Dispossession and Adaptation: The Weil Sisters Rebuild Their Family in America Part 3

Posted on December 11th, 2017 by

generations-2002-385x500Article written by Anita Kassof, former JMM associate director. Originally published in Generations  – Winter 2002: Jewish Family History. Information on how to purchase your own copy here. Many thanks to JMM collections manager Joanna Church for re-typing this article.

Part III: The Girls Get Out

Missed the beginning? Start here.

During the Hitler period, Erna, Lisa, and Toni urged their parents to apply for U.S. immigration visas. Although the Weils were well-to-do, finances proved to be the biggest stumbling block to immigration. The United States required potential immigrants to prove that they would be self-supporting or had a sponsor in the United States who would guarantee that they would not join the public relief rolls. [NOTE: it’s “roles” in the article, but it should be rolls] Yet, the Nazis’ punitive taxes pauperized the Jewish emigrants, and the Weils had no close friends or wealthy relatives in the U.S. to vouch for them. Erna recalls that for years before they were able to submit their application, she and her sisters scoured American telephone directories and wrote hundreds of letters to complete strangers, asking them to sign affidavits assuring the U.S. government that they would not allow the Weils to become public charges.  Finally, their persistence paid off: a New York advertising tycoon named Albert Lasker agreed to serve as their sponsor.

Advertising card from Gebrüder Weil Freiburg, Theo Weil's business, which distributed stoves, ovens, and other metal products. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.137a.

Advertising card from Gebrüder Weil Freiburg, Theo Weil’s business, which distributed stoves, ovens, and other metal products. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.137a.

At the same time, the Weil family had to assemble the paperwork required to complete the application, including five copies of their U.S. visa applications, two copies of their birth certificates, and certificates of good conduct from German police authorities. Theo and Hilda included copies of their marriage license, and Theo attached copies of his military record.

Finally, in August 1938, the Weils submitted their applications to the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart. They were extraordinarily fortunate to have applied just months before the Night of Broken Glass. After that, desperate refugees flooded the overseas consulates, and the wait for visas to the U.S. – which limited German and Austrian immigrants to 27,370 annually – stretched to years.

Although the Weils submitted their applications before the deluge, they still anticipated a lengthy wait before they were called to the consulate for a physical examination – the last hurdle they had to clear before purchasing ship tickets. A restrictionist U.S. State Department, wary of allowing a flood of immigrants to enter the country during a time of economic depression, instructed overseas consuls to examine all applications stringently, regardless of the delay that entailed. Nor did the State Department send additional consular offers to the overseas embassies and consuls to handle the backlog. As a result, even before 1938, émigrés could expect waits of several months to more than a year before receiving their visas. In the unstable, volatile atmosphere of Nazi Germany, the wait could be excruciating. It was all the more difficult for the Weils, because between the time they applied for their visas and the time they received them, the Night of Broken Glass and Theo’s ensuing arrest shattered their illusions of waiting safely in Germany.

After Theo’s arrest, Hilda masterminded a plan to free him, but it was Toni who carried it out. Just before Theo was transferred to Dachau, diminutive Toni slipped into the Freiburg prison with a bundle of papers for him. She explained to the jailors that Theo had to sign paychecks for his Jewish and non-Jewish employees.  The ruse worked. Theo not only endorsed the checks, but managed to sign several blank business papers. These helped Hilda and her daughters liquidate parts of the business so they could finance legal fees and bribes.  Theo’s captors agreed to his release from Dachau, but not before they gave him a bath – by turning an icy hose on him on a raw November day. After five days in Dachau, Theo returned to Freiburg a changed and damaged man. Covered from head to toe with bruises and blisters, he crawled into bed and remained there for four weeks.

