In this exclusive extract from his new book, All About Eva: A Holocaust-Related Memoir, with a Hollywood Twist, Vincent Brook reminisces about his German Jewish parents’ experiences in Nazi Germany and their early years as refugees in Los Angeles, where Vincent’s mother, Eva, had an extramarital affair with famed Polish Jewish actor Alexander Granach.
When my parents arrived at Ellis Island on November 10, 1938, Alexander Granach was a famous name from the Weimar period, but nothing more. Of far greater concern was the ghastly news that spread like a hissing snake along the lengthy line of immigrants waiting to be processed.
“Hab ich’s doch gesagt (I told you so)!” Rudy exclaimed, visibly shaken as he handed a newspaper to Eva, who cupped a hand to her mouth as she read the shocking headline about a Nazi pogrom against Jews in Germany.
Holding back tears, she said almost in a whisper: “Hoffentlich haben unsere Familien das alles überlebt (Hopefully our families survived all this)!”
Rudy nodded with a sigh. “At least we got out in time. And maybe this will finally convince all German Jews, it’s high time to leave as well!”
High time indeed. For November 10, 1938, wasn’t just any date, especially for German Jewish émigrés. In fact, when my parents later told me and others about their arrival in America, I assumed they had fudged the date to make it sound more dramatic. But immigration records confirm their debarkation in New York City on the second of a two-day calamity since labeled Kristallnacht (literally “Crystal Night,” aka “Night of the Broken Glass”).
The name derived from the shattered glass of Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, and schools sacked and burned to the ground in a Nazi-fomented, mob-driven rampage throughout Germany and recently annexed Austria. Besides the immense property damage—more than 250 synagogues and 7,000 businesses damaged or destroyed—Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and later filled with the scores of Jewish victims of the pogrom. Compounding the carnage and destruction and presaging the Holocaust, 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and transported to prisons in Dachau, Buchenwald, and other concentration camps, where many perished.
Rudy’s “I told you so” thus contained a maelstrom of mixed emotions, but it also spoke the truth. More politically astute than Eva, it was he who had convinced her of the urgent need to flee Germany even if it meant leaving loved ones behind and, as now seemed likely, in the lurch. He wasn’t able to persuade her, however, to exchange a bourgeois life-style for his dream of joining a kibbutz in Palestine. So, after a stopover in Västraby, Sweden, where they both worked at a boarding school for refugee Jewish children until sponsorship could be secured and visas obtained, off to the New World they ventured—just in the nick of time.
Granach, meanwhile, who also arrived in New York in 1938, had an even closer call—and not only from the Nazis. Shut out of the film industry along with other Jews and leftists once Hitler came to power, his political activism placed him in an especially precarious position. Yet he “had the gall,” his son, Gad, recalled in his memoir, to return to Berlin in 1933 to retrieve a year’s back pay for his theater work. “With that he boarded the next plane to Switzerland. By midday the Gestapo had appeared at my mother’s [Granach’s divorced wife] apartment looking for him.”
In Switzerland he stayed for a while with his friend, Herman Hesse, the famed author and future Nobel Prize-winner in literature whose books Siddhartha and Steppenwolf would resonate strongly with the spiritual seekers of the 1960s. Perpetually drawn to the carnal as well as the spiritual, Granach also renewed relations with Lotte Lieven (more about her later), with whom he’d had an affair in Berlin and would form a lifelong (albeit long-distance) bond. But his Alpine stay was brief because, as history records . . . and Gad dryly affirmed, “the Swiss response to exiles from Germany was hardly a model of compassion.”
Next stop Poland, where, at least for a time, the Galician-born Granach was “something of a hero, as one of their own who had made it big in Germany.” While in Warsaw, he started a Yiddish theater group and even gained some revenge on the Nazis with a successful production of Friederich Wolf’s anti-anti-Semitic play Die gelle Latte (The Yellow Patch). Especially ironic, given his later role in Ninotchka, Granach, at the time a Communist and conversant in Russian, accepted an invitation in 1935 from the Kiev Yiddish Theater in Ukraine, then part of the USSR.
Besides his stage acting, Granach appeared in two Russian films, the anti-Nazi Bortsy (The Fight, 1936) and pro-Romani Psoledniy tabor (Gypsies, 1936). Then the other jackboot dropped. Caught up in the Great Purge of 1936–1938, Stalin’s variation on the Nazi terror, Granach was branded “persona non grata” and jailed for “improper moral conduct”—where he languished until another noted German Jewish refugee artist came to the rescue.
Novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger, who had met Granach in Berlin, was then living in exile in France. Feuchtwanger had been labeled Public Enemy Number One by Hitler and would have his famous novel Jud Süß (Süss the Jew) turned into a virulently anti-Semitic film by the Nazis in 1940. But as an ardent leftist like Granach, he had ingratiated himself with Stalin during a celebrated visit to the Soviet Union in 1935. And the letter he now wrote Uncle Joe on the imprisoned Granach’s behalf, together with a good word from Premier Vyacheslav Molotov’s Jewish wife, Polina, secured Granach’s eleventh-hour release and a safe exit from the country.
And thus it was that the famed, forty-eight-year-old actor made his still-treacherous way back through Switzerland (and Lotte Lieven) and on to the United States, arriving in spring 1938, a half-year before my parents. In New York he met up with his siblings and mother, all of whom, despite the country’s restrictive immigration quotas, had managed to come to the United States already in the 1920s. He could rest somewhat easily about his son, Gad, as well, who had emigrated to Palestine in 1936, followed by his mother in 1937. But next to attractive women, acting was Granach’s greatest passion, and not long after his arrival he was treading the boards again. The opportunity came thanks (and no thanks) to the Nazi-propelled exodus of European talent to America. The play, however, staged in New York in German by another noted Jewish exile, Leopold Jessner, failed at the box office. So, given his own émigré connections in Hollywood, trying his luck in the movie capital seemed the next logical step.
All About Eva: A Holocaust-Related Memoir, with a Hollywood Twist by Vincent Brook, is published by Gefen Books, priced £14.99.