Werner Gunderschimer: Well, it's a pleasure and a privilege today to talk about a wonderful new book called The World of Aufbau by Peter Schrag. Peter is one of the America's distinguished journalists. He's a graduate of Amherst College and the Class of 1953, and he returned to Amherst a few years after graduation to run a large section of the publications office of Amherst, including the Amherst news bureau. So, he was already on his way at that point in his life to the becoming a journalist and pursued that over a period of many, many years, which led him to an editorship at the Saturday Review, one of the great magazines of the 20th century, and also to teaching at Berkeley and to serving as editorial page editor for a long time of the Sacramento Bee, one of the most important American newspapers. He's also been a lecturer, researcher and is the author of at least half a dozen books of which The World of Aufbau is only the most recent. Some of the other titles are The Decline of the WASP, The End of the American Future, and Test of Loyalty. Many of these have great resonance to issues going on today. And so I think does The World of Aufbau. Peter, why don't you tell us what Aufbau is or was.
Peter Schrag: Aufbau was, for about 70 years, a weekly newspaper in German that addressed primarily German-speaking refugees from Hitler and covered everything of any interest from the most mundane things about immigration laws or procedures, Alien Registration, and naturalization procedures to how the New York City subways worked. Landmarks in New York to visit. And then to major issues: obviously the goings-on in Europe, anti-Semitism in America. A lot obviously about Zionism. Aufbau strongly supported the creation of a national home for Jews, which became Israel, a restitution by the German government for repairs, compensation for refugees for all the things that they lost, that were stolen from them. So it covered just about everything. Obviously, always had a little bit of a—more than a little bit of—a global outlook, about the world. So, it was a fascinating look at that whole generation of German-speaking immigrants and not only German-speaking, obviously because Aufbau was in German. Lots of ads for everything you can think of. Tailors or jewelers, dry cleaners, every sort of commodity you could think of. Every sort of service you could think of. Lots of restaurants advertised. And of course in the Upper West Side, on the west side in general in Manhattan, there was a great concentration of Hitler refugees, German-speaking; they created lot of synagogues and shuls. And of course that was another interest of Aufbau, was the status of [inaudible] in, America. And lots of announcements, of synagogue services. And maybe most important, as I look back on it now, was that both before the war and to some extent during the war and then to a great extent after the war, when the camps were liberated, lots of personal ads of people looking for loved ones, but both ways: Camp survivors looking for loved ones elsewhere, and refugees, immigrants in America and elsewhere in the world, looking for loved ones who might have survived the camps—hundreds and hundreds of them.
WG: So we're living in a world in which many, many smaller newspapers are disappearing very, very rapidly. But the Aufbau disappeared for reasons different from those that are being eliminated because of the Internet. The Aufbau seems to have disappeared because its audience morphed into something other than it had been at the time of the height of the newspaper.
PS: That's right. It was originally a newsletter for the German Jewish Club, later called the New World Club, in New York. And, by the way, there were obviously great clusters of Hitler refugees elsewhere, many in California. But anyway, it started as a newsletter of the German Jewish Club in New York and grew increasingly into a pretty much independent weekly tabloid newspaper serving that audience. And obviously, as they assimilated, and as their children were born and grew up, there was less of a market for what Aufbau had provided. It was a measure of its success, you might say. It basically succeeded into its own extinction, but it lasted just about 70 years from the early thirties, 1934 roughly, until its final. Its last issue was I think in 2004, but that was the ghost of what it had been, so I'd say its heyday was from roughly the mid-thirties to the mid-eighties.
WG: So Americanization was one of the big goals of the newspaper.
WG: Teaching German Jewish refugees how not to be aliens.
PS: That's right.
WG: But a measure of its success was, I gather, that once German Jews were no longer aliens, they no longer needed that newspaper.
PS: That's absolutely correct. My favorite item of that was a little ad that was run by a clothing store in New York. The line was, "Americanize yourself, also your wardrobe."
WG: [laughter] Well, one of my favorite passages in the book, and there are many, is your description of the restaurants on the Upper West Side, where people went for the cafes and so forth. And I was remembering my own wanderings around the Upper West Side in more recent times, that not one of those remains. Which is both a testament to the fact that Frankfurt on the Hudson no longer exists, but also of the fact that New York is a place that is constantly morphing from one thing into many other things.
PS: As it has been through its history. And you're absolutely right—all those places now are occupying, if they are still restaurants, they are now Latino or whatever. And obviously the predominant foreign language or non-English language spoken in that area is Spanish.
WG: To change the subject just the little bit, I think one of the great things about your book is that while it is the history of a newspaper, which is of tremendous interest in general in American cultural history, but also particularly in the history of journalism, you treat that newspaper, not in isolation, but as a window on the entire history of a refugee community in America in a very, very troubled and tragic period. And through the eyes of the Aufbau, in your work, we come to see this population of German Jewish refugees and its great variety as it expands and adjusts to life in the United States. So I think your work has tremendous resonance to what's going on in our country today.
