Exit Berlin: How One Woman Saved Her Family from Nazi Germany

Exit Berlin: How One Woman Saved Her Family from Nazi Germany

5.0 1
by Charlotte R. Bonelli

View All Available Formats & Editions

The agonizing correspondence between Jewish family members ensnared in the Nazi grip and their American relatives

Just a week after the Kristallnacht terror in 1938, young Luzie Hatch, a German Jew, fled Berlin to resettle in New York. Her rescuer was an American-born cousin and industrialist, Arnold Hatch. Arnold spoke no German, so Luzie quickly became


The agonizing correspondence between Jewish family members ensnared in the Nazi grip and their American relatives

Just a week after the Kristallnacht terror in 1938, young Luzie Hatch, a German Jew, fled Berlin to resettle in New York. Her rescuer was an American-born cousin and industrialist, Arnold Hatch. Arnold spoke no German, so Luzie quickly became translator, intermediary, and advocate for family left behind. Soon an unending stream of desperate requests from German relatives made their way to Arnold’s desk.
Luzie Hatch had faithfully preserved her letters both to and from far-flung relatives during the World War II era as well as copies of letters written on their behalf. This extraordinary collection, now housed at the American Jewish Committee Archives, serves as the framework for Exit Berlin. Charlotte R. Bonelli offers a vantage point rich with historical context, from biographical information about the correspondents to background on U.S. immigration laws, conditions at the Vichy internment camps, refuge in Shanghai, and many other topics, thus transforming the letters into a riveting narrative.
Arnold’s letters reveal an unfamiliar side of Holocaust history. His are the responses of an “average” American Jew, struggling to keep his own business afloat while also assisting dozens of relatives trapped abroad—most of whom he had never met and whose deathly situation he could not fully comprehend. This book contributes importantly to historical understanding while also uncovering the dramatic story of one besieged family confronting unimaginable evil.

Editorial Reviews

W. Michael Blumenthal

“Millions perished in the Holocaust, and for those few who managed to find refuge in a world of closed doors, it took relentless effort and persistence in the face of great peril and untold frustrations. Charlotte Bonelli’s collection of correspondence, Exit Berlin, tells a moving story and is an important historical record of one family’s struggles to escape. I recommend it highly as a unique account of dedication and steadfastness against big odds in a trying time.”—W. Michael Blumenthal, Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Director of the Jewish Museum Berlin
Michael Berenbaum

Exit Berlin is a powerful and important work that sheds significant light on what one person with determination and imagination could—and could not do—to save those she loved during the critical period of 1933–42.”—Michael Berenbaum, Professor of Jewish Studies, American Jewish University
Michael R. Marrus

“For a generation steeped in email, this heartrending collection of letters takes us to a more intimately communicative era—in which Jews, trapped in the nightmare of Hitler’s persecution, pleaded for help to escape to their cousins in America; and in which the latter tried desperately, generously, to respond.  These letters, personalizing one family’s ordeal, eloquently relay a tale of both horrendous abuse and life-threatening bureaucratic barriers.”—Michael R. Marrus, Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies, University of Toronto and the author of The Holocaust in History.
Jonathan Kirsch

