This article was originally published on May 19, 1999
Last 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 past.
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 a colleague.
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 Israel.
''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 bedroom.
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 laws.
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 much.
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.
After researching 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 received.
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 them.
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 quotas.
Interior Secretary 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 population.''
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.''
Interior officials 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, '' he insisted.
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.
''Anyone traveling 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.''
Dimond's testimony 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.''
Dimond's prediction 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.
Historians look back
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.
Today, historians 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.''
English professor 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 easy.''
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 in Alaska.
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, dear friend.''
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 east
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.
Lilienfeld's ashes 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.
Theresienstadt, a 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 Hitler's Germany.
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 record keepers filled in the customary words next to the names of the Rosenthals: Destination Unknown.
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.