PS: Yes, you're right, and I thank you for that very generous statement. It does have resonance. I tried not to harp on that. I touch on it a few times and especially at the end in a chapter called "Legacy," of what the, sort of, the lasting effects of that generation has been. And obviously they're now all of them of course completely American or some moved to Israel after the war. But the ones who remain here are indistinguishable from any other Americans except that many of them, of course, are still Jewish or their children are, or their grandchildren. And of course, the first generation is pretty much gone now. It was my parents or your parents’ generation who've passed away. The last I saw, there was still something like 50,000 Holocaust survivors living in New York City. But of course, Holocaust survivors are mainly people who have been in the camps and came after the war. The generation before the war, like my parents and your parents, they're of course all gone.
WG: That's true, and in a sense, we're talking about a vanishing population, but one which is not dissimilar in the experiences that it underwent coming here from Latinos who are trying to reach our borders today. You talk about the extreme difficulty of the German Jewish population and in the Eastern European Jewish population in trying to break through the very restrictive immigration laws of the United States, which were designed to keep people out.
WG: Which were designed to keep people like us out.
PS: That's absolutely true. And not only were the laws designed that way, the big ones were passed in 1924. The national origins quota was designed to keep southern and eastern Europeans and Asians out. But at the period that we're talking about, there was so much latent, or maybe not even latent, but specific anti-Semitism and xenophobia and nativism in the administration of those laws that the quotas for Jews or for Hitler refugees were never filled. So there was a quota, but the whole State Department bureaucracy admitted many fewer than the quotas, the legal quotas, allowed. And that's become, of course, a famous story in its own right as to what extent could FDR have been more liberal about allowing the admission of a Hitler refugees.
WG: Now, the Aufbau told that story too, did it not?
PS: Yes, yes, they did. They told it. And of course there was always, and you may remember this from your own youth, that so many of those people said Hitler was our enemy. You know, of course my parents, we all were designated as enemy aliens.
PS: And people said, "How can I be an enemy alien when Hitler is after me? When I'm the most vehement anti-Nazi you could find, how are they doing this to me?" And then there were even people, anyway, they would say there was just a lot of frustration about that. And of course, that was true in Europe as well for Jews.
WG: Well, during the time of the of the migration of German Jewish refugees to the United States and around the entire planet, there was a degree of anti-Semitism in America, which really had disappeared until some expressions of it in very, very recent times when we thought it really had practically disappeared. And I remember as a child being taken to places, to resorts in New Hampshire where at the parking lot, there were signs that simply said, "No Jews allowed."
PS: [laughter] Yes, yes. And of course, there was an area in Queens, New York, in Forest Hills, where many apartments were restricted and would not rent to Jews.
WG: Yeah, and one actually hears of landlords in New York City who applied the same restrictions to other minority groups in a much later period, in the seventies or eighties.
PS: Yes, that's right. That's right. But, you know, absolutely. And it, I mean, this has been a threat through our history going back to the beginning. There's been that streak of nativism, and the resistance to, even though we call ourselves a country of immigrants, there was always resistance. Some streak of resistance to immigrants of one kind or another. "No Irish need apply," you know, you name it. All those things.
WG: Now on the cover of The World of Aufbau, there's a photograph of Albert Einstein taking the oath of citizenship, along with a few other people.
PS: Including his daughter, by the way, and his secretary, who flanked him. Yes, go ahead.
WG: One of the proudest moments of any German Jewish refugee was the moment at which they became citizens of the United States. And I noticed that in your own case, that didn't take place until the year you graduated from college.
PS: That's correct. You're absolutely right.
WG: And why is that?
PS: We didn't come as...It's a long and complicated story. But we came first on a transit visa. We were going to go to Mexico. That's where we were headed. I mean, theoretically, I'm not sure we ever intended to, but we could not get any kind of immigration visa to the US. And so we got a transit visa, which was then later changed to a visitor's visa. And then we finally immigrated to the US in 1947, and we actually had to go to Montreal to pick up an immigrant visa. So we didn't officially immigrate to the U.S. until 1947, about six years after we first arrived in this country and when I was already in high school.
WG: That's an interesting example of how complicated citizenship was for German Jews.
PS: It was.
WG: And then I never realized until this moment that you were actually a foreign student at Amherst College.
PS: Well, I'm not sure I was ever regarded as a—[laughter]
WG: I'm sure you wouldn't have been.
PS: I don't think anybody ever called that. But I guess technically, I was...oh my goodness. Maybe they had a quota for foreign students. Anyway.
