thumbnail of The Great Depression; Interview with Trude Lash. Part 1
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CAMERA CREW MEMBER
Speeding. Good, mark.
INTERVIEWER:
Are you ready now? When you came, when you first came to this country, the very first time you came, what kind of a country did you expect the United States was at that time? This is the early 30s what did you expect?
TRUDE LASH:
1931, I came in 1931, and I expected a country that was very, very wealthy. The reason for that was, that most of the students that came to the university where I was in charge of foreign students, were rather wealthy, compared to us, anyway. They had their own cars, and they traveled all around Europe, and they had whole apartments while we lived in little rooms, or sometimes two to a room, so I thought everybody was wealthy. But I had also read books on economics, so I knew there was more wealth, but there had also been a bust, because this, remember, was 1931. Then I had read the 'leather-stocking books', so Indians were very much in my mind. In every European's mind are the Indians, and we don't know whether they roam the streets, or where they are. Then, a friend of mine, a doctor, had come to Chicago to an America conference, and he came back with an enormous Stetson hat, very handsome, and boots, cowboy boots. From then on, he was the hero of the university, he was very tall, anyway. So I thought men in the United States are very good looking. Well, they are.
INTERVIEWER:
What about, kind of, I'm thinking almost in terms of imagery, like the Statue of Liberty, what kind of, politically, or, what kind of a place did you think it—
TRUDE LASH:
Well, yeah, well, of course, it functions on two levels. Politically, we were quite aware that there now, was now in the United States, a situation that hadn't existed before, that a great many people had lost their jobs, that people were traveling over the country without jobs or homes, we knew that, but at the same time, when out of another experience, we expected something else. I was fascinated with the fact that pretty soon, there were the preparations for the election, the 1932 election, and we all had listened to Hoover's speeches, which were a little difficult, and we listened to Roosevelt's speeches. We debated about the gold standard, and we debated about the closing of the banks, when we were here, this was then when we were here. I say 'we' because a whole group of us came over. So, America was a revelation, every day there was something new. Except, of course, then I had to teach, I taught at Hunter College, and teaching, I guess, is more or less the same, wherever you do it, I'd done it in Europe, so I taught here again, and pretty soon there was a way of life which was a little more familiar to me.
INTERVIEWER:
Did you find that this was a country, or did you expect that this was a country in which people were welcome, people were tolerant, people, that there was a very open society, what did you expect to find in terms of the people?
TRUDE LASH:
Again, building on the Americans we knew in Europe, we expected to be welcome, because they were indeed, very, very friendly. On the other hand, you know, we had also heard that black people were not treated well in the United States, and while we didn't understand what the tensions, racial tensions, meant in the United States, we had been told about that. So, but in general we expected that Americans would be free and open the way people are in a very wealthy country, and in a very enormous country. I came from such a small corner of Europe, Southern Germany, where everything was very old, and everything was very small, and everything was very intimate, so that, to me, this, this was something which I hadn't thought was possible.
INTERVIEWER:
How did, when you did get here and spent some time here, how did, how did the country differ, how did this nation, the people, the openness, did it differ from your expectations?
TRUDE LASH:
No, no, no. I found that this country was very open indeed, and that it didn't differ at all. I took a trip down South very soon after I arrived, and I learned very quickly that there were certain things one didn't talk about if one didn't want to have a long stream of arguments. So, one learns that, but I found, and I still find this country a very open country.
INTERVIEWER:
What things, what things couldn't you talk about on your way down South?
TRUDE LASH:
You could—you couldn't talk about the Civil War.
INTERVIEWER:
I'm sorry, could you, can you start again, say, \"When you went down south—\"
TRUDE LASH:
When, when, sorry, when, when I went down South I learned quickly that you shouldn't talk about the Civil War, because you were being inundated with reasons why the South had been treated very unfairly, and you shouldn't talk about race relations, because you were faced with an almost immovable wall, which, which was something I have never learned fully to understand.
INTERVIEWER:
Great, thank you. Why do you think, or do you believe this, I'll pose this as a question, maybe you don't agree with this, but, why do you think there was, and now I'm thinking of overall in the 30s, during the Depression, why do you think there was heightened anti-Semitism in this country during that period?
TRUDE LASH:
One, why was there heightened, was there heightened anti-Semitism in this country? Well, I found a lot of anti-Semitism in this country when I first arrived, so it certainly was heightened later on. It, it, anti-Semitism grew much worse, beginning, let's say, with the middle 30s, towards the end of the 30s, when the pressures were on to admit more refugees to this country. The pressure against admitting refugees grew enormously, the groups, the isolationist groups had their slogans, \"America to the Americans,\" though, how do you find the Americans? That was never so clear why, which people in America who claimed America were being left out by the slogans of the isolationists, I often wondered. Yes, there was more towards the end, but I think it came as a reaction to events. Fear that the country would be pulled into the European problems, lack of understanding of what the Nazis were all about, and it was quite easy here not to really know, until, let's say, 1937 or 38. If you didn't want to know, you didn't have to. Lack of sympathy for foreigners. There seemed to be a very strange situation, while, in this country, there were waves of foreigners who became Americans, then the Americans then turned against the foreigners, particularly, particularly I think, in a refugee situation, where there waves of poor people, very poor people. There was a slogan which was then, I often heard during those years, 'Charity Begins at Home'. We don't have enough to take care of other people's, let's take care of our own. And that showed itself, of course, in many, many ways, then, towards the end of the 30s, you know, the Child Refugee Bill which never was, was passed, the-
INTERVIEWER:
We'll, we'll, actually, we'll get to that and I'll be more specific about my questions about that. In fact, we'll start again into it now, which was, after Kristallnacht, when—
TRUDE LASH:
November, 1938.
