This article was originally published on May 18, 1999
Third of four parts
As members of the small Jewish community in Neustadt waited through the early months of war for word on their application to immigrate to Alaska, they learned of a frightening proposal by the local Nazi authorities.
The Jewish cemeteries in the region could be flattened and plowed under for agriculture. The tombstones would make excellent sharpening stones, one official said.
Even for Jews who had remained in Germany through the first waves of emigration, hoping things would get better, the message about the future was plain.
But in America, where the debate over opening the Alaska Territory to immigrants gathered steam in the first months of World War II, nobody spoke of saving people from death chambers.
At the beginning of 1940, annihilation of the Jewish population was not yet German government policy. In fact, some Nazi officials were weighing plans to deport the Jews en masse to a new colony carved out on Poland's eastern frontier or to the African island of Madagascar.
Despite the outbreak of war, sealed trains carrying emigrants with visas ran from Berlin through Paris to the Atlantic port of Lisbon. Concentration camps were filling with Communists and other ''undesirables, '' but they had not yet become machines for extermination. Hitler had publicly threatened far worse. Yet for now, official policy was forced emigration of the nation's remaining 200,000-plus Jews -- an early variant of what would later come to be known as ''ethnic cleansing.''
Not that the Germans made it easy for them to leave. Applicants were stripped of wealth that might make them more appealing as settlers in a new land.
Nor was it easy to find somewhere to go. There were 309,782 applications for U.S. visas from Germany and Austria in the spring of 1940, according to a news wire story that appeared, among other places, in The Anchorage Daily Times. Only 27,370 people from those countries would be allowed to immigrate under U.S. quotas.
Shortly before war began, the ocean liner St. Louis, filled with Jews without visas, had been sent back to Europe from the eastern seaboard. The British were trying to placate Arab leaders by cutting off emigration to Palestine. Other countries said they were full.
The start of fighting created further obstacles. German U-boats sank 110 merchant ships in the first four months of war. In the United States, opponents of immigration began to warn of spies slipping into the country through the ''Trojan Horse'' of refugee quotas.
As millions of additional Jews fell under German authority in the Reich's sweep through Eastern Europe, the grand Nazi resettlement schemes were quietly abandoned. Emigration, even deportation, became a grim public relations mask. The Nazis began to systematically collect Jews and move them into urban ghettos.
In the midst of all this, the Alaska settlement plan appeared as a peephole of light.
From Breslau, Germany, Joachim Hein wrote the Department of the Interior asking to immigrate to Alaska with his wife, Anna, and daughter, Henny. His letter, along with others, sits today in the National Archives.
''We shall in no way a burden for the country, because we take our electric machines from here and furnish a manufacture in aprons and linen, like we have had here. But if this business is not agreable (sic) to your Excellency, we are prepared to every work.''
Hein added that his daughter had ''studied philosophy and is a teacher and she is musical too.''
Moses Rudman wrote from the Bronx, N.Y., where he was staying with relatives on a visitor's visa that would soon expire. His wife, Blume, and daughter, Margot, were still in Germany. He asked the government to reunite them in Alaska.
In the central German town of Neustadt, Bruno Rosenthal continued to wait for a reply to his inquiries on behalf of his family and friends.
Finally, a letter from the Department of the Interior arrived, on March 27, 1940. It said simply:
''We are trying to find out from the appropriate Governmental authorities what disposition can be made of your request for permission to immigrate to Alaska. Our inquiries have not been answered yet. As soon as possible we will send you further information.''
Rosenthal replied at once:
''We ... are registered by the American Consul for entering into the United States and we are waiting for calling off. But we all have to wait about one year and it is not possible to stay here longer. We are anxious to go abroad immediately. I requested for permission to immigrate to Alaska, because we are short of time.
''Is it possible, to deliver my request as an Immediate Request on Mr. President?''
A ‘dumping ground’
Mrs. Emma de la Vergne, the U.S. recorder at Fairbanks and an ''old-time resident of the North, '' was receptive when the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner asked her about the new refugee idea.
''Let the German-Jew refugees come to Alaska, if they want to. Alaska is a big country. Give them a chance. If they cannot make a go of it, they will leave.''
