Fourth of four parts
Several days after
Christmas in 1984, Gerald Berman stepped off the train in the
small town of Neustadt. He felt he had stepped back into Germany's
Berman taught sociology
at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He had traveled to Germany
before. To him, Germany was a global economic powerhouse, the
nation of modern cities like Munich, Bonn and Frankfurt, where
he'd boarded the train.
Now here he was in
a historic village in the tidy rolling countryside of the state
of Hesse, an old center of the Catholic Church and conservative
politics. Neustadt was picturesque, but not the kind of place
that ever saw tourists. There were no foreign newspapers for sale,
very few English speakers. As Berman walked self-consciously down
the snowy street, drawing glances from passers-by, he felt he'd
left modern Germany behind.
Berman had come looking
for the past.
In Fairbanks, he had
come across the letters of Bruno Rosenthal written from Neustadt
before World War II. They were part of a trove of documents about
the Alaska immigration plan dug out of the National Archives by
Moved by the letters,
Berman had decided to stop in Neustadt to find out more about
the Jewish community there, en route to a year's sabbatical in
"I don't know where
I got the chutzpah to call the mayor," the soft-spoken, graying
professor said recently, recalling his 1984 journey.
During a weeklong
stay as the city's guest, officials introduced him as "the professor
from Alaska." Later he learned that around town they were calling
him "the Jewish professor."
A native of Detroit
who had taught in Fairbanks for nearly a decade, Berman was then
in his 50s and had come to feel Alaska was home. He enjoyed the
informality, the sense of possibility, even the local pride. Like
people in Israel, where he had also lived, Alaskans often prefaced
their public remarks by noting how long they'd been around.
On the other hand,
he'd encountered what struck him as a troubling provincialism
in Alaska. Many of his college students seemed unaware of important
events taking place in the larger modern world - to say nothing
of the time before World War II.
Berman spent his first
night in Neustadt with a chair wedged under the doorknob to his
At the first inn where
he tried to check in, he had been told there was no space - though
there were no tourists around. At the second inn, the innkeeper's
friendly wife warned him that he would be lied to. She was a Protestant,
she confided, and that made her an outsider, too.
The tavern downstairs
filled with young German men that night, drinking steins of beer
and singing loudly while Berman lay awake with his door blocked.
By the light of morning,
his fears seemed ridiculous. City officials were all smiles. Their
town's connection to faraway Alaska interested them.
The city provided
a car, chauffeur and a translator, who had learned to speak English
as a prisoner-of-war on an island in the English Channel. The
translator showed up with a meticulously researched list of dietary
restrictions that their guest, as a Jew, would need to follow.
Berman graciously explained that he did not follow the kosher
On behalf of the town,
the young mayor read a long formal apology to Berman for the Holocaust.
He gave his visitor a plaque. But if the people of Neustadt were
friendly, they also seemed guarded. Berman was shown Bruno Rosenthal's
old three-story house. Older people remembered Rosenthal, vaguely,
as a nice man, wealthy in his time - his wife's family, the Bachrachs,
had been one of the richest families in town. But no one remembered
Later, a newspaper
reporter from a nearby town explained to Berman that people feared
he had come to research property claims on behalf of descendants
of the town's Jews.
Berman was introduced
to a local high school chemistry teacher, Dankward Sieburg, who
had taken it upon himself to research the history of Neustadt's
Jews. Many German towns now had people like this, Berman was told,
amateur historians obsessed with building family trees and documenting
what their hometowns had done to the Jews.
Sieburg had started
his research on Neustadt in the 1960s. He gave up in 1973 after
receiving threats against his family, he once told German reporters.
He lost his job as the city's archivist, but he kept his own copies
of records - reports on the Jewish population that later disappeared
from the city's official files.
By 1986, Sieburg had
begun his research again, this time with help from his students
at the local school. The students were upset because neo-Nazi
skinhead violence was on the rise in Germany. Somebody had vandalized
the surviving Jewish cemetery, toppling some historic tombstones
and carving swastikas on others.
records on the Kristallnacht riots and the burning of the local
synagogue, the students went out into the community to interview
their grandparents' generation. They came back to class seething.
Some old people told them a few windows might have been broken
that night, nothing more. Others said any Jews who once lived
in Neustadt had moved away by November 1938.
In 1988, Sieburg and
his students erected a public display of their findings for the
50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. They received a letter of commendation
from the West German president. Five years later, Sieburg published
a 767-page history of the local Jewish community, from the 13th
century through the Nazi period, titled "Die Synagogengemeinde
zu Neustadt" - The Synagogue Community of Neustadt. Even 50 years
after the burning of the synagogue, Sieburg noted in his book,
the city refused to erect so much as a plaque at the site.
