The two men who wrote those letters were cousins who had never met and had virtually nothing in common beyond being Jews. But suddenly, in 1938, the German cousin desperately needed help from his American cousin. Max Schohl, the German, was 54 that year, a renaissance man who spoke several languages, an inventor, entrepreneur, hunter, skier and community leader. He had earned a doctorate in chemical engineering from a top German university and had fought for the German army during the First World War, winning several medals and attaining the rank of captain.
In 1920, he purchased a failing factory in Florsheim, a village near Frankfurt, and using his genius for chemistry turned it into a thriving manufacturer of leather dyes and soaps, with 150 employees and offices in Milan, Paris and Sao Paulo. Max and Liesel Schohl lived with their two daughters in a large home with a wine cellar and shoe-shine room in the basement. During the Depression, the Schohls set up a soup kitchen for Florsheim's poor.
Julius Hess, the American, was 41, married with no children, a quiet, somewhat meek man who had never been to college or war and did not own a car. In 1938, Julius was making $86 a week selling men's clothing at Kaufman Bros, his brother-in-law's store in downtown Charleston, West Virginia. In those days, Charleston's upper class - the chemical- and coal-company executives and the merchant families like Julius's wealthy cousins, the Midelburgs - built mansions in the valley along the Kanawha river. Julius and his wife, Bea, lived on the other side of Charleston, the west side, among Appalachia's steep hills in a three-bedroom house they shared with Bea's parents.
By early 1938, Nazi laws had forced Jews to give up their businesses and had frozen their assets. Max Schohl loved Germany, but that summer he sat at his desk in the great living-room on the first floor of his Florsheim home and, using two fingers, typed letters, first to his elderly aunts, who had emigrated to America decades earlier and had known him as a youngster, and then to their children, the American-born cousins who were strangers. Of all the American relatives, Julius Hess, the clothing- store salesman, was the one willing to sign an immigration affidavit to bring the Schohl family to America.
The voice of Max Schohl's letters is not the refined German of a gentleman. It is the broken English of a refugee. Writing the letters was torture for him. So much had to be left unsaid to ensure that the mail would clear Nazi censors. And like so many of the world's refugees, he was trying to save himself and his family in a language not his own.
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 3 August 1938
About six weeks ago ... wrote to our Aunt Theresa. She answered me, we should have a good hopeness that we would come to USA. But it is clear, our Aunt Theresa is too old and she cannot do anything for us...
I cannot have any possibility in this country to find an occasion to work. So I must go out of this country to find in a more friendly state. I am a chemist, who has learned many things and with many experience. I am sure, when I am in Your country, I will find a position for me. Some weeks ago a business friend of Milwaukee I have seen here and he promised to me, when I came to USA, he would give me a position in his factory. Another friend of mine in Franklin, Pa. ... is a manager in a great petrol refinery...
You see we are not without any chance in Your country. But the most important thing is, that we have not an affidavit ... I hope my cousins will do that for me. I think when You ... and my cousin Ferdy Midelburg help together, it will not be difficult for You this affidavit to give. I have not the address of cousin Ferdy and I beg You to communicate with him and to declare our situation. I am sure, when you all would know the real situation, you would not wait a day...
Excuse, please, my bad English. Several years ago, I spoke quite good. But to time I have no more practice. I am sure when I am in USA in a few months I speak all what I need.
Your grateful cousin, Max.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 13 Sept 1938
Dear Cousin Max,
It is with much pleasure that I can write you this letter to inform you that I am doing everything in my power to arrange for your coming to this country ... I have signed your affidavits [of sponsorship] and they should be in the American Consul's hands ...
I have requested two of our most influential men, Hon Rush D Holt, United States Senator, and Hon Joseph Smith, United States Congressman, to write the American Consul for his help, and I am assured that both of them will do what they can ...
From what I understand, you will be notified by the American Consul at the proper time regarding your passports. Be sure and let me hear from you in English just what takes place. You might also write me the names of your friends in Milwaukee and Franklin so that I may get in touch with them and let them know when you expect to arrive... Your cousin, Julius Hess.