INTERVIEWER:
1938, when, clearly, it was becoming more apparent what was, what was in store for the Jews of Europe, and people, I think, tried to, there was greater efforts, more people tried to get into this country. What were the obstacles that Jewish refugees faced at that time, to try to get into this country? What sorts of bureaucratic, attitudinal, what, what obstacles did Jews face trying to get into this country?
TRUDE LASH:
And, the people, what obstacles did Jews face trying to get into this country, and I would add, from my point of view, what obstacles did those of us face who wanted to help people get into this country, the refugees. And while it was mostly, at that time mostly German refugees, of course there had also been a group of Spanish refugees after the Spanish Civil War. There was the attitude, which I discussed a little bit before, that you didn't want this kind of foreigners to come into the country, that there were just a lot of poor people who were coming in, and at that time there wasn't full employment in this country, and that those people would then take jobs away from the Americans. The other was, we don't want any more Jews. We have enough Jews. That's when, when these, these rumors started, the Jews take over all the very good jobs, look at the banks, all the top jobs are, are held by Jews. And some of the Jewish groups—
TRUDE LASH:
—got very worried, what would happen if you now had large numbers—
INTERVIEWER:
I'm sorry, excuse me, did we run out?
CAMERA CREW MEMBER
Yeah.
INTERVIEWER:
We just ran out of film, so we'll have to start over—
CAMERA CREW MEMBER
Tilt it down a little bit. OK, that's good. And slate when you need to. And mark.
INTERVIEWER:
So, why don't we pick up again, what it was about, they didn't want, as you put it, that they didn't want, the people didn't want any more Jews coming into this country.
TRUDE LASH:
Why did, didn't Americans want anymore Jews coming into this country. Well, that's, well, of course, I'm not writing history here, I am simply giving my own impressions and my own, what I remember, and indeed, after thinking a great deal about it, because being born in Europe you always feel closer to these problems. People had a feeling that, that the Jews had gotten a lot of the very best jobs in this country. There were rumors that all the bank heads were Jews, and in the financial world particularly, that there were a great many Jews and there shouldn't be more Jews. There's also, was still I believe, there was at that time, and still is, I think, an underlying anti-Semitism, which reacts against the Jews because the Jews are different from us. The Jews have a long, long history of which they are very proud, Jews are never full citizens anyway, because they also relate in a citizen way to Israel. And then there was fear: if we get more Jews, and the Jews have suffered so much from the Nazis, then are we going to get involved? Will the Jews try to propagandize us and get us involved in what is, after all, only a European war or a European problem? Or even, it was said then, a German problem. So there was hesitation. The State Department, for instance—now, I can't say, not the whole State Department, there were people in the State Department who did not feel that way, Sumner Welles, for instance, but in the State Department were a good many who were very averse to allowing Jews to come to this country, and, and who had a good deal of support, and exerted a good deal of pressure both politically, socially, you know, \"old boys network.\" So the pressures were amazing, that were against doing things that would make it easier for Jewish refugees to come to this country.
INTERVIEWER:
Why don't we begin to talk, then, about what your work was in terms of bringing refugees into this country, and particularly, again, I think, you worked throughout the decade on having refugees come in, I'm thinking more towards the end, when it became really more apparent that this was a critical situation. What kind of work were you doing to have refugees, and then you brought up the fact of what kind of obstacles did you face trying to get into, trying to get people into this country. So, if you can, sort of, tell us a little bit about your work, what you were doing to...
TRUDE LASH:
Well, I, what, I worked to try and help refugees in many different ways. I had worked with the New School for Social Research, I was on the board then, and the very, the real genius- the head of the school was a real genius, he was Alvin Johnson- and he had the idea that he would establish a 'University in Exile', and invite exiled professors, refugee professors, both from Spain, for instance, [De Los Rios ?], famous Spaniard, became a professor, from Germany, I think one or two from Austria, and later on, of course from France and other countries, Hungary as well. So I worked with him, trying to raise money, and trying to get affidavits, and even trying sometimes trying to provide housing for some of the new professors, or the very, very tired refugees who arrived with their families, dead tired. So, I would find a house, an empty house in Long Island, say, Stay here for two weeks with your families, and recover, and then come, and start looking forward to your new life. For instance, Professor Paul Tilly was one of those whom I knew very well from Europe, and he came with his family, with his daughter and very pregnant wife, so, I found them a place to stay and to rest a little, before the battle became, started for the new life.
