The man who received the Oscar in 1930 was one of Hollywood’s founding fathers, Carl Laemmle, the owner of Universal Studios, which had produced the film. It was far from his greatest achievement of the decade to come.
During the 1930s, Laemmle used his fortune to get hundreds of Jewish families out of Nazi Germany, saving many of them from the gas chambers of the Holocaust. The son of one of the people he rescued called him “the closest thing to Oskar Schindler that Hollywood has to offer.”
Laemmle’s life story, which was chronicled in a 2019 documentary by James L. Freedman, possesses all the ingredients of a Hollywood biopic. He was born in 1867 to a poor German Jewish family. At age 17, he sailed to the United States in search of the American Dream. But he didn’t find it right away. He toiled for years as an office boy, bookkeeper, newspaper hawker, salesman and store manager.
Finally, in 1906, he zeroed in on a million-dollar idea. Motion pictures had been invented just years earlier, and Laemmle was convinced they would be the next big thing. He opened two movie theaters in Chicago. People lined up to buy tickets.
Laemmle soon branched out and started producing his own movies, eventually becoming one of America’s foremost producers. In 1912, he co-founded Universal Studios in New York. Two years later, as World War I tore Europe apart, Laemmle moved the studio to California. Other producers followed, and Hollywood was born.
In the ensuing years, Laemmle turned Universal into a powerhouse. His crowning career achievement came in 1930 with “All Quiet on the Western Front.” It was a passion project for him, a humanist drama revisiting the Great War through the eyes of German soldiers, America’s former enemies. Although Laemmle was now a proud U.S. citizen, he still harbored a deep connection to Germany and hoped the film could foster reconciliation between his native and adopted countries.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” was a hit in the United States and abroad. But it found itself in the crosshairs of the Nazis, then the main opposition party in Germany, who blasted it as anti-German propaganda. Since Laemmle was Jewish, the Nazis also branded it a “Jewish lie.”
As Tom Fordy recounted in the Telegraph, on Dec. 5, 1930, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels and his “brownshirts” crashed the Berlin premiere of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” They released mice in the theater, threw stink bombs at guests and screamed, “Jews out! Germany awake! Hitler is at the gates!” The German government got spooked and banned the film.
The experience made Laemmle starkly aware of the threat posed by the Nazis. Sensing danger for German Jews, he swiftly got his relatives out of the country. In 1932, a year before Hitler became chancellor, he observed, “I am almost certain that Hitler’s rise to power, because of his obvious militant attitude toward the Jews, would be the signal for a general physical onslaught on many thousands of defenseless Jewish men, women and children in Germany, and possibly in Central Europe as well.”
Laemmle was right, foreseeing the “Final Solution” a decade before it transpired.
When Hitler assumed power in 1933, he lived up to Laemmle’s worst fears and enacted antisemitic legislation preventing Jews from working in a wide array of professions. Laemmle knew the onslaught was just beginning. Driven by the conviction that Jews needed to flee Germany or eventually perish there, he pledged to bring as many as he could to the United States, regardless of whether he knew them personally.
But it wasn’t just a matter of booking them a one-way ticket. Getting German Jews into the country proved a bureaucratic nightmare. The State Department, which was in charge of processing visas, made it nearly impossible. As historian Saul S. Friedman put it, America in the ’30s was “no haven for the oppressed.”
Following the 1924 National Origins Act, the State Department enforced a restrictive immigration system and assigned each country in the world a quota — the maximum number of immigrants who would be let into the United States each year. For Germany, that number was capped at around 25,000.
But that didn’t mean 25,000 Germans reached American shores each year. The actual figure was much lower because the State Department, amid broad anti-immigrant sentiment, was actively trying to curb immigration. In 1933, immigration officers were instructed to grant only 10 percent of the visas allowed under each quota. According to Erik Larson in “In the Garden of Beasts,” some high-ranking State Department officials were antisemites who had no intention of letting Jews into the United States.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose not to intervene, telling his ambassador to Germany in 1933, “the German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is also not a governmental affair.” Rabbi Stephen Wise, a community leader who lobbied the State Department to grant visas to German Jews, was scathing in his appraisal of FDR as “immovable, incurable and even inaccessible excepting to those of his Jewish friends whom he can safely trust not to trouble him with any Jewish problems.”
Laemmle was well aware of the hurdles he faced in trying to bring German Jews into the United States, but he stuck to his motto: “It can be done!”
To immigrate to the United States, families needed a U.S. citizen to sponsor their application and sign an affidavit pledging to support them financially until they got a job.
Laemmle started signing affidavits. Despite being one of Hollywood’s biggest names, he was required to put up bonds to prove to U.S. authorities he was solvent. In Freedman’s documentary, a refugee who came to the United States as a child said the mogul had to put $1 million in escrow — more than $20 million in today’s dollars.
But Laemmle was determined to save as many lives as possible. According to historian Udo Bayer, he signed at least 300 affidavits over the course of the ’30s, bringing that many Jewish families to the United States. Some were distant relatives; some were friends of those relatives; some were complete strangers who had heard what Laemmle was doing and pleaded for help.
Laemmle covered their travel costs, paid for their accommodation and helped them find jobs, including at Universal. As he told one Jewish woman whose visa he had sponsored, “You can absolutely depend on me to stand by you until you get on your feet.”
Laemmle was following his conscience. “It is the solemn duty of every Jew in America who can afford it,” he wrote in 1938, “to go to the very limit for these poor unfortunates in Germany. … I have never in all my life been so sympathetic to any cause as I am to these poor innocent people who are suffering untold agony without having done anything wrong whatsoever.”
The State Department didn’t see it that way. By the late ’30s, it started rejecting Laemmle’s affidavits because, it claimed, he was sponsoring too many.
Laemmle looked for other wealthy Americans to sign affidavits, urging them to lend a helping hand. He signed off one of his letters: “Have a heart, please.” His campaign led to an additional 100 affidavits.
In May 1939, months before the start of World War II, more than 900 German Jews sailed to Cuba on the SS St. Louis. They were hoping to find a safe haven on the Caribbean island but were denied entry. They continued to the United States, where they beseeched FDR to give them refuge.
As ever, Laemmle tried to help: He personally cabled the president. But he got no response. A poll at the time showed that 83 percent of the electorate opposed allowing more refugees. Roosevelt, up for reelection in 1940, chose politics over ethics.
The SS St. Louis was sent away and sailed back to Europe. More than 250 of its passengers later died in the Holocaust, along with 6 million other Jews.
Laemmle would not live to witness the horror of what he had long known was coming. He died on Sept. 24, 1939, at age 72, just as the war was beginning.
The affidavits Laemmle signed for hundreds of families probably helped more than a thousand individuals escape the Holocaust. Among the immigrants he sponsored was a 10-year-old child named Fred Bender. Interviewed many decades later in Freedman’s documentary, Bender said, “Laemmle was a superhero as far as this 10-year-old kid was concerned.”