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 25 September 1938
Dear Cousin Julius,
I thank You from all my heart for Your letter ... Now I can hope again, to come over in Your country, where I can live as a respectable man ... We know, too, that in the States will be worked very hard; but that is nothing against the bad position, which we have now...
It has been very clever of you, that you have spoken with two influential men, of whom you have written. When these men would write some words to the American Consulate at Stuttgart ... that Dr Max Schohl from Florsheim should come as soon as possible to the States, because he knew a lot of very interesting things for American chemical industry, I am sure I get my American Visum... Max.
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 29 October 1938
[9 and 10 November were Kristallnacht, the Nazis' public rampage against German Jews. For days, Julius Hess's evening paper, the Charleston Daily Mail, carried two or three front-page stories, describing the looting of Jewish shops, the torching of synagogues, the arrest of thousands of Jewish men, the establishment of Jewish ghettos, the banishment of Jews from public schools, public events and the workplace. Julius read, too, of President Roosevelt's outrage, although the President indicated he had no plans to increase immigration. At the time, the Charleston paper reported, there were 220,000 applications for visas to America at consulates throughout Germany, while America's annual quota for Germany was 27,370. And even the quota was not filled; in 1938, 18,000 were let in.]
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 18 November 1938
I do not know just how matters stand since the time you wrote me your last letter, but I sincerely hope that you and your family are still ... all together.
I have today written to the Department of Labor to obtain from them the forms you mentioned in your letter, namely Form 575 and 633. As quickly as I receive these I shall fill them out ... As I said before, I shall ask my influential friends for their assistance...
Write to me often ... and above all do not worry about your English as we think it is quite alright... Julius.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 18 November 1938
Dear Senator Holt,
This gentleman and his [family] are by no means ordinary immigrants, but should be classed in the Non Quota class, and are surely deserving of your most kind consideration. Sincerely, Julius Hess.
[The American relatives secured a job offer for Max Schohl as a professor at Kanawha College, a small junior college founded in Charleston in 1932. For reasons that they would not learn for years, the letters from Germany were suddenly coming from Max's 18-year- old daughter, Helaine. On 13 December 1938, Julius wrote back to her.]
Dear Cousin Helaine,
Today a letter was mailed to the American Consul at Stuttgart, requesting him to contact Cousin Max offering him a position as a professor of chemistry at Kanawha College ... You will be able to come over immediately providing no unseen circumstances come up ... Julius.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA
To the American Consul, Stuttgart,
Will you please communicate with Max Schohl and extend to him for us an offer of a position on our faculty, teaching chemistry and related subjects. We do not ordinarily offer a man a position without seeing him first, but certain local people in whom I have confidence are recommending him ... L S McDaniel, President, Kanawha College.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 14 February 1939
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 16 February 1939
My dear Cousin,
I have not written for a long time because we all have believed to come in a short time in Your country. Your registered letter ... has been great hope for us, especially when we had read the copy of Mr L S McDaniel's letter to the American Consulate...
I have written twice to the American Consul and asked him for any reply at Mr McDaniel's letter but I did not get any ... In this country we could no more remain for a long time; I cannot write why. We wish from all our heart to come out, but we do not know the right way. Max.
[On 6 March 1939, Senator Holt forwarded to Julius a response from the American Consul in Stuttgart: "... As to the status of the visa application of (the Schohl family) ... of Florsheim, Germany. The aliens named above are registered on the waiting list ... under the number 24792 and it is not anticipated that their turns will be reached before January 1944. You may be sure, however, that these cases will be given every consideration possible consistent with the proper administration of the immigration laws. Samuel W Honaker, American Consul General."]