WG: [laughter] It's very possible. No, I mean I can say that I was in the class of ‘59, six years after you, and that is a metaphor for the fact that you have been ahead of me in every possible way except for the fact that I was naturalized quite a bit earlier than you were. Although I was somewhat younger, I became a citizen in May of 1945, just after VE day, the day of the surrender of the Germans.
PS: What a nice way to celebrate.
WG: Yeah. And I vividly recall that I wasn't naturalized on my own, but on my parents’ papers, and the judge at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia asked me all the relevant questions as an eight year old. I couldn't actually sign my name. I hadn't learned cursive, so I just made an "X." But he asked me whether I had ever served in the army of a foreign power, whether I engaged in prostitution, and all kinds of other questions, whether I had a venereal disease.
PS: [laughter] He asked you all those questions?
WG: Yes! And my father told me how to answer. So, that was a memorable day in my life for sure.
PS: That's one...what a lovely story. And you were eight years old and that's wonderful. Well, anyway...
WG: Well, I think he was trying to get a laugh from an audience of refugees that were prepared to do anything that he suggested [laughter]. Have you thought much about the intended audience for your book?
PS: Well, I think you touched on it earlier when you said it has relevance to a lot of things that are going on today. And obviously at this point in the state of our politics, more so than ever because of, I mean, all the xenophobia and the nativism and the racism that's fair now. And perhaps even certainly even more so in Europe. I think that's part of that same story, though; it's a little bit different but it has some similarities. But here, it obviously...
WG: It's a worldwide phenomenon, isn't it?
PS: Yeah, but I think right now there's a couple of things. One is obviously I'd like to provide a little bit of background to the grandchildren of my parents or your parents’ generation. My kids. And it was interesting, I inscribed a copy of the book to my son who lives not far from us here in California and it was inscribed to him and his wife and his three kids. And when David was here the last time, he said, "I hope you inscribe a copy for each of the kids." And I thought that was maybe not so intended, but that was a little bit of an answer to your question. I mean, I hope it will be of some use, some interest, to the third generation. And then of course to remind people of parallel events in the past that we should be embarrassed about.
WG: Yup. In that connection, I want to go back to one observation you made earlier, which is that the Aufbau came to be used in the immediate aftermath of World War II as a resource for tracing people who either had reappeared or had disappeared into the camps.
WG: And that's what I most vividly remember about my parents, as readers of Aufbau, which came into our house regularly until probably about 1948 or 1950. The first thing they did was to scan those pages where someone had resurfaced from a displaced persons camp, or somewhere around the world and was looking for relatives or friends. And that kind of networking, which could be done so efficiently today electronically, had to be done painstakingly by reading the small print of the Aufbau back in that day. And yet it led to many rediscoveries of people who had been thought to have been lost or the closing of the book on the knowledge of the lives of people who were no longer going to be with us. So it played a very important role as a center of information in that respect. Quite aside from its journalistic accomplishments and the writings of people like Einstein and Thomas Mann and the other notables who contributed to its pages.
PS: Yeah, no, you're absolutely right. And it was a couple of people who observed, it was a hometown and paper, in the classic American sense, to that whole generation of immigrants. And there was actually, I thought, one very touching thing was a letter—I'm trying to remember exactly the details. It was a letter from an army officer—Jewish army refugee, Jewish army officer—to Aufbau saying, I hope you will take note of the fact that I've just been commissioned a second lieutenant in the US army. Normally the army sends routine news releases to the hometown papers of the newly commissioned officers. But since you're my hometown paper, because I have no other, I hope you'll take note of it.
WG: That's a wonderful line: that it was a hometown paper for people who didn't have a hometown.
PS: That's right, exactly. And anyway, who no longer had one or certainly, yes, yes, absolutely. Anyway, I found that whole thing, and of course when it was first at its heyday, I didn't want to have anything to do with anything German. And I'm sure there were many people in my generation felt the same. We were at war with Germany. The Nazis had basically tried to destroy us, so we didn't want to have anything to do with Germany or the German language. And there was a lot of debates in Aufbau in fact about that, about how German could you be. And so there was a big, a real, question about identity and, over time, many German refugees would think of themselves as Europeans, rather than as Germans, or as originally German. And I think one of the effects that that whole generation had was in an encouraging the creation of the European community and essentially as a way, of course, damping down the nationalism that led to the two world wars and to create something greater than the sort of provincial, nationalistic European cultures.
WG: That's right. Peter, I want to thank you for writing this book, which is a window on a world that that was very vivid and interesting and promising, and also tragic. And that has largely disappeared in many ways for the better, but then in other ways, there are aspects of it that we'll miss, but which you have brought back to life. Thank you so much.
PS: I want to thank Werner, by the way, for agreeing to do this. And I'm honored that he did it and I really appreciate it.