Change of Air Urgently Recommended

“Change of air urgently recommended.”  Those were the words my great-uncle Rudi Kolisch sent by telegram from Florence to my grandparents Arnold and Trude Schoenberg in Berlin on May 16, 1933.   That evening they packed a suitcase, boarded a train to Paris, and never returned.

In a way, by being early targets of the Nazis, my grandparents turned out to be some of the lucky ones.  They escaped while escape was still possible.  But for those who stayed behind, the routes of departure soon closed.  My grandfather’s brother Heinrich, an opera singer, died in Salzburg from injuries suffered in the custody of the Gestapo.  His sister Ottilie managed to survive the war in Berlin, protected by a non-Jewish partner, but her daughter Inge and her husband were shot by SS as they fled their hiding places during the fire-bombing of Dresden near the end of the war.  My grandfather’s first cousin Arthur, an engineer who directed the Munich electric company, and his wife Eva died in Theresienstadt.  Their daughter Lotte was killed in Jasenovac, the Croatian concentration camp.  This was the sad fate of those who were left behind.

When my grandfather fled from Berlin to Paris in 1933, he immediately met with Zionist leaders, including the visiting Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a leader of American Jewry, to alert them to the perils facing Jews in Germany.  In large part his appeals fell on deaf ears. Foregoing an invitation to attend the Zionist Congress in Prague, my grandfather came to America in the fall of 1933, and gave speeches at Jewish organizations about the situation in Germany.  For the next five years, he drafted numerous letters, essays and speeches warning of the calamity that was about to befall the Jews of Europe.  This culminated in a lengthy essay he entitled “ A Four Point Program for Jewry,” completed in Los Angeles in October 1938, just days before the infamous Kristallnacht.

“Is there room in the world for almost 7,000,000 people?” he asked.  “Are they condemned to doom?  Will they become extinct? Famished? Butchered?” With a call on Jewish leaders to unify towards the goal of rescuing the Jews of Europe, he pleaded “What have they done to rescue the first 500,000 people who must migrate or die?”  Sadly, he could not get the essay published.  Even the author Thomas Mann rejected it for his magazine in Switzerland.There are many remarkable things about my grandfather’s essay, not the least of which is that this earliest known prediction of the Holocaust was written in Los Angeles, by someone who had fled Nazi Germany five years earlier. Many people still describe the Holocaust as “unimaginable.”  Yet the Nazis themselves not only imagined it, but then carried it out.  The extermination of the Jews was in fact not unimaginable.  It should not be surprising then that there were those with foresight and fantasy who saw what was coming, who understood where the Nazi ideology would lead.

The future will always pose challenges.  Learning how to recognize them in advance is one of the reasons we study history.  How was it that someone like my grandfather could see what was coming while so many others did not?  Can we learn from his example how to recognize the signs of an impending catastrophe, and, more importantly, how to try to prevent one? With awareness and quick action, my grandfather managed to save himself, but he could not stop the tragedy.  He could not even persuade some of his own family to escape in time. There is still much that we need to learn before we can say with confidence that we know how to avoid and prevent the “unimaginable” from ever occurring again.