First of Four Parts
In the early summer
of 1939, as Europe prepared for war, a letter from Nazi Germany
arrived in Washington, D.C., at the high-ceilinged offices of
the U.S. State Department. The one-page letter had been pounded
out on a typewriter with an old, faded ribbon. The return address
was a village in the rolling countryside of central Germany.
The writer identified
himself as the leader of the Jewish community in the town of Neustadt.
He wrote, he said, on behalf of 30 men, women and children, all
of them "healthy, strong and energetical," who wished to make
an urgent application "for immigration to Alasca Territory."
The prospective immigrants
were experts in animal husbandry, the letter said. Some were also
"handicraftsmen and mecanicians." They vowed to be good citizens
of Alaska and obey the laws of the United States.
"We know quite well
the difficulties making the rough clime of Alaska," wrote Bruno
Rosenthal, "but now we have no other choice, we German Jews."
On the eve of World
War II, Alaska became an improbable beacon of freedom for Jews
still trapped inside the Third Reich.
A handful of Washington
officials proposed to pry open America's strict immigration quotas
by allowing a certain number of additional refugees to settle
in the sparsely populated Alaska territory. Press conferences
had been held, and news stories sent over the wire. The Department
of the Interior was drawing up a plan. Congressional hearings
would soon be scheduled.
After six years of
Nazi oppression and growing violence, more than 230,000 Jews remained
in Germany. There was no place for them to go. The transit countries
of Europe, overflowing with refugees, closed their borders. Strict
annual quotas for immigration to the United States meant tough
qualifications and waiting lists of several years.
So the Jews in Neustadt
paid attention to the reports and found Alaska on their maps.
When Rosenthal received
no answer to his letter, he wrote again in August, asking the
officials' pardon for troubling them again. "We beg imploringly
the High Department of State to permit us the immigration to Alasca."
Again, the State Department
did not respond.
Rosenthal had sent
his first two letters to the wrong place - to the agency most
implacably opposed to admitting more refugees to the United States.
Finally, on the last day of August, his third letter reached the
Department of the Interior, which governed the U.S. territories
and overseas possessions, including Alaska before it became a
It was Secretary of
the Interior Harold Ickes who was pushing to open Alaska to the
Jews of Central Europe. Ickes, one of President Roosevelt's closest
advisers, had received worldwide publicity when he said he wanted
to do something to help.
This was a way to
develop America's frontier, Ickes said. Alaska business leaders
had long sought the federal government's help to build the territory.
The European settlers would bring new skills and require no government
support, likely getting grubstaked by philanthropists in the states,
Interior officials predicted.
The proposed immigration
loophole promised to be a tough sell. Many Americans resented
what they saw as competition for jobs from foreigners during the
Great Depression. It would be worse still if the new immigrants
were Jews, at a time when shrill alarms about "international Jewish
conspiracies" were heard openly across the land from right-wing
politicians and radio personalities.
But Alaska would be
different, Interior officials said. The frontier had always been
the cradle of America's sense of fair play and tolerance, where
people were appreciated for what they could contribute, not where
they were born. Nowhere in the world was there less racial or
religious prejudice than in the melting pot of Alaska, they said.
"Men are on their
own and valued for what they are without regard to ancestry or
creed," declared an Interior Department's report on Alaska settlement,
a copy of which was sent to Rosenthal in Germany. "Here there
is room and welcome for men and women, whatever their origin,
who can bring stout hearts and keen vision to the task of building
cities on our last frontier."
On Sept. 1, 1939,
the day after Rosenthal's letter to Interior arrived, Germany
invaded Poland and World War II began.
Today, at the century's
end, the world seems to be taking a last look back with renewed
incomprehension at the dark years of Nazi Germany and the extermination
of 6 million European Jews.
Countries like Switzerland
and France, not to mention Germany itself, are painfully re-examining
their roles in the Holocaust. Swiss banks have agreed to pay $1.25
billion to settle Nazi-era claims. Corporations like Siemens and
Ford are being probed for possible slave-labor profiteering by
their German operations. Stories of heroes, of the Schindlers
and the Swedish rescuers, are being uncovered as well.
The role of the United
States in the prewar years is coming under scrutiny too. Did America
do all it could to help the Jews, before it was too late? America's
restrictive immigration policies of the 1930s were tangled in
larger New Deal politics and Roosevelt's efforts to pry the nation
out of isolationism. Criticism of the United States is often tempered
because American forces played such a huge role in finally stopping
And now, the plaintive
stares of ethnic Albanian deportees streaming out of Kosovo give
new urgency to the old questions about America's response to Hitler's
version of "ethnic cleansing."
