameless society. It was conceived with the knowledge of all Germans and carried out before the eyes of the rest of the world."

MEANWHILE, THE AGONIZING WAIT for the American visa.  What Frieda and my grandparents couldn't have foreseen in the spring of 1940 was that the new U.S. State Department official in charge of European refugees would create policies that excluded much of  German Jewish immigration at a desperate time.


Breckinridge Long, a friend of FDR's who became head of the State Department's Visa Division in January of 1940, was an extreme nativist with an exaggerated fear of spies and Communists. Although he was said to be charming and mannerly in person, a diary he kept later revealed the extent of his paranoia and prejudice. He listed his opponents as "communists, extreme radicals, Jewish professional agitators, refugee enthusiasts," and described Mein Kampf as "eloquent in opposition to Jewry and to Jews as exponents of Communism and chaos."



Long was not alone in his preoccupation with the threat of Nazi espionage in the United States. Anxiety gripped the public by 1938 when FBI head J. Edgar Hoover revealed the discovery of a Nazi spy ring in New York. A movie based on the case, "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," created controversy both before and after its release. Hollywood's self-censoring board, the Production Code Administration, did all it could to prevent the making of any anti-Nazi film. When it finally gave reluctant approval to the script of Confessions of a Nazi Spy, there was one important stipulation: It could not explicitly mention the sufferings of the Jews under Hitler.

Even at a remove of nearly 80 years, I was shocked at the film's portrayal of Nazi sympathizers in America -- complete with swastikas, mass rallies, Nazi salutes, declarations of "Heil Hitler!" and references to "subhuman elements" which must be removed from society -- all without a single mention of Jews. And this, despite the recent worldwide shock and horror at the violence of Kristallnacht.

THE WARNER BROTHERS' FILM,  released in April of 1939, was the first film to directly criticize Nazi Germany and take a stand on foreign policy. 

AFTER GERMANY INVADED POLAND IN September of 1939, followed by Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France in the spring of 1940, "spy mania" -- a type of hysteria that made people see Nazi spies everywhere -- swept the United States. There were reports of "spy hunts," of people breaking into their neighbors' homes and demanding that they salute the American flag.

By June of 1940, Breckinridge Long connected this fear of German spies to the refugees fleeing Nazism. Although Congress passed the Alien Registration Act, requiring registration and fingerprinting of all immigrants above age 14, a national poll showed that the American public wanted even stricter controls. With such encouragement, and somehow convinced that those fleeing Hitler could be forced or enticed to spy for the Nazis, Long devised a plan to dramatically reduce the number of immigrants to the United States. Historian David Wyman called Long's secret memo "probably the most disgraceful document" he had ever seen in twenty years of research.

"We can delay and effectively stop, for a temporary period of indefinite length, the number of immigrants into the United States, Long wrote to fellow State Department officials on June 16, 1940. "We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas."

Long's memo became the State Department's official policy, and immigration--already just a trickle--was sharply cut. The Stuttgart consulate, through which my grandparents and Frieda had applied, issued only three visas in July of 1940.


Thanks to Breckinridge Long, by the time the Jews of Baden were deported in the fall of 1940, Frieda would be trapped in the Judenhaus at Moltkestrasse 6, in the heart of Mannheim.




Breitman, Richard and Allan J. Lichtman, FDR and the Jews. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2013.

Feingold, Henry L. The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938-1945. Waldon Press, Inc., 1970

Ross, Steven J. “Confessions of a Nazi Spy: Warner Bros., Anti-Fascism and the Politicization of Hollywood.” 

Weilheimer, Richard. Be Happy, Be Free, Dance!: A Holocaust Survivor's Message to His Grandchildren. Intentional Productions. 2005.

Wyman, David. Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941. Pantheon Books, 1984

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