This Filmmaker Fought U.S. Consulates To Save Jews From The Nazis

Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire, according to the Talmud. If this is true, Carl Laemmle saved the world many times over. He did so in a unique way—by providing affidavits of support and pledges of financial assistance for people he didn’t even know so they could escape Nazi Germany. At every step, U.S. consular officers and the State Department battled him to thwart his efforts to save Jews from the approaching Holocaust.

Carl Laemmle, Immigrant Entrepreneur

Carl Laemmle was born into a Jewish family in Laupheim, a small town in Germany, in 1867. At 17, he boarded a boat for America with $50 in his pocket, a gift from his father. His brother, in what immigration critics today would call “chain” migration, immigrated years before and sent him a train ticket to Chicago.

After ten years working in advertising and marketing for a successful clothing company in Chicago, Laemmle became an entrepreneur and entered the film business after he saw people pay to watch moving pictures in a nickelodeon, according to Cristina Stanca Mustea of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies.

After he started a company to produce and distribute films, Laemmle became a significant figure in the cause of economic freedom. His opponent? Inventor Thomas Edison, who claimed a monopoly on motion pictures and sued Laemmle.

“Relying on his abilities as a salesman, Laemmle organized a far-reaching campaign against the Edison Trust in the local and national press to win the public’s sympathy for the independent motion pictures producers and distributors whom he represented,” writes Mustea. “The Supreme Court finally ordered Edison to dismantle his Trust in 1915. Laemmle had managed to win a long legal and commercial war for film independence against Edison . . . The decision not only pitted Independents against the Trust, but also immigrant entrepreneurs against incumbent middle-class producers.”

The 1924 Act and Restrictive Interpretations of “Public Charge”

Many scholars believe that the lack of a safe place for Jews who wanted to leave Germany and later other occupied Nazi territories contributed to plans to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe. “The overall picture clearly shows that the original policy was to force the Jews to leave,” writes David S. Wyman, noted historian and author of Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941. “The shift to extermination came only after the emigration method had failed, a failure in large part due to lack of countries open to refugees.”

Congress passing the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 condemned many Jews to death. (Prominent opponents of immigration still praise the law.) The 1924 law reduced immigration quotas by over 90% for some countries in Eastern and Western Europe, with a particular focus on keeping out Jews. In short, America closed the door to immigrating to America.

In 1930, the Hoover administration instituted a strict interpretation of public charge, and the Roosevelt administration continued it through the 1930s, though with some modifications later in the decade. The strict interpretations meant a high percentage of immigrant visas went unissued even with the low immigration quotas.

Wyman notes that before the Great Depression, immigrants could still come to America despite the public charge portion of the Immigration Act of 1917 because it was assumed arriving immigrants could work to support themselves. “Under the new interpretation the government assumed that, because of the depression, a newcomer would probably not be able to find employment. Consequently, in order to satisfy the law an intending immigrant had either to possess enough money to support himself without a job, or he had to produce affidavits showing that relatives or friends in the United States would provide for him if he found no work.” (Emphasis added.)

Saving Lives

Carl Laemmle’s correspondence with the State Department and reports from those he helped show the filmmaker, producer and studio head put tremendous effort into trying to save the lives of Jews in Germany. He recognized early on that any Jews remaining under Nazi rule lived on borrowed time. Moreover, it was possible to save people because the German quota was larger than many other countries due to the 1924 law’s drafting.

Laemmle started his efforts to save Jews by helping people from Laupheim, his hometown. Historian Udo Bayer, who researched Laemmle’s attempt to save Jews in the 1930s, writes, “The main topic of his correspondence with the consulates and the State Department concerns the struggle over the acceptance of obligations resulting from Laemmle’s affidavits . . . without affidavits, neither a quota number nor a visa was of any use.”

Laemmle founded Universal Pictures in 1912. For financial reasons, Laemmle was forced to sell Universal in 1936, after a successful career that saw the release of classic films that included Dracula, Frankenstein and All Quiet on the Western Front. The one bright spot in the sale: It gave Laemmle more time to help people.

Laemmle’s efforts began in earnest in 1936, though it appears he aided people even earlier. Ludwig Muhlfelder, a distant relative of Carl Laemmle, said he received an affidavit from Laemmle saying he would not be a public charge, allowing Muhlfelder to obtain a visa out of Germany. “That visa was a passport to life,” he said in a documentary on Laemmle’s life. “Without that, I would have been killed. And so would my mother and my sister.”

