The Nuremberg Laws were introduced by the Nazi government in Germany on September 15, 1935 to ostracize and impoverish its Jewish population. The laws prohibited marriages between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans, limited employment and revoked citizenship. Jewish workers and managers were fired and Jewish businesses sold to non-Jewish Germans at prices far below market value. Jewish doctors were forbidden to treat non-Jews and Jewish lawyers were barred from practicing law.
By the start of the Second World War in 1939, more than half of Germany’s 437,000 Jews had emigrated to the United States, Palestine, Great Britain, and other countries. In December 1941, Hitler decreed that the Jews of Europe should be annihilated; an estimated 6 million people died in the resulting Holocaust.
Among those caught up in these winds of war was the family of Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who emigrated to the U.S. and had a long, distinguished career in foreign policy. Sonnenfeldt began work at the State Department in 1952 in the Office of Research on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, served on the National Security Council staff from 1969–1974, and later returned to State to serve as Counselor. An expert on Soviet and European affairs, Sonnenfeldt was known as “Kissinger’s Kissinger” for his influence in advising the architect of American foreign policy in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Sonnenfeldt in July, 2000. In this excerpt, he talks about the escape of his family from Nazi Germany in the wake of the passage of the Nuremberg Laws.
Read Helmut Sonnenfeldt‘s account of his rise from refugee to noted foreign policy advisor and scholar. Go here to see George Jaeger’s account of life in WWII Vienna and in the Kindertransport. See these links to read more about the Holocaust, Kissinger and World War II.
“Everybody was struggling… but things were really looking up”
SONNENFELDT: I was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1926. My parents [Drs. Walther and Gertrud nee Liebenthal Sonnenfeldt] were both physicians, and they were practicing under the German state health insurance system in a small rural town 120 km. west of Berlin. My parents, as physicians, were respected citizens. They had started in their practice at the time of the great inflation in Germany.
Everybody was struggling; but by the time I was born, I’m told (I obviously don’t recall it), things were really looking up in terms of their life and their lifestyle. In any event, when I became aware of my surroundings, at age three or four, we lived in a nicely-furnished house. On the ground floor, my parents had their medical offices; and upstairs, we had quite a large apartment; and that’s where I spent my childhood.
My father studied medicine, and just before he was completely finished, the First World War broke out. He was drafted into the Imperial Army as a physician and was shifted back and forth between the Western and Eastern Fronts, and won an Iron Cross [German military honor], which is something that figured later in his life. Then, after the war, which he was fortunate to survive, he completed his medical education and started this practice in Gardelegen, west of Berlin – halfway between Berlin and Hannover.
I started school in ’32. I was quite aware of the election of 1932, which was the presidential election. That was a crucial election for President, because it was Hindenburg, the German military hero, against Hitler. A lot of people who ordinarily wouldn’t have voted for Hindenburg did vote for him in order to block Hitler. Hitler, indeed, did lose that election, but he still was on a steady climb.
Then came several more elections in 1932, at lower levels, and then a series of government crises. These led to the designation of Hitler by Hindenburg, after a lot of bargaining which I didn’t understand very well as a child. Very shortly after that took place, there was a demonstration in our town by brown-uniformed Nazis.
The Nazi demonstration included what was called a boycott. There were two or three Jewish–owned stores, and the offices of physicians; and Nazi soldiers, really Nazi troopers, planted themselves in front of the Jewish businesses, and my parents’ medical practice. So that was really the first major shock wave, especially in our small town, where everyone knew everyone else. People began to take their distance from us, although some were courageous and stayed in touch.
The next major event was in September, 1935, when the Nuremberg laws were proclaimed. These laws basically introduced an ever-growing regime of restrictions on the lives of Jews. One clause, for example, prohibited Jews from employing maids under age 35, on the presumption that the women weren’t safe from sexual advances. My parents still managed to bring in an elderly family to help with the housework. The man was a World War I veteran and he refused to be intimidated.
