Skip to main Content

Part 2: 'Give us this chance'

  • Author: Tom Kizzia
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published May 17, 1999

[This article was originally published on May 17, 1999]

Second of four parts

Walter Lilienfeld, born under Hitler's rule, was 4 years old the day World War II began.

He lived in the small town of Neustadt, Germany, with his parents, Max and Rosel Lilienfeld. They were a handsome couple, once prosperous. Both of them were blonde, and his mother had blue eyes.

They wanted to go to Alaska.

Walter's father used to work with the farmers in the countryside, buying and selling cattle. But the Nazis wouldn't let the farmers sell to him any more because he was Jewish. Now there was hardly any work for him. Because he was a strong worker, he could sometimes get hired as a day laborer at construction sites. It was better than getting paid to sweep the streets, like the other Jews in town.

Walter's brother no longer lived with them. The previous winter, after the Nazis burned the synagogue in town and his father returned from the Buchenwald concentration camp with his head shaved, 9-year-old Hans had been sent away to Belgium for safety.

But on Sept. 1, 1939, Panzer tanks rolled across Germany's eastern frontier into Poland. The war began. It wouldn't be long until Hans came home to rejoin the family in Neustadt.

The Lilienfelds wanted to leave Germany, but no country would take them in. The line for visas to the United States had grown longer after the anti-Jewish Kristallnacht riots of 1938.

One of the Lilienfelds' cousins, Alice Pfeffer, had managed to get a U.S. visa and left Neustadt in 1937. Pfeffer lives in New York City today and remembers the growing panic of the relatives she left behind.

Her cousin Max, she recalls, had fought for Germany in World War I. He grew up as an only child after his sister died of scarlet fever. He met Rosel, from Thuringen, through relatives. Their son Hans was an unusually bright young boy. And Walter, even as a 2-year-old, had formed a special attachment to his cousin.

''How that little boy loved me, '' Pfeffer recalled recently.

By 1939, there could be no school for Jewish children. In a rush of new laws after Kristallnacht, Jews had been expelled from schools, excluded from libraries and theaters, and barred from driving automobiles. Their property had been confiscated.

And so the Jewish families of Neustadt prepared for a hungry winter as they waited for word on their bid to reach Alaska.

Bruno Rosenthal, one of the town's most prominent Jews, had learned of a new program promising to allow a certain number of additional Jewish refugees to enter the U.S. territory of Alaska.

Rosenthal was writing letters to the American government. He included the Lilienfelds on his list of applicants.

Rosenthal, once a merchant in a fine mansion, now worked day jobs. His once-wealthy wife, Bianca, supplemented their income giving English lessons to people like themselves who wanted to emigrate.

Finally, in the beginning of November, Rosenthal received a reply to one of his letters to Washington. It was a two-paragraph note saying his inquiry was being forwarded to the proper authorities. It was stamped with the name of Harry Slattery, undersecretary of the Interior.

Rosenthal was ecstatic. Not because of the bloodless official reply, but because of what came with it in the big envelope: a 70-plus page government report signed by Slattery describing the need for settlement in Alaska.

Rosenthal read the report with the help of his wife. He was especially struck by the report's account of the Tsimshian Indians who came from Canada with Father William Duncan to found a reservation at Metlakatla in Southeast Alaska. The report portrayed these Indians as victims of religious persecution. In his prompt reply to Slattery, Rosenthal wrote:

''I have read this Report with highest interest, because we German Jews are just in the same situation as at that time were the Canadian refugees, headed by Father Duncan. Like these refugees, once settled, we can't return to our fatherland we are obliged to leave. Like them we are willing to 'take our courage in both hands and pray for it with both hands too.' ''

He begged for a reply by Air Mail telling how many Jews would be allowed to go to Alaska.

''In case the High Government will give us this chance, it will not be deceived, then, neither coldness nor other nature-forces shall prevent us to do our duty.''

