Attempts to rewrite pre-war Jewish refugee experiences in America

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Photo Source: Michael McConway

Michael McConway, Features Editor. 

“My Father resolved to book first class with Cunard on the Queen Mary rather than handing his money over to the Nazis” – Ludwig Katzenstein.

When you’re a maritime history buff, life can be pretty boring polishing your capstans and buffing up your crow’s nest bell without a nourishing drip of Discovery Channel documentaries and the most recent issue of Sea History Monthly. Usually I’m the one in the corner, singing the praises of some Tony Robinson or Dan Snow vehicle for Channel 4 in the graveyard slot whilst everyone else is devouring the latest series of some Netflix clickbait murder serial. A repeat of the little-known Queen Mary: World’s Greatest Ocean Liner (BBC Four) has provoked me to write this feature, effectively breaking ranks with my fellow Maritime Historian shipmates. In its discussion of the Queen Mary’s role as the transatlantic saviour of families of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany, it fails to address some very problematic questions about the experiences of Jewish migration to America in the 1930s, and so often in social history, disregards those who couldn’t afford ticket; in this case, a transatlantic rite of passage on the flagship of the Cunard Line.

Eschwege, a town in Northern Germany, did not suffer the blight of violent anti-Semitic pogroms after the Nazi consolidation of power in January 1933 for the first time. Between 1348 and 1350, the thriving Jewish community in the town, which had been established just half a century before in 1301, was entirely wiped out by violent persecution. The Jews of the town were believed to have spread the Black Death which would indiscriminately reduce the population of Europe by a third.  Ludwig Katzenstein was just fourteen years old when just three weeks before Kristallnacht – a night of devastating anti-Semitic violence across Germany following the murder of German embassy diplomat Ernst Von Rath by a Polish Jew Herschel Gryszpan, which saw the callous destruction of the local Jewish Synagogue which was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its dedication. His father decided their family savings would be better invested in booking first class with the Cunard Line rather than have it appropriated by the Nazis. At 10am, on a cold October morning, the Katzenstein family boarded a train bound for the German border with Holland, on a race to meet the Queen Mary at Cherbourg the following morning at 12 noon. As the day wore on, Ludwig remembers that he and his brother became bundles of excitement, anticipating freedom and the chance to board their first ever ocean liner. Ludwig, poignantly, recalls his fear of contracting sea-sicknesses and delaying their trip. But little would they know that an overnight check at the German border would place them in the hands of something far worse than sea-sickness.

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A Jewish passport from January 1939 stamped with a J, introduced by the Reich Ministry of Interior just four months earlier. Photo Source: Michael McConway

On 5th October 1938, the Reich Ministry of the Interior introduced new legislation which invalidated all passports held by Jews, and passport holders were required to submit their passports within two weeks to local authorities to be stamped ominously with a “J”. Ludwig’s father, in the rush to leave Germany, had not complied, and their train would be delayed by six hours until the Gestapo could obtain a stamp for each of the family’s four passports. It seemed that without a voyage and sailing time to attend, the family would be deported by the French Harbour authorities back to their captive Germany. However, Ludwig’s father scrabbled together the change to send a telegraph to Cherbourg to Captain Robert Irving, Commodore of the Cunard Fleet, to inform them of their flight and ask for his assistance. Irving was the true English eccentric, complete with Scottish ancestral claims, a collection of 120 variants of tobacco pipe, and what the New York Times described as “a pleasant, breezy manner in the face of adversity and a laugh that resounds throughout the dining hall of his ship.”

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Captain Robert Irving, Commodore of the Cunard fleet and Commander of the RMS Queen Mary, who diligently waited for the Katzenstein’s for six hours at Cherbourg. Photo Source: Michael McConway

Irving had forged a lucrative and headline-grabbing career. Awarded the Sea Transport Medal for services rendered as 3rd Officer of the Princess of Wales, hospital ship of the Albion Steamship Company during the Boer War, he was destined to become a World War One pin-up, mentioned in dispatches at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 when as Lieutenant-Commander of the Light Cruiser Yarmouth, he had put his rapid navigational skills to use on watch on the bridge to narrowly avoid a direct hit from an enemy shell. Captain of the Mauretania and the Vennonia during the 1920s, the cream of the transatlantic fleet, he made a world record by crossing the Atlantic in 3 days, 21 hours and 48 minutes in his new command, the RMS Queen Mary, breaking the Blue Riband Atlantic record. But when it came to the Katzenstein’s telegraph, Irving abandoned his usual haste, and lay berthed in Cherbourg for over six hours, waiting for one family of four to make the quayside. Alongside the Queen Mary was the Ingenier Minard, a tugboat allocated to encouraging the Queen Mary’s departure, which belonged to the Cherbourg Towage and Salvage Company. Built in 1911 on slipway one on Queen’s Island by Harland and Wolff as the SS Nomadic, she had once been tender vessel to the flagships of the White Star Line, tendering for the RMS Olympic from Cherbourg for twenty-three years, and took 172 of Titanic’s first and second class passengers to her fateful maiden voyage as it paused for a few hours off the French coast on the evening of the 10th April 1912. The Katzenstein’s, arriving just after 6pm, would safely board the Queen Mary and for Ludwig’s parents at least, they would escape from Germany and never return