By that time, Sieburg
had been forced to move away to another town, siting threats he'd
Like others in Neustadt,
Sieburg had been wary of sharing his secrets with the visitor
from Alaska. He said it was not safe to speak out. But Sieburg
was intrigued by Berman's story of Rosenthal and the Alaska resettlement
plan. In all his research, Sieburg had never stumbled upon mention
of the letters to Alaska.
In the end, Berman
was able to provide an important service to Sieburg. The Neustadt
historian relied on the Alaskan to translate tombstone inscriptions
in the old Jewish cemetery. The inscriptions were in Hebrew, and
there was no longer anyone in the Neustadt region who could read
In May 1940, as the
German army invaded France, the Alaska resettlement plan finally
came up for hearings before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee
on Territories and Insular Affairs.
Legislation to put
the Slattery Report into law had been introduced by Sen. William
H. King, D-Utah, and Rep. Frank Havenner, D-Calif. The bill provided
for creation of government-chartered, privately financed corporations
to undertake select types of economic development projects like
mining, fur farming or manufacturing in Alaska. The new settlers
would be both unemployed workers from the United States and qualified
immigrants allowed into the territory in excess of the nation's
Harold Ickes continued to present the King-Havenner bill as a
plan to develop Alaska. He claimed that 338 newspapers had editorialized
on his Alaska plan and 85 percent were in favor, including the
Des Moines Register, which said, "Our own Nation is actually the
product of such a mass migration."
Ickes said the opposition
came mainly from a handful of white Alaskans worried that their
"monopoly of Alaskan resources would be threatened by an increased
But hostile senators
on the subcommittee were not distracted from the refugee question.
They saw the bill as a "smokescreen" attempting to slip thousands
of aliens into the country through America's "back door."
who lined up to testify about Alaska development were forced to
concede that apart from admitting refugees, the bill allowed nothing
that private industry couldn't already do on its own. The legislation
itself was vague as to how many refugees might be allowed. Interior
lawyer Felix Cohen argued that the presence of Europeans with
technical skills would attract investment capital to Alaska that
would otherwise go elsewhere.
But even that argument
seemed to underline the notion that the bill had more to do with
philanthropy than with developing Alaska.
"Do you not know this
bill is almost wholly humanitarian in its impulse?" Cohen was
asked by Sen. Homer T. Bone, D-Wash. "The moment this bill emerges
on the floor of the Senate, the immigration feature will be the
point around which the argument will revolve."
Ickes himself captured
the isolationist, anti-immigrant tenor of the times in his opening
testimony. He conceded to the senators that "the word 'humanitarian'
is in bad odor these days." But, he said, "if a proposition is
good for business, and good for the national defense, and good
for the American people, we ought not to turn it down merely because
it has some humanitarian by-products."
The Alaska bill drew
opposition from anti-immigration lobbies like the American Legion,
which warned of secret agents and "fifth columnists" sneaking
into Alaska under the guise of refugees. Why should America extend
itself even for legitimate refugees, asked national Legion leader
Col. John Thomas Taylor, "who lack the courage and patriotism
to stay at home and fight their own battles?"
The main arguments
against the bill were presented to the subcommittee by Anthony
J. Dimond, Alaska's nonvoting delegate to Congress.
Dimond began by evincing
sympathy for the persecuted minorities of Europe and defending
Alaskans against charges of anti-Semitism. "There is less race
and other prejudice in Alaska than anywhere else in the Nation,"
But it was completely
unacceptable to wall off Alaska as a special place for a caste
of noncitizens unable to travel to the states, Dimond said.
from Alaska to the States would be obliged to show that he was
not a member of one of the restricted alien settlements which
are proposed to be set up in Alaska under the bill, and that would
be considered intolerable," Dimond said.
Indeed, when Alaska's
territorial legislature passed a resolution on the matter, it
objected particularly to the special immigration quotas, which
the legislature said would turn Alaska into "the world's largest
and most expensive penal colony."
After recounting various
other practical concerns, Dimond told the subcommittee that if
the federal government truly wanted to develop Alaska, all it
needed to do was build more roads.
While Dimond studiously
avoided anti-alien rhetoric, he did pass along a resolution calling
foreign refugees "a menace to our American civilization" that
had been approved by the Anchorage Igloo of the Pioneers of Alaska.
Dimond told the senators that the group consisted of the old-timers
of Alaska and was "perhaps the one organization of Alaska that
ought to be listened to above all others."
on the third day concluded the hearing. He finished by predicting
the King-Havenner bill would not pass Congress in 1940.