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 14 March 1939
To the American General Consul,
The Kanawha College in Charleston, West Virginia, has offered me a position. I have been told that a teaching time of two years behind me is one of the suppositions for your permit. From October 1907 till December 1908 I have been an assistant of Prof Schultz at the Technical High School in Munich ... In 1918 I have been a teacher in chemistry and chemical technology at the Intenierten Schule in St Gallen, Switzerland, for eight months. So I have a teaching time of almost two years behind me. But it is of a greater importance that I have much and great practical experience in many parts of chemical technology. I have been over 20 years the leader of the laboratories in a chemical factory where I had to teach and to support many assistants ... For a chemist the practical experience as an instructor is more valuable than the experience in teaching. But to show you that I am able to work in scientific chemical research, too, I send with this letter a dissertation written by me many years ago.
I beg you to tell me, if it is possible to get a non quota visa ... Max Schohl.
[Max Schohl included his 1907 doctoral thesis on auto-oxidation from the Technical College Fridericiana. His thesis advisor was Fritz Haber, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist.]
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 23 March 1939
I feel sure now that everything is going to work out perfectly. Do not be discouraged or impatient if you do not hear from the Consul just when you expect to, because I understand that they are so terribly busy it takes them weeks to answer ...
One thing we have not discussed and that is the condition of your finances relative to getting over here. Although I am personally not in the position to help you very much in this respect, I have the assurance of our cousins Charlie and Ferdy Midelburg that they will come to my assistance ... I want you to know and feel that you can rely on me no matter what ... Julius.
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 6 April 1939
I have seen a friend of mine who is coming back from Stuttgart and I was told that the Consul cannot do anything in my affair; and therefore he has not yet written to me ... Max.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 1 May 1939
To the Honorable Cordell Hull, Secretary of State,
Dr L S McDaniel, President of Kanawha College, Charleston, West Virginia, has just been in my office with reference to his interest in securing the services of Dr Max Schohl.
As you probably know, the Kanawha Valley is one of the great chemical centers, not only of the United States but of the world, and this, naturally, makes it especially appropriate that the department of this college in this field be strengthened as far as is possible...
If there is anything else that I might do in this connection to assist you in arranging for Dr Schohl's visa ... I shall be happy if you will advise me. Sincerely, Homer A Holt, Governor.
STUTTGART, GERMANY, 4 May 1939
To L S McDaniel, President Kanawha College:
Mr Schohl has owned and managed a chemical plant for the past two decades and you believe that it would seem logical to consider his activities as an acceptable equivalent ... The Consulate regrets that as Mr Schohl ... has not been a professor for the last two years, it is not possible to grant him a non quota visa. It will, therefore, be necessary for him to wait until his turn on the waiting list will be reached, which may not be for several years. Samuel W Honaker, American Consul General.
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 9 May 1939
But I will write you in this affair another too: A friend of mine in England ... has written me some weeks ago, it may be possible for us to come to England, but it takes much money. He means a security of about 600-700 English pounds would be the base for a permit. My friend is not a rich man but he wrote me that he would give for me a security of about 300. He could not give more because he had given the security for his parents and sisters who are now in England ... I do not need this money for me; it is only a security for the English State. Then I will work in England and I can make so much, that I can live with my family...
When you could hear a favourable by our relations in this affair, please write ... I cannot write more today. We are all very dreary; We see heavy and dark days before us. Max.
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 3 July 1939
The last letter I have received of you is dated from March 23. May-be one of your letters could be lost. We should not understand it, that you would no more give us an answer. You have shown us as a very good friend in these bad times and we have so great hope that you can help us ... Max.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 6 July 1939
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 16 July 1939
I beg you to speak with our cousins, if they would not give a hundred pounds more ... Give me please in your next letter the address of our cousins, Charlie and Ferdy. I will write them and thank for their good and great help. Max.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 5 August 1939
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 13 August 1939
Dear Cousin Julius,
I suppose you have written to Mr Moessmer to London ... He is a man, so good and brave, I had never believed that he can exist in the world ... He has done a guarantee for us by a prominent Englishman and in order to reach that he has given all his patents as a security ... I have read your last letter with hot tears when I have seen that you and your sister Norma will do what you can ... I cannot understand our cousins the Midelburgs. When the things were opposite I know we would do all in our powers to help in such great need. There are yet four human lives of near relations which are in such great danger! And they cannot feel with us? ...
