Remembering the Hollywood Mogul Who Rescued Hundreds of Germany's Jews (Guest Column)

Brandeis University professor and historian Thomas Doherty, author of 'Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939,' recounts the story of Universal founder Carl Laemmle and the Jews of Laupheim.
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Carl Laemmle

The transformative influence of the pioneer mogul Carl Laemmle, president and founder of Universal Pictures, is well known: he busted up the Edison trusts, nurtured the star system and, by moving out to Hollywood in 1912, helped convince the nascent industry to relocate from Fort Lee, N.J., to a more film-friendly clime. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, Universal was a gleaming gem in the vertically integrated bracelet that was the classical Hollywood studio system, specializing in Gothic horror and fantastical melodramas before morphing into the global conglomerate/theme park that now flies the flag Laemmle first unfurled.

Less well known is Laemmle’s role as a savior of Jewish refugees from the charnel house of Nazi Germany. Years before the official onset of genocide and decades before the word “Holocaust” become a signifier for the extermination of European Jewry, Laemmle worked tirelessly to rescue Hitler’s chosen victims, putting his money where his heart was, not just for family and friends but for any desperate supplicant.  He is the closest thing to an Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg that Hollywood has.

Born in 1867 in the municipality of Laupheim, in the blue Danube district of Württemberg, Germany, the son of precariously bourgeois Jewish merchants, Laemmle immigrated to American at age 17 to live out a scenario scripted by Benjamin Franklin. He climbed the ladder a rung at a time, working hard, living modestly and keeping an eye out for the main chance, rising from $4-a-week messenger, to clerk, to store manager, to store owner. In 1889, wasting no time, he became a proud American citizen. In 1906, he moved to Chicago with plans to invest his savings in a five-and-dime store — until he noticed a long line of customers, nickels in hand, waiting to enter a storefront to gawk at the entertainment revolution launched with the new century.

Opening his own nickelodeon, Laemmle got in on the ground floor of a business that would never again be small change. Boosted by an infusion of cash from a white-slavery exposé entitled Traffic in Souls (1913), he transferred his operation to the city soon to become synonymous with the budding industry, opening the first Universal Pictures in an old brewery on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. On March 15, 1915, he expanded the operation to a 230-acre lot in the San Fernando Valley and christened the grounds Universal City — already declaring his aspirations for the universal medium. 

As Laemmle built his American dream factory, he maintained warm personal ties and close commercial links with his native land, frequently vacationing there and mixing business and pleasure. In 1920, returning to Germany for the first time since the Great War, he was heartsick at the destitution in a once prosperous land. Taking to the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, he implored Americans to relieve the sufferings of their former enemy. “Will you send me any kind of help you can afford — food, clothing, hats, shoes, money?” he begged. “All the employees of Universal are contributing and weekly we are sending cases of supplies to Germany.”[i] Laemmle paid the shipping costs for the donations out of his own pocket.

An avuncular figure known — universally — as “Uncle Carl,” Laemmle had a weakness for the ponies (he was a regular at the race track at Santa Anita) and poker (he wryly described himself as “the unluckiest poker player in the United States,” knowing how lucky he was in other ways).[ii] In a business dominated by gruff Eastern European-born Jews, the gnomish, gentlemanly Laemmle fit a different stereotype: the image of the kindly German burgher — white-haired, well-fed and warm-hearted.

In the silent era, Universal scored big with extravagant fare such as Foolish Wives (1922), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), films whose tone was suffused with the Teutonic sensibilities of the countrymen Laemmle imported. Facing the challenges of the sound era, he greenlighted the studio’s most ambitious and honored project, a spectacular screen version of the international best-seller by Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone and shot by Arthur Edeson. The film version was the brainchild of Carl Laemmle, Jr., known as “Junior Laemmle” around town, whom Laemmle Senior appointed as head of production for Universal in 1929 when his son was just 21 years old. To the Laemmles, the project was more than a commercial investment. “If there is anything in my life I am proud of, it is this picture,” the elder Laemmle said of the antiwar epic. “It is, to my mind, a picture that will live forever.”[iii]

Laemmle was shocked when the most thuggish of the Weimar Republic’s political parties tried to kill his proudest achievement. On Dec. 5, 1930, at its opening at the Mozart Hall in Berlin, the film caused an orchestrated riot. Led by Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, the media impresario for the Nazi Party, a cadre of burly brownshirts infiltrated the theater interior. As the film unspooled, the Nazis stood up and howled invective at the screen, railing against the perfidy of the Hollywood Jews who had bankrolled the slur on German honor. Stink bombs and sneezing powder permeated the air, and white mice, released at the same time, scurried down the aisles. As patrons gagged and women stood on their seats screaming, the management was forced to stop the show and clear the house. Amid the chaos, several moviegoers, taken for Jews by the brownshirts, were savagely beaten. "Within 10 minutes, the cinema was a madhouse," Goebbels gloated in his diary that night. Terrified of the rampaging storm troopers, the Weimar regime banned All Quiet on the Western Front on the grounds that it was “endangering Germany’s reputation.”

