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Holocaust Refugees in “Vulgar” America

Dusty Sklar
June 18, 2017

by Dusty Sklar

THEY CAME from Germany and Austria and Poland and Czechoslovakia, some reluctantly, some eagerly. It was a big deal for all of them. Most were Jewish, comfortably middle-class and well-educated. They didn't know what to expect from life in America. How could they? They only knew that it was time to get out of Europe.

My parents, from Poland, took residence in a dreary Lower East Side tenement, in the midst of the Great Depression, and were greatly depressed. They'd expected something grand, although they were neither middle-class nor well-educated. My mother sang a mournful Yiddish song which intoned: "I'm going back home to the shtetl where I lived peacefully and comfortably. I can't stay here any longer where there's no friendship. I'm going back to my old home."

A dearth of friendship was not one of Sigmund Freud's complaints on his first visit to America in 1909, but he had lots of others. Despite his warm reception, he disliked the America he perceived as materialistic, uncultivated, afflicted with a hideous disease for which he coined the word "dollaria." Freud even faulted Americans for their ideal of equality between the sexes, referring with contempt to "petticoat government." In fact, his dislike of America was in no small part due to the fact that women were less subservient here, since he held that "woman is a breed apart and inferior to man."

The Freuds did not leave Vienna until 1938. William Bullitt, the American ambassador to Paris, whose wife had been analyzed by Freud, leaned on President Roosevelt and the State Department to intercede with Germany on Freud's behalf, but instead of America, he chose England as his place of exile.

The Berliner, Ludwig Marcuse, writer and philosopher, shared Freud's antipathy towards America. He fled to France in 1933, and later, unwillingly, to America. "Nothing attracted me less," he wrote. "What did I have against the States?

....the countries where English was spoken were only interested in making money. What did we, the sons of high government officials and the affluent, the pupils of a humanistic 'Gymnasium' ... have to do with the 'buy me' countries?

...When, as a student, I saw the title of a book comparing the ideas of 1789 and 1776, I learned to my astonishment that there had been something like a French revolution on the other side of the ocean. . . .The foundation for my conception of America? The image of skyscrapers lining sunless chasms in which untold numbers of people crawled about looking for dollars.

Marcuse came to feel differently about America, joining with other German refugees like Leo and Marta Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler, Alfred Doblin, Alfred Einstein, Bruno Frank, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg, Hanns Eisler, Fritz Lang, and Theodor Adorno at the marvelous refuge in Los Angeles, Villa Aurora, referred to as "Weimar on the West Coast." They gathered for readings, musical evenings, celebrations and discussions .

THE GERMAN playwright, Carl Zuckmayer, who eventually landed in California as well, recalled his introduction to exile in New York in 1939 as a ceaseless drifting, "absorbing the vulgar noises and the popcorn smell of Times Square, the sudden hollow silences in side streets, the torrents of lights, the screeching of brakes, and the distant howling of ships' sirens ... Everything, including the dangers of the city, gave us the feeling of having landed on a wild continent where you had to be unremittingly prepared for adventures and surprises."

Zuckmayer told of looking with astonishment at the nighttime view through the open windows of his apartment where "totally unclad people" were "slumped in rocking chairs, sitting at desks, or bustling about the kitchen, as if New York were one gigantic nudist colony." He and his wife Alice tried Hollywood, but didn't feel they belonged until they came to Vermont with their two daughters and started a farm in an 18th-century house. In Europe, they'd been accustomed to servants. In Vermont, they cleaned chicken coops and refereed fights between ducks. Despite the brutal winters, Alice wrote in her memoir that she had at last discovered her "native land."

Feuchtwanger was probably the most widely read German author to go into exile. He deemed it typical for the good qualities of the refugees to reverse themselves under the pressure of exile. "Most of them became egocentric," he said, "lost their judgment and sense of measure. They were like fruit that had been ripped too soon from the tree, not ripe, but dry and bitter."

Bruno Walter was the principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1929 to March of 1933, when the Nazi government took power and barred Jews from artistic life. He set sail for America in 1939. When he arrived in New York, he went for a walk and caught sight of an enormous billboard on top of a building announcing the words "U.S. Tires." He thought to himself, "Yes, it does -- true enough -- but why is that fact being advertised to me from the rooftops?" He eventually settled in Beverly Hills.

The German writer, Hannah Arendt (pictured at the top), emigrated to New York in 1941. She spoke for many refugees when she wrote her essay, "We Refugees," in The Menorah Journal:

[A]t the basis of all our descriptions of past splendors lies one human truth: once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by friends, and even known by landlords as paying our rent regularly. Once we could buy our food and ride in the subway without being told we were undesirable. We have become a little hysterical since newspapermen started detecting us and telling us publicly to stop being disagreeable when shopping for milk and bread. We wonder how it can be done; we already are so damnably careful in every moment of our daily lives to avoid anybody guessing who we are, what kind of passport we have, where our birth certificates were filled out -- and that Hitler didn’t like us. We try the best we can to fit into a world where you have to be sort of politically minded when you buy your food.

. . . Since the outbreak of the war and the catastrophe that has befallen European Jewry, the mere fact of being refugees has prevented our mingling with native Jewish society. . .

HOLOCAUST refugees and survivors were received with ambivalence and outright hostility as well as sympathy in America. Four months before Germany's Kristallnacht pogrom, Roosevelt convened a conference in Evian, France, in July 1938. Delegates came from thirty-two countries, but only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept additional refugees. America's unyielding quota system meant that, between 1933 and 1937, only 33,000 German Jews were admitted, and between 1938 and 1941, only 124,000 were allowed in.

The misery generated by the Nazis' mass forced migration was an unprecedented challenge, not least because antisemitism was on the rise in America during the Great Depression. In 1940, European refugees were classified here as "enemy aliens." Lingering economic hardship sometimes provoked anti-immigration protests. One citizen wrote a letter to the editor of his paper: "I think refugees should be stopped from coming here. These refugees will work for less, because they can live on less. Thus they will put a lot of Americans out of work. America for Americans. Down with immigration forever."

In a July 1938 poll, Fortune magazine found only 4.9 percent of Americans supporting the idea that "we should encourage them to come even if we have to raise our immigration quotas;" 18.2 percent believed "we should allow them to come but not raise our immigration quotas;" 67.4 percent believed "with conditions as they are, we should try to keep them out;" and 9.5 percent did not know their opinion. In a January 20, 1939 Gallup poll, 61 percent wanted to refuse admission to 10,000 German Jewish children.

The refugees who came to America from Central Europe between 1933 and the end of World War II were scarred by their recent experiences. For many, the period of adjustment and acculturation was difficult, often disappointing. Yet most decided from the beginning to make this country their new permanent home. It would be left to their sons and daughters to become fully assimilated and to speak without an accent.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. She last wrote for us about the friendship between Sigmund Freud and Stefan Zweig.