L.A.’s German Jews celebrate club’s 75th year

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, one of his principal goals was to rid Germany of its Jews, to make the country Judenrein. German Jews, many of whom had considered themselves more German than Jewish, began to search for secure havens. From 1933 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939 there was a mass immigration of Jews to countries all over the world.

Thousands were able to find sponsors, enabling them to come to the United States, with the vast majority settling in New York. But by 1939 some 2,500 German Jews had relocated to Los Angeles, and by 1941, when the United States entered the war, their number had grown to 6,000, making Los Angeles the second-largest center of German-speaking Jews in America.

They were “often regarded as the most educated and intellectually brilliant wave of immigrants ever to come to the United States,” according to Anne Clara Schenderlein, who has written on the history of German Jewish refugees in Los Angeles.

However, they were not particularly welcome in the City of Angels. Their Jewishness was held against them, which inspired director Gottfried Reinhardt to describe Los Angeles as a “ghetto under Pacific palms.”

As the German Jews made connections with the L.A. Jewish community, two immigrant businessmen, Theo Lowenstein and Lothar Rosenthal, along with dentist Bruno Bernstein, came together to form The German Jewish Club of 1933.

It was “a loosely structured organization whose aim it was to assist in the Americanization of its members and to help them become valuable American citizens,” said Annelise Bunzel, a past club president.

When the Benefactors of The Jewish Club of 1933, Inc. gather at Sinai Temple on June 1 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of their organization, the club will honor Randol Schoenberg for recently reclaiming a collection of Klimt and other famous works of art from Austria, while President Ray Prinz will present a check for $20,000 to the Jewish Home for the Aging as well as $5,000 to the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. TV personality Monty Hall will serve as emcee, and Prinz said “Gemuetlichkeit will be the watchword at the luncheon,” using a German word that has no direct translation, but can best be described as cozy.

The club, which initially met at the Hamburger Home for Jewish Girls, helped arriving refugees find a place to live, study English and learn “the American way.” For 20 cents a month, members were able to join exercise groups, play tennis, go on hikes and attend lectures.

Finding work was especially difficult since America was still in the depths of the Great Depression and most of the German Jewish immigrants lacked adequate English skills. Those who were able to find work typically held menial jobs. Wolfgang Blech, who owned a large manufacturing firm in Germany, worked as a porter, cleaning toilets and pushing a broom.

Women were able to find work, provided they were prepared to take on jobs as domestics or seamstresses. Berlin-born Eva Hirsh, a retired physical therapist and the current treasurer of the club, is the daughter of Paul Hirsch, the prime minister of Prussia in the Weimar Republic from 1918 to 1920. She came to Los Angeles after having first immigrated to South Africa, where she worked as a nanny.

With the help of the greater Jewish community, the group established a clubhouse at 1126 S. Grandview Ave. that it rented until the 1940s. New arrivals paid $7 a week to live in the large California-style home, which provided limited sleeping accommodations.

As more immigrants arrived from Europe, the club also attracted German-speaking Jewish immigrants from such countries as Austria, Hungary and Switzerland.

Former theater producer Leopold Jessner, who served as the organization’s president, founded a cultural events program in collaboration with the European Film Fund, a Hollywood group that aided refugees. The club’s Cultural Committee scheduled Tuesday night meetings, with programs ranging from lectures by such noted German émigrés as author Thomas Mann and piano recitals by Andre Previn. Current events discussions were held, and other talks included familiarizing housewives with the varieties of fruits and vegetables available to them in their new California surroundings.

Several of the club’s leaders filed a petition for a charter with the state of California in December 1938 and changed the club’s name to The Jewish Club of 1933 after connection with anything German became undesirable. By 1939, the club had some 1,600 members and annual dues were $1.20 for individuals and $1.80 for families.

After the United States entered the war, German Jewish immigrants faced new hurdles, including registration under the Smith Act, which featured curfews and travel restrictions as well as the threat of forcible eviction from homes in the vicinity of defense plants or military establishments. Due in large part to the 1933 Club’s lobbying efforts, these restrictions were lifted in October 1942 and members were free to join in the war effort.

The 1933 Club’s members were enthusiastic boosters of war bond and blood drives, and many joined the Civilian Defense Corps. About 170 of the younger men also served in the armed forces. Among these was Ray Prinz, a native of Danzig and the club’s current president, as well as Kurt Herrmann, from Nordhausen, who will be 90 in August and has been secretary of the club for 52 years. “For me, it’s a mitzvah to help,” he said.

Once club members began to assimilate and prosper after the war, they followed other Jews into West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. In 1980 the club took on a philanthropic mission, changing its name once again to The Benefactors of The Jewish Club of 1933.

A bulk of the club’s financial support has gone to the Jewish Home for the Aging, and according to Hirsh its donations have totaled $20 million.

Although the club’s numbers have dwindled with the passage of time, its 300 members continue to enjoy programs, including an annual membership brunch at the Jewish Home for the Aging, a midsummer garden kaffeeklatsch traditionally hosted by the consul-general of Germany and held at his residence in Hancock Park, as well as a festive pre-Thanksgiving luncheon. And each year, the club takes part in a special Yom HaShoah service of remembrance at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

For more information about the Benefactors or to attend the 75th anniversary at Sinai Temple on June 1, call (818) 774-3337.