We are almost despairing; the long waiting has took away our powers ... But I myself will and 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. Max.
LONDON, ENGLAND, 15 August 1939
[On 22 August 1939, Julius Hess wrote to the National Refugee Service in New York City asking the best means to send money safely to England. While he was awaiting a response, Germany invaded Poland, and on 3 September Britain declared war on Germany. On 5 September, Julius received a telegram from the National Refugee Service: "Due to international situation question possibility admission England Max Schohl/letter to follow."]
FLORSHEIM, GERMANY, 23 October 1939
Today I will make the last trial to save us ... I have heard that it is possible to emigrate in Chile ... I could get a position as a chemist; I have some friends in that country and I am sure they will help ... This affair is in hands of a great shipping society in Germany, Palestine & Orient Lloyd, Berlin ... Now comes the stumpling block: It takes a lot of money ... more than $400 for each ... I come to you to beg you from all my heart to help us to come to Chile. I have no other person in whole world ... I know it is a lot ... When however all relations in USA will help together, then I think it will be possible. Charley and Ferdy Midelburg cannot tell you "no"when they know that four persons of their own family must die because they have not this money ... But when you have not success to get the amount for us four, then I beg you try to get the amount for two of us...
When these amounts to Amsterdam will be paid, we could travel on February next. I send you this letter with the hottest wishes ... It is the last possibility to save our life. Max.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 28 November 1939
Dear Cousin Max,
I can realize ... how you must have felt during the past two months not hearing a single word from me. But please believe me, you or your family have never been out of my thoughts ... I got in touch with our Refugee Committee to find out if there was a possible chance to get you to Chile. Today I heard ... that there is a chance to go there, not a very concise one, but a chance ... I have had great difficulty in raising the money ... Today I saw Charles Midelburg again and he is willing to put up $500 if my sister Norma and myself put up the same amount. I am sorry to say but I shall not ask Ferdy Midelburg again to help out. This means that we will be able to raise $1,500, which according to your figures will not be quite enough to get you all out, but as you stated, if just two of you come, you yourself could help get the other two out ... If you should write to thank Charles Midelburg I would suggest that you do not even mention Ferdy ... Do not give up; as sure as there is a God above, you will receive help. Julius.
[In mid-December, Julius's sister Norma Kaufman and her husband, Grover - owners of the Kaufman Bros clothing store - vacationed in Miami Beach. While in Florida, Norma made one last plea to Ferdy Midelburg, also there on holiday.]
FRIDAY NIGHT, MIAMI BEACH
I called Ferd this morning but he was out ... I went over there at 4:30, but he had been in and out again. I left Max's letter and wrote one to Ferd telling him that we were all going to help get Max and family over ... I called him a few minutes ago
SUNDAY, MIAMI BEACH
Ferd was over this morning and he promised to give $500 for Max, but only when he arrives in Chile. He said he has had two experiences of sending money over and the people have never got out and he's never seen anything of the money. He suggested that you investigate thoroughly the organization that Max expects to get him out. Norma.
THURSDAY NIGHT, MIAMI BEACH
As you can see from the enclosed, I got Ferd's check. I just came from there and he said I could talk the "balls off a dead man's eye" ... I assured him that you would take every possible precaution that we would not be sending our money on a "fool's errand" ... Norma.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 28 December 1939
[In January, Julius received a letter from Max saying that the Berlin shipping company had received the money. Julius wrote to Norma telling her that prospects looked good.]
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 31 January 1940
[As war spread, mail service deteriorated. Several weeks late, Julius received a letter from Berlin dated 25 January.]
Dear Mr Hess,
Palestine & Orient Lloyd.
WESTERN UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY, 3 April 1940
To Julius Hess,
Your cablegram of April 2, 1940, to Max Schohl at Florsheim Germany is undelivered for the following reason: Advice received from Florsheim that addressee has left/his present address is unknown.
[Julius sent a letter to Germany that day that was never answered. On 20 April 1940, he received a postcard.]