According to Muhlfelder, Laemmle put $1 million in escrow in a Swiss bank account for friends and relatives to guarantee they would not be public charges so they could leave Germany and gain refuge in America. (In 1936, $1 million was about $21 million in 2023.) “Jews were trapped in Europe and there weren’t too many Carl Laemmles,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “When the Nazis came to power, most of the world looked the other way, but not Carl Laemmle.”

Udo Bayer and others estimate Laemmle saved approximately 300 Jewish families, while battling the U.S. government at every turn. Documents show Laemmle had already helped 200 people with affidavits by July 1937. The U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart held his generosity against him, which hurt those he sought to help. “In view of the numerous affidavits that you have executed in favor of relatives and friends, the probative force of your assurances of support, in connection with friends and acquaintances, is materially impaired,” the consulate wrote to him in 1937.

For people not related to Laemmle, the U.S. consulate told him to “explain in detail the reasons why you desire to undertake the burden of their support.” The government officials could not or would not understand Carl Laemmle’s motivations. He explained them in a reply, “When I issue an affidavit, you may be sure that I am doing it with the full knowledge of my responsibility and that my whole heart and soul is in it. I need not tell you of the suffering that the Jews of Germany are going through in these times and I, for one, feel that every single Jew who is in a financial position to help those badly in need, should do so unswervingly. And that is exactly my position.” (See Udo Bayer’s Carl Laemmle.)

A few weeks later, Laemmle wrote to complain about the Stuttgart consulate rejecting his affidavit for the Obernauer family. “I have never been called upon by our government to make good, which indicates that all those I brought over have been self-supporting.” Laemmle included a letter he sent to Secretary of State Cordell Hull and added, “It is simply a matter that touches me deeply and I, for one, am willing to go the limit in helping these poor unfortunates in Germany.”

After the consulate denied a visa for Margarete Levi, Laemmle wrote that he would pay for her room and board, find her a job and even bring her to California because he had promised her aunt to help Levi. It still was not enough for the U.S. consular officers in Stuttgart.

“Obernauer’s son remembers that Laemmle’s representative wanted to give $10,000 to them (as well as to other people Laemmle guaranteed),” writes Bayer. Ten thousand dollars in 1937 is the equivalent today of approximately $200,000.

The consulate in Stuttgart found another excuse to deny visas to those Laemmle guaranteed—Laemmle was 71 years old. Laemmle responded that his children would uphold any guarantee he provided.

Eventually, the consulate conceded that forcing individuals to obtain affidavits had become an excuse to deny people visas and refuge in America. “The consul challenges Laemmle’s argument that up to now no person he has provided a guarantee for has become a public charge, because the government could not follow the course of an alien after admission and ‘It is doubtful whether legal liability arises under an affidavit executed by a person in connection with his sponsoring the admission.’” (Emphasis added.)

As Udo Bayer noted, “This seems to be a strange argument that calls into question the function of affidavits in general.” Consular officers in Germany peppered Laemmle with conditions impossible to meet. “As is clearly suggested in the tone of his letters to Hull, confronting vague demands for ‘definite preparations’ as a precondition for the granting of any visa drove Laemmle to despair,” according to Bayer.

Carl Laemmle, who took on Thomas Edison and created an iconic film studio, was not easily dissuaded. He attempted creative ways around the objections directed against him for his age and the number of people he assisted. Laemmle recruited other people to issue affidavits of support and, through these efforts, helped produce another 100 affidavits to help gain visas to get people out of Germany, according to Bayer.

The Legacy

The actions of consular officers and the State Department prevented many Jews from escaping Nazi Germany. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reports an average of 18,904 visas a year went unused under the German quota in the mid-1930s. “Between 1934 and 1937, there were between 80,000 and 100,000 Germans on the waiting list for a U.S. immigration visa,” according to the museum. “Most were Jewish. Although, the State Department slowly began to issue more visas, the German quota went unfilled.”

In January 2023, the U.S. Department of State announced, “the creation of the Welcome Corps, a new private sponsorship program that empowers everyday Americans to play a leading role in welcoming refugees arriving through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and supporting their resettlement and integration as they build new lives in the United States.” Refugee and human rights advocates applauded the move.

Some people so dislike people born in other countries that they devote their professional or political lives to convincing others to hate or fear immigrants and refugees, too. Then, there are people like Carl Laemmle, who devote themselves to helping people, regardless of their place of birth. Everyone can decide which type of person they would rather be.

In the 1930s, the State Department and many U.S. consular officers obstructed efforts to save Jewish refugees. While U.S. government personnel did not cause the Holocaust, their policies increased the number of its victims. It may be time for the State Department to come to terms with this legacy.

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