Thursday, December 26, 2013

February 19-28, 1939: Help for the Lucky

If you remember, we left off with Opa’s plea for help getting a student visa to study in America. He sent his transcript/resume to the American Friends Service Committee and was then playing the game of “hurry up and wait.” The next handful of posts will come from correspondence found in Opa’s case file with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). That means that my Opa probably never saw these letters. This is a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes work that happened on Opa’s behalf, and we have the privilege of seeing this thanks to the archival work of the AFSC and those in the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.

This is the start of correspondence between AFSC and colleges in the USA in reference to Opa as a possible student. You'll see that arbitrary process of his name getting thrown into the hat for multiple schools, and there are lots of letter trails. So get ready, because AFSC works hard to place refugees and we're about to see the sheer volume of letters that prove it!

Original Letter from Martin Cohnstaedt to American Friends Services Committee

Transcription of letter:
Rutgers University,
College Farm
New Brunswick, NJ
Feb. 19, 1939

Re: Refugee Scholarship Aid

American Friends Service Committee,
German Refugee Committee,
Philadelphia, Pa.

Julia Branson:

Dear Friend,

Last week the students of Rutgers University and the New Jersey College for Women have formed a Rutgers-NJC Committee to Aid German Refugees. It is hoped to provide scholarships for one or more students (in the respective schools for men and women). The explicit desire of the committee is to help to get persecuted young people out of Germany. I believe an appeal to aid refugees in general will not be received as well as that to offer a scholarship and thus enable students to leave Germany immediately with a Student (non-quota) Visa. We are conscious of the limitations of such visas.

Friday, February 17th, I called at the International Student Service Office in New York and spoke with Mr. Ralph Victor, in the absence of Mr. *** The I.S.S. is very anxious to have us give the scholarships to one of the very many refugees already outside of Germany. Mr Victor said American consuls have not given any more Student Visas to German Jews for the last 6 months. The Intercollegiate Committee to Aid Refugee Students (100 East 42nd Street, NY) and the National Coordinator Committee both have urged us to go ahead and try to get someone from Germany. Of course the holding of a low waiting number for Quota Immigration Visas would not strictly meet our aimes.

Would you please send us your latest opinion and experience on this matter.

I also was anxious to have the Rutgers-NYC Committee select the agency through which they wanted to work. Since the I.S.S. does not seem to be of direct help in this particular case I am at a loss for a second agency besides the A.F.S.C. to submit to the committee. American representatives in Germany to do the selection is of course a criterion.

Next Friday, February 24th, the committee here will meet again and I would appreciate if I could present as much material of information as possible. I personally have no doubt that the A.F.S.C. will be the committee’s choice.

Thanking you for your cooperation, sincerely yours,

Martin L. Cohnstaedt

Letters like these were starting to arrive from well-meaning folks throughout the United States colleges. After Kristallnacht, the horror of the blatant persecution and endangerment to the Jews of Germany became public knowledge. Hitler wised up to that and was much more secretive afterwards. Colleges began collecting funds to provide scholarships for German students who needed to leave for their own safety.

There was one glitch in this wonderful plan: the borders were silently being slammed shut from the same fear that fueled the hate of the attacks: anti-semitism, fear of “foreigners” and general fear of the unknown. As more and more folks rallied to present opportunities for German refugees to find a safe place to land, less and less visas were being granted.

The folks from Rutgers were sure that if they just found the right people to work hard enough to get the visas, they could succeed in rescuing the most needy: Jews in Germany.

Original letter from Charlotte Salmon to Martin Cohnstaedt of Rutgers University

February 23, 1939.

Mr. Martin Cohn-Aaedt:

I hope this letter will reach you before your committee meets on Friday. We are very glad to know that Rutgers and New Jersey College for Women have become interested in the refugee problem and plan to give some scholarships.

In regard to the information you specifically asked for, our experience coincides with that of the I.S.S. We have had difficulty in the last few cases of students seeking visaes in order to come here to study. For this reason, we haven’t been able to use all the offers of scholarships that have come in. However, just lately, there have been a couple of cases of students who probably could get visaes, those that are now outside Germany and would have a place which they could return. I will enclose information about one of them, Martin Doeppner. He is personally recommended by Mrs. Ann Martin, who knew him abroad, and is reported to be a fine boy. If your committee is preparing to act quickly on this case and if they desire to work through the American Friends Service Committee, I will be glad to hear from you soon.