My dear Cousin,
After terrible troubles arrived yesterday night this town. We are so happy to have escaped the German hell. We all are well and cannot see what we can do further to come in a country where we can work and serve. Today we are very content having saved our lives. And you my dear cousin have made the great thing ... Max.
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 21 April 1940
RUMA, YUGOSLAVIA, 1 February 1941
Since September of last year we haven't heard anything from you ... Hopefully you are all healthy ... I am writing to you without my dear husband knowing ... This begging is horrible for me, horrible for us all. When you all over there so magnanimously paid for the trip to Brazil we thought that this begging would finally come to an end. But as you know, Brazil was closed to us just as we were moving in Yugoslavia! Because we now had no money to live on, we had to resort to using your money order to survive ... Max always had a few pounds coming to him from Amsterdam. But then the war came to Holland ... We still don't know when we will receive the remaining money. Perhaps only when the war is over. That would be serious ... I am asking you from the bottom of my heart to arrange affidavits [for America] for us. The situation today makes everyone afraid that the war will come to the Balkans ... Perhaps you have friends who can give us affidavit for the girls. They are both good proper children and can write. I beg you please don't let my children perish. I know that if my dear husband were in America he would have already returned a portion of the money you have loaned us. I ask you please to be helpful to us by sending stockings size 91/2; shoes, size 381/2-39 ... and size 44 coats ... We were only able to bring few stockings and changes of underwear and clothes with us. Furs, fur coats and Persian carpets couldn't be taken with us. If we hadn't found such good friends here ... we would have frozen this winter ... Liesel Schohl.
[In mid-April, Yugoslavia fell to the Nazis. During the summer of 1941, Julius received a letter from a former teacher of Kaethe Schohl, Max's younger daughter, saying the family was fine but "desperate". For the four years that the United States was at war, no letters reached Julius. Then, in March 1945, Allied troops crossed the Rhine, beginning the liberation of Germany from the west; in April, Russian troops crossed the Oder in the east. In the first week of May 1945, Germany surrendered.]
WIESBADEN, GERMANY, 1 June 1945
Dear Uncle Julius!
You will be astonished to get a letter from me. I am the daughter of your cousin Dr Max Schohl ... You remember we emigrated to Yugoslavia in March 1940, father, mother, my sister and I, because we could no longer live in Germany under the Nazi regime
After our deliverance by the US army I went to the Military Government in our town and they promised me to help us that we get a compensation for all what the Germans took from us. My sister is tailor and I give English lessons because all people now wish to learn English and I have much to do, so we can quite good earn our living. But most terrible is with the food ... We have hardly anything and our mother wants more food that she become healthy ... The war in Germany annihilated the fields so that we cannot hope for the new harvest ... Is it possible that you send us a packet of food? ... We have to thank you for so much and I don't know whether I can give you one day repay for all. But I nobody know except you ... Kaethe Schohl.
BIEBRICH, GERMANY, 14 Sept 1945
Yesterday I got your very welcome letter and your package ... Long time ago I sent you my letter and I thought you never received it ... We don't need money. I am young, 22 years old and I can work. With money you can nothing buy here ... We got back our house in Florsheim and I think in two or three months we can move to it. Still we have no furniture for the house. (It was broken in November 1938 by SA men.) ...
I have met many people who came back from the concentration camp Auschwitz and I was always asking for our father ... We haven't found anybody who was with him there ... We can never forget what happened and what we saw ... Kaethe Schohl.
HEBREW SHELTERING AND IMMIGRANT AID SOCIETY, 7 June 1946
Re: Kaethe Schohl/Frankfurt, Germany
Dear Mr Hess,
We are very pleased to advise you of the receipt of a cable from our Frankfurt office informing us that your relative(s), the above, is about to receive American visa(s) and scheduled to sail shortly. The sum of $225 is required to cover the cost. Siegmund Lifschitz
HEBREW SHELTERING AND IMMIGRANT AID SOCIETY, 13 June 1946
To: Mr Julius Hess
Re: Kaethe Schohl
We are pleased to advise you that the above who sailed on the SS Marine Flasher is/are expected to arrive in New York on or about Monday, June 17, 1946. Kindly advise us whether someone will come to New York to meet the immigrant(s) ... Bernard Kornblith/Pier Service.
