“My husband and I are both Jews,” a Viennese dressmaker named Gertrude Perles confessed in an October 23, 1938, letter to Pittsburgh. “I am sure you know what is going on here and I need not give you a more precise explanation. It is growing worse every day. Our only hope is to emigrate to the U.S.A. Please, if you are able to send affidavits for me and my husband, for Heaven’s sake, do it, before it will be too late for us.”
After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, the Nazis pressured the 200,000 Jews in the country to leave as soon as possible. Eager to alleviate any “undesirable interruptions and delays” impeding this forced exodus, Adolf Eichmann established the Central Office for Jewish Emigration, where representatives from all relevant agencies would maintain offices. While the office may have eased the German bureaucracy, Jewish emigrants faced obstacles entering the United States. In addition to immigration quotas, families such as the Perleses needed affidavits from someone in the United States willing to provide room and board — to avoid becoming a “public charge” to their new country.
The A. Sanford Levy and Gertrude Deutsch Perles Papers, a collection in the Rauh Jewish Archives of the Detre Library and Archives at the Heinz History Center, documents the harried attempts of two families, one in Vienna and one in Pittsburgh, to navigate this bureaucratic process.
With nearly half of Austria’s Jews seeking refuge, many in the United States, the Perleses faced a challenge finding a willing family. Gertrude learned about Hasele Deutsch from an issue of Women’s Wear Daily. The women shared a profession and a maiden name. Considering the circumstances, Perles found this to be enough of a pretense to write to Pittsburgh. She sent her letter, without a street address, to Deutsch “c/o Mr. Meyer Jonnassons,” mistaking the Meyer Jonasson & Co. downtown clothing store for a person.
Perles explained the urgency of her situation. She and her husband, Dr. Erwin Perles, had secured spots on the waiting list for exit visas issued by the U.S. Consulate, but they would lose “this only advantage” if they failed to get affidavits by the end of the year. If forced to start over, they would have to use the money they had saved for travel on living expenses. As it was illegal to hire Jews, saving more would be difficult. “We would be no burden to anybody as especially I am clever and competent in my profession,” she wrote.
The Women’s Wear Daily must have been an old issue, because by late 1938 Hasele Deutsch had been Mrs. A. Sanford Levy for more than four years. But the letter reached its intended destination. On November 10, Sanford Levy sent two affidavits. To prove he could support the Perles, the forms required him to detail his financial condition. As a lawyer, Levy earned $3,000 a year, around $50,000 today, in addition to savings and investments.
Gertrude Perles sent this photograph of herself to A. Sanford Levy, of Pittsburgh, during their nine-month correspondence in 1938 and 1939.
With the important issue apparently resolved, the families tried to pinpoint mutual relatives. The Pittsburgh Deutsches came from Hungary. The Austrian Deutsches came from Nikolsburg. If they were related it would have been distant and undocumented.
On December 14, Perles cabled Levy. “Consulate wants legalized documentary proof of paid income taxes further manner of boardresidence (sic) amount pocketmoney (sic) certain time if workless.” Three days later, Levy sent the additional information to Vienna. “I hope this will be the necessary documentary evidence you need,” he wrote. “We are people of moderate circumstances who would like very much to help you, if possible.”
As they waited for the consulate to decide, both families faced added hardships. Without explaining his departure, Perles wrote, mysteriously, that her husband was “not yet at home, but now I hope to get him back very soon.” The letter, dated January 2, 1939, included photographs of the couple. In them, Gertrude has a long face, high cheekbones and a short, stylish hairdo. Erwin is slightly pudgy, with a receding hairline and round glasses the size of half dollars. “There were and are still sad sad hard days for us, and your action is rather a miracle for me in this passed year of disappointment,” she wrote.
Writing from Nazi-occupied Vienna, Gertrude also sent this photograph of her husband, Dr. Erwin Perles. “I send you the snapshots of my husband and me and I dare to hope that you will not be too disappointed,” she wrote.
Across the Atlantic, “misfortune has struck us in the past few weeks,” Levy wrote on January 19. “My wife’s father suffered a severe heart attack last Saturday, and we nearly lost him. His condition is at the moment very critical, but as long [as] he is living there is still hope.” Still, “…We are looking forward to your coming to Pittsburgh,” he added.
The bureaucratic problems continued, though. “I am so sorry that I was forced to trouble you again,” Perles wrote on January 23. The consulate wanted details: How exactly would Levys feed and shelter the Perles? And how much disposable income could the Levys spare for the couple? “I hope you will not be angry with me, but I cant (sic) help otherwise,” Perles apologized. “I beg your pardon again and again, but it is not my fault.”
When Levy responded, almost three weeks later, he called the request “a most difficult one.” While still willing to house the couple in one of his investment properties, and “try our best to help you with food when you arrive,” the spending money proved difficult.
“Unfortunately we are not people having additional income other than our weekly earnings, which are not very much. We have great responsibilities here since Mrs. Levy’s father has been confined to bed with a heart attack, and needs constant professional nursing care,” Levy wrote. In addition to lodging, he offered the Perles $5 per week, around $80 today. “I am very, very sorry that we are not financially able to do more.
At the end of his letter, Levy also mentioned being contacted by “several local agencies” looking to secure affidavits for Dr. and Mrs. Perles. In early March, Perles thanked Levy, and apologized again. “Our intention was not and is still not to be a burden to you; what we want is to work and to earn our living there, as we have done it here since many years.” In her frantic search for affidavits, she explained, she had contacted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Council of Jewish Women. “I did not dream of that they would come to you to trouble you,” she wrote. In a bit of good news, her husband had returned home. He attached a note, thanking the Levys for their generosity.
On April 15, Perles wrote again. “This is to advise you that we got our immigration visas on April 11,” she wrote. But the Perles wouldn’t be coming to Pittsburgh. “In the meantime we got another affidavit from Virginia, where we also intend to locate, so that we don’t take your support.” They would set out for New York in May, on the M.V. Georgic. She thanked Levy again. “What you have done for us was very great and your affidavit was for me the only hope I had, when my husband was separated from me.”
For more than two months, the Levys heard nothing. They worried Dr. and Mrs. Perles might be “one of those unfortunate souls on the ships recently returned to Europe.”
But on June 27, Perles wrote from Richmond to detail her final months in Europe. When she had initially contacted the Levys, Erwin was in a concentration camp. He returned home with broken teeth, a busted lip and a “heavy hemorrhage” on his back, plus a warning to leave Germany within 45 days or “return to the camp for a indeterminate time.” The frantic effort to get valid paperwork was merely to distinguish their affidavits from the “thousands” flooding the consulate. “It was never in our intention to take up your affidavit for support,” she wrote. “That was what I still wanted to explain to you.”
In her final letter to the Levys, written from Virginia, Gertrude detailed her final frantic months in Austria before securing safe passage to the United States.
Once they were “safe and in freedom” in the United States, the couple had rested and found work. “Perhaps, there will come the day, we will have our opportunity to drive to Pittsburgh and see you or perhaps you will come some day to Richmond,” she added.
Levy sent a final note in early July. “United States of America is a wonderful place to live in, and as time goes on you will appreciate living here more and more,” he wrote.