REFUGEES WOULD 'BUILD UP ALASKA'

Alaska in the 1930s had not changed much since the Gold Rush days. If anything, the pace of life was slower. The population was still only 70,000 and nearly half Native. Prices for gold, furs and fish were big news. The Kennecott copper mines were closing down, leaving new ghost towns behind. Whenever a ship left Seattle for the territory, the names of all Alaska-bound passengers were reported on the front page of The Anchorage Daily Times.

But change was coming by 1939. The economy stirred as the U.S. military began to fortify the territory for war.

On a tour of Alaska the previous summer, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes had been badgered by business leaders to provide more roads, airfields and other improvements. The imperious Ickes brushed off most of the suggestions at the time, but he capitalized on Alaskans' pro-business sentiments in August 1939 when he released the Slattery Report, whose official title was ''The Problem of Alaskan Development.''

''Immigration to Alaska supported by industries properly financed will bring both capital and man power to the Territory. Both are prerequisites for social and economic stability, '' the report said. ''The number of new settlements will increase each year. The course of Alaskan development, once under way, cannot be stopped.''

The Interior report proposed creating public purpose corporations, like those that once settled the American colonies -- chartered by the government, but financed privately -- to found industries in mining, forest products and fishing, among others. The report examined Baranof Island in Southeast, the Kenai Peninsula, and the Matanuska-Susitna valleys as possible sites for new settlements.

The demand for skilled labor would draw unemployed Americans and workers from ''the four corners of the earth, '' particularly the oppressed of Europe, the report glowingly predicted. Americans would remain in the majority to ease assimilation of the others, but along with Americans there would be need ''for boat builders and fishermen from the shores of the Mediterranean, for trained toy makers and machinists, skilled leather workers and cabinetmakers from central Europe, and workers in wood from north Europe, who can transplant to Alaska the industries of their native lands.''

Alaskans would accept these ''new settlers of various races, creeds and stations, '' the report predicted, because people on the American frontier had always been ready to accept someone who could join in the work at hand.

Release of the Slattery Report did not mean the Roosevelt administration fully backed the idea of Alaska settlement by refugees. The State Department remained opposed. Some diplomats expected trouble because the non-quota immigrants would be required, under such a plan, to remain in Alaska as second-class citizens.

But President Roosevelt, who had weighed Jewish resettlement schemes for places like Angola and the Dominican Republic, seemed intrigued.

In November, as Rosenthal was reading the Slattery Report for the first time in Germany, Secretary Ickes went to see Roosevelt about the idea. Ickes wrote that he came away ''astonished at the thought that the President had given to a comparatively minor problem ... and his cleverness in working it out.''

According to Ickes' published diaries, Roosevelt wanted to move 10,000 settlers to Alaska each year for five years, half of them immigrants. Ickes' account offers a rare look at Roosevelt's political sensitivities on the immigration question: he said only 10 percent should be Jewish, ''to avoid the undoubted criticism'' of any system bringing too many Jews. Several thousand refugees from the Nazis might be saved by such a plan.

Interior began drawing up legislation for Congress to consider. Newspaper editorials from around the country and letters to the government were generally enthusiastic about the proposal to develop Alaska. Several hundred inquiries were received from overseas, Ickes announced.

But Congress would want to hear what reception the idea was getting in the Alaska territory.

Already, two major Washington policy-makers on Alaska in the Roosevelt administration were lining up in opposition to the plan. Both of them happened to be Jewish.

'LOUD CRYING FOR MANKIND'

The 21 German Jews from Neustadt who wanted to emigrate to Alaska in 1939 included eight children, a doctor who spoke three languages, and an ''expert for trout fishery.''

In late November, two weeks after writing Undersecretary of the Interior Harry Slattery, Bruno Rosenthal wrote again. This time he included a list of six families ''praying for entry'' to their ''new fatherland and home Alaska.''