"At the present time
the propaganda in its favor is likely only, with cruel results,
to arouse false hopes in some of the oppressed who expect to be
admitted to Alaska upon the passage of the legislation," Dimond
said. "I have received several pitiful letters of that nature."
was correct. President Roosevelt never stepped forward to support
the plan. As Allied forces fell back to Dunkirk before the Nazi
advance in France, the Alaska refugee bill died in subcommittee.
A FINAL LETTER
Word of the Alaska
refugee bill's failure did not reach Neustadt until the next winter.
On Jan. 28, 1941,
Bruno Rosenthal wrote once again to the Interior Department in
Washington, D.C. It was his final letter.
"I shall be grateful
for any further information you can give me on the subject of
Alaska, especially if there are some good news in regard to this
matter. My wife and I are ambitious people and are anxious to
go to Alaska as pioneers. Are there no exceptions?"
Polite as ever, Rosenthal
mentioned that he was still waiting on the normal U.S. visa process.
Now his original American sponsor had died, he wrote, and worse
- "I have had rotten luck" - he had lost his new sponsor's address.
He needed the address to establish his bonafides. But the American
consul in Stuttgart had not responded to his pleas for help.
Could the Division
of Territories and Island Possessions put in a word with the Stuttgart
consul to find the address of a Mr. Edward D. Duggan in America?
"Thanking you in anticipation
for your kindly efforts on my behalf, I have the honour to be,
Sir, sincerely yours, Bruno Rosenthal."
Interior passed on
Rosenthal's letter to the State Department, where his first letters
about Alaska, nearly two years earlier, had gone unanswered.
"This appears to be
a matter coming within the jurisdiction of your Department," wrote
the Interior official, "and Mr. Rosenthal's communication is referred
to you for whatever action you feel it merits."
It was the last mention
of Neustadt's Jews in the government's files.
The light of history
plays tricks on the eyes. It is difficult to consider the debate
over opening Alaska to Germany's Jews without recalling what followed.
By late 1941, the
Nazis had given up any notion of solving their "Jewish problem"
by forcing the Jews out of Europe. On the Eastern Front, armed
troops massacred Jews by the hundreds of thousands. Concentration
camps were rebuilt as death factories to receive Jews gathered
in the ghettos. Before the war was over, 6 million Jews had died
in the Holocaust, including 120,000 still in Germany.
But because the Nazi
program developed over a period of years in Germany, German Jews
fared better than those of other countries. Overall, some 400,000
Jews left Germany before it was too late. True, some got only
as far as other European transit countries, where they fell under
Nazi influence again. But many made it abroad.
The United States
took 137,000 from Germany (including the absorbed territories
of Austria and Czechoslovakia), according to the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum. That was more than any other single
country accepted. But largely because of obstacles erected by
the State Department, it was barely half the limit possible under
U.S. immigration quotas after Hitler's rise to power.
and ethicists ask if the United States did enough. The question
has special poignancy for Alaska, which was the only place in
the nation where a specific proposal was aimed at saving the Jews.
"Historians are always
trying to teach you can't use the moral judgments of a later stage
of culture to judge an earlier stage of culture," said Stephen
Haycox, a longtime history professor at University of Alaska Anchorage.
"And yet it's almost impossible not to do so, especially on an
issue where the culture feels a profound sense of guilt."
Michael Schuldiner has taught a course on the Holocaust for seven
years at the university's Fairbanks campus. Schuldiner, whose
mother lost her entire family to the Nazis, says he has seen students'
historical awareness grow remarkably in that time, thanks in part
to increased media attention after the movie "Schindler's List."
But every year, when
Gerald Berman visits the class to tell them about Alaska's own
story, they are shocked.
"I think there's some
embarrassment," Schuldiner says of the students' reactions. "I
think most people now would feel uncomfortable with the idea that
Alaskans wouldn't do the right thing.
"It takes on symbolic
proportions, this lack of response. There is a kind of meanness
there, isn't there? It wasn't as if these individuals were going
to have to lift a finger. It seems like it would have been so
The entire episode
appears to be forgotten today, except by a few scholars who have
dug into the prewar territorial period. (A Chugiak High School
student, Hannah Mitson, won a statewide competition a year ago
with a paper on the King-Havenner debate.) Historians say that
Alaskans of the time, proudly cut off from the world and preoccupied
with their own economic affairs, showed little understanding of
the suffering of European Jews. Nor did it appear important for
them to find out.
The episode raises
uncomfortable questions about our reactions to world events today,
says University of Alaska historian Claus-M. Naske, who first
unearthed the Neustadt letters from the National Archives. The
author of a school text on Alaska history, Naske is himself a
postwar immigrant from Europe.
