THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
THE ANSWER, I THOUGHT, had to come from Frieda's application for a U.S. visa. She would have applied for it the same time as my grandparents (her sister and brother-in-law), shortly after Kristallnacht, and certainly by the time she wrote the letter to my father in March of 1939. My grandparents had received their visas and managed to get out, only months before Nazi Germany and Vichy France conspired to deport and imprison the Jews of Baden. Frieda had been snared in that net. But still, she could have been rescued--if only the U.S. would have granted her visa in time.
I wanted to see her visa application and the record of my father's visit to the State Department. What exactly had the State Department officials said, what had they recorded as an outcome of the meeting? Surely records would have been saved, wouldn't they? I knew I would have to search -- beyond the grey folder and the documents my father had given me. But what exactly was I searching for, and why? I wasn't quite sure.
AROUND THIS TIME, my friend Cathy sent me a book of works on paper by American artist Richard Diebenkorn. Along with the book, she sent a list of his "Notes to myself on beginning a painting."
One of the guidelines resonated particularly with me, even though it sounded contradictory.
IT WAS NUMBER 3: "Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for."
So, I determined, I would search, following the leads wherever they led. I started making queries.
The first response, from the National Records and Archives Administration, NARA, seemed promising. A helpful researcher named Amy Reytar wrote me that she'd found a number for a Citizens and Immigration Administration file, for a visa case. It had my father's name as a character reference for Frieda Berger.
ONLY ONE PROBLEM. The record was dated March, 1941, and NARA had immigration records dating only through 1940. But for $20, I could try a "genealogy search," with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ms. Reytar suggested.
Of course I would. I entered all the information I knew into the search data, and a few weeks later, a woman called to check the information with me. "You'll hear from us," she said.
Another three weeks went by, and I'd heard nothing at all. I called her up. "Would it help to have the file number for the visa case?" I asked. Could "811.111 Berger, Frieda" mean anything?
"No," she said. "We don't search by file numbers." She paused as she looked through her computer records."Let's see -- We sent you a letter two weeks ago."
"Really? I never got it."
"It said we didn't find any documents. Case closed."
I WAS STARTLED. "But how can that be? I know she applied for a visa! Isn't there any way you can look for the number?"
"No. I'm sorry. Case is closed."
I hung up the phone, my stomach churning. Why was there no record of Frieda's visa application, no record of my father's character reference for Frieda of March 19, 1941, no record of my father's plea for the State Department to help for Frieda in July of 1942?
I had never subscribed to conspiracy theories, but now I was starting to build one. I wrote pleading e-mails and letters to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, asking for a review. I would gladly pay for another file search -- if only I knew the file existed, I wrote. The response was a deafening silence.
Then I remembered Amy Reytar, the helpful archivist at NARA. I wrote an e-mail to her explaining what had happened. "Could it be that the visa application was destroyed by USCIS?," I asked her. "Was that a practice of the time or is it now?"
"I'm disconcerted that USCIS didn't have anything," she wrote back. "I know our visa records collection are very incomplete, so I was hoping they would be able to fill in there."
"IT IS POSSIBLE IT WAS DESTROYED," she said. She sent me a link to a government publication about researching archives.
My spirits sank as I read the words in the section on visas: "The Department of State destroyed visas from March 1940 and later."
Why would the State Department keep visas from 1933, yet destroy them after 1940?
"Archiving "is in no way an exact science and we make a lot of educated guesses," Amy Reytar wrote, adding that she had hoped that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would have had a record.
BUT THEY HADN'T, AND I WAS AT A DEAD END, it seemed. Yet I couldn't let go, couldn't stop asking questions. There was something more -- I knew there was, even though I had no idea what it was -- and I wouldn't stop searching until I found it.