“Always illuminating, full of moral tension and high drama, the letters that Luzie Hatch exchanged with her relations amount to an eyewitness account that allows us to penetrate the myths and statistics that sometimes obscure the hard facts of the Holocaust. Charlotte Bonelli, who assembled, selected and annotated the correspondence, has made an important contribution to both history and literature.”—Jonathan Kirsch, author of The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan
Library Journal
Bonelli (director, Archives of the American Jewish Committee) has gathered and edited a collection of the letters to and from scattered members of Luzie Hatch's Jewish family in the years leading up to the Holocaust. Significantly, the missives address the often insurmountable obstacles faced by people trying to emigrate and explore the complexities of emotion and circumstance from the perspective of both rescuer (the American-born Hatch side of the family) and potential victim (the many relatives scattered across Europe and abroad seeking asylum in the United States). Bonelli has annotated the letters and added context through oral history interviews with living relatives and friends of the family. She also adds personal context via her professional affiliation with Luzie, who fled Berlin in 1938 to resettle in New York, and who worked with the American Jewish Committee throughout her career. The material is reminiscent of Every Day Lasts A Year: A Jewish Family's Correspondence from Poland, edited by Christopher Browing, but Bonelli's presentation stands out as it delivers both sides of the family's correspondence. VERDICT The translated and edited letters in the volume are easy to read, and Bonelli's annotations add new information about the experience of would-be immigrants to the United States. Professional and lay historians alike will find value in this work.—Felicia J. Williamson, Sam Houston State Univ. Lib., Huntsville, TX
Kirkus Reviews
In her debut work of history, Bonelli uses a trove of letters to investigate the flight of Jews from Nazi Germany.Very few German Jews were able to escape to America during the 1930s. The reasons for this included their own initial denial about the severity of their situation, indifference from the assimilated German-Jewish-American community, and, above all, the United States government's highly restrictive immigration policy. One of the lucky few to get out was Luzie Hatch (originally "Hecht"), a young professional woman from Berlin who was able to make the journey in 1938 with the support of her successful, American-born cousin, Arnold. She settled in New York City and soon began a lifelong career with the American Jewish Committee. During the fraught years between 1938 and 1941, she maintained an active correspondence with a wide network of relatives and friends. Her immediate family fled to the open port of Shanghai, while much of her extended family immigrated to Palestine. Still others fled as far afield as England, Canada and throughout South America, but some never escaped and perished in the Holocaust. Luzie not only carefully saved all their incoming correspondence, but also saved copies of her outgoing letters. This archive forms the backbone of Bonelli's book, and in addition to providing selections of Luzie's English-language letters and translations (by Natascha Bodemann) of her German ones, she provides commentary that contextualizes them in the broader social and political situations of the time. There are a few moments where Bonelli overeditorializes, as when she speculates on Luzie's state of mind, but she generally delivers detailed, well-researched and illuminating information. The book provides a rigorous look at the complexities, obstacles, frustrations and tragedies of the German-Jewish refugee situation in the '30s, but just as importantly, it offers a personal, empathetic connection to people who might otherwise just be statistics in history books. For this reason, it has as much to teach readers about today's world, which is filled with war and displacement, as it does about the world of the 1930s.An intimate, engaging examination of the plight of German Jewish refugees.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.30(w) x 5.80(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt


How One Woman Saved Her Family from Nazi Germany

By Charlotte R. Bonelli, Natascha Bodemann


Copyright © 2014 American Jewish Committee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19752-5


Berlin Beginnings

It is ironic that Luzie Hatch came to this country, and left the world, on the heels of an evil wind. She fled Nazi Germany in 1938, one week after the Kristallnacht pogroms had torn through the Jewish community leaving 267 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish businesses burned to the ground or destroyed. Ninety-one Jews were murdered and nearly thirty thousand Jewish men were incarcerated. In her letters, Luzie referred to Kristallnacht as "the terrible days."

She died on September 16, 2001, just days after the 9/11 attacks, when terrorists had transformed an ordinary means of transportation, passenger planes, into weapons, killing thousands. On occasion, Luzie had taken visitors to see those two great World Trade Center Towers stretching skyward. In fact, in this book there is a photo of Luzie and her friends standing before the Towers. But after the attack there was just a gaping crater spewing an acrid smell that lingered for months. These events, Kristallnacht and September 11, were the bookends of her life in America.

When she sailed into the New York Harbor in November 1938, she thought she had left evil behind her. Luzie was young, only twenty-seven, but she was far from young when she passed away on September 16, 2001, at the age of eighty-nine. She had no children, and her estate executor, attorney Stephen Solomon, made the frequent visits to her bedside as her days diminished. They had known each other for decades.

Following Luzie's death, the task of dealing with her personal belongings fell to an associate of Stephen Solomon's, the attorney Roger Blane. While at her studio apartment, inventorying items to be sent to a Connecticut auction house—the usual possessions, furniture, books, and bric-a-brac—he stumbled on a collection of more than three hundred World War II era letters written by Luzie, her family members, her friends, and Berlin business colleagues. He insisted that I examine the collection.

Luzie Hatch, who had worked as an administrative assistant in a number of departments at the American Jewish Committee, retired long before I came to the AJC Archives, so I knew very little about her except for one important fact. She had spent a lifetime at AJC. How could I, the director of the archives, refuse to at least look at her letters? And so, on a brutally hot summer day, out of respect for her memory, I took the subway to Luzie's studio apartment in Forest Hills, New York.