But Mrs. de la Vergne, the widow of a well-loved doctor, was in the minority. Most other Fairbanksans quoted by the newspaper in November 1938 criticized the idea.
For the next three years, it was hard to find anybody in Alaska with anything favorable to say about opening the territory to refugees fleeing Europe.
''No use to make a dumping ground of this country, '' said Frank Frates, a local miner.
Fairbanks Mayor Leslie Nerland said the idea had as much appeal among Alaskans as the old proposal to turn Alaska into a penal colony. Emma Miller, identified as ''one of the leaders of the Fairbanks younger social set, '' echoed a strong national sentiment when she said America had enough problems already. ''Why wish refugees of any sort from Europe on any part of the United States?'' she asked.
''They are not the type of hardy Scandinavians who have had so much to do with development of Alaska on their own initiative, '' said postmaster Robert E. Sheldon, president of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.
''Alaska wants no misfits and is unprepared to care for discards, '' concluded an editorial in Cap Lathrop's News-Miner.
The Chambers of Commerce in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Valdez passed resolutions opposing the refugee plan. The Anchorage Chamber feared a colony made up entirely of immigrants, which would ''stifle assimilation and will prevent them from becoming Americanised.'' The Juneau Chamber, citing recent experience with the federal agricultural colony in the Matanuska Valley, predicted a heavy tax burden would fall on the territory to support roads and schools. The Fairbanks Chamber would only support colonization by ''financially responsible individuals and groups, '' such as a proposed settlement by Mormons.
A few small-town chambers went the other way. Skagway and Petersburg endorsed the Interior Department settlement plan, eager to develop Alaska by any means possible. The Seward Chamber of Commerce cabled Ickes to declare that the Kenai Peninsula could support a quarter-million additional inhabitants, ''regardless their creed or condition their personal finances.''
But, by and large, when Alaskans talked about refugees it was to find problems. No one in the public record talked about finding a way to make a resettlement plan work.
One strike against the plan was that its chief backer, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, was widely distrusted in Alaska. It would not have come as a surprise to many territorial residents if Ickes had dreamed up such a scheme not for humanitarian reasons but simply to stir up his political opponents in the north.
Critics questioned the Slattery Report's glib economic predictions. They said unemployed workers were already swarming north looking for jobs in military construction, overloading relief agencies. They complained that subsidies would be necessary -- a possibility of special concern to the Alaska Miners Association, which noted that its members would likely carry much of the new tax burden.
Some critics professed concern for the immigrants themselves, saying they would suffer from ''forced'' colonization. Others predicted practical problems from having a special class of citizen unable to travel freely to the states. Though all ship passengers from Alaska routinely passed through customs at Seattle, they complained that Alaskans would face the humiliation of carrying special identification cards.
The most common complaint in Alaska, however, was that the potential immigrants -- ''of wholly alien racial and religious character, '' as one business group put it -- would not be able to adapt to harsh frontier conditions.
Ickes' clever ploy, pitching the program as an effort to build Alaska's economy, had forced Alaskans to abandon their comfortable pro-development rhetoric.
Years later, University of Alaska historian Orlando Miller wrote that Alaskans seemed almost forced into adopting anti-Semitism as a strategy because a full discussion of the problems of new settlements would contradict the old boosterism and faith in the frontier's promise.
''Our campaign to bring the needs of Alaska to the attention of the Nation has succeeded almost too well, '' wrote the Juneau Empire. ''Now we appear to be in danger of being run over by a juggernaut of unwise and hasty schemes for colonization.''
''The question, '' Miller wrote, ''was turned from whether Alaska was good enough for refugee settlers to whether the settlers were good enough for Alaska.''
Hence the Anchorage Pioneer Igloo said the aliens would be ''a menace to our American civilization'' and the Fairbanks News-Miner said the proposal was ''enough to make any true American and particularly Alaskan think twice ... Keep Alaska American.''
Jewish voices unheard
Jewish miners and traders had long played a role in the life of the territory, of course. In fact, four of the seven partners in the San Francisco firm that bought out the assets of the Russian American Co. in 1867 were Jewish -- as was Benjamin Levi, the young U.S. soldier who raised the American flag over Sitka during the ceremony taking control of Alaska from Russia.