Gradually, Laemmle realized that his cherished Fatherland — at the time not an ugly word — was degenerating into a gangster state. Early on, he tried to raise the alarm. "I address you on a subject which I firmly believe is not only of great concern to my own race, but also to the millions of gentiles throughout the world,” he wrote newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst on Jan. 28, 1932, a full year before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. “It is about the current political situation in Germany and the probable consequences to the Jewish population in that country in the event Hitler is successful, as it seems likely, in getting control of the Government."

Laemmle was prophetic. After Hitler assumed power in 1933, the Nazis immediately set about purging the German film industry of Jewish artists and demanding that the Hollywood studios dismiss Jewish employees, whether German or American, from their Berlin branch offices. Universal was sent a special message. Max Friedland, the studio’s European representative and Laemmle’s nephew, was yanked out of bed by the Gestapo and interrogated for five hours. By July 1934, Universal had pulled up stakes, abandoning the homeland of its founder.

In 1936, Laemmle sold his interest in Universal Pictures and officially retired, but he continued to preside over the industry as a kind of mogul emeritus. Freed from full-time production duties, he devoted ever more of his energies to anti-Nazi activity and refugee rescue and relief, spending the balance of the decade importuning friends, the federal government and anyone else who would listen about the plight of Jews under Hitler. He employed two full-time secretaries for the work and he kept them both busy.

Under the restrictive quotas of the 1924 Immigration Act, getting a refugee into America in the 1930s was no easy task. Among the onerous hurdles, the bureaucracy demanded that a stateside sponsor submit a notarized affidavit attesting to the candidate’s law-abiding character and assuring his financial solvency. Laemmle signed affidavits, put up cash bond and shepherded scores of refugees through the hoops of American immigration policy. According to the Jewish Council in Stuttgart, over 300 affidavits bear Laemmle’s signature. Even Laemmle’s annual Christmas and New Year’s season’s greetings were put to service for the cause. “No fancy card this year,” he told correspondents in 1938. “The money thus saved goes to helping German refugees.” In early 1939, Variety observed Laemmle working feverishly “to bring every refugee out of Laupheim now living there.”[iv]

Laemmle’s efforts met stubborn resistance from the patrician counselor officers who manned the gates on the ground in Germany and at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C., many of whom were openly anti-Semitic both in personal attitudes and, worse, official behavior. Never a desirable import, political refugees were especially unpopular in a nation wracked by the Great Depression. And, of course, anti-Semitic resistance to a wave of Jewish refugees was not limited to the diplomatic corps.

So incessant and numerous were Laemmle’s pleas to the Department of State, so willing was he to sign off on any refugee whose plight crossed his desk, that consular officers in Germany began discounting his affidavits. Laemmle responded by calling upon friends to do as he did. “I have issued so many personal affidavits that the United States government won’t accept any,” he wrote director William Wyler in 1938, urging him to submit “as many [affidavits] as your means permit” and assured him that the chances of being financially liable were miniscule. He reminded his correspondents that the stakes were high and the need immediate: “I predict right now that thousands of German and Austria Jews will be forced to commit suicide if they cannot get affidavits to come to America or some other foreign country.”

While Laemmle worked against time to rescue his kinsmen, he also lent his prestige and checkbook to the anti-Nazi political action committees of the day. He was a staunch supporter of the two main Hollywood-based groups sworn to oppose Nazism and provide succor to refugees: the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy and the European Film Fund. Founded in 1936 by screenwriters Donald Ogden Stewart and Dorothy Parker, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League orchestrated the efforts of some 5,000 anti-Nazi artists-activists in the motion picture industry. The group held rallies, circulated petitions and tried to inject anti-Nazi sentiment into Hollywood cinema. As a member of the Committee of 56 (so named because there were 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence), Laemmle appeared in the newsreels for the ceremonial signing of the league’s Declaration of Democratic Independence, a document enumerating the crimes of the Nazis and calling for a boycott of all things German. “Today, a new tyranny has arisen to challenge democracy’s heritage,” read the declaration. “Hitler and his Nazi dictatorship have attacked the religions of the world and substituted paganism in their stead.” The European Film Fund was a charitable organization founded in 1938 by talent agent Paul Kohner, whom Laemmle had brought to America in 1920, and director Ernst Lubitsch. The group tithed members 1% of their salaries to finance relief activities for German and other refugees, Jew and gentile alike, and worked to provide exiled artists with jobs in the motion picture industry.

Jewish refugees needed all the private help they could in the 1930s because they were often, literally, personae non grata. In May 1939, the nativist resistance was heartbreakingly dramatized when the MS St. Louis, sailing from Hamburg, Germany, docked in Cuba and its refugee passengers were refused permission to disembark. For weeks, as the St. Louis lay at anchor in the Havana harbor, stateside Jewish groups pleaded with the Roosevelt administration to unlock American doors; isolationists warned that to welcome the St. Louis passengers was to open the gates to a flood of European refugees. Laemmle wired FDR to lobby for the “some eight hundred wandering Jews denied a landing in Havana,” and beseeched the president to intervene. “I appeal to you to use your influence with [Cuban strongman Fulgencio] Batista, or someone else to take in these wandering, worthy and inoffensive people, and may God bless you forever as exponents of the Golden rule,” he wrote. Neither Cuba nor America opened its ports and the ship returned to Europe.

