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How It All Began

Exit Berlin is based on a selection of letters from the American Jewish Committee’s Luzie Hatch Collection. Luzie, a German Jew, fled to the United States from Germany in 1938. Four months after her arrival, she found employment in New York at the American Jewish Committee. Hired for a temporary position, she had a hunch, a correct one, that she might stay longer. Luzie worked at the AJC from 1939 until her retirement in 1977, and she was well known to everyone. Thus it was understandable that when these letters were discovered, after her death, by an estate executor, he called me, the director of the AJC Archives, and offered to donate her correspondence.

There is no shortage of letters written by German Jews who suffered through the Nazi period. Not only were German Jews dedicated letter writers, but they took care to save their work, and therefore we have an abundance of letters documenting the Jewish plight under the Nazis. Unlike other letter writers, however, Luzie frequently made copies of outgoing letters, later filing them with the incoming responses. She created a collection of matching correspondence. As Professor Henry Feingold, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany and an authority on the American response to the Holocaust, states, “We have hundreds of collections of letters from refugees, but what we have very little of . . . what is really rare, is something like this.”

So what kind of historical record did Luzie Hatch leave behind? Not a diary, with just a single perspective, or a bundle of letters from one individual, but an unfolding story involving people in the United States, Germany, Vichy France, Bolivia, Shanghai, Palestine, and England. Because of the breadth of her correspondence, there is a broad range of WW II refugee history: information about US immigration law, the deportation of Jews from Baden and the Saarpfalz, Vichy internment camps, the Trans-Siberian escape route, Jewish refugees in Shanghai, and the Aryanization of Jewish businesses in Germany.

But the collection is more than just a historical document; it is also a personal family story. It is filled with the warmth, tension, appreciation, and misunderstandings that could exist in any family—but this family was dealing with the horrors of the Holocaust. We hear many voices in this correspondence, and the nuances, as well, are important to the story. Luzie serves not only as translator for her American cousin, Arnold Hatch, but as an intermediary advocating for her relatives in Germany and advising them how best to approach Arnold for help.

Luzie and her younger cousin Herta Stein left Berlin on November 16, 1938, just one week after the horrors of Kristallnacht. Disembarking in New York City with a photo as her guide, she searched the faces in the crowd for Arnold Hatch, her American-born cousin and rescuer. To her surprise, there was nothing distinctly German about Arnold or his brother Stephen. “They are real Americans,” she wrote to her family in Berlin. “You do not notice that they have had a German father at all.”

Once in America, Luzie would become the focal point for other Hecht family members trying to escape from Nazi Germany. Since Arnold Hatch did not know German, and his relatives in Germany knew little English, it was only natural that Luzie would take on her crucial role as intermediary. Yet it was not simply her linguistic skill that caused her German relatives to turn to her for assistance. From their viewpoint, the fact that Arnold had saved Luzie seemed to be evidence that she had been able to influence him. Could she not do the same for her aunts and cousins left behind in Germany? Thus, with Luzie as translator and go-between, an unending stream of requests from German relatives made their way to Arnold’s desk, testing his financial strength, patience, and fortitude.

A crime of such enormity, the Holocaust remains vivid and poignant for American Jewry to this day. More than six decades later, the question of why the American Jewish community of Arnold Hatch’s era didn’t respond more forcefully to the needs of its European brethren still pulls at the American Jewish conscience.

Exit Berlin is a pathway back to the American Jewish setting of the 1930s and early 1940s. But the path does not lead to the world of commanding figures such as Rabbi Stephen Wise or Rabbi Abba Silver. It leads, instead, into the world of an “average” American Jew, a businessman in Albany, New York, an individual who had never thought he would be thrust into the politics of rescue. And it is here that Exit Berlin takes a new turn in Holocaust literature, giving us the second unique feature of Luzie Hatch’s letters. Although much attention has been given to the records of religious and communal institutions, Jewish politicians, writers, and activists, little has been written about the response of individual Jewish American families to the tragic plight of their trapped relatives in Europe.