Critics of the colonization plan sometimes prefaced their remarks by expressing indignation over ''the brutalities heaped upon the Jews by Germany.'' But resettlement efforts should point the European Jews toward warmer climes, they said.
''Let others settle the Jewish problem, '' said the News-Miner, ''but as for Alaska, open the way for her to march on toward statehood with a people schooled in American traditions and such as she can assimilate and with whom she can build from the ground up with security and solidarity.''
Throughout this time, Alaskans never heard the voices of people like Bruno Rosenthal. They did not personally close the door in the face of Rosel Lilienfeld and her sons. Many Alaskans seemed proud of their insular lives, and their newspapers did little to drive home the plight of the individual European Jew.
''Editorials, news stories and the comments of businessmen and politicians showed interests that rarely ventured beyond the territory, '' wrote Miller, ''that centered on the gossip and trade in the small towns, the level of gold production, the size and value of the salmon catch, the high freight rates, and the continuing wicked neglect of Alaska by the federal government.''
One of the few personal accounts from Germany to run in The Anchorage Times was an interview with the U.S. Commissioner from Yakutat, who returned from a vacation in Germany with his wife and children in 1939 to report the people were ''happy, well fed and with a great deal of freedom.''
''You read all sorts of stories in this country about Germany which are not the least bit true, '' Hardy Trefzger told the Times. ''Nobody hated Hitler more than I before we went to Germany, but when I saw how things were, I changed my mind.''
To be sure, The Anchorage Times took no such position on the editorial page, denouncing the Nazis' anti-Jewish actions as ''savagery.'' But to Robert Atwood's Times, as to many Americans, such barbarism was a European problem. Even as news of the latest German Panzer attacks filled the Times' front page, the newspaper campaigned to keep America out of the conflagration.
''We're staying out of this war, '' the paper wrote in 1940, addressing Britain's leaders. ''Did you get that? We're staying out.''
The Anchorage Times was editorially silent on the refugee plans, quoting instead the mostly negative views of other papers. A skepticism came through in headlines referring to ''German Cast-Offs'' and foreigners ready to ''Invade North.'' Atwood reprinted the entire Slattery Report, which had underplayed the controversial refugee angle and mentioned Jews only once, under an introduction titled ''Jews for Alaska?''
In the spring of 1940, as Congress prepared for a showdown over the Alaska refugee plan, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce president Clyde R. Ellis composed a report summarizing what he said were Anchorage's objections to the plan.
''Subsidized foreign refugees competing with American businessmen and American citizens would create a race prejudice such as has been practically unknown in our country during its history, '' predicted Ellis, a lawyer and one-time territorial commander of the American Legion.
The biggest objection in Anchorage, he said, was that these new foreigners would be difficult to assimilate. Just look at how they had failed to mix with the German population, bringing such trouble down upon themselves, the chamber president said.
''Without casting any reflection on that race in our country which are of the same faith religiously as the refugees which the colonization plan is meant to embrace, '' Ellis wrote, ''we can safely say without fear of contradiction, that those refugees have proven their non-assimilability which has resulted in the disaster which has overtaken them.''
Tolerance and democracy
President Roosevelt did not respond personally to Bruno Rosenthal's request, as Rosenthal had asked in March 1940.
Instead, a legislative circular regarding the upcoming debate in Congress over a bill providing for the settlement and development of Alaska was mailed to Germany. Four months later, at the end of August, it reached Neustadt.
''I am quite informed about the economic conditions and problems of Alaska, '' Rosenthal wrote back. And then he opened his copy of the Slattery Report and quoted back to the Interior Department the words on which the Jewish families of Neustadt had pinned their hopes of survival.
He wrote: ''As 'tolerance and democracy are natural products of the frontier where a man is appraised for his worth and not for his ancestry, ' as written in the Dep. Report on 'The Problem of Alaskan Development, ' Page 70066/85, 'and it makes little difference whether this population comes from the United States or from abroad, ' and as we applicants are such men as the Alaskans are fond of, I hope, I shall be advised as soon as possible that I have the permission to immigrate to Alaska, as requested since May 1939 till to-day.''
By the time he wrote those words, however, the debate was over and the fate of Neustadt's last Jews was sealed.
This series was 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.
Jewish 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.
Information 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 Press, 1968.
Additional 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, Washington, D.C.