SO WHY DIDN'T DAD and his family just leave, then?
I always find this question disturbing. As if leaving was as simple as packing a suitcase and buying some train and ship tickets. As if you didn’t have to leave loved ones behind to face certain discrimination and uncertain dangers. As if you could go wherever you liked. As if there were a country which would welcome you, even though you were nearly penniless.
In the early Hitler years, Jews were encouraged to leave, but they were permitted to take only their clothes, items of furniture (if they could afford to ship them) and ten Deutschmarks, Dad said. And this was in the midst of the global Great Depression. What country would possibly want you: a poor immigrant in search of work?
Of course, many German Jews did leave for other countries in Europe—particularly France, Belgium and the Netherlands—only to be caught in the Nazi dragnet after Germany’s invasion in May, 1940. But before that, while they still believed they had a choice, many German Jews staked their hopes and dreams on immigrating to the United States.
“But you could not just leave,” my father says emphatically. “You had to have a visa.”
Even to apply for an entry visa to the United States involved a long wait and a multitude of documents. From the time that Dad began the application process, in 1936 or 1937, he had to wait more than a year for his number to come up for an appointment at the busy U.S. consulate in Stuttgart.
A SAMPLING OF THE DOCUMENTS MY FATHER GATHERED TO APPLY FOR A U.S. VISA. Required papers included five copies of a visa application, along with a birth certificate, a certificate of good conduct from police authorities (along with police, military and other government records), and proof of having passed a physical exam. My father included school records and references of good character from his employer and the synagogue. All these papers had to be accompanied by English translations, notarized. After the outbreak of World War II in September of 1939, the U.S. also required proof of permission to leave Germany, as well as proof of a booked ship passage.
BUT THE MOST ESSENTIAL DOCUMENT and the one most difficult to obtain is the only one my father tells me about: the Affidavit. This was a document from an American sponsor, preferably a close relative, promising financial support so the immigrant would not become a public charge.
The requirements would have deterred many: the sponsor had to send six notarized copies of the Affidavit of Support and Sponsorship, as well as supporting documents, including a certified copy of the federal tax return, a bank affidavit verifying the sponsor’s accounts, and affidavits from responsible people, such as employers, about other assets.
“You couldn’t leave Germany unless you had a sponsor,” my father tells me, “and I had no sponsor.” He beseeched his parents: “’ Think! Isn’t there anyone who can be a guarantor so I can get out of here?”
His parents wracked their brains. A wealthy American relative who was a citizen? Both of my grandparents had brothers who had left for America, but one had disappeared, and the other was not yet an American citizen.
Then – and this part sounds like a fairy tale—my father tells me that one morning his mother awoke in a state of great excitement. She’d had a dream about an American woman who visited her family home many years before.
“WHO WAS SHE? My mother doesn’t know who. So, she sends a letter to a cousin who lives in Saint Louis – ‘Do you remember who this woman might be?’ And two weeks later, a letter arrives in the mail: “I sure know who it is. Her name is Emma Loveman and they are very well-to-do people in Nashville, Tennessee.”
There is an address and immediately my father writes her a letter, composing it in his best English. He tells Mrs. Loveman that his mother, Berta Herrmann, is related to her and that she once visited his mother’s mother.
“I am trying to get out of Germany, to come to America," he wrote. "Can you do anything to help me?”
She could. She did. Without hesitation.
I imagine the rush to send the six notarized copies of the affidavit of support, plus the federal tax return, the bank statements, the records of the family’s lumber business in Nashville. It is a convincing sponsorship, and it allows my father to apply for a visa with the U.S. Consulate. At the beginning of 1938, he is given a number, “something like 7,250.” At least with this number, as he joined the tens of thousands of Jews desperate to leave Germany, he had hope.
This is not the end of the story or the only lucky event that brought him to America, but in my memory I can see and hear him telling me about the lucky dream as we sit around the little pink Formica kitchen table in Chicago, perhaps eating a slice of rye bread with sweet butter and sugar.
He tells me again how these unknown distant relatives in Nashville saved him -- and eventually, his brother and parents -- through an act of extraordinary kindness.
And he tells me again about the miracle of his mother’s dream.
"IF MY MOTHER, YOUR GRANDMOTHER, had not had that dream,” my father says, “I would not be alive today. And you would never have been born.”
A shiver runs up my spine. For never has it been more clear that my father’s stories are not only his stories. They are also mine.
OMA IN MANNHEIM
EMMA GRAF LOVEMAN