As Theo recovered, the family continued to arrange for their anticipated emigration.  The Weils packed four enormous lifts, each the size of a moving van, with furniture, artwork, and household goods. They forwarded their lifts to New York, hopeful that they would join their belongings there one day. The goods that the Weils shipped speak of an elegant lifestyle in an elaborate home. They include ornately carved and inlaid wooden chairs and tables, custom-made by a Swiss craftsman. Massive armoires and sideboards, heavy wooden tables and upholstered chairs, exquisite bed and table linens, fine silverware and china services for 24, and valuable paintings filled the lifts. By the time the Weils left, however, the Nazis forbade Jews to remove or transfer currency from Germany. As a result, it was not unusual for a family like the Weils to arrive in the United States accompanied by crates of belongings, but unable to afford to pay rent for an apartment to house their things.

“Im Spielwarenladen” [In the Toy Store], one of the children's games that the Weils packed in their lifts. Its presence among the belongings they shipped – long after their daughters were grown – suggests that the Weils packed their entire household in the realization that they would never return to Germany. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel; photo by Stephen Mayer, L2002.103.4.

“Im Spielwarenladen” [In the Toy Store], one of the children’s games that the Weils packed in their lifts. Its presence among the belongings they shipped – long after their daughters were grown – suggests that the Weils packed their entire household in the realization that they would never return to Germany. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel; photo by Stephen Mayer, L2002.103.4.

Meanwhile, life in Germany grew increasingly unbearable. After November 1938, the Nazis unleashed a battery of anti-Jewish legislation: Jewish access to public areas was circumscribed; Jews had to turn over all of their gold and silver; Jewish children were expelled from schools; and Jewish businesses were “Aryanized” – turned over to non-Jewish proprietors with no compensation to their original owners. Unable to endure life in Germany, the sisters secured “domestic permits,” which enabled them to work as servants in England while they waited to receive their U.S. visas.

After a brief stopover in Switzerland, the Weil sisters arrived in rural England, where they were assigned posts as household servants. Suddenly, Erna, Lisa, and Toni, who had grown up in a house full of maids where they never so much as had to boil an egg, found themselves hauling buckets of coal to heat drafty mansions in the English countryside. “It wasn’t for us,” recalled Erna, with characteristic understatement.  However, the three girls managed to adapt to new and unfamiliar circumstances. Erna and Lisa, who were in the same town, left their employers after three days. Using funds they borrowed from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society during their stopover in Zurich, they made their way to Bournemouth in southern England, where they were reunited with Toni.

Evading employment restrictions on foreigners, Lisa found a job as a governess, caring for two small children. Erna and Toni, “little itty bitty things,” in Toni’s words, became chauffeurs.  Were it not for the increasingly desperate letters the sisters received from their parents, their year in England might almost have been a pleasant interlude. Erna drove for Mrs. Jacobs, a kindly Jewish woman who had a vacation home by the sea. After she chauffeured Mrs. Jacobs to her cabana, Erna was free to visit with her boyfriend, also a German Jewish émigré.

In April 1940 the girls learned that they could collect their U.S. visas. The generous Mrs. Jacobs helped finance their trip to Boston.  As the ship docked in Boston Harbor, the girls realized how very far they had come from their sheltered and secure life in Freiburg.  “We stood there on the boat, the three of us, no one to pick us up, no relatives, no strangers, no one, and we thought we really could jump overboard and no one would ever miss us,” said Toni.

The girls immediately boarded a bus for New York, where both their lifts of belongings and their aunt, Sophie, also a recent arrival, awaited them.  Almost as soon as they reached new York, they received distressing news: the storage area in New York was full, and their lifts were being forwarded to another facility.  The lifts were the girls’ only physical connection to the life they had been forced to flee.  With no idea what awaited them, they decided to follow their lifts to a city about which they knew nothing and where they had no relatives or friends – Baltimore.

Continue to Part IV: Bringing Their Parents to Baltimore

All quotations and family history information are based on oral interviews with Toni Weil (JMM OH 0246, July 8, 1990), Julius Mandel (JMM OH 0268, June 23, 1991), Erna Weil, and Brenda Weil Mandel, and on materials in the Mandel collection (JMM L2002.102). 

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Big Finish to 2017!

Posted on December 8th, 2017 by

Museum Matters: December 2017

Everyone joined in with the dancing at our celebration of Iraqi Jewish culture on Sunday!