Sincerely yours,

Charlotte S. Salmon
Associate Secretary
Refugee Service

Handwritten note: cannot do anything for several months - 2/24/39

The AFSC pretty much confirms that the visas are not being issued to folks inside Germany. The general “reason” for the halted visas is that student visas functioned in a specific way that was no longer viable with the current refugee crisis. The visas were issued to folks with the intention of studying in America and then returning to the country they came from. The future of Germany as a home was very unpredictable for Jews, and for the general population as war seemed imminent. So- the function of student visas was ultimately to educate and then send them back home. With the refugee crisis, there was a general consensus that refugees would not have a home to return to, and therefore they would not fulfil the intention of the student visa. The irony of this is that when the refugees needed a sanctuary the most, their very trouble was the stumbling block for their helpers to aid their escape. Basically, the student visa could have provided a nice loophole for students to leave a dangerous situation, but the American consuls allowed their own fear and antisemitism to lead their reliance on the letter of the law. I understand that certain visas function in certain ways, but the American consuls could easily have interpreted the criteria to favor those who needed the help. Instead, their own fear and prejudices kept them to the letter of the law rather than grace in favor of those who needed it.

In other letters the AFSC alludes to this problem and talks about their work advocating for more opened criteria for immigration to help the refugees. While they are lobbying for the folks who most need it, they keep working on those who might still be saved: those who are outside of Germany but still in need of help. Opa is in this category, by luck of timing he happened to leave the country before the great refugee crisis occurred and has a parent residing in a country that at the moment, does not have a dubious future for Jews.

A funny side note: Charlotte sort of butchered Martin’s last name, and she called Opa Martin Doeppner instead of Tom Doeppner. I think she may have been a bit overloaded with cases during this crisis of German refugees!

Original letter from Martin Cohnstaedt to Charlotte Salmon at AFSC
Rutgers University
College Farm,
New Brunswick, N.J.

Feb. 24, 1939.

Charlotte S. Salmon,
Refugee Service,
American Friends Service Committee,
20 South 12th Street,
Philadelphia, Pa.

Dear Charlotte Salmon,
I thank you very much for your Special Delivery letter from this morning. I am sorry to say that I do not believe it likely that the Rutgers - N.J.C. committee for German Student Refugees will be able to do anything for Martin Doeppner for at least one or two months.

Since the definite aim of the committee here is to get someone out of Germany I believe we shall have to try at least to do everything possible in that line. Only failing to secure a Student Visa could we consider refugees already outside of Germany.

In an effort to be as impartial as possible the student committee decided today to leave it all up to a special faculty committee to secure a recipient of the proposed scholarship. In order that I may be able to present to that committee as much concrete information as possible on the situation and your organizational set-up I would appreciate if you would sent me respective material.

Only after this faculty committee has acquainted itself with the problem, the agencies concerned and their work will it be able to decide through which agency it wants to work. Consideration of individual cases will have to wait until such time.

Thanking you for your cooperation,

Sincerely yours,

Martin L. Cohnstaedt

This time Martin types his letter, and makes it easy for Charlotte to see his correct spelling of his name. He is happy for her quick response, but makes it clear that the committee is determined to help someone get out of Germany. He asks for more information from the AFSC as they continue towards their goal of helping someone in Germany. This letter is probably what prompted Charlotte to make the handwritten note on her last letter that Rutgers wouldn’t be able to help Opa for several months (she may have discerned that Rutger’s 1-2 month estimate of exhausting all options to help a German would take much longer).

Original Letter from Charlotte to Martin Cohnstaedt of Rutgers

February 28, 1939
handwritten note: Re Thomas Doeppner

Mr. Martin L. Cohnstaedt,
Rutgers University,
College Farm,
New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Dear Martin Cohnstaedt:

Since your committee is especially interested in bringing a student out of Germany, I am enclosing stories about several students who like very much to get out of Germany. As you will see most of them are well qualified and would be an asset to any school. I surely hope you are successful in doing something for one of them or for some other student, but our experiences lately have been very discouraging.

Sincerely yours,

Charlotte Salmon
Social Secretary
Refugee Service

Handwritten note of names (my best guess of spelling):

I read Charlotte’s response to Martin’s assertion to help the folks still in Germany as almost defeated. I hear in the background “Good luck with that.” Not with derision, but with the countless experiences of defeat in trying to get promising young people out of a dangerous environment. She encloses a handful of stories of students- probably her best selection of many more.

As I was reading this correspondence with Rutgers, I had a thought. How often do we miss helping someone because they don’t meet the very specific criteria of who we want to help? I completely understand fighting for the underdog and trying to help “the least of these.” However, who are we turning away in our need to be the ones to help a “popular” group in need? Do we ignore the wisdom of the folks who are in the fight day in and out? Opa was lucky to get out of Germany when he did, and the AFSC had to convince some folks to invest in the lucky ones, because they were the only ones getting out then. If you know your WW2 history, you know that most of Europe would soon be under the category of “unreturnable” - and all the refugees would be in the same boat. Anne Frank was in hiding out in Amsterdam when she was eventually found. She and Opa were there at the same time. We like to fight for the underdog, but is there a time when it may be wise to help the lucky?

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