My parents still saw patients. But after 1935, maybe ’36, they were expelled from the German state medical insurance system, so they had to practice privately and charge fees,which was not yet prohibited. Of course, this shrank the size of their practice; but they still saw numerous people they had treated in the past, who stuck with them, even though they now had to pay for treatment. But all that petered out by 1937, and there just weren’t enough Jews in the area to maintain a medical practice.
“We had to get out”
By 1937 it became very difficult for my brother and me to be in school. There were constant anti-Semitic incidents. So my parents took us out of the school in the town. There was a Jewish gymnasium (high school) in Berlin. We had relatives there on my father’s side, and we were sent to live with aunts and uncles so that we could attend this high school in Berlin.
By late 1937, they decided that we had to get out; but it wasn’t that easy. So my mother decided to take a trip to the United States. There was a family from our little town which had emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s. My parents had had some occasional communication with them. My mother contacted them, and they invited her to come to stay with them in Baltimore. She went there in early 1938 to look and see what could be done to find work for her and my father.
In those days, American immigration laws required that if you came to this country seeking permanent residence, you needed to have someone who would guarantee that you would not become a ward of the state. This involved a $10,000 affidavit that the sponsors committed themselves to. Through the people with whom she was staying, my mother found a Jewish family in Baltimore who had already given several of those affidavits. They were quite wealthy business people in Baltimore, and they did it for our family.
So my mother came home to Gardelegen (I can’t remember exactly when) in the spring of 1938, after having spent several weeks in Baltimore. She had made job and other arrangements – all of them subject to getting an American visa and a quota number, because immigration to the U.S. was still governed by legislation that involved a quota system for Germans. My parents decided that this was going to take time… so my parents decided to get my brother and me out of Germany.
Through a cousin of my father’s, they made connections with a boarding school in England. The school agreed to give Dick and me scholarships, and my mother accompanied the two of us to the school in September of 1938. But she insisted on returning to Gardelegen to wait with my father for the immigration matters to get settled. They sold their house at an extorted price (for which they later, after the war, got modest compensation) and stayed with another Jewish family in town….
On November 10, the day after the infamous “Kristallnacht,” all adult Jewish males in Gardelegen were ordered to report to the Town Hall. All of them, including my father, were arrested and taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp. My father was held there for only a few weeks when he was suddenly sent home, on condition that he and my mother leave Germany within six months.
It was not until after the war was over, when my brother was the Chief Interpreter for the U.S. prosecution at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, that we found out why my father had been released.
In his interrogation of Field Marshal Hermann Goering, the Number Two man in the Nazi, hierarchy, my brother learned that Goering, who had been in charge of the camps for a short period, had ordered that all Jewish prisoners who had served honorably in the German armed forces in World War I should be released and told to get out of Germany within six months. My father was among the lucky prisoners to be let go, since he had served as an Army doctor on both the eastern and western fronts, and had been awarded the Iron Cross.
So my father returned to our hometown. They were able to complete the arrangements to stay for a time in Sweden, and my parents left Gardelegen, I guess, just after the war started in 1939.
“Someone helped me to get passage to the U.S., which turned out to be on a 2,500-ton banana boat”
They were in Sweden when their U.S. visa number came up; but by then, the war had started. They traveled to New York on a Swedish-American ship which was originally supposed to have stopped in Southampton, England, on the way to New York; but because of the war, the Swedes observed the war zone; and so they came directly to the States sometime in early 1941. And I stayed on in school in England.
I finished high school at the Bunce Court School in 1942 and… I went to work in Manchester. I lived there in a hostel organized by the Jewish community in Manchester, which had quite a sizable Jewish community. By 1944, travel by non-VIP (Very Important Person) civilians across the Atlantic was permitted, so I went to London to get a visa to enter the United States.
Of course, my parents were residents, and this visa was to join them, and also to become a resident of the United States. Someone helped me to get passage to the U.S., which turned out to be on a 2,500-ton banana boat, very clean, which left from Bristol in early March, 1944.
So I got to the States on the first of April 1944, and rejoined my family for the first time since 1938. My parents, by that time, were physicians at a well-known mental hospital in Baltimore, Sheppard Pratt. So my initiation to American life was in a mental hospital. I lived with my father and mother in this mental hospital, and found a job in Baltimore with a photographer.