This has been a great year for JMM.  Three wonderful exhibits – Remembering Auschwitz, Just Married!, and Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage – more than sixty public programs, record-setting school programs (both on-site and in the schools), and hundreds of pieces of Baltimore Jewish history added to our collection.  Overall attendance for the first eleven months of 2017 is up by 26% over 2016.  My thanks to you for helping us grow.

The best part is that 2017 isn’t quite over.  Nearly 220 people came to our Dec. 3 Talmud to Tik celebration of Iraqi Jewish culture.  But if you missed it you have two more opportunities for family-oriented fun this month:  this Sunday’s “Very Sephardic Hanukkah” and our Dec. 25 Mitzvah Day plus a movie (details below).  And if you haven’t seen the Iraqi Jewish heritage exhibit, it will be open every day the museum is open until Jan. 15.  Be part of the grand finale to a great year.


Upcoming programs
All programs take place at the Jewish Museum of Maryland unless otherwise noted. Please contact Trillion Attwood at tattwood@jewishmuseummd.org / 443-873-5177 with any questions or for more information.


Downtown Dollar Day

A Very Sephardic Hanukkah
Sunday, December 10, All Day
Admission just $1 – Get your discount tickets now!
JMM Members – let us know you’re coming!

Perfect for families, this special day will feature kids’ activties throughout the day, including multiple story times and storytellers who will share Sephardic Hanukkah stories.

Mitzvah Day 2017
Monday, December 25th, 10am

Spend this Mitzvah Day at the JMM helping less fortunate members of our community. This year we are pleased to partner with Asylee Women Enterprises, to create care parcels for women and their children currently seeking asylum in the Baltimore area.  To make the day a success we need your help! Please join us to pack and decorate parcels throughout the morning.

National Treasure

Lemon Juice, Hair Dryers, and the National Treasure

Monday, December 25th, 1pm
Talk and Film Screening

The National Archives and its most famous document, the official Declaration of Independence, achieved stardom in the 2004 adventure classic National Treasure. Though he doesn’t look a bit like Diane Kruger, the actual director of the National Archives museum at that time was our own Marvin Pinkert.  So this December 25th we’ll not only show the movie, but also get the inside scoop on the real story behind both the treasure and the film.


Sephardi Voices

Iraqi Jewish Voices: Narratives of Memory and Identity
Sadie B. Feldman Family Lecture
Sunday, January 14th, 1pm
Speaker: Dr. Henry Green
Reserve Your Seats!

Iraqi Jewish Voices tells the story of the last generation of Iraqi Jews displaced in the wake of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel through dramatic contemporary and historical photography, film, and personal narrative.

Pinkas (Communal Record Book) of the Hevra Lomde Shas (Learners of the Talmud Society) in Lazdijai, a town in southwestern Lithuania, 1836.
Courtesy of Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Getty Images, Thos Robinson.

YIVO and the Lost Jewish Library of Vilna

Sunday, January 21st, 1pm
Speaker: Jonathan Brent, YIVO Executive Director

Learn about a collection of 170,000 pages saved from the Nazis and recently found in the basement of a LIthuanian church. The collection includes works by Yiddish novelist Chaim Grande, Sholem Aleichem, and Marc Chagall

I Missed My Train

I Missed My Train
Sunday, January 28th, 3:30pm
Film Screening and Talk with Filmmakers
MEMBERS ONLY – Reserve Your Seats

A special preview screening and behind-the-scenes discussion of the documentary film, I Missed My Train featuring Dutch Holocaust survivor Ernst Van Gelderen on a journey to revisit his experiences as a hidden child during the war.

>>View the full JMM calendar of events here.<<

Also of Interest
The JMM is pleased to share our campus with B’nai Israel Congregation. For additional information about B’nai Israel events and services for Shabbat, please visit bnaiisraelcongregation.org.  For more of this month’s events from BIYA, please visit biyabaltimore.org or check out BIYA on Facebook.

