The Right Thing

The roots of Island families reach far across the globe. Here, one kama'aina grapples with a family history forever changed by Hitler's Germany.

"I should be greatly indebted to you if you hastened this matter as much as possible, before it is too late."

The letter was signed by Rabbi Joseph Dannenberg, of Krefeld, Germany, on Feb. 17, 1941. He was seeking aid from his American relatives to escape Germany. Of course, it was too late.

photo: stock image by Kevin Connors

I learned of Rabbi Joseph’s plight only 15 years ago, when I was ferreting out my family’s European roots. The search wasn’t easy. All my great-grandparents had been born in the United States and the trail to Europe was cold.

Living in Hawai’i didn’t help, either. Estimates of Hawai’i’s Jewish community range from 10,000 to 20,000, but few can claim Island pedigrees longer than a generation. Though family history is important to many of Hawai’i’s people, local sources just weren’t much help for Jewish searchers. In recent years, Jewish genealogy has become a hot topic, but during my search in the late 1980s, I was pretty much on my own. This was before the Internet, before national telephone directory CDs. Of necessity, I spent a lot of time in archives as far-flung as San Francisco, New York City and Marburg, Germany. The best I could do in Honolulu was search immigration collections and individual city telephone directories in the public library.

Nor did living relatives provide many clues. I knew my great-grandfather Simon Dannenberg, born in New York in 1865, but he died before I thought to ask him any questions, and while Grandfather Harry Dannenberg lived to be 101, he either didn’t have the answers or wasn’t interested in telling.

Some detective work and a little luck, however, led me to the "lost" family branches in Germany, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) and Poland, including Rabbi Joseph’s family. In the process of trying to piece together the family history, I came across a packet of letters from German relatives, saved by a newly discovered cousin, the late Florence Tate of Brooklyn.

Rabbi Joseph Dannenberg’s letter was one of several written to Florence, both in English and German, between 1939 and 1941. These flimsy scraps of paper and their envelopes were striking not only for their contents, but the mere postmarks; a German eagle perched on a swastika, was chilling, as were some of the return addresses, reflecting the Nazi-mandated middle names for Jews, "Israel" and "Sara."

What Joseph had to say reflected his desperation to leave Germany and frustration at his lack of success. He implored cousin Florence to do what she could to find American relatives willing to sign immigration affidavits sponsoring his wife and himself and to help him navigate the maze of regulations–both German and American–inhibiting his efforts. Joseph’s letters, the last of which was written on July 30, 1941, convey an almost palpable sense of shame and embarrassment at his need to seek the help of others. ( "But as I wrote you once before already I would be thankful to God if I could do so myself instead of asking again and again to be helped and our daughter to be assisted." -November 11, 1940.)

The author’s great-grandfather, Simon Dannenberg (right), with his son, Harry, the author’s grandfather, in 1927.

Yet even as late as February 1941, there was a residue of optimism: "I am sure you have heard … that we are able to come over there very soon in case you will help us in this matter. At first we need new papers because the old ones are no more valid. Besides, the passage for my wife and myself has to be paid over there. And so I kindly ask you to give a part of the amounts in question as far as you are able to. I fancy it will not be too difficult to get the sum together if all our relations over there offer their share. … I do not want to have the money given to me but only desire to borrow it."

Unfortunately, the odyssey that awaited Joseph and his wife Else did not take them to America, but instead to their deaths at a Nazi camp in Izbica, Poland, probably on their way to the nearby extermination center at Belzec.

Their young daughter, Ursula, was luckier. Sent to England as a teenager on one of the "kindertransports," she was spared. Why wasn’t Florence able to get Joseph and Else out of Germany? What happened?

By the 1930s, several branches of the Dannenberg family had established themselves in the United States, and, at least earlier in the century, these new Americans maintained some contact with their German cousins. My great-grandfather Simon’s diary notes birthdays and weddings of some of these cousins, including Florence’s mother, Fanny, and, while he probably didn’t maintain close relations, he certainly knew about the larger family.

Simon and his son Harry were "real" Americans. No accents. No old country ways. In fact, Simon worked his way up from the bottom to head his own insurance brokerage, which at one time was the second largest in all of New York City. Harry followed in the business, and the family was well off, if not wealthy. I recall my grandmother lamenting without irony that the Great Depression had hit them hard, limiting them to a single maid.

It is clear that Simon and Harry were in a financial position to help their German cousins. Apparently they chose not to. The evidence of their refusal to help Joseph and other family members is circumstantial, but it seems nonetheless compelling.

Another of the letters in Florence’s packet was from another cousin, also named Joseph (Joe) Dannenberg, who had escaped from Hamburg and wrote to Florence on May 31, 1940, from Rangoon, Burma, where he and his wife, Chryssel, were temporarily living in exile. (They later escaped to India ahead of the Japanese invasion.) Joe asked Florence for an affidavit in support of his planned immigration to the United States and made note of Florence’s "graphic account of your vain attempts" to enlist the assistance of the other American relatives. "It must have been really very hard for you to approach again the different members of our ‘clan’ and we realize your disappointment and indignation at this mass refusal."

In the letters he wrote, Joe had some profound insights into the problem of Jewish indifference to the gathering storm. "It is true, much has been done and many brilliant proofs of sacrifice and assistance for the refugees have been given, but generally it is only a comparatively small group (and always the same) that follows the law dictated by religion and humanity while the majority remains apathetic. This indifference is indeed surprising and appalling at a time when unparalleled terror is aimed at the very existence of the Jewish race and humanity as well, a twofold target for barbarism throughout history, and, if nothing else, the mere principal of self-preservation should unite the whole of Jewry in helping one another and fighting as one single body."

I have little doubt that Simon and Harry were among those who rebuffed Florence’s entreaties on behalf of those trying to escape the Nazis. Simon’s diary acknowledges Florence and her branch of the family–all descendants of Simon’s uncle, who had remained in Germany. And Simon and Harry were wealthy enough to have been among the first she would have approached. When I asked Grandfather Harry in the late 1980s–before I found these letters–if he had helped any of the German relatives, he just said no, suggesting he knew nothing about them.

Still other letters in the packet provide more clues.

Joe’s brother, Hermann Dannenberg, wrote from Hamburg on Jan. 14, 1941, that he, his wife, Erna, and his children Helga, Ilse and Werner, were struggling to leave Germany as quickly as possible. "Now the [US] consul gives out visas again, but I can’t get one, because I am still waiting for the fare. Believe me, Florence, you are wrong informed about getting a place on a ship, because some of the people who booked places already can’t use them, as they haven’t their papers ready and so people like me get these places, if they are able to pay, and that’s what I can’t. Dear Florence, now I beg you once more to try to get the needed money for me. Maybe [cousin] Morris [Schwartz], or some other relation of ours will take part in it. I promise you to pay it back in weekly rates as soon as I am in work."

Hermann didn’t get the money and didn’t book passage. As far as I can tell, this was the last that anyone heard about him until war’s end. Almost miraculously, Hermann and his immediate family survived the war in Germany, due in large part to his wife’s Christian background as well as to the support of his Hamburg neighbors. Unfortunately, his mother, Fanny Weinberg Dannenberg, was murdered at a concentration camp near Minsk.

Rabbi Joseph Dannenberg, in a 1938 photo, was unable to escape Germany and was later murdered at a Nazi concentration camp.

Hermann wrote several moving letters to Florence between 1945 and 1948, describing postwar conditions in Hamburg. Circumstances were more than difficult for Hermann’s family for years after the war’s end. He catalogued grave shortages of food, clothing and other necessities, and asked Florence for as much help as she could manage.

One letter acknowledged, with puzzlement, a care package from an unknown American cousin, Simon Dannenberg.

Don’t misunderstand. Simon and Harry were not bad men, nor unconcerned.

Far from it. During the war, Simon’s grandchildren, men and women alike, volunteered for military service and were decorated for heroism in combat. Harry gave blood every month and supported the war effort.

Yet at the time of crisis for their kin in Germany, the period from 1935 to 1941, these good men failed to do the right thing, failed to seize the opportunity to save their cousins in peril. Why?

It is easy to judge from hindsight, but I believe they simply did not understand the danger. And they weren’t alone. Americans were far from eager to go to war with Germany or even to help refugees. As late as 1941, the military draft bill passed through Congress on a one vote majority. A bill to allow refugee Jewish children sanctuary failed. While America took in more Jewish refugees than any other country–about 100,000–we turned away far more than that.

Certainly they couldn’t have known for sure the fate of the rejected. Few predicted the Holocaust before or even during the war, and newspaper accounts of the camps or atrocities were few. Until the outbreak of war, when it was too late to do anything, a common sentiment, both in America and in Germany, was that, while German anti-Semitism was terrible, it could be endured; it would pass.

Long after Simon’s passing, and shortly after Harry’s, I found Ursula Dannenberg Landsberg, Rabbi Joseph’s daughter, living in San Francisco. Ursula had made a life in California, raised her own American family, was widowed, remarried, became a grandmother and lost touch with her closest relatives. She embraced me and the new information about the extended family, finding the thought of a larger kinship comforting after so many years of relative isolation.

It was with some reluctance that I gave Ursula her father’s letters to Florence, not knowing how painful it might be for her to revisit those difficult times. I did so with a muted apology, for by then I knew that my own grandparents had ignored her father’s desperate calls for help. Always gracious, Ursula replied, "They couldn’t have known."

I suppose that is true.

But maybe they didn’t want to. Sometimes doing the right thing requires a broader vision. Simon and Harry surely realized that cousins like Rabbi Joseph might have survived with their help. They never exhibited any introspection about this tragedy in my presence, but I would like to think that in their quieter moments they regretted their ignorance, their indifference–that if they had a second chance they would have acted.

None of us ever wants to be too late.

James Dannenberg is a retired Honolulu judge and a frequent contributor to HONOLULU Magazine.