“The Berlin Mission” And the unknown work of Raymond Geist by Richard J. Garfunkel February 12, 2023

“The Berlin Mission” by Richard Breitman is the very interesting story of the American Raymond Geist, (1885-1955) who was born in America to German immigrants. Geist attended Oberlin, and Case Western Reserve Colleges and received his law degree from Harvard University. He entered the Foreign Service and being fluent in a number of languages, especially German. He was assigned to the level of Counsel at the American Embassy in Berlin in 1929. He would serve there until 1939, during some of the most demanding years one could imagine. He basically dealt with enabling American Jews, who were being persecuted In Germany to get out of detention or prison and return home. He also had to deal with the myriad of problems facing the 500,000+ Jews living in Germany at the time of the ascension of Hitler and his Nazi Gang to power. In 1933.  These problems are well-documented. He also was able to enable the immigration of Albert Einstein and his wife, despite governmental harassment, road blocks and problems with American visas.

In 1921, the new US immigration Act was based on the 1910 census, reflective of the population in America. This created a quota system based on National Origin. The basis of that law was to definitively limit immigration of Jews, among others from Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin.  Raymond Geist was first interviewed by Wilbur Carr regarding his entry into the diplomatic service in 1921. Carr, regarded Jews in a pseudo-scientific doctrine of the hierarchy of races and Jews were determined to be a lower group. In his testimony before the House Immigration Committee, drafting the 1921 bill, Carr singled out Eastern European Jews as a “filthy, un-American and often dangerous in their beliefs.” He stated that they were “economically and socially undesirable, abnormally twisted and inclined to be agitators.”  This was not an unusual belief in America, nor in the State Department of that era.

In the 1921 bill, which reduced Jewish immigration because of a very low quota for immigrants from Eastern Europe, it did allow for a quota of over 51,000 from Germany, which had a population of 500,000 Jews.

Three years later, the new 1924 Immigration Law, known as the Reed-Johnson Act, which lasted until the 1950s, reduced the annual immigration from Europe to 153,774 and based the National Origins on the 1890 census, which was before the huge Eastern European immigration that existed up until 1920. The new German quota was cut virtually in half to 25,957, and allowed only 10,000 from Russia, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Yugoslavia. The law did allow some exceptions that were outside the quota: relatives of US citizens, ministers, professors, etc. In 1930, amidst American’s deteriorating economic conditions and a general climate of hysteria regarding foreigners, President Herbert Hoover asked the Cabinet how to reduce immigration radically without going to Congress. Wilbur Carr, now an Assistant Secretary of State, recommended a provision in the Immigration Act of 1917, banning anyone, “likely to be a public charge.” From 1929 until June of 1930, the annual German Quota was filled. But, after the new instructions in September, the month quota numbers dropped significantly. By the end of the fiscal year (June 1931) fewer than 10,000 visas for Germany were issued.  Hoover demanded fewer to be issued. Thus, in the fiscal year ended in June, 1932, only 2068 individuals received visas under the German quota of over 25,000, less than 10%. Many of these were for people whose relatives were living in the United States. The State Department that was inherited by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in March of 1933, was basically staffed by career officers, who had been appointed under the previous twelve years of three Republican, isolationist and anti-immigrant Presidents; Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. Also, let us not forget, that most Americans were anti-immigration, and the American Labor movement, a key element in the new Roosevelt Coalition was assuredly anti-immigrant during the depths of the Great Depression when one-third of all American workers were unemployed.

After Hitler attained supreme power in 1934, the fate of the Jews of Germany was basically sealed. But, in between 1933 and 1935, there were all sorts of twists and turns regarding the Jews, the fate of the SA and their leader Ernst Rohm, violence in the streets and the Nuremberg Laws which would legally insure the end of Jewry in Germany.

In this early period, the new US Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, who was basically an anti-Semite, was not prepared for the job for which he was appointed. Before his departure, Dodd’s old friend Carl Sandburg told him he needed “to find out what this man Hitler is made of, what makes his brain go round, what his blood and bones are made of” and still “be brave and truthful, keep your poetry and integrity.” He expected to finish his multi-volume history of the American South. Also, before he left for Germany, Dodd met with members of the Jewish-American community, including Stephen S. Wise and Felix Warburg, who asked him to seek a reversal of the Nazis’ repressive anti-Jewish policies. Dodd promised he would “exert all possible personal influence against unjust treatment” of German Jews, but not in his official capacity.

President Roosevelt advised him on June 16, 1933:

The German authorities are treating Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is also not a government affair. We can do nothing except for American citizens who happen to be made victims. We must protect them, and whatever we can do to moderate the general persecution by unofficial and personal influence ought to be done.