Though the Queen Mary and her crew saved countless lives of Jewish refugees between 1935 and 1939, it is misleading for documentaries and books to suggest, because of Irving’s singular grand gesture in October 1938 with the Katzenstein’s, that these actions were pure philanthropy and that for the families who remained behind in Germany, it was further tightening of anti-Semitic discrimination which prevented them from boarding a British or American Ocean Liner and be welcomed with open arms by the New York Harbour authorities and the American general public. It must be starkly pointed out that these families, such as the Katzenstein’s, survived on the Queen Mary and the Ocean Liner due to the fact that they had the money to buy their tickets, travel in style, and contribute economically to America upon arrival. It is anathema for us to think of it today, but the Katzenstein’s, though they were fleeing religious persecution in Germany, which would by today’s standards, give the right to refugee status, would have been seen in America as nothing more than economic migrants.

In May 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which would set low immigration quotas for migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in favour of higher quotas for those from Northern Europe and England. This Act was reformed in 1929, when quotas were tightened further; the quota for Germany plummeted from 51227 to 25957. Throughout the 1930s, this quota, despite questioned by a group of leading Jewish Congressmen, went unchanged, and anti-immigration policy and the refusal of Jewish refugee asylum was affirmed by the public in May 1938 when only 23% of Americans were polled in favour of German Jewish refugees entering the country. A Gallup poll in May 1938, which asked “whether the persecution of Jews in Europe has been their own fault” elicited similar responses-48% of Americans responded ‘partly’ and 10% said ‘entirely’. In June, 937 passengers on the German Ocean Liner St. Louis had their visa applications rejected in the port of Miami and the liner was tailed by a Coast Guard cutter until it departed from the port, with the passengers scattered to Britain, Belgium and France. 254 of these passengers would become victims of the Final Solution, their treatment at the hands of the Miami port authorities much different to the warm welcome that the Katzenstein’s received in New York just nine months earlier. It is said that families on board the St. Louis spent their last savings telegraphing Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, pleading with him to admit their party to the New World. The difference between the cases is that the St. Louis presented Roosevelt with a refugee problem en masse, which if taken on would be unpopular with the electorate; the Katzenstein’s were economic migrants, bringing savings and trades to America, the ideal nuclear family in the American dream.

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SS St. Louis: The refugees nobody wanted. Photo Source: Michael McConway

German Jews, particularly those with relatives in America, were hopeful that public opinion and FDR’s actions would relax in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, which saw the destruction of Jewish synagogues and businesses and the imprisonment of 30000 Jews in concentration camps, and with the onset of the Second World War in September 1939, in which America was a neutral nation, it became hoped that America would act nobly to become a neutral nation providing asylum for persecuted German Jews. But on 5th June 1940, FDR reasserted his strong anti-asylum line, warning that “among refugees are some spies, as has been found in some countries….especially Jewish refugees could be coerced to report to German agents under threat that if they do not do so, the Gestapo will say, ‘we are frightfully sorry, but your old mother and father will be taken out and shot’.”

 It was Roosevelt’s words which would foreshadow one of the most heart-wrenching crimes against Jewish refugees in international circles throughout the war. In May 1941, the underground Jewish Socialist Bund Party in the Warsaw ghetto managed to smuggle information to America that the Nazis had initiated a Final Solution to the Jewish question, the mass murder of Jews in the concentration camps using what would later be revealed as Zyklon B gas, arrangements made by Reinhard Heydrich Chief of Reich Security during the Wansee Conference of January 1942. Despite this information, on the 10th of July 1942, hundreds of Jews on the refugee liner SS Drottingholm were refused asylum on the basis that just one of their number, Herbert Karl Bahr, had been tenuously linked by the FBI to a German spy ring, allegedly receiving $7000 to steal American Industrial secrets. It would be the 17th December 1942 before Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary, publicly condemned the German extermination of Jews as a ‘bestial policy’ in the House of Commons on behalf of the Allied Forces, including a silent America.

When we watch History documentaries, the personal eyewitness account and experience brings authenticity, verifiability, and is a huge turn on not only for historians, but for engaging the attention and emotions of the casual viewer. If the Katzenstein case has taught us anything, it is that a remarkable last-minute escape to America by a Jewish refugee family can be distorted to make generalisations about the positive experiences of Jewish refugees to America both before the war and immediately after its declaration. When watching documentaries, we must always challenge the motives of what we are shown and aren’t shown. And unfortunately for some of us with reading lists that are quite long enough, it takes consultation of multiple sources-books, primary documents, other testimonies, to get a fuller picture of the tragedy of Jewish migrants to America; the opportunities that were missed, the false accusations that were made, and the lives that could have ultimately been saved.

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