On My Mind: Luzie's secret

Cleaning out the dwelling of a deceased person often may uncover surprising items: in Luzie’s apartment the estate executor found over 300 letters.

Letters 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Letters 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Luzie Hatch had a secret. It was hidden in her Forest Hills apartment where she lived alone. From there she commuted to a job in midtown Manhattan, and during breaks at work or when home she wrote letters. She corresponded with relatives left in Germany when she boarded a ship barely a week after Kristallnacht in late 1938 to flee to the United States.
An American cousin had helped Luzie get the US. Once in New York she had to adapt quickly to a new country, find a place to live and get a job. She also set about doing everything she could to save her parents, brother and cousins from the Nazis. It was an audacious move for a single, 27-year-old woman, but Luzie was resolute.
In an age of 140-character tweets, it is not easy to appreciate the act of writing letters. Yet, in the 1930s, when Luzie set out to save her family detailed correspondence was the main communication tool. It took time to write and patience to await a reply, even more so with international correspondence. A letter could take two weeks to get from New York to Europe, and it could take another two weeks for the response to arrive. Nevertheless, Luzie maintained a calm tone in her letters, that gave little indication of her anxiety over the fate of loved ones.
Constantly appealing to her cousin Arnold in Albany, New York, was challenging. He was very cautious about taking chances, mindful of the lingering impact of the Depression on his business and the American economy, and skeptical about some of the reports coming from Europe. Even so, he helped his relatives as much as he could.
“There is absolutely no hope of any future for people of our faith marooned in that dismal war-torn country and equally no hope of getting out of it,” Arnold writes to Luzie, objecting to her parents’ decision to go to Shanghai. Nonetheless, in a further exchange of letters Luzie persuades Arnold that staying in Germany is not an option and he provides financial assistance for their entry to Shanghai and later to bring them to New York.
Only after Luzie’s death in September 2001 was the secret revealed, and that was purely by chance.
Cleaning out the dwelling of a deceased person often may uncover surprising items: in Luzie’s apartment the estate executor found over 300 letters.
“It is extremely rare to have matching correspondence in that era,” says Charlotte Bonelli, director of AJC Archives, who visited the apartment after the estate executor called her because he discovered that Luzie had worked at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) from 1939 until her retirement in 1977.
Bonelli recognized the magnitude of the find. Not only had Luzie meticulously kept copies of all the letters sent, but she also filed them together with written responses from her relatives in Germany, Shanghai, Vichy France, Bolivia, England and Canada.
Bonelli selected about a third of the letters to form the core of her new book, Exit Berlin: How One Woman Saved Her Family from Nazi Germany. Released this week in conjunction with Holocaust Remembrance Day, the book presents a rare glimpse into the thinking and actions of one American Jewish family as many of its members were caught in Europe during the Holocaust.
However, Bonelli was not satisfied that the letters by themselves could tell the story of rescue. She found and interviewed Luzie’s surviving relatives and friends in Germany and the US, and added historical documentation. Exit Berlin is an insightful and engaging narrative.
“Many do not want to discuss that period,” says Bonelli, which may explain why Luzie did not speak during her lifetime about her own efforts to leverage her situation from the safety of New York and save her family. Her story survived in the letters that only she knew existed.
Luzie herself confronted confusing and frustrating moments in her new homeland, as she encountered an America apparently ignorant of or indifferent to what was happening in Nazi Germany. One evening in 1939 she stood in the back of a New York hotel ballroom watching an organization’s festive gala, and wondered if anyone was aware of the horrors taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.
On the other hand, she sometimes indulged in a surreal optimism. “I don’t know if you have already heard that the World’s Fair is currently taking place in New York,” Luzie writes in June 1939 to a cousin still in Germany. “In the evenings, when it is all illuminated, you feel like you are in a fairy-tale paradise.”
Much has been written about the Holocaust era and no doubt more angles will be explored in the future to understand that tragic period.
Exit Berlin, published by Yale University Press, is an inspiring, engaging, true story, told through that traditional form of communication, letter-writing.
The author is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.