In addition to Rosenthal and his wife, Bianca, both in their mid-50s, the list included:

* Max Lilienfeld, 43, cattle dealer, ''expert for hides and furs, '' his wife, Rosel, 34, and their boys Hans and Walter, all from Neustadt;

* Leo Rosenthal, 50, farmer and ''soap boiler, '' who still lived in Bruno's home state of Prussia, along with Frieda Michaelis, a widow hatmaker, and her son, Herbert, a student;

* Hermann Spangenthal, 53, a manufacturer of whips and walking sticks, trout fisherman, his wife Erna, 43, sons Helmut, 18, a farmer, and Kurt, 15, a locksmith apprentice, and daughter Ruth, 11, a student;

* Kurt Heilbrunn, 41, a doctor, his wife, Margarete, 37, and son Guenter, 6;

* Alfred Rosenberg, 51, a merchant, his wife, Stella, 44, daughter Ruth, 16, and son Walter, 9.

His letter indicated the Spangenthals and Heilbrunns lived in the nearby city of Kassel, and the Rosenbergs in the nearer town of Marburg.

The adults in the group were older than the usual newcomer in Alaska. But then, younger Jews had tended to emigrate first from Germany. And even if their skills were not exactly the kind envisioned by the authors of the Slattery Report, Rosenthal stressed idealism and willingness to work.

''It is no selfishness that I do all the work by writing and thinking for all the people. It is only the sorrow and the grief for all my co-religionaries which are of the same mind as I and are willing, like myself, to bear with courage, energy and patience our heavy destiny, us awaiting in Alaska.''

If the list seemed too long, Rosenthal wrote, perhaps numbers 1-13 could go in the first ''pioneer wave'' and the others could follow a little later.

''So I beg once more imploringly the High Government of the United States in the name of us all, not to delay our hope and to permit us the entry into Alaska as soon as possible, into this land, which, as I read in the 'Report on Alaska' is loud crying for mankind.''

Interior's reply, written in December 1939, took three months to reach Germany. A single paragraph informed Rosenthal that the matter was still under consideration.

GRUENING TAKES A STAND

When Interior Secretary Ickes wrote a preface to the Slattery Report on Alaska, one key name was missing from his thank you list: Ernest Gruening, director of Interior's Division of Territories and Island Possessions.

Gruening was a Harvard-trained doctor, crusading journalist and veteran New Dealer. He had been the Washington bureaucrat directly in charge of policies for Alaska as well as possessions like Puerto Rico. Now he was in the process of being named governor of the Alaska territory. He would go on to play a major role in the statehood drive and win election as one of Alaska's first two U.S. senators.

As editor of The Nation, Gruening had issued some of the earliest warnings about Hitler's rise to power. He had served on the board of New York's University in Exile, which had given a home to scholars who had fled the Nazis. Both of Gruening's parents had been German Jews.

But the new governor of the territory saw nothing but problems with the refugee resettlement plan.

''This provision would be universally resented in Alaska, '' Gruening wrote to Ickes in October 1939.

Why not start with a smaller project, Gruening asked Ickes, by bringing up immigrants who had already come to America? Admission of immigrants outside the normal quota would be a mistake. It would make Alaska a special case, stir resentment in the territory and arouse national opposition to Alaska development in general. Moreover, a new enforcement agency would be necessary to make sure the immigrants did not sneak away to the mainland. The plan, he wrote, would turn Alaska into a virtual ''concentration camp.''

Gruening's reasons for opposing the refugee plan could have been partly personal. If Ickes was for something, Gruening was likely to be skeptical. They were stubborn men with strong opinions. After a staff meeting on the Alaska refugee plan, Gruening wrote in his journal that Ickes refused to tolerate opposition even when he invited his staff to speak frankly: ''The freedom of expression that (Ickes) sought he would be as likely to get as Hitler would when asking his generals to make comment on a policy he had already announced.''

For his part, Ickes eagerly endorsed Gruening's appointment as Alaska governor to get him out of Washington. The Alaska post was seen as ''exile to Siberia, '' writes Robert David Johnson, a historian at Williams College, in a new biography of Gruening. (In his index, Johnson lists only three categories under Ickes' name: ''alienation from Gruening, '' ''attempts to oust Gruening, '' and ''tensions with Gruening as governor.'')