Julius Hess met that boat in New York, dressed in a white summer suit and Panama hat from Kaufman Bros. He brought Kaethe Schohl home to Charleston and on her second day there escorted her downtown to see the store. Then he walked her along Capitol Street, and to everyone they met, he said, "This is my daughter from Germany".
Among the many reasons Kaethe chose to come to America was her desire to marry a Jewish man. A vivacious 23-year-old beauty, she had dates with practically every bachelor who belonged to Southmoor, Charleston's Jewish country club. But her gaze settled on Herman Wells, owner of Wells Auto Parts, a man 13 years her senior. "I said to him, `You're one of the bachelors, why don't you ask me out?'" she recalls. "He said, `You're so busy.' " They were married for 47 years and raised two children.
Kaethe Schohl Wells was a daughter to Julius and Bea Hess. On Monday nights in the Forties and Fifties, when Charleston's downtown stores were open until nine and their husbands had to work, Kaethe and Bea always met their spouses for a late dinner together.
In time, Kaethe filled in the stories that lay beyond her father's letters. Max almost did not survive Kristallnacht in 1938; he was arrested and sent to Buchenwald for a month, to be freed only because of his First World War military record. He came home weighing 100 pounds, near death. During their years in Nazi- occupied Yugoslavia, Max was detained for questioning several times and released, until August 1943, when two Gestapo agents escorted him to the station in Ruma and placed him on a train for Auschwitz.
In 1946, the Schohls recovered their Florsheim home. Liesel Schohl lived there with her elder daughter, who converted to Catholicism after the war. They sold it in the Fifties and moved to an apartment. The two German businessmen who took possession of Max Schohl's factory under the Nazis in the Thirties paid a monthly compensation stipend to Liesel Schohl until her death in 1975 at the age of 78.
On 8 December 1984, the Mayor of Florsheim, Dieter Wolf, recalling "the most frightful years in our Fatherland's history," presided over a ceremony renaming the street where the family had lived "Dr Max Schohl Strasse". Articles in the local German newspapers remembered Dr Schohl's good deeds for the poor in the years before the Nazis: "Children would pick up bread every morning from the Schohl's house to take with them to school. Families were supplied with clothing, wood and coal. Every Christmas Eve, Schohl and his family would bring Christmas trees, presents and food to the needy."
Julius Hess died in 1967 at age 70. All his life he was known as a man who could not say no to a worthy cause. He had borrowed the $500 meant to get the Schohls to Chile; at his death he was $20,000 in debt. His widow, Bea, went back to school at the age of 60, earning an insurance license so she could support herself. Julius is buried on a hill overlooking Charleston, in the Jewish cemetery not far from the plots of Charles Midelburg, the auto dealer, and Ferdy Midelburg, the realtor.
After Bea died in 1986, it took Kaethe months to sort through her belongings. When she was nearly done, she opened a suitcase in the basement and was stunned to see her father's handwriting. The letters. Julius had saved everything.
She gave them to her son, Philip Julius Wells, a dentist in Canton, Ohio, who put them away in a vault. It was his wife, Fran Greenberger Wells, a teacher, who asked last autumn if I would be willing to read the letters.
Kaethe Schohl Wells turned 74 on 21 April this year and looks like what she is, a Jewish grandmother. She lives in an apartment along the Kanawha River in Charleston, to this day an important chemical centre not only of the United States, but of the world. !
Above: one of Max's letters, dated 13 August 1939. Below: the family home in Florsheim. Kaethe and Helaine, with their nurse, Anne, are in the window
Max, photographed in 1940,
after escaping to Yugoslavia from Nazi Germany. His troubles, however, were far from over
Above: Julius's sister Norma. Right: together at last - Bea and Julius Hess with Max's daughter Kaethe Schohl (far right) in Charleston after the war
The street in which the family lived is now dedicated to Max Schohl