THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
An urgent matter
JANUARY 6, 2014. I was on vacation, at a beach town in Southern California, taking a pause from the active search for the story of Frieda and my grandparents, when I got an e-mail message from Ron Coleman, the curator of the American Friends Service Committee Files at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "The AFSC files for your grandparents and for Frieda Berger arrived," he wrote, "and I was able to scan them for you. . .The two folders, one for each case file, are together in one zipped file that you should be able to open easily."
I held my breath and clicked on the file folder for Case #1793.
And there, with all the immediacy and anxiety with which they was first written, were the letters that my father wrote to the American Friends, beginning on May 23, 1939.
". . . their register number at the USA Consulate, Stuttgart, No. 14573, will not be called before September, 1940. . . "
THESE DESPERATE LETTERS were written when my father was a new immigrant to the U.S., living with the Nashville relatives who had helped him escape Nazi Germany -- and trying to save his parents. Although he had doubtless had some help in writing in English, you can still see moments of awkwardness in the language.
As I don't know what I can do for my parents who are living in Germany yet and must emigrate before the end of July, 39, I would like to ask you, dear Sir, for your help and I beg your pardon if I need your trouble.
But the matter is so urgent that I must do what I can and it may be, you are able to help me and my parents. . .
There is one chance to emigrate to a transit to England but the Engl. Government ask for a guarantee of $1500--. I haven't because I am also immigrate here 7 weeks ago.
"For all your troubles and help I thank you so much and with all fibres of my heart."
I WAS EVEN MORE STRUCK by the second letter, sent just five days later. I recognized immediately my father's slanted handwriting, and I could feel the desperation and panic of his words, emphasized by "Urgent matter!!" with its exclamation marks, and triple underline in red.
I hope my letter is clear enough to show you how urgent it is for help and in which horrible situation my parents are -- I can only tell you, dear Miss Rogers, it is a fight for the security of their lives!
The response was swift. My father had sent the first letter to Dr. Marion Kenworthy, a psychiatrist who had helped form an organization to lobby U.S. Congress to admit German refugee children.
Dr. Kenworthy sent the letter special delivery to Mary Rogers at the American Friends Service Committee, describing it as "one more pathetic appeal." I am certain she meant pathetic in the sense of moving one to compassion for suffering, for she requests "if anything on God's green earth can be done to help this individual in a solution for his problem."
THE AMERICAN FRIENDS SERVICE COMMITTEE, which did so much to assist refugees fleeing Nazi Germany (and later, Nazi-occupied Europe and Vichy France) could not help my father with his request for financial help: The $1,500 that Britain asked for, in 1939, as a bond guarantee for temporary residence was the equivalent of more than $26,000 in today's money!
But my father's two letters were passed on to an AFSC social worker named Gabriele Derenberg, who noted that he had mentioned his parents had an affidavit from Erich Warburg, a member of a prominent German-Jewish banking family based in Hamburg. Erich Warburg fled Germany to the United States in 1938 and was active in helping German refugees, so he was a natural person to ask for help.
"The best thing we can do . . . is make a personal appeal to Mr. Warburg, " Gaby Derenberg wrote to Dr. Kenworthy, "as he, through his connections, may be able to do something in this tragic case."
And there was another reason why Gaby Derenberg was comfortable writing to Erich Warburg. I noted on the letters they wrote each other an informal tone -- they were on a first-name basis and in one letter Erich Warburg said "hoping to see you before long," while in the next he wrote beneath his signature "(Chinese Checkers opponent #1)." Were they sweethearts or just friends?
Someone wrote "Warburg" under my father's "Urgent matter!!" message, as the most likely source to seek these emergency funds.
I FOUND THE WARBURGS, Ron Chernow's fascinating thick volume about the family (the family saga reads like a novel) and studied the kinship chart. Aha! Erich and Gabriele were first cousins. She was devoted to public service; he had wealthy connections and concern for the Jews trying to get out of the Reich. In 1939, Erich Warburg had founded E.M. Warburg & Co. at 52 William Street in New York City, and it was from there that he sent the reply. He had helped the Sonnemanns enough, he said, as he didn't even know them. Actually, he had known my grandfather's brother, Leopold Sonnemann, who had been involved in the textile business in Germany. With an affidavit from Erich Warburg, Leopold and his family managed to emigrate to the United States in 1938.
As for my father, he also benefited directly from Erich Warburg, who had set up a fund to help destitute refugees from Germany who had technical or scientific skills. My father would later use the money from Erich Warburg to help his parents. But it was not my father who was appealing to Erich Warburg in 1939; it was his beloved cousin, Gaby.
Still -- after he wrote to London where his sister, Lola Hahn, was also actively trying to help help German Jewish refugees -- the answer was no.
"WE DEEPLY REGRET that we can not be of some assistance," Gaby Derenberg wrote my father.
And then, there was a long silence.