The lack of empathy
for Germany's Jews was "a typical small-town reaction," said Naske,
whose mother was Jewish and lost her family to the Holocaust.
Naske's father, a Catholic, served as an officer in the German
army and managed to save his wife and children.
"In Iowa, people are
more concerned with the price of hogs. People are not much concerned
with foreign affairs. Look at Cambodia and the killing fields.
We let that happen. Look at the Tutsis and the Hutus. What should
the international community do?"
Though the current
NATO intervention in Kosovo seems to suggest a changed attitude,
Naske says he doubts many Alaskans support such an active role.
Still, Alaskans can
say that in 1939, they didn't know about the death camps. Their
opposition to refugees was often based on practical objections.
"The plan itself was
a flawed plan, and I think the criticisms from the Alaskan point
of view were fairly well-taken," said Gruening biographer Robert
David Johnson, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts.
"It can be dangerous to judge events of the 1930s knowing what
we know today - though in Gruening's case, we can be harsh, because
he had been so outspokenly critical of the Nazis in the 1930s."
In addition to Berman,
three historians have discussed the politics of the Slattery Report
- either in scholarly articles or as part of books on broader
topics. They found a number of factors weighing on opponents,
especially economic anxieties caused by the Great Depression.
But all three also found what historian Orlando Miller called
"a broad streak" of anti-Semitism running through the opposition
For Naske, the episode
challenges the conventional image of the frontier as a place of
tolerance and democracy.
"We have this mythology
about the frontier that we continue to mouth in Alaska and it
has no relation to what is really here," Naske said.
The recollection of
that time stirs deep and conflicting emotions for Meta Buttnick,
an 86-year-old woman living in Seattle. Buttnick grew up as Meta
Bloom, one of four daughters in the only Jewish family in Fairbanks
in the 1920s and 1930s.
"We were the only
house in town without a Christmas tree," she recalled recently.
Her father and mother
had come from Ireland during the Gold Rush and settled down to
run a hardware store on First Avenue. They were, by all accounts,
well known and well liked, and she remembered only a single isolated
instance of obvious anti-Semitism, which she refused to recount.
Buttnick was still
a single schoolteacher in Fairbanks when the Alaska refugee plan
was proposed. She remembers the debate only vaguely, though her
memory for the people quoted on the subject in the Fairbanks Daily
News-Miner is sharp. Emma de la Vergne, for instance, the doctor's
widow who said Alaskans should give the Jews a chance, was a "dear,
Hearing the words
of other Fairbanksans, those who spoke against the plan in 1938
and after, distressed Buttnick.
"How shocked I am
that some of these people about whom we thought so highly should
have said no," Buttnick said. "These were kind people, good people.
You would think even an isolationist would want to save a human
life from the depravity of the concentration camp."
But as she reflected
further on the period, Buttnick's distress softened. After all,
she had been in Fairbanks herself and hadn't gotten involved.
Nor had her aging parents. Maybe, at the time, the immigration
plan didn't seem like such a good idea.
"I have to admit,
that unless you came up like my Dad did with the joy of adventure,
and he loved it so he stayed and stayed, Alaska would be a tough
place for them to live. The high cost of food, splitting the wood
and keeping the fire going. But - any port in a storm."
It could have been
different if Fairbanks realized what was at stake, she said.
"We knew there were
refugees. But we knew nothing about the concentration camps and
the sadism at that point. I think if Les Nerland and Vic Rivers
had known about those camps, I think a lot of those people would
have felt differently. We just didn't know.
"Oh, but I'm happy
to hear about Emma de la Vergne. I feel so proud of her."
TRAIN TO THE
The Jews of Neustadt
never made it to Alaska.
Two months after Bruno
Rosenthal's last letter, all emigration permits in the region
covering Neustadt were suspended by the Gestapo in Kassel. In
the third week of May, the last 17 Jews in Neustadt were taken
to a regional collection camp in the nearby village of Roth.
The Rosenthals were
among those sent to Roth. The Lilienfelds, who had been waiting
to go to Alaska with them, had already been removed.
By September, an official
Nazi census listed Neustadt as "judenfrei" - free of Jews.
The movements of the
Jews were tracked carefully in Nazi records - right up to the
final deportation order, when railway passenger manifests often
turned deliberately vague. Nazi officials tried to keep the existence
of the extermination camps secret.
Max Lilienfeld was
taken away from his family. At 44, he was still a strong worker,
and he was sent to the forced labor camp at Gross-Rosen, in Poland.
