If the founder of Universal Studios is recalled at all it’s usually as the Hollywood pioneer behind classics like Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). But Carl Laemmle’s legacy is also being remembered for his courageous efforts from 1932 until his death in 1939 saving German Jews from the Nazis by bringing them to America, often at his own expense.
Comparing the German-born mogul to two heroic men who saved thousands of Jews from Nazis, Brandeis professor Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, says that in America, Laemmle was the “closest thing to an Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg.”
Laemmle courageously assisted about 300 families—well over a thousand people—many of whom got jobs at Universal to satisfy U.S. authorities. Even during the Depression, he never fired any of them, inspiring poet Ogden Nash to quip, “Uncle Carl Laemmle has a very large fammle.”
“He really stood against the tide,” says Rabbi David Baron of Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills. “He was a unique figure in that respect. He really was admirable, really heroic.”
“In an era, other studio chiefs were ambivalent about their Jewishness,” adds Rabbi Baron, “he stood up and said, ‘I can’t watch this happen to my people.’”
The obstacles that faced Laemmle weren’t just in dealing with the hated Nazis, but also the refusal by the U.S. State Department—and President Franklin D. Roosevelt—to open immigration quotas in the face of a humanitarian crisis and let in more European Jews.
People familiar with Laemmle’s efforts have drawn comparisons between FDR’s policies and the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” approach to immigration.
“The main thing that was shocking to me was that the exact same thing that was going on in Carl Laemmle’s day is going on today,” says James Freedman, director of a new documentary on the studio head’s life and career, Carl Laemmle. “The only thing that’s changed is instead of Jewish refugees, it’s Syrian refugees or Mexicans, South Americans, wanting to emigrate to the United States and our government basically acting as an obstacle that’s very difficult to overcome.”
In Laemmle’s time, Doherty says, “The State Department was just de facto antisemitic and didn’t want any Jews sent. Period.” He doesn’t, however, believe that Roosevelt himself was antisemitic: “FDR had another problem: the Great Depression. We couldn’t feed and clothe those already around, so the notion of bring in the tired, the hungry, and your poor wasn’t very popular.”
“His hands were tied,” says USC Professor Steven J. Ross, author of the acclaimed 2017 book Hitler in Los Angeles, which details actual attempts to infiltrate movies and U.S. defenses and the Jews who became spies to stop the Nazis.
“Roosevelt’s policy toward immigrants was in large part, a subset of a larger set of issues, which was to get us on the side of the allies in a country where no one wanted to be actively promoting them,” Ross says.
He contrasts that against the current president’s actions: “Donald Trump has no larger agenda. There is no restriction of immigrants other than he doesn’t want these people coming into America…. This is just out and out racism. Period. This from the president who’s says he is the least racist person he’s ever met.”
Saving lives was arduous work. To get relatives, friends, and others out of Germany, Laemmle had to sign affidavits ensuring they wouldn’t be a drain on the U.S. Applications took six months or more to process.
When the U.S. counsel in Stuttgart, Germany, slow walked an application, claiming Laemmle couldn’t prove support at age 71 because he might die soon, the mogul had his children promise to bear the costs. He got Hollywood friends to sign affidavits, while privately promising to cover costs. The government still refused.
In a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State, Laemmle pleaded: “It seems to me that you ought to go out of our way to be of assistance in service of a noble cause. Surely, there isn’t anything in it for me except to be of help to poor helpless people.”
Retired Bay Area music promoter Sanford Einstein has made it his mission to see to it that Laemmle receive credit for saving Jews. “He paid for the steerage over, he put them up in hotels, until they found work, and so on and so on,” Einstein says. “My motivation in doing this is because I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for Carl Laemmle rescuing my father [in 1937],” Einstein. According to Einstein, his father even stayed at Laemmle’s home, “for about 18 months until [Laemmle] passed away.”
Laemmle took an active role even on his sick bed, trying to save Jews on the SS St. Louis out of Hamburg seeking to land in Florida in 1939. The U.S. government refused to make a humanitarian exception, sending 900 Jews back to Europe. At least 400 were killed by Nazis.
Freedman believes it’s important to remember what happened all those years ago, because history does have a tendency to repeat itself.
“There’s a statistic I saw that shocked me,” Freedman says. “In the mid-1930s, a poll showed 83 percent of the American public were against any more German Jewish refugees coming to the U.S. I saw a stat in recent years that said 83 percent of Americans were against any more Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. I thought, the numbers are the same. It’s just the people have changed, but the game has not changed.”
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