The debate over U.S.
immigration, then as now, was mostly over humanitarian principles
and broad national priorities. But there was one exception, one
specific place where the troubling and complex questions about
America's responsibility fell to earth.
Nearly forgotten is
Alaska's own story.
OF BROKEN GLASS
The first Alaska refugee
proposal by a member of Congress had come in November 1938 - days
after the world witnessed the notorious anti-Jewish pogrom of
The Nazi "Night of
Broken Glass" hit Bruno Rosenthal's hometown of Neustadt with
special brutality, catching local Jewish families by surprise.
Neustadt was a small,
centuries-old town of half-timbered homes and church steeples
surrounded by farmland in the state of Hesse, about 125 kilometers
northeast of Frankfurt. It was a Catholic town, but Jews had long
been part of the community. Rosenthal's father-in-law, a wealthy
storeowner named Elias Bachrach, was descended from Neustadt merchants
of the 1700s.
In 1932, the year
before Hitler's rise to power, a dozen extended Jewish families
lived in Neustadt - 119 people out of a population of 2,250, according
to a history of Neustadt's Jews prepared by the town's former
archivist for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Neustadt's Jews were
mostly shopkeepers and cattle dealers. A local undercurrent of
anti-Semitism revealed itself in stereotyped jokes, says University
of Alaska researcher Gerald Berman, who has written about the
Jewish community's effort to reach Alaska and visited Neustadt
to learn more about Rosenthal and the others. Despite these sentiments,
Jews mixed freely in the village's schools and taverns. They were
members of the popular gymnastics and veterans clubs. Neustadt's
Jews and Catholics celebrated together during the Christian pre-Lent
Under Hitler, the
prosperous, middle-class position of Neustadt's Jews came to an
"We were first Germans,
and our religion was Jewish. Just like I'm an American first,"
said Alice Pfeffer, who came to the United States from Neustadt
as a young woman before the war. Pfeffer lives today in New York
City. She described her former hometown in a recent interview.
"The Jews were hard-working
people. They owned their own land and homes," she said. "We had
the most beautiful synagogue in Germany."
The Third Reich barred
Jews from government, media and teaching positions. In 1935 they
lost their citizenship. Sexual relations and intermarriage with
Gentiles were outlawed.
In rural Germany,
things changed more slowly. Pfeffer's best friend, who used to
receive confession while Pfeffer waited nearby in the church pews,
stopped speaking to her. The priest stopped playing cards with
her father, an Iron Cross veteran of the Kaiser's army.
Social shunning gradually
led to economic boycotts and public humiliations, encouraged by
a steady stream of anti-Jewish speeches from Reich officials.
The mayor of Neustadt
announced a formal boycott of Jewish businesses in 1935. A Jewish
man was chased through the streets of Neustadt wearing a sign,
"I am a pig Jew," according to archivist Dankward Sieburg, author
of the Neustadt history. Another Jewish resident suffered severe
burns when he was forced to hold a burning flag.
Rosenthal lost his
three-story, 25-room mansion under laws requiring Aryan ownership
of property. Rosenthal was 50 at the time, a solidly built man
with early tufts of white hair. He was bright and worldly, recalled
Pfeffer, who took English lessons from Rosenthal's wife, Bianca,
the well-educated daughter of the village's wealthiest Jewish
"They were both very
likeable and very smart," Pfeffer recalled.
Rosenthal worked in
his father-in-law's general store. He described himself to U.S.
immigration officials as an expert in foodstuffs and fertilizers,
a sewing machine mechanic and a photographer. He and Bianca, 53,
had no children.
Suddenly without property,
they moved into a small rooming house.
Younger Jews had begun
moving away from Neustadt, either to the large cities of Germany
or abroad. But about half the local population remained when the
anti-Jewish riots of Kristallnacht broke out on Nov. 8, 1938.
Neustadt had the dubious
distinction of being one of the first communities struck by the
riots, which were covertly organized to seem like spontaneous
"reprisals" against the assassination of a German embassy clerk
by a Jewish student. German historians say Neustadt and the surrounding
area apparently served as a testing ground for the assaults that
spread nationwide the next two nights.
In Neustadt, according
to the local archivist and other accounts, Nazi "brownshirt" troops
in civilian clothes arrived and began looting and burning Jewish
shops. An excited mob of 250 to 300 Neustadt residents joined
them. Ten Jewish-owned businesses were wrecked. Apartments were
The town's Jews were
rousted from their homes and pushed down a gantlet of people spitting
at them and beating them with sticks, according to accounts gathered
by Sieburg, the historian. They were taken to the synagogue, where
religious objects were pulled into the streets and trampled. The
Star of David was torn from its tower and paraded through town.
The synagogue was burned.