Entering the apartment, I was immediately struck by the fact that it was "bursting" at the seams. How could it be otherwise? Luzie had lived in this studio apartment for sixty-one years. Every inch of the apartment was full. The bookshelves were packed so tightly that some books appeared to be popping out of the shelves. And she had put more than books on the shelves; they were amply dotted with tchotchkes: figurines of animals, children, and ceramic flowers.

It seemed as though Luzie Hatch had saved everything. There were maps and travel brochures from across the country, theater programs from decades ago, dozens of old medical and utility bills, and a 1975 Macy's department store receipt documenting the return of a sofa. The file cabinet drawers were so full and heavy that they seemed to resist my efforts when I first tried to pull them open.

The black and battered binder containing her years of correspondence was also tightly packed. Letters that had yellowed and grown brittle over the years protruded out beyond the binder's edge. They had probably been tucked away for decades before being pulled out of the cabinet drawer.

I had been skeptical of Roger Blane's enthusiasm for the letters. But that changed as I turned the pages and saw that Luzie had not only saved incoming letters but frequently made a copy of her outgoing letters. I realized I was holding a rare collection of matching correspondence. Turning to Roger, I told him that the AJC Archives would accept the collection. Pleased with my response, he left me to read the letters. In an effort to stave off the suffocating August heat, I tugged at the cord of the kitchen ceiling fan and was drawn into the Hatch family story.

"You can't imagine how this city devours you. You really barely have a moment to yourself. The distances in Berlin are not at all comparable to the ones here—and then we all have our heads too full and also have so much disappointing and sad correspondence to write that everything else takes a back seat." This was one of the first letters Luzie sent back to Germany after her arrival here in November 1938.

And there had been much correspondence to write. Week after week there were letters from her parents, aunts Paula Steinberg and Martha Marchand, cousins Alfons Isack and Dora Hecht, work colleagues, and others. But before introducing these relatives and friends, there is Luzie's immediate family, the Hechts of Berlin.

In many ways, the Hechts typified German Jewry. Like most German Jews, they made their home in an urban center. Luzie, her father, Edwin, stepmother, Helene, and half-brother Rolf, were part of the one-third of German Jewry who resided in Berlin.

By chance, when visiting the city, I had booked a room in a district adjacent to the Hechts' Wilmersdorf neighborhood of West Berlin. Filled with the excitement of a first-time visitor, I had darted in and out of my modest pension a number of times before noticing a plaque indicating the building had been home to ORT's Berlin headquarters from 1937 to 1939. Had Luzie and her family been among the hundreds of German Jews who had come to the ORT office desperate for a vocational training course that would provide them with a marketable skill in a new land? Perhaps, for my hotel was a short ten-minute walk to the Hecht residence.

While not wealthy, the Hechts were solidly middle class, if not upper middle class. Luzie's father had taken the typical career path for a German Jew. More than 50 percent of German Jews were employed in business or commerce, and so was Edwin Hecht. He worked as a merchandise manager at H. Joseph Company, a Jewish-owned department store. Like her father, Luzie also entered the business world. In January 1933, at age twenty-one, she secured a position as an assistant to a top executive at the prestigious firm of L. S. Mayer. At its founding in 1822, the company dealt in dry goods. By 1933, when Luzie joined the firm, its line had expanded and included leather goods, jewelry, and finery. With offices in Berlin, Frankfurt, Pforzheim, Paris, and New York, and with strong connections to L. S. Mayer Ltd. in London, the company sold its products to department stores, specialty stores, and wholesalers in North America, Europe, and the British colonies.

Henry Rodwell, a former employee of L. S. Mayer Ltd., recalls that the company was "a very well-considered and good employer in Germany and every Jewish father wanted his son to become an apprentice, if you like, with L. S. Mayer." Edwin Hecht was probably delighted with his daughter's success. There is no doubt that the work suited Luzie's personality. She loved communicating with various customers, vendors, and offices in different parts of the world. When penning her reference letter an executive noted that "she was especially qualified to meet German and foreign customers hereby making use of her knowledge of the English and French languages."

