Laemmle's List: A Mogul's Heroism ; Hollywood Chief Assisted the Emigration of Many Jews from Germany

By Gabler, Neal | International New York Times, April 12, 2014 | Go to article overview

Laemmle's List: A Mogul's Heroism ; Hollywood Chief Assisted the Emigration of Many Jews from Germany


Gabler, Neal, International New York Times


When Hitler came to power, the Hollywood studio chief Carl Laemmle, unlike his peers, decided to save as many Jews as possible.

Among the pioneering moguls of Hollywood, Carl Laemmle, who commanded Universal Pictures for more than 20 years and who died 75 years ago, was not only less recognizable than the rest, he was also different from the rest. For one thing, he was older than the others and the first to emigrate from Europe to America. For another, he was less autocratic. Laemmle, an elfin man, was informal, unpretentious and cheery. Everyone, including his own son, called him Uncle Carl, and, according to one witness, he would roam the lot at Universal City with a pail in which he would urinate when he felt the urge. Most of the others made a point of declaiming their American-ness. Laemmle kept close ties to his native Germany -- he visited Europe each year -- and called the country his fatherland.

But there was another way in which Laemmle, whose studio was responsible for the silent "Phantom of the Opera" and the original "Frankenstein," was different from nearly all his Hollywood confreres. When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Hollywood barely reacted. Laemmle, on the other hand, was terrified of what Hitler's ascension would mean for his country, for the village of Laupheim (where he was born), for members of his family -- many of whom had remained in Germany -- and, perhaps above all, for his fellow Jews. And Laemmle, unlike the other studio heads, was determined to do something about it.

Though it is not widely known, Laemmle, like Oskar Schindler, kept a list -- an ever-lengthening and changing list of Jews whom he fought to save from the Nazis. The list was his instrument in a long, emotional battle during which he confronted the German government and, even more, recalcitrant elements of the American State Department to get endangered Jews out of Europe. It was a battle to which, by his own estimation, he devoted 80 percent of his time from the mid-1930s, when he surrendered the economically distressed Universal to the financier J. Cheever Cowdin. And though the numbers are imprecise, by the time Hitler invaded Poland, Laemmle directly or indirectly saved more than 300 Jews.

Two recent books -- "The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler" by Ben Urwand and "Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939" by Thomas Doherty -- investigated the alleged complicity between the Hollywood Jews and the Nazis to protect the studios' German profits, books in which Laemmle is scarcely mentioned. But there is another reason to tell the story now. Knowing of my interest in the subject, a longtime entertainment executive named Sandy Einstein asked me to write about Laemmle's efforts, and provided documentation he had collected. Mr. Einstein had a personal motive: His father was among those whom Laemmle had saved.

It may seem strange that Laemmle alone among the Hollywood chieftains -- a group that included Adolph Zukor of Paramount, William Fox, Louis B. Mayer of MGM, Harry Cohn of Columbia and the Warner brothers -- sought to save Jews, since all of those studio heads were Jews themselves and nearly all of them had emigrated from Eastern Europe, over which Hitler was casting his ominous shadow. But almost from the inception of the American film industry, the Hollywood Jews were dedicated to assimilation, not religious celebration. They had come to America to escape their roots, not embrace them.

Much of this was psychological -- a way to begin life anew. But it was also self-protective. Though America's self-appointed cultural commissars didn't much care about Jewish domination of the film industry in its infancy, they began to care very much when the motion picture became the center of the country's popular culture, and they inveighed against Jewish influence, which many Christian religious groups and civic organizations dedicated to cultural uplift felt would undermine traditional American values. …

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