Rosenthal was taken
to jail, along with Alice Pfeffer's cousin, Max Lilienfeld, who
would later join Rosenthal in the effort to reach Alaska. Eight
other able-bodied Jewish men joined them in two cells under "protective
custody." The younger Jewish women were ordered to clean the jail.
Pfeffer's sister, who didn't escape until 1939, was beaten and
raped that night by a policeman.
"The scars can still
be seen on her body and on her soul," Pfeffer said.
On Nov. 12 the Jewish
men were taken to the nearest city, Kassel. From there they were
sent to the seat of classical German culture, Weimar, and placed
in a concentration camp called Buchenwald.
The iron gate at Buchenwald
was inscribed with the words: "To each his due." Some 10,000 Jews
were piled into Buchenwald after the November riots. Heads shaved,
they spent the winter at hard labor, which the SS called re-education.
Hundreds died from overwork, disease or suicide. Some were allowed
to buy their way out by signing their property over to guards.
The last few thousand were released in April 1939, in honor of
Adolf Hitler's birthday, and forced to sign a pledge promising
to remain silent about camp conditions.
the Iron Cross veteran, was unrecognizable to his family when
he returned to Neustadt. He later died with her mother in the
"It is only too clear
that almost every released prisoner, burdened by the impressions
of his experiences and under constant threat, lived on only as
a broken man," said an official U.S. government chronicle of the
period at Buchenwald, drawn up after the war.
Soon after Rosenthal
came home from the concentration camp, he wrote his first letter
asking to come to Alaska.
In Alaska, the news
of Kristallnacht was carried in brief but prominent front page
stories. The world was outraged. Roosevelt said he "could scarcely
believe that such a thing could occur in a 20th century civilization."
The Anchorage Daily Times registered horror at Hitler's "descent
Nazi officials, unmoved
by the international reaction, imposed a collective fine on German
Jews of 1 billion marks - equivalent to $400 million - for cleanup
costs after the riots.
On Nov. 18, 1938,
Rep. Charles Buckley, D-N.Y., issued an open letter to Roosevelt
asking support for legislation that would make the frontier territory
of Alaska a haven for refugees fleeing the Nazis. A similar idea
had been floated in the press several weeks earlier by Denver
businessmen seeking land and backing from the government for a
refugee resettlement project. Buckley's motives were both humanitarian
and political - he had a large Jewish constituency in the Bronx
- but he assured the president that Alaska with its untapped resources
would benefit from the new settlers.
"I am sure that these
immigrants will build Alaska as this country was built by immigrants
who came to the United States from many lands during period[s]
of persecution in the past," the congressman wrote.
turned him down. The politics of immigration in the prewar United
States would make bringing Jewish refugees to Alaska no easy matter.
America had not yet
emerged from a decade of depression. "Charity begins at home,"
rang the popular slogan, referring to America's 10 million unemployed.
And many Americans
saw the march toward war as a European problem, which the United
States would be smart to avoid. European refugee problem, while
tragic, was not widely viewed as America's concern.
Roosevelt did not
necessarily agree. He was actively pushing refugee resettlement
ideas for what he called "vacant spaces" of other continents.
But with New Deal supporters losing ground in Congress, historians
say, the president was in no mood to stir the pot on U.S. immigration.
were anti-Semitic sentiments in the United States, expressed vehemently
by such fringe groups as the German-American Bund, the occult-Protestant
Silver Shirts, and followers of the famous radio priest, Father
Charles Coughlin, who defended the Kristallnacht riots as prudent
measures to root out Communists. As late as 1941, nearly one in
five Americans told pollsters they considered Jews "a menace to
Under such circumstances,
no humanitarian campaign was under way to raise the tight U.S.
quotas, which limited the number of German immigrants to about
20,000 a year. Jewish leaders themselves worried that any attempt
to raise quotas would almost certainly result in a successful
counter-move by Congress to shrink them further.
Even those small quotas
were not being filled. Between 1933 and 1941, 137,000 Jews reached
America under the quota for Germany. That was more than were taken
in by any other single country, but it was only half the allowable
quota, historians say.
Despite the political
risks, Roosevelt did not dismiss the Alaska idea completely. He
told Congressman Buckley he would refer the notion to Interior
Secretary Ickes, at least regarding settlement of immigrants already
entering the United States. And Ickes had already spoken up. Asked
by the press about sending refugees to Alaska, the secretary said
he favored "doing anything that a nation of Christian and humanitarian
citizens can find the means of doing to help these people."
Ickes ordered deparment
lawyers to come up with a study of the idea - not necessarily
limiting it to the current immigration quotas. When the plan was
ready, in August 1939, Ickes called a press conference and endorsed
its finding that immigration restrictions were holding back the
development of Alaska.