INTERVIEWER:
Can you tell me, I'm sorry to interrupt, but can you tell me, you mentioned the thing about affidavits, and our viewers aren't going to know what affidavits are. Can you, sort of, tell me, kind of, what steps you had to go through to get somebody into this country? What exactly, what did it take to get somebody—
TRUDE LASH:
Yes. Of course, you had to take a number of steps to get a person into this country. There were committees all over that helped that, but there was one part of the strategy, the process, that they couldn't do, namely: you had to promise and assure the government that this person who arrived in the country would never be a load onto, on the government, the public agencies of this country, that there was always be somebody to take care of this person. So, my job was, to try and find people to take care of the refugees, and to get as many affidavits as you possibly could. I did that alone for a long time, and then later on, of course, working with Mrs. Roosevelt. I think people began to run away when they saw me come, because they thought I was going to ask them for another affidavit, as indeed I was. So that was a big job one had to do. Then, early, I went to Germany only once during the Nazi period, and that was during the 1936 Olympics, when the rules were, sort of, less strict, and when the country was rather open. My then-husband and I went with a great deal of money, to help people escape. That wasn't because they needed affidavits, that needed, that was simply, they had to escape with false passports because they were political escapees. So when, and, some money had to be used to bribe officials, quite a lot of money had to be used that way, so that was another way. But my main work was to get families and children, and particularly children, over here, and that meant trying to organize places for the children to stay. There was a, a school committee was established which saw to it that the children were placed in private schools. We placed them in families.
INTERVIEWER:
Well, in that case, then, you mentioned the children, and you also brought up a little bit before, and we want to get into this, the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which is the Refugee Orphans Bill, which of course is children.
TRUDE LASH:
They weren't really orphans, you know. It is, they were—
INTERVIEWER:
That's what it was called.
TRUDE LASH:
Temporary orphans, some of them. Some were orphans. Some didn't know where their parents were, I mean, of the children who wanted to come in. It didn't pass.
INTERVIEWER:
Well, what was this bill, and what activities did you do to work for, for this bill, what was this Wagner Act, what was it trying to do, and what did you do to try to make it happen?
TRUDE LASH:
What, what was the bill, I mean, the quota, the German Quota, most of the refugees came into this country under the German quota. The quota, simply a statement of how many, how many nationals of one nation are going to be admitted to the United States within one year, that's the Quota. The Quota, the German Quota was rather small, though I don't remember exactly what it was, and it was decided that maybe, maybe one could enlarge the quota, maybe for a year or two, if one limited the refugees to be brought into this country to children. So, a bill was, was drafted. A friend of mine, a daughter of Rabbi Weiss, was, took a big part in drafting it, and
Mrs. Roosevelt became the main supporter of the bill. She went to the President and told him about the fact that this bill was drafted, and asked him whether he would support it, and he said yes he would, though he would not go out and make it part of his priority program, that was too dangerous.
So the bill was written, and on the President's advice good sponsors were found, Senator Wagner from New York, and Edith Rogers, a Republican from Massachusetts, it was wonderful sponsorship. And a committee was established on which Hoover served, ex-President Hoover, and, among others, and that wonderful Cardinal of Chicago, Cardinal Mundelein. There was much hope in the beginning that this bill would pass, but there were congressman that introduced bills that cut the existing quota, and they were very powerful people. Many organizations immediately, the minute the bill was introduced, immediately opposed it, the DAR, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Legion, a lot of patriotic societies, opposed the bill, again saying 'Charity Begins at Home', we don't want any more Jews. And the danger was real, that they would filibuster, of course and push their own bills through, so that instead of having more spaces, more slots, you would have fewer. And so, after a while, Senator Wagner withdrew the bill. It was such a sad day, because, you see when, we tried even to change the bill, and said, all right, let's have 20,00 altogether, not 20,000—
TRUDE LASH:
—a year for two years, 20,000 altogether, no, or let's have ten—it's enough anyway, about the bill.
INTERVIEWER #2:
No, it's good.
INTERVIEWER:
No, we want, I want more. [laughs]
Series
The Great Depression
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Interview with Trude Lash. Part 1
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Blackside, Inc.
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Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, Missouri)
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Interview with Trude Lash conducted for The Great Depression.
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Credits
Cameraman: Malkames, Rick
Interviewee: Lash, Trude
Interviewer: Stept, Stephen
Producing Organization: Blackside, Inc.
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Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: cpbaacip1511z41r6nd7m__fma262266int20120525_.h264.mp4 (AAPB Filename)
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Citations
Chicago: “The Great Depression; Interview with Trude Lash. Part 1,” Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 9, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-599z02zq0j.
MLA: “The Great Depression; Interview with Trude Lash. Part 1.” Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 9, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-599z02zq0j>.
APA: The Great Depression; Interview with Trude Lash. Part 1. Boston, MA: Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-599z02zq0j