Death is a time when we say our goodbyes: at bedsides and gravesides, and in eulogies. Yet, death can sometimes be an introduction. Documents and letters locked in a cabinet or tucked away at the bottom of a dresser drawer to safeguard intimate thoughts and experiences are no longer hidden. Now, a different set of hands opens the envelopes and pulls out the yellowed and brittle letters. Venturing into the decedent’s private world, the reader may encounter startling revelations. Such was the case with Luzie Hatch, a German Jewish immigrant whose correspondence is the basis for Exit Berlin, released by Yale University Press.
For more than three decades, Luzie, a single woman, had taken the subway from her modest studio apartment in Queens to midtown Manhattan where she worked as an administrative assistant at the American Jewish Committee. Judi Manning, a staffer at the law firm responsible for Luzie’s estate, remembers a charming humble woman. “She frequently would visit our office with her omnipresent shopping cart in tow.” When someone asked about her health, she always responded, “I’m old and decrepit.” But she was much more.
While preparing the contents of her crammed apartment for auction, Roger Blane, an estate executor, stumbled upon more than 300 WWII-era letters. When writing her family, former work colleagues, and friends, Luzie often made carbon copies of her outgoing letters, later filing them with the incoming material. Why she took this unusual action is a mystery. What is clear is that she left behind a rare collection of two-sided correspondence that spans the globe – – Germany, Vichy France, Shanghai, England, Canada, and Palestine.
In 1936, most German Jews did not yet view emigration as a necessity. Luzie Hatch, then twenty-three, disagreed. Unbeknownst to her parents, she wrote her American-born cousin Arnold Hatch in Albany, NY. Never having met him, nor apparently even communicated with him, there was little to hang her hopes on other than his sense of family duty. His response was affirmative, and, with his help, she landed in NY harbor in mid-November 1938, just days after Kristallnacht.
Relatives trapped behind in Nazi Germany asked the obvious question, “What about me? Why can’t Arnold save me?” And since Arnold didn’t know German and they didn’t know English, Luzie became both translator and advocate for them. Much of Exit Berlin is a dance between Luzie, a single woman in her 20s, financially struggling, at times overwhelmed by her new surroundings, and Arnold, a middle-aged president of a knitting company, Ivy League educated, and abundantly confident. These two distinct personalities would struggle to deal with the pleas of relatives trapped in Germany. They would not always see eye to eye.
In 1940, Luzie’s Aunt Martha wrote from Cologne of her hope of escaping with her 12-year-old daughter via the lengthy Trans-Siberian Railroad, but she needed Arnold’s financial assistance. When Arnold learned of the plan he erupted. It was “utterly impractical” to send two women from Cologne via Berlin, Moscow, Siberia, and Japan. “The journey is hazardous and uncertain, and the American Express Company in accepting the utterly impossible sum of $700.00 per person does not guarantee a thing… I cannot get into plans as insane.”
Luzie had no choice but to pass along Arnold’s response. “My dear Aunt Martha,” she wrote, “I am dreadfully sorry that I must write this note. Arnold is against you going on the long, burdensome and expensive trip over Russia and Japan.” Luzie added some personal advice, suggesting her aunt might be able to make the journey through Russia with the help of the “Hilfsverein,” the German Jewish aid society. “I strongly believe,” she wrote, “it might be easier to have Arnold do something if one could tell him that funding until Japan is ensured. I am sorry, this is the only advice I am able to give you… I think about you and do everything in my power, but my limits are all-too restricted unfortunately.”
Luzie’s aunt and cousin Ruth were transported to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, where, according to the archives at Yad Vashem, they died.
Because of the breadth of Luzie’s correspondence, the reader learns about U.S. Immigration law, Aryanization of German Jewish businesses, internment camps in Vichy France, and refugees who ended up in Shanghai and Bolivia. Yet her letters offer more than information: they also raise moral questions. Why wasn’t America more welcoming? And what of Arnold Hatch? His letters offer an intimate picture of how one Jewish American family struggled not only with the moral obligations of rescue but with its everyday realities: immigration quotas, the Depression, ship tickets that were scarce and expensive, and the ever-shifting situation in Europe.
When Luzie passed away shortly after September 11th, her trove of WWII-era correspondence was not the only surprise she left behind. Decades ago, when the average client walking into a stock brokerage firm was a well-off American male, Luzie became an investor. Although she never advanced beyond the position of an administrative assistant, she lived economically and saved money to purchase stocks. By investing wisely, she amassed a small fortune. Her estate was used to establish the Edwin Hatch Foundation in memory of her father, which provides financial assistance to students at Clarkson University and Binghamton University in New York, and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Luzie Hatch was the woman next door whom her neighbors and friends never really knew.
Photo 1: Luzie Hatch in Berlin, circa 1933. | Photo 2: Luzie Hatch, circa 1958-1963.
Charlotte Bonelli is the Director of the AJC Archives and Records Center and the author of Exit Berlin, published by Yale University Press in 2014.