One man’s crusade to prove Hollywood mogul Carl Laemmle was a hero

December 10, 2013

Sandy Einstein is not an easy man to deter.

I first encountered him in August 2012, when he contacted the Journal about a little-known and heart-warming story concerning movie mogul Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios. Einstein claimed that not only had Laemmle saved his father, Hermann, from certain death in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, he also believed Laemmle had saved hundreds of other Jews as well, issuing affidavits to the U.S. government guaranteeing their passage to and place in America.

The notion of a “Laemmle’s List” is an inspiring tale. And Einstein furnished rigorous documentation trying to prove it. But ultimately, verifying the existence of hundreds of affidavits that, if extant, are probably residing on a dusty shelf in some national archive, proved difficult to fact check. But that challenge notwithstanding, Einstein has an unflinching belief in this mysterious tale, and has tried very, very hard to make it public. His crusade to expose Laemmle’s humanitarian side has met with both disbelief and disinterest, and he has been uniformly rejected by almost every major media publication in the United States. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, at least gave Einstein’s pitch a look before having his assistant send a rejection letter admiring its “merit and intrigue.” 

But, as I said, the man is indefatigable. And timing turned out to be on his side: This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Laemmle theater chain’s presence in Los Angeles and a big celebration is on tap for locals, with the attendant gala benefit and commemorative book. While the studio Laemmles are related but not the same as the theater chain Laemmles, the prevalence of the family name gives good reason to delve into its enigmatic past. 

So let’s start with what we know: A few years ago, the now 68-year-old Einstein was suddenly sparked to research his roots. “I don’t know what motivated me to do it,” he said in his rapid-fire spray of speech during a phone interview. “I guess you could say I was curious and probably also bored.”

Einstein is a semi-retired resident of the San Francisco Bay Area who honed his hucksterism managing promotion and publicity for rock bands, including the beloved ’70s band Journey. He was rummaging through an old box his mother left him when she died three decades earlier, when he happened upon a stack of his father’s letters, all scrawled in German and dated in the 1920s and ’30s. 

Once they were translated, one letter from his father stood out. It was addressed to the famous Carl Laemmle and revealed that after some deliberation, Hermann had decided to “go to California” with Laemmle and start a new life. Hermann Einstein and Laemmle had first met almost a decade earlier, when Laemmle went to visit his native Laupheim, where Hermann was a cantor and Hebrew teacher. Based on the correspondence in Einstein’s possession, it appears they took a liking to each other and stayed in touch. “I want to again give you the assurance that I will use all the power of my person to repay my gratitude over there in my new home,” Hermann wrote in July 1937. “You should not ever in your life be disappointed in me.” 

Carl Laemmle

Eight months later, Hermann Einstein boarded the S.S. Champlain to New York as Laemmle’s guest, and, according to an immigration record found through Ancestry.com, had planned to spend the next several months living at Laemmle’s Beverly Hills home in Benedict Canyon. 

As Einstein continued to research this surprising connection, he came across a 1998 paper titled “Laemmle’s List,” written by the German educator and researcher Udo Bayer for the Australian journal Film History. Under the subhead “Carl Laemmle’s affidavits for Jewish refugees,” Bayer acknowledges its inconclusivity: Aside from a verbal mention of the affidavits by a former chief executive of the Jewish Oberrat (supreme council) in Stuttgart, Germany, there exist only 45 pieces of correspondence between Laemmle and State Department officials implicating the mogul’s mission to save Jews. Bayer admits that most of the correspondence is missing — “fragmentary” at best — and that most of the affidavits have never been found. 

Einstein eventually made contact with Bayer, who lives in Laupheim and presides over a high school/junior college named for Laemmle, who attended its sister school from 1878 to 1880. Bayer has become the mogul’s unofficial biographer and sent Einstein a copy of Laemmle’s 1939 obituary from the entertainment trade publication Variety, which mentioned that Hermann Einstein was a pallbearer at Laemmle’s funeral. He was described as a “refugee [Laemmle] brought here from his native Laupheim.”

Despite its “merit and intrigue,” Einstein himself wasn’t much interested in this story while growing up. “Like many Germans, my father did not talk a lot about his past,” Einstein said, “and, to be honest, I didn’t really care. But now that my father is deceased and I’ve done all this research, I really wish I would have talked to him more.” 

Einstein’s regret seems to have fueled his mission to make all this public. “I wasn’t a very good son,” he said, explaining that while growing up, he was one of a handful of Jews in Orange County and wanted to distance himself from his father’s Judaism. “I wanted to assimilate,” he said wistfully.

As a child, Einstein never knew the depth of his father’s relationship to Carl Laemmle, but he does recall periodic meetings with members of Laemmle’s family, especially Laemmle’s daughter, Rosabelle, and her daughter Carol Bergerman. “They lived in this really beautiful place in Beverly Hills,” Einstein recalled. “I was only 5 or 6, but I remember sitting in this beautiful kitchen, looking at a nice backyard. They gave my father a lot of clothing.” 

Einstein’s wish to repay a debt has not been tempered by the lack of media enthusiasm. Pitches to the Atlantic, Harper’s, New York Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and the New Republic have all failed to fructify, save for a brief mention of Laemmle in the online Jewish magazine Tablet.

But Einstein hasn’t given up. Several months ago, when the Harvard historian Ben Urwand published a controversial book about Hollywood’s business relationship with Nazi Germany titled “The Collaboration,” Einstein took Urwand to task wherever Laemmle was concerned. Acting as Laemmle’s self-appointed defender, Einstein managed to persuade The Los Angeles Review of Books to amend a sentence falsely implicating Laemmle’s “capitulation” to the Nazis.

The whole thing has become a kind of cause. Last October, he traveled to Laupheim to meet with Bayer and tour the town where Laemmle and his father met. And he persuaded author Neal Gabler, whose book “An Empire of Their Own” has become the bible on Jewish Hollywood, to pen an article for publication. But even the accomplished Gabler hasn’t had much success. After both Newsweek and the Smithsonian turned him down, he wrote to Einstein that he was bewildered. “This is a tough sell,” Gabler wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t understand it myself.”

Is it because these publications doubt the legitimacy of Einstein’s claims? Or because another Schindler’s List-type tale isn’t sensational enough for modern media? Since May 2013, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York has been featuring the exhibition “Against the Odds: American Jews and the Rescue of Europe’s Refugees, 1933-1941,” offering detailed stories of American Jews who offered help to the imperiled Jews of Europe. Laemmle is among them. According to museum curator Bonnie Gurewitsch, when the Stuttgart consul stopped accepting Laemmle’s affidavits, Laemmle turned to family, friends and associates to provide even more. 

Is Carl Laemmle an unsung hero of the Holocaust? At the very least, he is the reason Sandy Einstein lives today. And as Judaism famously teaches, if you save one life, you save a world.

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