Laemmle kept connected with and continued to lend support to refugees he guided through the American roadblocks. “If [your relative] doesn’t give you sufficient money to get along on, I will give you what you are short of,” he wrote a woman who had just landed in New York. “I know you will not ask for anything unless you actually need it. But you can absolutely depend on me to stand by you until you get on your feet.”

Two weeks after writing that letter, Laemmle was dead. On Sept. 24, 1939, with Europe ablaze in what was already called World War II, Hollywood’s beloved “Uncle Carl” succumbed at age 72 to a heart attack at his home in Beverly Hills. “The Laemmle servants, some of whom had been with him for 30 years, were inconsolable,” read a forlorn account in the Hollywood Reporter, and the hired help was not alone. The death of the benevolent old man seemed to cast a pall over the town.[v] More than lip service paid to a departed colleague, the eulogies bespeak a heartfelt anguish. “Laemmle was a friendly man, and it is in that character even more than in his leadership that Hollywood will remember him, for he never turned a deaf ear to misfortune and his benign generosities will never be forgotten in this generation because they were so widespread,” predicted Joseph M. Schenck, chairman of the board at Twentieth Century Fox. Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures and a man not known for gloopy sentimentality, said simply, “In the passing of Carl Laemmle, the industry has lost its most loved gentleman.”[vi] For many in Hollywood, who foresaw where the war clouds in Europe would ultimately settle, the passing of one of the industry's founding fathers marked a shift in generations and perspective. Soon enough, Hollywood too would be at war, marshaled as a “celluloid weapon” by the arsenal of democracy.

At 12:30 p.m., on Sept. 26, 1939, during Laemmle's funeral service at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, every studio in Hollywood stood silent for five minutes. Over 2,000 mourners attended the service. That evening, Warner Bros. paid homage to their competitor with a memorial program on the house radio station KFWB. [vii] “It is reported he left an estate of four million,” wrote Terry Ramsaye in Motion Picture Herald. “He gave away more than that before.”[viii]

In later years, except in the hearts of the people he rescued and their descendants, what the good Laemmle did was little remembered or heralded. Lately, however, the story of Laemmle the rescuer has become better known, thanks mainly to the efforts of two men — the late German film historian Udo Bayer, whose archival work for his book, Carl Laemmle: From Laupheim to Hollywood (2015), helped unearth much of the story, and longtime entertainment executive Sandy Einstein, whose father Herman was saved by Laemmle. “Laemmle recognized the threat of Hitler to German Jews before anyone else recognized it,” says Einstein. “And he spent a vast amount of money in the process of rescuing hundreds of German Jews from the horrors of the Nazi regime.” In 2014, cultural historian Neal Gabler, author of An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, penned a piece titled “Laemmle’s List” for The New York Times lauding Laemmle’s missionary work. Recently too, Laemmle’s efforts have been highlighted in the exhibition “Light and Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950,” originally mounted at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and now at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Educational Center in Skokie. 

Not least, on Nov. 8, at Or Shalom synagogue in Orange, Conn., Laemmle was honored in a ceremony organized by Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus. Himself a vicarious recipient of the altruism of Chiune Sugihara, who as Japanese counsel in Lithuania during WWII issued hundreds of transit visas to Jews, including Wainhaus’ father, Rabbi Wainhaus orchestrates an annual “celebration of human goodness” in remembrance of a profile in moral courage. (Full disclosure: I was there saying a few words). Among the attendees were a number of the children and grandchildren from Laemmle’s extended “affidavit family.”

Oddly, though, while Laemmle’s humanitarian work is finally being recognized by scholars, museums and synagogues, another likely institution remains oblivious. On the grounds of Laemmle’s other great legacy, Universal Studios, which always finds space for the Bates Motel and Bruce the Shark, there is not so much as a plaque commemorating the generosity and vision of its founder.

Thomas P. Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of numerous books on American film and culture, most recently Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, published in 2013 by Columbia University Press.

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[i] Quoted in John Drinkwater, The Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1931): 216-217.

[ii] "Laemmle Collects $4,000,000 in Cash and Looks Forward to Takin' It Easy," Variety, April 1, 1936: 5.

[iii] Drinkwater: 239.

[iv] "Laemmle Would Evacuate His German Home Town," Variety, Feb. 1, 1939: 1.

[v] "'Uncle Carl' Laemmle Dies at Home, Aged 72," The Hollywood Reporter, Sept. 25, 1939: 1, 6.

[vi] "Film Capital Homage to 'Uncle Carl,'" Box Office, Sept. 30, 1939: 25.

[vii] "Entire Industry Mourns Passing of 'Uncle Carl,'" The Hollywood Reporter, Sept. 26, 1939: 1, 7.

[viii] Terry Ramsaye, "Laemmle’s Death Takes Pioneer 'Independent' of IMP Film Days," Motion Picture Herald, Sept. 20, 1930: 19, 21.

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