Esther’s Place

Hanukkah at Esther’s Place!

Only 5 days left until the first night of Hanukkah! Are you ready? Esther’s Place can help. From fidget-spinner dreidels to handcrafted menorahs, we have something for everyone!

Ongoing at the JMM


Exhibits on display include Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage, Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore, and The Synagogue Speaks.

Hours and Tour Times

Combination tours of the 1845 Lloyd Street Synagogue and the 1876 Synagogue Building now home to B’nai Israel are offered: Sunday through Thursday at 11:00am, 1:00pm and 2:00pm.

Click Here for complete hours and tour times


Make it official! Become a Member of the JMM.
Learn More about membership.
Already ready? Join Here.

Get Involved

The JMM is always looking for volunteers!

Click Here to learn more.

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What Carroll County Missed

Posted on December 7th, 2017 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

Talmud to Tik: Iraqi Jewish Heritage Day. Photos by Will Kirk.

Last Sunday, here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland we had a celebration of Iraqi Jewish culture – there was a dance troupe and musical performances, henna painting and hamsa making, storytelling and some pretty darn good cookies.

It was one of the biggest attendance days of 2017 – with nearly 220 visitors – including visitors from DC and Montgomery County and a whole school group from the Eastern Shore.  There were people of all ages and many ethnic backgrounds.  I mention this not to brag about what we accomplished (at least not just to brag), but also to mourn the way in which fear has trumped reason and denied opportunities to share and learn.

I am sure by now you are aware of the decision of the Carroll County School Board (on the recommendation of the county sheriff) to ban field trips to Baltimore City.   The ostensible reason was the “recent violence in the traditional tourist areas of the city.”

Now I’m not going to minimize the fact that there is a real violence problem in the city and my heart goes out to each of the 300+ families who have lost a loved one.  However, like any risk we face in life I think this requires a little perspective.  How many people are killed or even injured each year in the city while visiting a museum or participating in a Christmas Parade?  Darn few.

I happen to live in a collar county and I commute to the Jewish Museum everyday.  I am acutely aware of the fact that the fatality toll on this state’s highways is 70% higher than the number of murders in the city.  This doesn’t persuade me to stop driving… no more than a county-wide crisis with prescribed opioids would suggest I should stop seeing a doctor.

But some would argue, “why take any risk for the sake of a field trip?”  “It’s just a frivolity.”  I took a look at the Carroll County Schools website.  There I found a document entitled Vision 2018, describing the four major strategic initiatives of the school system.  One of the four major planks was “Prepare Globally Competitive Students.”  Surely, a part of being “globally competitive” is a greater understanding of the 7 billion people on the planet who do not live in Carroll County.  Such understanding has many components but only a few are found on the Internet or in a textbook. Some need to be experienced by meeting people who come from other cultures or contact with the artifacts and places that shape ideas and beliefs.  And most of us will remember something we experienced on a field trip years after we have forgotten everything that was taught in school that week.

Jonestown: Proudly we hail.

As concerned as I am about the ban in Carroll County, I am far more concerned about the way this ban has influenced conversations in the Jewish community over the last couple of weeks.  I have heard the argument made that some neighborhoods are too risky to visit, including our own neighborhood of Jonestown (home of JMM, the Star Spangled Banner Flag House, the Reginald F Lewis Museum, the historic Shot Tower and – with all irony intended – the Carroll Mansion).  I object to this line of argument for all the reasons stated above… and one more: it flies in the face of Jewish values.

We are a caring community that would no more abandon the place that gave us birth (Jonestown, Baltimore) than we would the parents who nurtured us.  A “Jewish” reaction to the very real challenges is not to hide but to repair.  All around us are institutions committed to making Jonestown a better place including our new neighbors Ronald McDonald House and the National Aquarium, not to mention the expanding Helping Up Mission.  At a time when so many are investing in Jonestown are we really going to let our fears prevent us from lending a hand? And sometimes lending a hand requires no sacrifice – just ask the 220 people who enjoyed themselves on Sunday, advancing this community’s economy.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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