The Mogul with a Heart: Carl Laemmle

He quit Hollywood at the height of his success to save fellow German Jews from Hitler.

Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, was a heroic anti-Nazi activist who rescued hundreds of German Jews and helped them build new lives in America.

Born to a Jewish family in Germany in 1867, Carl moved to America at age 17. He worked hard, starting as a low-paid errand boy and soon rising to clerk, store manager, and bookkeeper.

In 1906, Carl was in Chicago when he noticed a long line of people waiting to experience the newest form of entertainment: the nickelodeon. In these early movie theaters, viewers spent a nickel to watch a short silent film.

Carl knew this phenomenon was going to be huge, and he used his savings to open his own nickelodeon. He soon began producing his own movies and in 1914, Carl moved to Los Angeles, where he started Universal Pictures.

As he rose to the top of the American movie business, Carl never forgot his German roots and often went back there on vacation. After the country was economically devastated in the First World War, Carl organized campaigns to send food, clothing and other essentials to suffering Germans.

Carl produced All Quiet on the Western Front, a cinematic masterpiece about World War I, in 1930. He was excited to show the film in his native country, but at the premiere in Berlin, Hitler’s henchman Joseph Goebbels interrupted the screening with a mob of Nazi brownshirts. Claiming the film made Germany look bad, but most of all infuriated that the film’s producer was Jewish, Goebbels and his thugs shut down the screening by releasing stink bombs and dozens of white mice. Several audience members were badly beaten.

This was the moment Carl realized that his beloved Germany was turning into an ugly and dangerous place, especially for Jews. He shut down the Berlin office of Universal Pictures, and in 1936 Carl sold his wildly successful company to focus full-time on anti-Nazi activity and refugee relief.

It was very difficult to get Jewish refugees into America in the 1930’s. Carl signed over 300 affidavits testifying to each prospective immigrant’s character and financial security. He sent money and steamship tickets to Jews in his home town of Laupheim, and pestered the Department of State incessantly to get approvals. He wired FDR to “take in these wandering, worthy and inoffensive people, and may God bless you forever as exponents of the Golden Rule.” FDR ignored his urgent request.

Carl’s anti-Nazi activities ended with his sudden death of a heart attack in 1939. Sadly, Carl Laemmle’s brave rescue efforts are barely remembered today, and Universal Studios, the company he founded over 100 years ago, has made no effort to commemorate their heroic leader.

For saving hundreds of his countrymen from Nazi death camps, we honor Carl Laemmle as this week’s Thursday Hero.

With thanks to Deborah Fletcher Blum, Carl Laemmle’s third cousin, who is producing a documentary about her illustrious relative.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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