THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
FLASH FORWARD ONE YEAR, to July 3, 1940. That's when the next of my father's letters appeared in the American Friends Service Committee file.
"Today I can tell you that it was not possible for me to raise the $1500.00 which I needed to bring my parents out of Germany," he wrote. "Moreover, since then I tried without success to get them out of Europe . . . "
So that was what happened. From May, 1939, all my father's attempts to get his parents out of Germany had been answered with the rejection letters I'd discovered in the grey folder. Great Britain, Canada, Sweden, Mexico, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland -- all of them had said NO to my father's request for his parents to reside in their country temporarily while they awaited their U.S. visa.
Then, an incredible thing happened.
After waiting more than 18 months since they had filed their application, my grandparents were notified by the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart that their number had come up.
THE DEUTSCHES REICH REISEPASS, or passport, was given to my grandparents in April, 1940, the same month that Auschwitz was established in Poland. They received U.S. immigration visas on May 9, 1940, just a day before Germany invaded Western Europe.
ON MAY 9, 1940, THEY WERE GRANTED VISAS to the United States of America. But the very next day --May 10, 1940 -- Germany invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. (On that same day, my grandmother's 16-year-old nephew, Adolf Herrmann, who had fled Germany the year before for Belgium, was arrested on a street in Brussels.)
With Germany at war and the invasion of Western Europe in full fury, my grandparents now had a terrible problem: How could they get out of the country?
BY JANUARY 1, 1939, all Jewish men had to add the name "Israel" and all Jewish women had to add "Sara" to their given names, to further identify themselves as Jews.
FOR A MOMENT, there seemed to be a chance of going through Italy.
"About 7 weeks ago, my parents finally got their visas for the USA and I just had so much money ($450) to pay their trip via Italy," my father wrote. "But again the fate was against me and in spite of their Italian visa, Italy did not allow them to pass and two days later declared war."
So that was it. I had seen the Italian visa in my grandparents' passports, dated May 22, 1940, and wondered why no one ever mentioned they had gone through Italy. They hadn't. The Italian visa could not be used; the plan to leave via an Italian port was crushed.
Now what? There was only one desperate option left: the eastern route through Russia, Siberia and Asia. Germany's non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941 made it possible to use the overland route. If one had all the necessary visas and pre-paid tickets for travel.
"AFTER UTMOST URGENT TELEGRAMS of the Jewish organization in Germany, the Hilfsverein, to do whatever I can to make it possible for them to leave via Russia-Manchukuo-Japan-Honolulu to the United States," my father wrote, "I succeeded in getting a ship-ticket for Aug. 17th."
But of course, it all took money. The trip would cost $850 overall, my father estimated, a huge sum -- equivalent to more than $14,000 today. (My father then worked a six-day-a-week job in Chicago, which paid $12 a week.)
Eric Warburg had helped generously, with $500, but my father didn't want to ask him for more assistance. Could the American Friends Service Committee give him any advice?
"I would be utmost thankful and obliged to you, if you would be able to help me and my parents for whom we are the only help left on this earth . . ."
The response, delayed by nearly a month, was disappointing, though not surprising.
"We. . .are so utterly swamped with mail that it was impossible to give you an earlier reply," wrote Annelise Thieman of the AFSC, noting that Hilfsverein, an organization to help German Jews emigrate, was helping my grandparents arrange their journey, "-- a reply which unfortunately must be negative."