Beginning again — Jewish émigrés in FDR’s America

Beginning again — Jewish émigrés in FDR’s America

Max L. Kleinman

Max Kleinman of Fairfield is the CEO emeritus of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.

In today’s fragile and fractured world, we witness too many instances of slights, real and imagined, characterized as “micro-aggressions,” leading to curbing free speech and “cancelling.” We are living in “The Age of Anxiety,” as W.H. Auden called it, several years after the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War. This is understandable, as we’re still living with the Delta variant of covid.

But with the prevalence of social media highlighting standards of beauty and masculinity unachievable by most teens, many of them suffer from feelings of inadequacy leading to mental health and self-image problems. While we must be sensitive to these concerns, too many times we coddle them as an end in itself, rather than fostering resilience. As leadership expert Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote in the Harvard Business Review, resiliency is not the difference between winning and losing, but how we handle losing.

Our parents, Eli and Miriam Kleinman, Holocaust survivors, demonstrated profound resilience. In their honor, my family sponsored a program at the MetroWest JCC, “From Hitler to Hollywood,” curated by John Kendrick. In his lecture, Kendrick outlined how during the 1930s recently arrived Jewish émigrés, outcasts primarily from Austria and Germany, had a lasting impact on Hollywood and American culture.

Pre-Hitler, German Jews were in the forefront of German expressionism in film, as manifested by Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and “M,” starring another Jewish émigré, Peter Lorre. One of the greatest of our film directors, Alfred Hitchcock, drew many of his techniques from the time he spent learning German expressionism.

But then Hitler came to power, and Jews not only lost their jobs but were stripped of their citizenship. It was not easy to get to FDR’s America, at the height of the Depression, with severe immigration quotas and ghastly anti-Semitism. Eighty-three percent of Americans were against admitting more German Jewish émigrés. And FDR listened to the polls, not his conscience.

Yet through the efforts of two Jewish émigrés — and too few others — thousands made it to Hollywood.

Salka Viertel was the leading female screenwriter in Hollywood, who wrote five scripts for Greta Garbo. She worked tirelessly to find sponsorships and jobs for dozens of the émigrés and provided social and networking contacts. Her home was the harbor for a trans-Atlantic network, where she provided welcome, food, and shelter.

Arriving decades earlier, Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, home of the monster movies “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” and the silent version of the “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” is, according to Brandeis University historian Thomas Doherty, the closest hero to Oscar Schindler and Raul Wallenberg. Through his efforts, cajoling immigration officials, funding transportation, finding sponsorships and arranging jobs, he helped more than 300 families. That means that he helped more 1,000 people find the American dream.

Berthold Brecht, a non-Jewish émigré, observed, “Chased from my country, now I have to see if there’s some shop or bar that I can find where I can sell the products of my mind.” Those products were the stuff of Hollywood legend.

The leading film directors of that era who fostered film noir included the legendary Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, who launched Burt Lancaster’s career, and the aforementioned Fritz Lang. Ernst Lubitsch was the master of sophisticated comedies. Fred Zinneman, among the first to film on location, directed such classics as “High Noon” and “From Here to Eternity.” And there were dozens of others. Perennially ranked among the top three movies of all times and among the most patriotic films during wartime, “Casablanca” was directed by an Hungarian Jewish émigré, Michael Curtiz. The first anti-Nazi film, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” was directed by another émigré, Anatole Litvack.

The foremost composers of film scores were émigrés: Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and Kurt Weil, to name a few. As a result of their efforts, film music became an integral part of the narrative, instead of just an accessory.

We all know the contribution of émigrés to the Manhattan project during World War II. But a recent study by Stanford economist Petra Moser demonstrated that there was, all things being equal, a 31 percent increase in patents due to the scientific breakthroughs of Jewish émigrés. This should make a strong case for liberalizing our immigration policies. And the intelligence work of the “Petrie Boys,” consisting of German Jewish émigrés during World War II, was legendary.

There is often talk about the victimhood of the Jews during this period, and it is correct. But not enough of our attention is directed toward the resiliency of these émigrés who, despite arriving penniless and without any social network, made an incalculable contribution to American society. This also was true of the survivors of the Holocaust, who arrived a decade later. My friend, the late William Helmreich, a victim of covid, documented their achievements well in his book: “Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America.”

As Elie Wiesel wrote about Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis: “God gave them a secret — not about how to begin, but how to begin again.”

Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.