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State Department releases historic refugee letter as White House plans to limit refugees

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On the same day that White House administration officials signaled that they would drastically cut the number of refugees entering the United States in 2018, the U.S. State Department put out a press release about a successful Hollywood mogul who sponsored hundreds of Jewish refugees into the United States before World War II.

The State Department’s press release Tuesday highlighted the story of Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle, who spent the final years of his life sponsoring hundreds of Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany before World War II. Laemmle helped to found Universal Film Manufacturing Company, which later became Universal Studios. When a German museum wanted to host an exhibit spotlighting Laemmle’s humanitarian work last year to commemorate his 150th birthday, it called on the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration to request a copy of a letter he had written to then-U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull in April 1938 to ask the U.S. federal government to process his requests for visas.

“I feel it is the solemn duty of every Jew in America who can afford it, to go the very limit for these poor unfortunates in Germany,” Laemmle wrote in part in his letter to Hull. “My heart goes out to them and I have never in my life been so sympathetic to any cause as I am to these poor innocent people who suffer untold agony without having done any wrong whatsoever.”

A 1938 letter from Hollywood mogul Carl Laemmle to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull asking for State Department help in taking in Jewish refugees from Germany before World War II. CREDIT: U.S. National Archives

In response, Hull wrote to Laemmle saying his consular officers have been instructed to “give the most considerate attention to the cases.”

A 1938 response letter from U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull to Hollywood mogul Carl Laemmle who asked for assistance from the U.S. State Department to help Jewish refugees escaping from Germany before World War II. (CREDIT: U.S. National Archives)

In all, Laemmle’s appeal to the State Department both directly and indirectly spared the lives of more than 300 Jews. He made a list, Laemmele’s list, which grew with the names of Jews who were family, friends, and even strangers beyond his hometown of Laupheim, Germany. By 1938, Laemmle had given anywhere between 100 and 200 affidavits, or pledges of support to make sure individuals won’t become public charge. Laemmle, who was worth $2 million in the late 1930s, made good on promises of financial support, a place to stay, and even jobs.

Tuesday’s State Department’s press release called attention to its agency’s diplomatic couriers who were on hand to deliver Laemmle’s document from the National Archives to the U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt, Germany. The letter was then transported to Stuttgart where it was on exhibit at the Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg between December 2016 and July 2017. The diplomatic couriers then returned with the documents in August.

“It was a humbling experience to read the letter, and to appreciate the desperation Mr. Laemmle felt in asking the secretary of State for his help in bringing families here,” Monique Atwood, an operations officer with the Courier Service, said in the State Department’s press release. “His thoughtful words and beseeching tone were truly heartrending. Imagine what a wonderful world it would be if there were more Carl Laemmles in our midst!”

It is possible that the State Department published its press release to coincide with Laemmle’s death on September 24, 1939, which came three weeks after Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. But the press release came two days after Laemmle’s death date, and the letter was hand-delivered back to Washington, D.C. in August. It’s a bit curious that the State Department would choose to publish Laemmle’s biography on the same day various news agencies reported the White House is on track to lower the refugee resettlement cap to 45,000 for the 2018 fiscal year, down from the 110,000 set by the Obama administration last year. The White House will have to announce its refugee resettlement cap this week, ahead of the new fiscal year starting on October 1.

It’s difficult not to contrast how the United States of 1938 was stepped up its response to Jewish refugees with how the United States of 2017 is responding to the largest global humanitarian crisis since World War II. Today, 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes globally, with 22.5 million registered as refugees. But since Trump took office, he has signed off on policies that aim to restrict immigration from certain countries and prohibit immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries.

Laemmle was a brave man who used his personal expenses to take in refugees at a time when it was unpopular to do so. A July 1938 survey in Fortune Magazine found 67.4 percent of Americans wanted to keep Jewish refugees out. His fellow Hollywood executives remained largely quiet and uninvolved. Pivot to 2017 where sorrowful images of people drowning on the Mediterranean Sea and children being saved from Syrian airstrikes are accessible at the click of button, the American public are more sympathetic to admitting refugees. An April 2017 Quinnipiac survey found that 57 percent of 1,062 registered voters supported a policy to admit Syrian refugees into the United States. Still, it would seem that historically Americans don’t oppose an outright refugee ban as the Trump administration has proposed, but that they may support limiting refugee admissions. 

 

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