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An original exhibition about overcoming obstacles to immigration opens in New York
The exhibit, one of the first major museum exhibits about the subject matter, includes rarely displayed documents from the United States and Europe. Photo: Courtesy C&G Partners, by Alex Solis.

NEW YORK, NY.- When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 and began to persecute the Jews, they touched off an international refugee crisis that escalated throughout the 1930s. The crisis also launched a debate that would last for decades about whether America, and the American Jewish community, did enough to help the Jews.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Lower Manhattan, which overlooks the nation’s most important symbols of immigration, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, tells the little-known story of American Jews who answered the call for help in the midst of the refugee crisis. Against the Odds: American Jews and the Rescue of Europe’s Refugees, 1933-1941 sheds light on how American Jews used their resources, their ingenuity, and their connections to work within the limits of immigration policy to bring European Jews to the United States.

The exhibit, one of the first major museum exhibits about the subject matter, includes rarely displayed documents from the United States and Europe from personal collections, museums, and federal institutions. The exhibition is on view for a year in the Museum’s Irving Schneider and Family Gallery.

The exhibit, which is designed by C&G Partners, encourages visitors to learn about the experiences of refugees and rescuers, through images, original documents, first-person accounts, and multi-sensory design elements. Dramatic, large-scale projections of period imagery bring the story to life, and interactive presentations enable visitors to engage with the material on a more intimate level, delving into the history. The Museum has launched a companion website,, which includes artifact explorations, curatorial commentary, and a time line of historical events.

Anita Kassof, Deputy Director, said that, “We hope that Against the Odds dispels misconceptions about American Jewish passivity during the Nazi period. It’s true that American immigration law restricted the number of people admitted to the U.S. But within those limits, it was sometimes possible for dedicated and persistent people to bring refugees to safety.” She continued, “Many of the American Jewish rescuers we portray in Against the Odds saved hundreds of people. But each started out by bringing an individual or a single family to America. We hope that their actions serve as inspiration for others: Starting small, individuals can make a big difference.”

The Exhibition
In the 1930s most countries refused to receive large numbers of Jewish refugees. Many Jews hoped to come to the United States, but laws passed by Congress in the 1920s had ended the era of open immigration. The new policy set strict quotas that made no special allowances for refugees. European Jews reached out to relatives, friends, and even strangers in America, whose sponsorship was essential if they hoped to find refuge in the United States.

From William B. Thalhimer Sr., who established a working farm that became a haven for dozens of young German Jews, to Herman Stern, who used personal and political connections to enlist the assistance of influential figures, American Jews had to be resourceful and persistent in order to save those in danger. They and others, such as businessman Adolf Lorch, committed their own funds not only to guarantee that the refugees would not become “public charges” in the United States, but also to help them establish themselves once they arrived. The exhibition also illustrates the experiences of the many members of the extended Lehman family, who helped hundreds of people reach the United States, and examines the efforts of Jacob and David Kestenbaum, who worked with organizations in their Orthodox community to bring hundreds of Jews out of Europe before and after the Holocaust. Although these individuals and others worked tirelessly, their efforts did not always succeed; Against the Odds also tells dramatic stories of failure and of people left behind.

The exhibition begins with an exploration of the existing immigration policy in place in U.S. in the 1920s and the obstacles to immigration at the time. It explores the crippling sanctions imposed on German Jews in the 1930s and the difficult choice they faced of whether to stay or go. In stunning detail, the exhibit lays out what someone who wished to immigrate would need to provide, including detailed personal and financial documentation and affidavits of financial support from citizens or permanent residents of the United States. The exhibit documents what a potential sponsor would need to do to bring over a refugee including signing affidavits of financial support, which was a considerable financial risk, especially during the Depression. Sponsors also often wrote to officials in Washington and to overseas consuls, volunteered in organizations that aided refugees, arranged and paid for transportation, and helped refugees get settled once they arrived. Their relentless determination often meant the difference between a successful and a failed immigration application.

The exhibition also shows how the violence of Kristallnacht in November, 1938 elevated the crisis and turned a steady stream of Jews who wished to emigrate into a stampede. The roles of the consuls and of President Franklin D. Roosevelt are also examined. The rescuers’ efforts are illustrated through several emblematic individuals, families, and organizations who, together, issued many hundreds of affidavits and provided invaluable resources and support to assist refugees and help them build new lives.

Highlights of the Exhibition

Featured objects on display include:

• A display showing the extensive documentation people seeking visas had to provide including multiple copies of the visa application, birth certificates, police dossiers, prison records, federal tax returns, and other government records. This display will illustrate how difficult it was to obtain a visa.

• A 1941 letter from Albert Einstein to Eleanor Roosevelt in which the scientist spoke out against the State Department’s “wall of bureaucratic measures alleged to be necessary to protect America against subversive, dangerous elements.” Einstein himself helped found the organization that would become the International Rescue Committee and wrote hundreds of letters in support of refugees.

• A letter from composer Erich Zeisl’s sponsor, Morris Zeisel, who was no relation to the composer, but a stranger he found in the New York phone book. Morris, a plumber, wrote back to Erich as soon as he heard from him and issued the needed paperwork so that Erich and his wife could come to the country.

• Film producer Carl Laemmle’s 1937 letter to Secretary of State Cordell Hull stating his sympathy for the Jews of Germany. Laemmle came to the U.S. in 1884 from Laupheim, Germany. He devoted much of his time and assets as the founder of Universal Pictures to help family, friends, and strangers from the Laupheim area come to the U.S.

• Seed packets and a home made cinder block from Hyde Farmlands in Virginia, which was established by William B. Thalhimer, Sr. in order to save Jewish refugees. He had hoped to obtain special non-quota agricultural visas that would have allowed him to bring many of the students at the Gross Breesen agricultural school in Germany. However, by the time he received State Department approval for the farm, many had dispersed or had already obtained regular quota visas. Thirty-six refugees arrived and worked on the farm. Also on display is the diary of Eva Loew, who tended to dairy cows on the farm, and photographs that she took of work on the farm.

• Interactive iPad exploration of meticulous records from 1940 kept by Dorothy Bernhard, a member of the extended Lehman family who administered the Mayer Lehman Charity Fund. Bernhard kept track of rescue and resettlement efforts including all phases of sponsorship, travel, and resettlement. She helped newcomers find jobs and arranged stipends for those who hadn’t yet found work. Through the Mayer Lehman Charity Fund, she paid medical and other bills for refugees.

• An autograph book belonging to Lore Moser who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of ten with her parents. Moser and her parents were sponsored by Herman Stern, a businessman from North Dakota, who was a cousin of her mother’s. Lore’s grandfather, Meier Buchheim, who remained in Europe, sent her flowers that she pressed between the pages of her book. Despite the family’s best efforts, her grandfather was unable to leave Europe. He committed suicide in Terezin.

• The identification tag Manfred Rosenthal wore as an unaccompanied minor coming to the U.S. Approximately 1,000 children were able to come to America through the efforts of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations such as the German Jewish Children’s Aid, Brith Sholom, and the American Friends Service Committee.

• A beaded bracelet that Lotte Henlein made as a Girl Scout in North Dakota, where she and her parents joined her uncle, Herman Stern. Stern urged all new young arrivals to join the Scouts, which he felt was the best introduction to American life and values.

Related Installation
The Museum’s award-winning “Voices of Liberty” installation serves as a powerful living history experience for visitors. The sound installation overlooks the Statue of Liberty, and plays iPod recordings of immigrants who recall their journeys to America.

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