Prisoners in long, striped coats worked through the winter quarrying
marble and granite.
Max Lilienfeld died
of unknown causes at Gross-Rosen on Dec. 16, 1941, according to
a recent history of Jews from the Marburg region.
were returned to his wife, says his cousin, Alice Pfeffer, who
immigrated to the United States before the war. She learned this
odd twist from a survivor who had encountered Rosel Lilienfeld
later at the Czechoslovakian concentration camp of Theresienstadt.
Rosel Lilienfeld may
have thought she was fortunate when her deportation order came
on Sept. 6, 1942. She was sent to Czechoslovakia with her sons.
Hans was now 12, Walter 7. They were told to bring a suitcase
including a complete suit of clothes with good shoes, eating utensils,
bedsheets and lunch for three days.
fortress city in Bohemia, had been turned into the Nazis' "showpiece"
concentration camp. While news of the death camps had begun to
spread, many people believed the reports that Theresienstadt was
different, according to Holocaust historians. Prominent Jews with
international ties, whose disappearance might embarrass the Nazis,
spent much of the war there.
In June 1944, a Danish
Red Cross delegation made a now-famous visit to Theresienstadt,
where they were impressed by the flowers, the freshly whitewashed
buildings, the signs of industry. They did not know that the prosperous-looking
ghetto was a sham, an elaborate stage set up for their visit.
Everything had been prepared by forced labor for their arrival,
right down to the relatively uncrowded barracks, made possible
by shipping 12,500 prisoners to the gas chambers at Auschwitz
several weeks before the Red Cross arrived.
By October, with Allied
troops advancing across Europe, the Nazis began to empty Theresienstadt.
In a month, 16,902 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, where most
were marched straight from the train platforms to the gas chambers.
According to records
of the Marburg district around Neustadt, Rosel Lilienfeld was
sent to Auschwitz on Oct. 9, 1944. Hans and Walter went with her.
Walter, the younger son, had spent his entire life as a Jew in
Bruno Rosenthal and
his wife, Bianca, were ordered onto a train at Roth in November
1941. One report has them headed for the Jewish ghetto in the
Baltic seaport of Riga. Some 16,000 German Jews were moved to
the Latvian capital around that time. Most were soon taken into
the forest outside the city and shot dead.
But the passenger
manifest does not confirm that the Rosenthals went to Riga. Only
one thing is certain - the train they boarded that November day
was not the one of which they'd dreamed for so long, a train that
would take them west to a ship and a frontier destination halfway
around the world. It was a train to the east.
The Nazi recordkeepers
filled in the customary words next to the names of the Rosenthals:
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,
Elmer E. Rasmuson Library.
- The Slattery
Report is available from library sources in Alaska: "The
Problem of Alaskan Development," United States Department
of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, Secretary, Washington, D.C.,
- A complete
transcript of the testimony before Congress on the King-Havenner
bill is available in "Settlement and Development of Alaska,"
hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Territories
and Insular Affairs, U.S. Senate, on S. 3577, May 13, 15, and
of Alaska Fairbanks sociologist Gerald R. Berman has written
two articles about the Alaska immigration effort of Neustadt's
Jews: "From Neustadt to Alaska, 1939: A Failed Attempt
of Community Resettlement," Immigrants and Minorities,
vol. 6, no. 1, (March 1987)); and "Reaction to the Resettlement
of World War II Refugees in Alaska," Jewish Social Studies,
volume 44, 1982. Much of the information about his 1984 visit
to Neustadt was drawn from interviews with Berman.
- A 767-page
book about Neustadt's Jews by Dankward Sieburg includes personal
accounts of the prewar years, copies of German SS orders affecting
the area, and family trees for the area's Jewish families, including
the Rosenthals, Bachrachs and Lilienfelds. Dankward Sieburg,
"Die Synagogengemeinde zu Neustadt," ("The Synagogue
Community of Neustadt"), Neustadt, Germany, 1990. Translation
from German provided by Chlaus Lotscher of Homer.
about the Nazi concentration camps at Theresienstadt, Gross-Rosen,
Buchenwald and Auschwitz are available in Konnilyn Feig, "Hitler's
Death Camps: the Sanity of Madness," Holmes and Meier,
on the fate of the Rosenthals and Lilienfelds is drawn from
Sieburg's book, from Berman's research in German and Israeli
archives, and from a more recent book by Barbara Handler-Lachmann
and Ulrich Schutt, "Unbekannt Verzogen oder Weggernacht:
Schicksale der Juden im alten Landkreis Marburg 1933-1945."
("Fate of the Jews in old Marburg County 1933-1945")
Marburg, Germany, 1992.