Working at L. S. Mayer, Luzie was able to peek at the new trends in leather goods and jewelry before these items filled shop counters and windows in Berlin, Paris, and London. At times, Luzie did more than just assess the new merchandise. A former colleague wrote teasing her with a reminder of how Luzie used to take the new items and put on a little fashion show in the office. So her employment at L. S. Mayer was more than a paycheck, it was a passion.

Life at 12 Zähringerstasse, the Hecht residence, was typical for the time. Luzie's stepmother, Helene, was a housewife, busy with all the normal household chores and the task of watching over her very lively nine-year-old son, Ralph.

The family was not deeply religious. They did not eat only kosher meat, keep separate dishes for meat and dairy, or strictly observe the Sabbath. But neither were the Hechts totally cut off from their religious roots, and this was in large part due to Helene. "My mother was not a fanatic," recalls Ralph, "but she did have an identification."

Although it was only on occasion that Helene walked to the neighborhood synagogue for Shabbat services, she made sure that the major Jewish holidays were always observed at the Hecht household.

"Highly assimilated" is the term often used to describe German Jews. Yet perhaps it is more accurate to speak of the Hechts as "highly acculturated." They did choose to live in Wilmersdorf, after all, a neighborhood with a significant Jewish presence; and their friends, as well as a large number of their coworkers, were mainly Jews.

Although Luzie lived in the same Wilmersdorf building as her father, stepmother, and brother, by the time she left Berlin in 1938, she had moved out and was renting a room from another family in the building. She was, of course, old enough to be independent, and her relationship with her stepmother, Helene, was rather strained. Johanna Hecht, Luzie's mother, had died when she was a child. Her father remarried when she was nine, an age where a warm relationship between child and stepparent might have been forged. But no such bond ever developed between Luzie and her stepmother. Ralph asserts that Luzie had always worshipped her mother and resented Helene's entrance into the family. He also recalls that when Luzie lay in hospice there was a large photo of her mother, along with a smaller one of her father, at the bedside.

This is the basic outline of Luzie's family, the Hechts of Berlin. And the picture that emerges is of a family that was quite representative of Germany Jewry in terms of professions, home life, residence, and high degree of acculturation. They were certainly, in the 1920s and up to the rise of Hitler, quite at home in Germany.

After the war, after knowledge of the death camps was public, the horrifying photos printed, the individual nightmares told, people wondered, almost in disbelief, why German Jews hadn't recognized Hitler's threat from the start. Why didn't they leave earlier? How could they have stayed? Didn't they see what was happening?

When I broached this topic with Luzie's brother, Ralph, he leaned forward and bellowed, "Who could have thought they would put people in ovens? Who would have thought such a thing? My parents had been born there; my grandparents had been born there. My father fought in the German Army in World War I. And who the hell wants to leave their homeland?" Ralph had answered my questions with force and sincerity, and no one can argue with the merit of his response. Yet there were additional reasons why so many were slow to recognize the Nazi danger.

When German president Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, there had been no great panic among German Jews. They did not rush to foreign consulates for visas, start contacting relatives abroad, or make plans to sell their homes and businesses. Many believed that the responsibility of actually governing rather than simply rabble-rousing and performing at rallies, the presence of conservatives in the new government, and pressures from the outside world would somehow curb Nazi excesses.

In fairness to German Jews, this assessment of Hitler's chancellorship was not limited to their community. With only two Nazis in Hitler's cabinet, it seemed reasonable to assume that his sphere of influence would be circumscribed. The makeup of the cabinet shows that Herr Hitler "had to accept significant restrictions." This was the opinion of the internationally well-known and liberal German newspaper, the Frankfurter Zeitung. Here in the United States The New York Times agreed: "The composition of the Cabinet leaves Herr Hitler no scope for the gratification of his dictatorial ambitions."

Early on, this was how many assessed Hitler's future, but Luzie's father, Edwin, was decidedly not part of this majority. While so many around the Hecht family attempted to maintain what they thought was a sense of reason, not to fall victim to fear, Edwin Hecht, from the very outset, recognized the impending Nazi threat.

Hitler's ascent to power coincided with a sharp career reversal for Edwin Hecht, probably the first one of his life. It was at this time that a letter arrived at the Hecht household from the Karstatt Department Stores, Edwin's future employer, stating that due to "political circumstances" they were withdrawing their offer of a high-level executive position. The timing could not have been worse; he had already resigned from his position at a Jewish-owned Berlin department store. With no warning and through no fault of his own, he was suddenly out of work.

