An unprecedented collection of letters between a young German woman who fled to the United States before the Holocaust and her friends and family back home reveals an intimate look at life during World War II.
“I always try to appear cheery and fun on the outside — but what it looks like on the inside is nobody’s business.”
Luzie Hatch, a young, single woman from Berlin, penned these words in April 1939. Having recently arrived in New York in the wake of Kristallnacht, the vicious anti-Jewish pogroms that tore through Germany on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, she was still a newcomer, struggling to find her way in this land.
For decades, much about Luzie remained “nobody’s business.” But that was all to change following her death. While surveying the contents of her apartment, attorney Roger Blane discovered a collection of more than 300 World War II-era letters, some quite intimate, others rather eloquent, the kind missing in today’s world of email.
Since Luzie had spent a lifetime working as an administrative assistant at the American Jewish Committee, the material was donated to our archives. When I, as director of the AJC Archives, examined the collection, I was struck by something unusual. Not only had Luzie saved letters that she had received, but she also often made a carbon copy of her outgoing correspondence. This was a trove of two-way communication, something expected in business and government collections but almost unheard of in a personal collection from this time period.
I was so taken with these letters — and the story they revealed — that I turned it into a book. Luzie arrived in America with the assistance of her American-born cousin, Arnold Hatch, an industrialist in Albany, N.Y. Much of the book, Exit Berlin, is a dance between Luzie, a single woman in her 20s, financially struggling, at times overwhelmed by her new surroundings, and Arnold, a middle-aged president of a knitting company, Ivy League educated and abundantly confident. These two distinct personalities would struggle to deal with the pleas of relatives trapped in Germany. They would not always see eye to eye.
In 1940, Luzie’s Aunt Martha wrote from Cologne telling Luzie of her hope of escaping with her 12-year-old daughter via the lengthy Trans-Siberian Railroad route. She needed Arnold’s financial assistance. When Arnold learned of the plan, he wrote to Luzie, saying it was “utterly impractical” to send two women from Cologne via Berlin, Moscow, Siberia and Japan. “The journey is hazardous and uncertain, and the American Express Company in accepting the utterly impossible sum of $700.00 per person does not guarantee a thing.”
“Things will just have to wait until this war is over, I cannot get into plans as insane,” he said, adding: “I appreciate that Martha will be bitterly disappointed, but there is nothing else that can be done for the time being. I did not start this war, and I cannot finish it, and I cannot change the conditions that result from it.”
Luzie had no choice but to pass along Arnold’s response but she added her own caveat.
“My dear Aunt Martha,” she wrote. “This letter encloses a very disappointing message for you unfortunately, and I am dreadfully sorry that I must write this note. Arnold is against you going on the long, burdensome and expensive trip over Russia and Japan.”
She added some “personal advice,” suggesting her aunt might be able to make the journey through Russia with the help of the “Hilfsverein,” the German Jewish aid society:
“I strongly believe it might be easier to have Arnold do something if one could tell him that funding until Japan is ensured. I am sorry, this is the only advice I am able to give you at the moment. You can count on me. I think about you and do everything in my power, but my limits are all-too restricted unfortunately.”
Luzie’s aunt and cousin Ruth were transported to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, where, according to the archives at Yad Vashem, they died.
Because of the breadth of Luzie’s correspondence, there is information on U.S. Immigration law, Aryanization of German Jewish businesses, internment camps in Vichy France, and refugees who ended up in Shanghai and Bolivia. Yet her letters offer more than information: They also raise moral questions. Why wasn’t America more welcoming? And what of Arnold Hatch?
When speaking at the Main Line School Night in October at an event cosponsored by AJC’s Philadelphia office, I was asked if Arnold could have done more. The same question was the subject of a thoughtful and long discussion the next night at the Ardmore Book Club.
At the Main Line School Night, Wagner Marseille, acting superintendent of the Lower Merion School District, said that while Luzie’s story is set in the Holocaust, its message is universal. Indeed, Exit Berlin is a story of family, tragic suffering and recovery.
Luzie came to New York with little more than hope and the great relief that she had escaped Nazi Germany. She never married or had children and she passed away shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Although she didn’t make much as an administrative assistant, she invested wisely and her estate executors were able to establish a foundation in the name of Luzie’s father, Edwin (her parents came to the United States in 1940 via Shanghai). The fund provides financial assistance to college students. Every year there are students at two New York State universities and at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who go to college in part because of Luzie.
In 1943, when applying for citizenship, Luzie noted that she knew how much she owed this country and she hoped she would be a good citizen. She was indeed a good citizen.
Charlotte Bonelli, director of the AJC Archives, is the author of the newly released Exit Berlin.