During his five years at Interior, Gruening had visited Alaska only twice, compared with 60 visits to Puerto Rico. But Gruening had powerful friends and couldn't be fired. Alaska was the greatest humiliation Ickes could contrive.

Gruening's motives on the refugee plan were largely political, Johnson said in a recent interview. Reluctant as he was to take the Alaska post, he knew it was his last chance for a political career, and he recognized that it would be political suicide to push a plan that was stirring opposition in Alaska.

Then, too, Gruening was an atheist who later, as a senator, had an aide call up magazines to complain if they identified him as ''Jewish.'' He may have been afraid of losing votes if he were associated with a Jewish cause, given his parents' heritage, his biographer said.

''His reaction to the refugee question was not one of the high points of his career, '' said Johnson, noting that Gruening had written sympathetically of the refugees' cause in his private journal before getting the Alaska appointment.

Not that there weren't practical problems with the refugee plan. In public, Gruening dismissed the Slattery Report as ''wishful thinking'' by bureaucrats. The report was actually written by two Interior Department lawyers: Nathan Margold, Interior's solicitor, and the Indian law expert Felix Cohen, dismissed by a friend of Gruening's as an ''unbalanced enthusiast'' who gets swept away by causes. None of the federal bureau heads in Alaska supported the plan, Gruening noted, and Assistant Secretary Oscar Chapman refused to release the report under his name. Undersecretary Harry Slattery was called in to sign it instead.

Slattery had come to Interior from the National Conservation Association, making him one of Interior's leading pro-conservation voices. But the report that bore his name alarmed some conservationists. In fact the Roosevelt administration's most famous voice for Alaska wilderness protection spoke out loudly against the refugee plan.

Robert Marshall, chief of recreation for the Forest Service and founder of the Wilderness Society, had outraged many Alaska business leaders when he proposed in 1937 that the Brooks Range north of the Yukon be preserved as a roadless frontier, open only to small-scale homesteading, trapping and gold panning.

Marshall had spent a year in the village of Wiseman and wrote a book about that idyllic ''pre-industrial'' community, where popular topics of conversation ranged from the rise of Hitler to ''the curse of Rah and its devastating effect among the Tutankhamen excavators.'' Marshall hoped to preserve such ''pioneer conditions'' for future generations.

Like other proposals to promote development in Alaska, the refugee plan was a ''dodge, '' Marshall wrote in The New Republic. Once again, politicians were avoiding the nation's real economic problems with talk of a new frontier.

His article, which appeared shortly after his sudden death of a heart attack at 38, concluded that federally sponsored settlers would diminish the opportunity for individualism and self-sufficiency that still flourished in the isolated, unmapped expanse of the north.

Marshall surely understood the plight of the European Jews. His father was Louis Marshall, a prominent New York constitutional lawyer and the longtime president of the American Jewish Committee, a quiet, elite pressure group.

Like Gruening, Marshall was ready to put humanitarian concerns second to his more immediate programs for Alaska.

In fact, most of the Alaska hands in prewar Washington seemed to feel there was little they could do to help the German Jews. That was the sentiment around the dinner table one night in 1939 at Marshall's house, where the guests included Gruening and Anthony J. Dimond, Alaska's delegate to Congress.

Gruening wrote of the dinner party in his journal: ''The conclusion seemed to be that refugee problem could be solved only by defeating the Fascist forces which originated it. But otherwise the problem was quantitatively too overwhelming. Later Bob showed us the movies of his trip to Alaska last summer and his unsuccessful effort to scale Mt. Dunorok.''

Part 3: 'Alaska wants no misfits'

This 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 at the National Archives. The file is available on microfilm at University of the 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, 1939/1940.

Information on key Washington figures in this story was drawn from the following books: Ernest Gruening, ''Many Battles, '' Liveright, NY, 1973; Robert David Johnson, ''Ernest Gruening and the American Dissenting Tradition, '' Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1998; T.H. Watkins, ''Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Time of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952, '' Henry Holt, NY, 1990; Robert Marshall, ''Arctic Village, '' University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 1991, and ''Alaska Wilderness, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1970. Ernest Gruening's unpublished diaries are available at the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments