Desperate letters put a face on familys WWII tribulation

"Please my dear cousin do what you can to help us; we are almost despairing; the long waiting has took away our powers; my dear wife the best and the bravest, is since three weeks so sick because she can no more believe on better times. But I myself cannot believe that we are condemned to perish in that country; we are innocence to our bad fate and we trust on our God and on you and all good men that they will help us."

This letter was written by Max Schohl of Florsheim, Germany, in 1939, to his cousin Julius Hess, of Charleston, W.Va. It appears in a new book about Hess' attempt to try to get his cousin out of Germany, called "And the World Closed its Doors."

The letter was one of several between Schohl and Hess published in 1997 in an article in The New York Times Magazine.

A literary agent thought the story had the potential to become a movie script, and first set out to find someone to turn it into a full-length book. That someone turned out to be David Clay Large, a German historian at Montana State University, who also lives half-time in San Francisco.

Large, who is not Jewish, follows Schohl's attempt to emigrate from Germany with his family. Schohl only tries to leave after it is too late, and while some of his family members are eventually able to leave, he is sent to Auschwitz, where he perishes.

For Large, who has written academic books about the German cities Berlin and Munich, this was a chance to write a different kind of book.

"All kinds of books have been written about immigration policy during the Holocaust, the quota system and the anti-Semitism involved, all of this has been discussed, but in a kind of bloodless fashion by historians and political scientists in the abstract," said Large. "But this put a human face on this topic and brought it home in a more personal way. I thought this was an excellent way to do this."

While Large only saw the article when it was pointed out to him by the agent, he was immediately interested, especially since Schohl's surviving daughter has all the correspondence.

Large met Schohl's surviving daughter and found "a good story."

Hess was a clothing store clerk and part-time insurance salesman in Charleston. Schohl was a successful chemist in Germany, and on that basis, both he and his cousin thought his chances of emigrating were excellent. Hess set out to do whatever he could on his end to speed up the visa process.

"What made [this book] possible was this treasure trove of letters," said Large. "I had never seen that kind of evidence before. It enables you to follow the whole saga through. You just have to fill in the blanks and provide a narrative thread."

While it was easier for German Jews to emigrate when Hitler first came to power, by 1938 it was much more difficult. Like so many Jews who felt thoroughly German, Schohl had ignored the warning signs of what was to come.

Large said he felt that he got to know Schohl a bit in writing the book, and what struck him most was "how obsessed he was with his loyalty to Germany. This was a person who was completely dedicated to his country. He loved it profoundly and because of that, he put off leaving until it was too late."

In addition to the letters, Large had access to archives, both German and American, which aided his research.

In Germany, he spent time in the archives of Florsheim, where the Schohls lived.

There, he found material on the politics of the Nazi administration as well as the mayor's office of the town in the '30s, and what happened in that specific town on Kristallnacht.

"I interviewed people who knew the family," he said, as "many are alive. I was surprised at how helpful they were. It's a topic people like to avoid, or deny or evade, but this town is making some efforts to come to grips with its past."

Furthermore, he said, some local historians offered their help and introduced him to all the people he needed to speak with. "Without their help, it would have been very difficult to do. People were extremely helpful."

One woman Large interviewed lived next door to the Schohls and remembered the family being taken away.

On the American end, Large found evidence regarding the immigration policies.

"There was clear evidence of the anti-Semitic bias of consular officials," said Large. "Some attitudes toward Jewish visa applicants was 'they're whiners, they should keep their mouths shut or there wouldn't be problems.' I didn't expect it to be quite so boldfaced."

Large added that it wasn't only anti-Semitism that kept more Jews from emigrating. "There was a lot more to it than that; they didn't want to bring in more job-seekers during the Depression."

While Large believes that his book will stand up to academic standards, he likes the fact that it focused on one family, illuminating the issue in a more personal way.

"Through the letters and photographs, and talking extensively to his daughter and neighbors and the documentation I read about him, it brings it home," he said. "We're apt to forget when dealing with statistics, but you get into the family and the story, and you realize how compelling and poignant this problem was."

"And the World Closed Its Doors" by David Clay Large (278 pages, Basic Books, $26).