I have a memory from childhood of two women who lived close by me, but whom I never got to know. They were sisters who came from Berlin to stay in the home of my best friend, Naomi. Refugees — a word we were just beginning to hear often — from Hitler’s Germany, they had been brought over from Europe to our Borough Park enclave by Naomi’s mother, their second cousin. I don’t remember their names or the year they came, but I remember how they looked: straight-backed, rarely smiling, wearing thick heeled shoes and carrying black pocketbooks that hung rigidly from their hands. But what I remember most is Naomi’s anger that she had to share her bedroom with these two unfamiliar relatives, who seemed to her ungrateful for the help her parents had given them.
“Bei uns in Deutschland” (by us in Germany), they would often say, as they contrasted the good life they had led in Berlin with what they had now. “If it was so good, they should have stayed there,” Naomi would complain to me, although she knew they could not have. After some months, the women moved away, having found work and rented rooms in “the city.”
I never saw those sisters again and rarely thought about them until I began reading an extraordinary new book, “Exit Berlin,” just published by Yale University Press. Written and edited by Charlotte Bonelli, director of the American Jewish Committee Archives, it is built around a fascinating collection of letters discovered in the estate of Luzie Hatch, a German refugee, who fled Berlin in 1938, a week after Kristallnacht. Four months after arriving in New York, Hatch found a temporary position at the American Jewish Committee. She remained there as an administrative assistant for almost 30 years. She had never married or had children, yet the brittle and yellowing letters the estate executor found stuffed into battered black binders reveal her deeply emotional involvement during World War II with family members in Germany, Vichy France, Shanghai, and other places. The letters are unique in that they include both those she received and those she wrote, which she frequently copied. Together they tell the story of an “ordinary” woman determined to rescue as much of her family as she could from the Nazi abyss before it was too late, and of a cautious and often reluctant American cousin, a well to do businessman, who made the rescues possible.
Luzie Hecht had discovered the cousin, Arnold Hatch, after his father Nathan, Luzie’s great uncle, had turned down her father’s request in 1933 for American asylum. The Depression was on, business was terrible, and Nathan was too ill to care for his German relatives, he wrote. Luzie received a more positive response from Arnold after his father died. With reassurances that she would not become “a public charge,” he furnished the necessary affidavits and financial help to bring her and her cousin Herta to America in November 1938. Although Arnold lived in Albany, Luzie settled in New York City.
It was Luzie’s early letters back to Germany that triggered my memory of my friend Naomi’s cousins. Reading her, I can see the loneliness and confusion that lay behind their “bei uns in Deutschland” remembrances. “You can’t imagine how this city devours you,” Luzie wrote in one letter. “The distances in Berlin are not at all comparable to the ones here.” In another, she complained of the air with so much humidity that “one is constantly wet” and of the “American type food” she could not get used to. And I can understand the impatience Naomi’s parents may have felt toward the distant relatives they had rescued. Until she got a job, Arnold wrote Luzie firmly, “You will have to consult with me … and not just do as you please … and live as you please.”
Once Luzie found work and began to adjust to New York, her life revolved around assisting her German relatives. She changed her name to “Hatch,” as Arnold’s family had, and engaged him in all the rescues, advising her correspondents on how best to approach him for aid. There were Luzie’s parents and brother who had escaped to Shanghai, but were miserable and desperate to leave. There were aunts Martha and Paula, cousins Alfons and Dora, and former neighbors, the Friedländers, who had fled to Bolivia. Luzie kept in touch with all of them, and when Arnold tried to put off a request for help until “the air clears,” she kept after him until he gave in.
In this Purim season, when we celebrate a young queen who saved her people, we need also celebrate unsung heroes like Luzie Hatch, who, quietly, without fanfare, rescued many of her own people. And, like Charbona in the megillah, Arnold Hatch is also deserving of praise.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remembering the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.