Yet Edwin Hecht was able to overcome this setback. He had a good personality, connections within the retail world, was well liked, and had wit, a mix of traits that allowed him to become self-employed, working as a sales representative for various German leather goods firms.

Every morning, he loaded his Opel with the sample merchandise that now filled the household, giving it the feel of a warehouse, and set off for sales visits to stores in Berlin and the outlying areas. The loss of his position with the Karstatt Department Stores was unfortunate and unnerving, yet it did not ruin the family's wellbeing. Still, as Ralph would say, perhaps it was this experience which gave his father a "jolt, and made him see the handwriting on the wall from the very beginning."

In 1933, out of the total Jewish population of 525,000, roughly 37,000 Jews left Germany. Despite the strong reluctance of his wife, Helene, Edwin Hecht had wanted to be part of this initial emigration. With a mind of his own, it mattered little to him that his family and friends were not making plans to emigrate. But to leave their homeland, the Hechts would need to reconnect with Nathan Hatch, Luzie's great uncle, who had left Germany more than sixty years ago and lived more than four thousand miles away in Albany, New York.


From Hecht to Hatch

American Relations

According to family lore, Neuhaus, Bavaria, was simply too confining for Nathan Hecht. At the age of sixteen, he set sail for America on the Westphalia, arriving in New York City in June 1873. He had chosen a nation that was moving forward rapidly, expanding in all sectors: urban centers, agriculture, industry, and transportation. For someone who was unafraid of hard work and willing to take risks, with a creative spark and the blessing of good luck, opportunities were plentiful.

Little is known of Nathan's very early time in the United States. According to his obituary in the Cohoes American, he spent a short time in Schoharie County, near Albany, before settling in the state capital in 1878. The choice was a natural one, for Albany had a significant German Jewish population. Here he would find camaraderie with his compatriots, the advice of those already settled, and the possibility of finding a business partner. According to the Albany City Archives, in 1885, Nathan was working as a salesman at S. M. Valkenburgh and Company, a wholesale hosiery, furnishing goods, and notions establishment. One year later, according to the marriage records of Temple Beth Emeth, Albany's prominent German Reform congregation, Nathan, now twenty-four years old, married his employer's daughter, Ida Rose Valkenburgh. Although of German descent, Ida was not an immigrant but an Albany native. By the time of his marriage, Nathan had already anglicized his last name, changing it from Hecht to Hatch.

Eight years later, Nathan's sister Ida would also become part of the Valkenburgh family, marrying his brother-in-law, Adolphus Valkenburgh. Both marriages likely carried financial and social benefits for the young immigrants.

In 1892, Nathan began what would be a very profitable partnership with David Fuld. The two entrepreneurs started manufacturing knit goods in Albany. Within fifteen years, the Albany location could no longer accommodate the growing demand for their products, and a plant was erected in the nearby bustling industrial center of Cohoes, New York. Eventually, the entire business would be consolidated in Cohoes.

Their success continued. In 1914, Fuld and Hatch Knitting patented its one-button union suit. Full-page magazine advertisements touted the men's underwear as the top of the line: "It has only one button—one master button conveniently placed at the chest. It does the work of a whole useless row. No buttons to break or fall off, no buttonholes to get torn." Independent stores throughout the nation, along with two of the country's top retailers, Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, carried the Fuld and Hatch one-button suit.


Excerpted from EXIT BERLIN by Charlotte R. Bonelli, Natascha Bodemann. Copyright © 2014 American Jewish Committee. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Charlotte R. Bonelli is Director of the Archives of the American Jewish Committee, where the Luzie Hatch letter collection is preserved. She lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Exit Berlin: How One Woman Saved Her Family from Nazi Germany 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We have all heard stories and read novels about the attempts of Americans, or lack thereof, to save the people from German oppression. However, this is an account of a family with the primary sources of letters that tell the story. Copies of Luzie's letters were preserved by her for whatever reason, and it is unfortunate that long after her death these letters and those of the people she corresponded with have been found. Good for Ms. Bonelli bringing them to the public, and doing so in a manner that is easy to understand and follow. This is an important book for all to read so these horrors are not forgotten. Hopefully we do not need to learn from this, for a holocaust should not occur again.