Friday, March 1, 2013

Hollywood’s Unknown Rescuer

Before Schindler’s List, an L.A. studio boss saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust. Why was he alone?

Carl LaemmleOn Dec. 27, 1938, a young woman in Berlin named Johanna Rockmann sat down and wrote a desperate letter to a stranger in California. In the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, it was clear that things were only getting worse for Germany’s remaining 550,000 Jews, of whom Rockmann was one. Appeals to Americans with influence or money, whose names and addresses could be culled from newspapers or encyclopedias, were one of the few avenues for escape that most German Jews had left. “With the greatest desire of my life I take the liberty to address you,” she wrote, in fluid English script. “I politely address my petition to you, asking you for your kind assistance in getting to a transatlantic country. At the same time, I may be permitted to ask you for an affidavit.”

The man to whom she addressed her plea was Harry Warner, one of Hollywood’s Warner brothers. President of the studio that bore his family name, he was ranked by Fortune as the second-most-important man in the film business—a man with production schedules to meet and high-powered egos to manage and little time left over to help people he didn’t know.

What Rockmann needed from Harry Warner was something quite involved: a signed and notarized guarantee of financial support that she could offer to U.S. consular authorities as proof that she would not become a burden to the American public. Such an affidavit, signed by the head of a major Hollywood studio, would seal her application for a precious visa that would allow her to escape from Nazi Germany.

To further her case, Rockmann described the 14 years she spent working as a bookkeeper for a lighting-supply company, Siegel & Co. She added that she was fluent in foreign languages and also a diligent housekeeper and seamstress. “Hoping you will be kind enough to consider my petition for which I will always be thankful to you,” she concluded. Below her signature, she added a postscript—“Please turn over!”—whose final exclamation point belied her anxiety. On the reverse side of the page, she wrote that the Dominican Republic was allowing refugees to land as long as they had $50 in hand, so if Warner was not inclined to offer an affidavit, perhaps he would loan her the cash? “I will return you the money with my thanks after my admittance,” Rockmann pledged.

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