No matter what our age, almost all of us have ancestors (a few still living) who grew up here in the USA learning daily about what was going on in Germany and Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s. My father in law, Harry Greissman was one of those young Americans. As a college student at what now is called Baruch College of the City College of New York, he was an editor of his college newspaper, The Ticker.
In the post-World War I era discrimination against Jews was common at Ivy League universities and other private educational institutions. Most New York Jewish students and academics had to find their intellectual home at New York City’s public colleges, “where ethnicity, religion and national background barred no one.” These public colleges were filled with sons and daughters of the poor and middle classes who looked at the world through different lenses than many of their Ivy League colleagues.
As a young man brought up during the Depression, Harry, like so many others of his era, his dreams dashed; felt he had to take any job. What did their futures look like? As they worried about their families’ personal futures they had to become even more concerned about events in Europe and Asia, as forces beyond their control would soon change their optimism. Slowly but surely, Militarism, Fascism, and Nazism were overcoming fledgling democracies in Japan, Italy, and Germany. The Soviet Union was becoming a Dictatorship and by no means one “of the Proletariat”.
How much did these American college graduates know about Adolf Hitler? Did they know of his failed “Beer Hall Putsch” (revolt) in 1923? Did they read Hitler’s revealing book, “Mein Kampf,” published in 1925 with its clearly laid out plans for a Third Reich? Did they know the book publically stated his philosophies of lebensraum, the big lie, and how to deal with the Jewish question for all to see when it was translated into English during their senior year in college? What did they and their fellow Americans know and believe about him and the Nazi Party? Did they know what the National Socialist Party stood for? Even if one only skim read the Times this June 1933 headline would have made you think: HITLERISM LIKENED TO LYNCH LAW HERE: Reich Seen In Revolution.
Harry Greissman’s family had personal information about what was going on in Berlin. Someone in the family, probably Harry’s Mom, received this letter from a relative (although spelled differently) still in Berlin dated September 17, 1933. The most telling line in the letter (written in a combination of Yiddish and German) tells the American Greissmans that: “I am trying to sell everything and travel to Palestine. F.S. has little hope.” Why are they trying to sell everything? April 1, 1933, the Nazis carried out the first nationwide, planned action against them: a boycott of Jewish businesses – an act of revenge against both German Jews and foreigners who had criticized the Nazi regime. On the day of the boycott, Storm Troopers stood menacingly in front of Jewish-owned shops. The six-pointed “Star of David ” was painted in yellow and black across thousands of doors and windows. The Berlin Greissmans were trying to sell everything and go to Palestine for good reason. They saw the handwriting on the wall. As far as we know, they did not make it to Palestine.
As early as September 3, 1935 the Times reported on the speech of Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, on the “racial question”. “In every district, every city and every village, they will receive this viewpoint and almost all will accept it. And the burden of the talks was a defense and justification of the Nazi racial policy with regard to the Jews, a rousing invitation to the rest of the world to imitate it and a confident prediction that most of the world will do so.”
In December of 1940 Harry’s oldest brother Jacob received an airmail letter from Anna and Maurice Aronsfrau from London. The letter was in thanks for affidavits sent to them in an attempt to get a non-quota visa to help her brother and sister in law. Although the American Consul admired them she explains, “What a pity, they cannot help.” “Nothing can help. Only a wife or husband can petition for a non-quota visa.” She was advised that her brother and sister in law would have to wait about two years for their Polish quota visa. That was extremely problematic given the events, even though the couple was in Portugal, not Poland.
Two United States Immigration laws had been passed in the 1920’s limiting immigrants from various countries based on nationality. Strict quotas were kept. These laws precede Muslim bans. It seems to be what we do. The couple’s children, born in Belgium, could leave to the US shortly because the Belgian quota was open. Anna and Maurice, being American and British, were free to return to the US when they wanted, but even that was complicated by all the “Neutrality Acts.” Anna, as an American, could come on a US ship, but Maurice had to take a British ship.
Two months later Jacob received a letter mysteriously postmarked in Staten Island but written in Lisbon by Sophie Kanerek Aronsfrau, Maurice’s sister. This is her story. “We left Antwerp at the beginning of the war and after a few miserable months wandering all over France, we succeeded at last to reach Lisbon.” “Like most people, our biggest wish is to come to America but to get there we need a lot of papers. Although my husband has a bank account in New York and is very well known in business, the American Consul advises us to obtain these necessary papers from American relatives…. We are five and need a financial affidavit with the income taxes as proof, a political, and a moral affidavit as proof.”
She then goes on to list the five names along with their birthdates. She and her husband, Meyer Kanerek were 62 and 60. Their children (the oldest appears to be a son-in-law) were 49, 39, and 28. In March of 1941 Jacob received a telegram stating they had not yet received the affidavits. Apparently they made it. Meyer, a diamond importer, died April 1966 in New York, NY, USA. Sophie wasn’t as lucky. Although she did get to United States, she died in New York only a year after she wrote the letter, in April of 1942.
How did Harry and the staff at City College’s School of Business and Civic Administration’s “Ticker” react? After all, a majority of the students there were of Jewish descent. The Ticker, of which Harry was Editor in Chief, positioned itself as early as March 11, 1934, when it said, “Herr Hitler is feverishly engaged in the armament of Germany, an activity which has thrown France and England into panic armament competition. The God of War has unsheathed his sword and is taking a few practice swings. Another conflagration will inevitably consume the entire world and result in the complete destruction of civilization, as we know it. No nation can remain aloof.”
There was no mention of Anti-Semitism. Even in 1934 they knew of the 1933 Boycott. One student, Israel Cohen, wrote a letter to the Editors pleading for the paper to devote more space to the pressing militaristic issues and Fascism the world is facing from Germany, Italy, and Japan. On March 25, 1935, the “Ticker’s” lead editorial titled “War and the Student” indicated they were very aware of the threat of war. “War is more imminent today than at any time since the World War. As intelligent students, it is imperative that we register our protest against these conditions.” Some 600 students attended a symposium on the subject. Yet there is hardly any mention of the “Jewish Question.”
Harry and his ordinary 20-something buddies saw what was coming, but they tried to live life as normally as they could. Even as they saw the Nazi attack against German Jews, they were more focused on joining antiwar movements than fighting antisemitism. War meant the possibility of losing their life or the lives of loved ones. In 1940, as most single young men of that time, he was still living in Brooklyn with his parents. However, in May of 1940, he applied for his Social Security card using the name “Harry Grant Greissman”. This is the only record of the use of Grant as a middle name. Was it for fear of being too “Jewish” even in Brooklyn?