This article was originally published on May 16, 1999
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 state.
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 the Nazis.
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.
‘Night 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 Kristallnacht.
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 carnival.
''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.''
Under Hitler, the prosperous, middle-class position of Neustadt's Jews came to an end.
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 family.
''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 stripped.
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.
Pfeffer's father, the Iron Cross veteran, was unrecognizable to his family when he returned to Neustadt. He later died with her mother in the Holocaust.
''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.
U.S. Response: Open 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 into barbarism.''
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.
Roosevelt quickly 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. Europe's 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.
Complicating matters 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 America.''
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 department 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 the riots.
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. diplomatic 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 said.
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 as well.
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.”
Next: ‘Give us this chance’
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.