Wartime letters show one woman’s courageous efforts to save family from Nazis

Wartime letters show one woman’s courageous efforts to save family from Nazis

Luzie Hatch’s letters show the desperation and almost helplessness that many Jews felt in trying to save family members from the Nazis. (Photo provided by Jewish Museum Milwaukee)
Luzie Hatch’s letters show the desperation and almost helplessness that many Jews felt in trying to save family members from the Nazis. (Photo provided by Jewish Museum Milwaukee)

The name Luzie Hatch may have been lost to history if not for a chance discovery in her small New York City apartment just after her death, days after 9/11. While going through her papers, her attorney discovered a treasure trove of more than 300 letters between Luzie and her family back in Germany as well as her American family in upstate New York. It seems that Luzie served as an intermediary between her European family and her wealthy, American cousin, Arnold Hatch, helping to arrange their eventual passage to America on the cusp of World War II.

The letters were given to the American Jewish Committee and were preserved as the Luzie Hatch Collection. The AJC’s current director of archives, Charlotte Bonelli, spent several years researching Luzie’s life and filling in the blanks where she could. The result is the excellent “Exit Berlin,” in which Luzie’s role in saving her family from Nazi Germany is documented via a cornucopia of letters, many of which were reproduced in the book.

What’s so remarkable about the correspondence is that Luzie made copies of her own letters, enabling the reader to enjoy the full context of the correspondence from both sides.

In addition, the book is quaintly reminiscent of a time when eloquent letter writing was the sole means of communication.

Though not a standard Holocaust memoir, “Exit Berlin” gives the reader an authentic portrayal of the helplessness felt by those who were lucky enough to have escaped Germany, many of whom, such as Luzie, still had family trapped overseas, as well as the desperation expressed by those who knew that they only had limited time before things would irreparably worsen.

Luzie Hecht (later “Hatch”) was born in Germany in 1912. Her father owned a department store called L. S. Mayer. Luzie’s mother died when she was young, and her father remarried, giving her a half-brother, Rolf (Ralph). A 27-year-old Luzie and her cousin, Herta Stein, left for America, just a week after Kristallnacht in November, 1938, sponsored by her German-American cousin, Arnold Hatch, who was a successful business owner based in Albany.

Though Arnold Hatch was generous to Luzie financially, Luzie was staunchly independent and wanted to support herself. Indeed, within a short time of arriving in New York City, she not only learned English but found “temporary” employment with the American Jewish Committee, working on a specific project. Ultimately, that employment lasted until her retirement in 1977.

Luzie’s mere presence in America was like a port in the storm for her family stranded overseas; she was their beacon of hope and a symbol of the American dream. She kept up a constant and frenetic correspondence with her immediate family, who, at one point, ended up escaping to Shanghai, while other distant family members sailed to South America. In addition, an elderly great-aunt, who had a heart condition, died in a concentration camp.

Luzie never took her good fortune for granted and worked tirelessly to plead, cajole, plan and scheme on behalf of her friends and relatives, no matter how distant. At the same time, she had to strike a balance and not push her cousin, Arnold, too much, as he seemed to anger easily. Her intelligence, as well as her ability to soothe ruffled feathers when necessary, shines through in the letters Bonelli selected for publication.

Although her cousin, Arnold, had good intentions, he was not able to come through financially for many distant relatives who reached out to him for help in gaining passage to America. In many instances, Hatch didn’t know where his money would be going and was skeptical of many of the plans and schemes that Luzie proposed to him.

During her research, the author discovered a Pittsburgh connection to the story. Stefan Pauson was a basket weaver from Leipzig who may have met Luzie and her father at a trade show. With Luzie’s intervention, Pauson was able to immigrate to England after the government had been reassured that he had employment lined up.

One of Pauson’s daughters, Eva Emmerich, currently resides in Churchill, having come to America by way of Cincinnati in 1952. Emmerich did not personally know Luzie and was surprised to learn that her father’s letters survived and were part of the collection.

Emmerich grew up in Bamberg, Germany, and managed to escape with her family to England in 1939.

 “We only had permission for a year on the condition that my father would create employment, not take it away,” said Emmerich. But when the war started, “the unemployment problems resolved overnight.”

Her father was interned for a time on the Isle of Man.

“Once they were assured he was not a spy, they let him out. He had no job, no business,” she said. “He had no way of making a living, he had to scrounge around, but eventually, when he did get ways and means of earning money, he took care of my mother and siblings.”

Emmerich lived as a British subject until “her number came up” in 1952, and she was granted permission by the American Embassy to come to the States.

Emmerich, who was interviewed by Bonelli for the book, said that the Hecht/Hatch family described in the book was typical of many families, who were calling upon their overseas relatives to sponsor their passage out of Europe. For Emmerich, aid came from her grandmother’s cousins.

Ultimately, “Exit Berlin” is a triumphant tale. Not all of the letters are reproduced, but, overall, the reader is provided with a fairly comprehensive glimpse into the mindset of a small but representative group of German Jews who were desperate to flee their circumstances and a courageous and faithful woman who stopped at nothing to save her family.

Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at hdaninhirsch@gmail.com.

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