"Men and women with
the spirit of our pioneers," Ickes said, should be given "the
opportunity to enlist in the service of the nation, building cities
on our last frontier."
NEWS OF ALASKA
PLAN REACHES NEUSTADT
By the spring of 1939,
news that an Alaska plan was in the works had reached the faraway
town of Neustadt.
Bruno Rosenthal had
returned from the labor camp at Buchenwald to find 44 of the original
119 Jews remaining. The synagogue in Neustadt, burned out during
Kristallnacht, had been bought for a pittance by the city. Fire
insurance had been paid to the government, not the Jewish community.
A farmer bought the synagogue's bricks from the city for a bin
to store cow manure. Ornamented roof beams and doors from the
synagogue found their way into some of Neustadt's private homes,
according to historian Sieburg.
The local Jewish community
was fined 174 marks for the cost of sweeping up the streets after
In January, Hitler
had issued a well-publicized warning in an address before the
Reichstag: He blamed Jewish financiers for pushing Europe toward
war and predicted that any such war would result in "annihilation
of the Jewish race in Europe."
A few Neustadt Jews
with money and connections in the United States had managed to
get last-minute visas. But for most, a wait of a year or more
stretched out before them.
The U.S. dioplomatic
staff had been told to prolong the application process, making
Jews return again and again with paperwork, said Severin Hochberg,
a historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Applicants'
finances were strictly scrutinized. The U.S. consulate at Stuttgart,
where Neustadt residents went to apply, was particularly famous
for its delays, Hochberg said.
Pfeffer said that
consulate was famous for more than bureaucratic obstinance: you
could suddenly find your place in line had been sold to someone
else. She said that happened to her parents.
"They took graft at
the American consulate in Stuttgart. It was an open secret," she
Hochberg said there
were rumors of such activity but no documented evidence of American
officials accepting payoffs.
On Aug. 16, 1939,
publication of Ickes' Alaska report was front-page news in The
Anchorage Daily Times. In Germany, Rosenthal read of the report
The media in Germany
were tightly controlled. But a single Jewish newspaper, Judisches
Nachrichtenblatt, was allowed to publish, providing a conduit
for Nazi propaganda and reports of Jewish resettlement plans.
Rosenthal first learned of the Alaska idea in the Judisches Nachrichtenblatt
in May. Now he realized his mistake in sending his letters to
the State Department. He sat down to type out the first in a string
of letters to the Department of the Interior, now preserved in
the National Archives.
Rosenthal said he
had read that Secretary Ickes promised to give qualified German
Jews "a chance" in Alaska. Rosenthal vowed that the Jews of Neustadt
would bring "new ideas and old ideals" to the territory.
"We beg imploringly
[to] Ickes as to permit the immigration in Alasca Territory. Perhaps
you will be good enough to let us know as soon as possible your
decision. You know we can not longer stay here."
What Rosenthal did
not know was that his opportunity to come to Alaska had already
been discussed in Alaska. Within days of Congressman Buckley's
first proposal, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner had interviewed
a cross section of local leaders. The conclusion, in a headline
atop the front page:
"German Jews Unsuited
For Alaska Settlers Is Prevailing View Here."
Today's story is drawn from the following sources:
- The letters
of Bruno Rosenthal and other European Jews regarding Alaska,
along with Interior Department memos on the Slattery Report,
are available in the National Archives. The file is available
on microfilm at the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives
in the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library.
community life in pre-war Neustadt is described in two books
from Germany: Dankward Sieburg, "Die Synagogengemeinde zu Neustadt,"
("The Synagogue Community of Neustadt"), published in 1990;
and Barbara Handler-Lachmann and Ulrich Schutt, "Unbekannt Verzogen
oder Weggemacht: Schicksale der Juden im alten Landkreis Marburg
1933-1945," ("Fate of the Jews in old Marburg County 1933-1945")
published in 1992. Translation from German provided by Chlaus
Lotscher of Homer.
is also drawn from an article by University of Alaska professor
Gerald S. Berman, "From Neustadt to Alaska, 1939: A Failed Attempt
of Community Resettlement," Immigrants and Minorities, vol.
6, no. 1, (March 1987); and interviews with Alice Lilienfeld
Pfeffer, a Neustadt native who emigrated to the United States
before the war.
- Two books
stand out on general U.S. immigration policy before the war
and its effect on European Jews: Henry Feingold, "The Politics
of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938-1945,"
Rutgers University Press, 1970; and David S. Wyman, "Paper Walls:
America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-41" University of Massachusetts
information was drawn from interviews with Paul Claussen, Office
of Historian, U.S. State Department, and Severin Hochberg, Center
for Advanced Holocaust Studies, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,