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Liberty’s Decades 1930-1940: The Germans, Fleeing the Holocaust, Weep for Statue

June 21, 1986

″To this day, all I have to do is just think of her and I cry.″

- Marga Blumenthal, who first saw the Statue of Liberty in 1938 from the deck of a ship bringing Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to the United States.


NEW YORK (AP) _ In her first years in America, 18-year-old Marga Stern would take a nickel from her housekeeping wages, hurry down to the tip of Manhattan and board the Staten Island Ferry every Thursday afternoon.

″To see the Statue,″ she explained. ″I didn’t even get off the ferry. I just wanted to see the Statue of Liberty again.

″I guess I looked at her as my mother.″

The first time she saw the statue was at dusk on Aug. 5, 1938, when she stood with other Jewish refugees on the crowded deck of the ship Deutschland as it entered New York Harbor.

Filled with hope and gratitude, Marga wept at the wonderful sight, and for months - every Thursday afternoon - she would again gaze at the statue with tear-filled eyes, thinking of the mother she left behind in Germany.

″My mother sent me a card saying, ‘We’re going away,’ and I knew. I knew what that meant.″ A concentration camp. She never saw her parents again.

Life was hard but good to Marga Stern in the United States. She landed a job as a waitress at the Deluxe Diner in Paterson, N.J., earning $30 a month plus tips as she served 15-cent tuna sandwiches. She married the counterman, Paul Blumenthal, and raised two daughters.

Marga and Paul were lucky. By the time they arrived in America in the 1930s, the exalted ″open door″ was nearly closed, shutting out thousands of modern history’s most desperate emigres.

The decade before, Congress had placed the first ceilings on the number of immigrants. These quotas, coupled with the bleak Depression economy, slowed the tide to a trickle by the 1930s, when immigration hit a 100-year low.

Of the 699,375 foreigners allowed to immigrate in 1930-1939, about 17 percent - 119,107 - were German. An estimated 80 percent of those were Jewish.

For those who made it, America offered a certain familiarity. Centuries of German immigrants had already made a significant impact on American culture, tradition and history.

German immigrants, the first to publicly oppose slavery, suffered heavy casualties fighting the Civil War. They introduced America to the Christmas tree and many beloved carols. They gave us frankfurters, beer and Levi jeans.

Unlike the refugees who fled Hitler’s Third Reich, early German settlers were lured by the promise of land, gold and religious freedom. They drifted away from urban areas, with large numbers going to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

As a new state, Wisconsin had eagerly recruited pioneers, sending brochures to Germany extolling its opportunities. Letters from the first immigrants were also enticing.

Milwaukee became their metropolis, a German cultural mecca often referred to as the German Athens. In 1850, just four years after Milwaukee got its charter, more than one-third of the city’s residents were of German ancestry.

According to local history, the Germans, in addition to founding major breweries, dominated the skilled trades. They organized orchestras and choral groups, dance troupes and drama ensembles.

″Almost the minute they got off the boat in the 1840s, they had a Beethoven string quartet and the first opera here,″ said former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidel, who has extensively studied his state’s German heritage.

Initially making the treacherous journey across the Great Lakes by schooner and later coming by train across the frontier, the German immigrants settled in Wisconsin because the forested land reminded them of home.

Although they quickly assimilated and dispersed, the Germans formed a community that remains highly visible in Milwaukee through a German radio station and weekly newspapers and some 40 clubs and organizations ranging from choral groups to sports associations.

A summertime German Fest draws crowds to the shores of Lake Michigan to sample sausages and pretzels, watch Bavarian folk dances or trace their German roots.

The climate wasn’t always so friendly.

When World War I broke out, ″There was such a strong anti-German situation here that you didn’t even dare speak German anymore,″ recalled Auguste Mueller, 87.

Hamburger was suddenly called Salisbury steak and sauerkraut became liberty cabbage on restaurant menus. Germans were vilified and often pressured into buying war bonds they didn’t want or couldn’t afford.

Names were Anglicized. Braun became Brown; Schmidt became Smith.

The cold shoulder was evident again in the 1930s. Isolationism, a fear that refugees would take jobs from Americans, and political suspicion made it difficult to immigrate.

Reams of documents were suddenly required to obtain a visa from U.S. consulates in Germany. For the desperate Jews, many papers, such as health certificates, were impossible to get from the Nazis. Immigration quotas went unfilled.

″Obstruction and red tape kept out at least 60,000 deserving others″ from 1933 to 1940, according to Michael N. Dobkowski in his article, ″Policies of Restrictionism.″

They were no longer leaving Germany for the New World’s land or gold. They were fleeing for their lives.

The Saturday Evening Post, then the nation’s most popular publication with a weekly circulation around 3 million, ran editorials opposing immigration, calling Europe’s emigres ″a moral menace.″

Writing in the magazine in April 1935 - two years after Hitler came to power - Martin Dies of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization said:

″What our country needs today is more so-called selfish patriotism and less fatuous internationalism, more devotion to the needs and problems of our own people and less sentimental and unappreciated concern for the affairs of other countries.″

Some Germans did go home. In February 1939, The New York Times reported that 20 Milwaukee families had returned to Germany and 180 others were expected to follow soon under ″a Nazi government campaign to recruit skilled workers for German industries.″

Tragic though the circumstances, America was nonetheless enriched by the exiled Germans it sheltered, among them some of the world’s leading artists and intellectuals - Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Arendt, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger.

And an 18-year-old girl who no one really noticed as she sailed into New York Harbor with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Nearly 48 years have passed since Marga Stern Blumenthal first saw the Statue of Liberty.

″I still cry,″ she said.


Passenger manifests of American immigrants dating to 1820 are available at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and many public libraries. Many cities have German-American historical societies. Recommended reading: ″America and Germans,″ by Wolfgang Glaser, published by Verlag Moos and Partner.

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