In 1933, after the death of his German-born father, Arnold Hatch assumed the presidency of Fuld & Hatch Knitting in Cohoes, New York. In addition to the responsibility of keeping the family business afloat during the Depression, a challenge in and of itself, Arnold had inherited the complex and ever-changing problem of responding to the needs of his German relatives with whom he had had little if any prior contact. The eighty-six letters written by Arnold Hatch over a seven-year period offer an intimate picture of how one Jewish American family faced not only the question of its moral obligations but the everyday realities of rescue.

Although he had the best intentions, Arnold found that he was unable to respond adequately to every request. In the most general sense, each relative had the same urgent need—emigration from Germany. However, their various ages, health conditions, financial statuses, and locations made each plea for assistance a new challenge.

Arnold’s correspondence includes letters not only to relatives but to bank officials, shipping companies, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the National Coordinating Committee for Aid to Refugees and Emigrants Coming from Germany, and US court and immigration officials. There was always a letter to write, and there were always nagging questions. Had his letter been received? Was a relative able to access the funds sent, or had a Nazi official pocketed the money? Had Arnold properly followed American immigration law?

Rescue was never merely a simple matter of writing a check. US immigration law, with its accompanying bureaucracy, the spread of war, and the ever-changing circumstances in Europe all combined to frustrate and, at times, exhaust Arnold Hatch. Despite his wealth, education, and social status, he was only one man standing against forces that were well beyond his control.

Arnold Hatch was separated from his German relatives not only by thousands of miles but by the additional chasm of differing perspectives that at times seemed even more impassable. The Depression was a major force in how this forty-five-year-old businessman viewed the world. He had seen families who had once inhabited his own comfortable business and social circles crushed by the economic collapse of 1929. Understandably, he wanted to plan, to be cautious, to know there would be employment and a means of support for those who arrived. But for those living under the increasingly brutal hand of Nazism, the first issue at hand was not one’s economic future but the simple and vital need to escape, to be free, to survive.

Perhaps Arnold’s caution would have been mitigated if he had fully comprehended the enormity of the evil enveloping Germany, but unfortunately, he never did. His failure to do so is obvious. For example, when his cousin Martha Marchand Harf wanted to take the Trans-Siberian rail route to Vladivostok, Arnold’s response was that the plan was “insane.” Yet, despite its risk and arduous nature, it seemed to Martha to be the only possible means of escape for her and her young daughter. Arnold urged Martha to be “rational” and to “stay in Cologne until this unfortunate war is over.”

Luzie Hatch found herself sandwiched between these two profoundly conflicting forces: her American cousin’s reasonable caution and the desperation of her relatives in Germany. It was a delicate situation for a single twenty-seven-year-old who was attempting to make her way in a new country.

This is the basic outline that emerged on my first reading of the collection. But I inevitably wanted to learn more about Luzie and those with whom she corresponded. Through the Internet, requests to the Yad Vashem Archives, newspaper advertisements, helpful tips from colleagues, and old-fashioned telephone book searches, I was able to track down some of the correspondents’ relatives. They were always cooperative and contributed a rich supply of photographs, documents, and information.

My research task extended well beyond the discovery and collection of biographical material. A good deal of historical context was needed for the reader to navigate through the correspondence with ease and to enhance the educational value of Luzie’s story. Thus there is information on a number of subjects including US immigration laws, conditions at the Vichy internment camps, refuge in Shanghai, and Aryanization of Jewish businesses in Germany. Most letters selected for Exit Berlin have been shortened and at times edited. There was often a great deal of detail about immigration quotas and processes repeated time and time again. In order to write a compelling narrative, most of these elements have been removed. The same is true of references to relatives and friends who remained largely unknown or are tangential to the story. It must be stressed that the editing process was limited to punctuation, grammar, and minor deletions. The correspondent’s words were not rewritten. I chose such limited editing in order to retain each writer’s personality and perspective. The letters remain historical documents.

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