(Of course, there were few reliable reports that were really believable in June of 1933. Hitler would not gain absolute power until the basic dissolution of their parliament, the Reichstag, the ending of the freedom of the press and the death of President Paul von Hindenburg. During 1933 and 1934, Hitler was very aware that Hindenburg was the only check on his power. With the passage of the Enabling Act and the banning of all parties except the Nazis, Hindenburg’s power to sack the chancellor was the only means by which Hitler could be legally removed from office. Given that Hindenburg was still a popular war hero and a revered figure in the Reichswehr “Army,” there was little doubt that the Reichswehr would side with Hindenburg if he ever decided to sack Hitler. Hindenburg remained in office until his death at the age of 86 from lung cancer at his home in NeudeckEast Prussia, on 2 August 1934. The day before, Hitler received word that Hindenburg was on his deathbed. He then had the cabinet pass the “Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich,” which stipulated that upon Hindenburg’s death, the office of president would be abolished and its powers merged with those of the chancellor under the title of Führer und Reichskanzler (Leader and Chancellor of the Reich) )

Edward M. House, a veteran in Democratic Party circles since the Wilson administration, told Dodd that he should do what he could “to ameliorate Jewish sufferings,” but cautioned, “The Jews should not be allowed to dominate economic or intellectual life in Berlin as they have done for a long time.” Dodd shared House’s views and wrote in his diary that “The Jews had held a great many more of the key positions in Germany than their numbers or talents entitled them to.” 

 He left for Germany on July 5, 1933, accompanied by his wife and two adult children. Once in Germany, he eventually had his one and only meeting with Hitler. Based on his view of the proper role of Jews in society, he advised Hitler that Jewish influence should be restrained in Germany as it was in the United States. “I explained to him [Hitler],” wrote Dodd, “that where a question of over-activity of Jews in university or official life made trouble, we had managed to redistribute the offices in such a way as to not give great offense.” Hitler ignored Dodd’s advice and responded that “if they [the Jews] continue their activity we shall make a complete end of them in this country.”

Though he was alarmed by Hitler’s bombast, he not only failed to impress upon Hitler the vast power of America, nor understood the real, unremitting threat to Germany’s Jews. He never really understood what the Nazis were about, He assumed that they may even be overthrown and he never reported enough of what was going in Germany to the American State Department. His report to Secretary of State Cordell Hull never revealed the potential threat and danger of the Nazi regime.

Of course, Geist would continue doing remarkable work for American citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, who either were traveling in Germany, living in Germany or involved with business in Germany. He also dealt with the Nazi High Command, especially Himmler, Werner Best and others, regarding the continual demand for visas for Jews to escape Germany, the treatment of German Jews and American citizens. Most interesting was the almost confused policy on Jews which often changed on a day by day policy with regards to their immediate future. Geist’s activity and struggles would continue through the absorption of Austria; the Anschluss, the Western allies capitulation regarding the Sudetenland, the bloodless conquering of the remainder of Czechoslovakia, and Kristallnacht. No matter what Geist and the new American Ambassador, Hugh R. Wilson did, after Ambassador Dodd became persona non-grata in 1937, nothing in Germany would improve for Jews or anyone else who questioned the authority of Hitler and the Nazis.

But, eventually more visas were issued in Germany, more openings were filled in the German quota and changes in the State Department, the improved economic conditions in America and the realization from President Roosevelt that more had to be done about the German-Jewish refugee crisis, along with the threat of Germany to world peace were actuated by 1937 through late 1938. During this period Raymond Geist became the greatest authority for America on what Nazi Germany was all about. He became an invaluable source of information regarding Germany’s march to war. Where many others in the State Department and elsewhere, like Charles Lindbergh and the isolationists of the American First Movement downplayed the threats of Germany to Europe and to the security of the United States, Geist did not. The people around Geist knew that not only was his information on the Nazis correct, but his analysis of their plans was 100% on target.

Once back in the United States, after the outbreak of WWII, Geist became one of our greatest assets regarding what was happening in Germany. He had a very prescient sense of the future actions of Hitler and his collection of rivalrous Nazis. In the years after his return, he began to speak at various meetings around the country, especially on German propaganda. Also remember, before the war, there was great internal debate over the effect of anti-German stories regarding the treatment of Jews. In other words, criticizing the Nazis and their anti-Semitic acts, seem to have little salutary effect, but often made conditions a lot worse.

One of his most important speeches was delivered in May of 1942, when we were now in the war. His talk was given to National Conference of Christians and Jews. He spoke of the “Special German Path,” of development which allowed Hitler to gain widespread obedience amongst the German populace. Geist praised the antecedents of rational enlightened civilization from ancient Athens to the Magna Carta. Germany had ignored them. He also added the “Four Freedoms,” which President Roosevelt had proclaimed as incontestable rights of mankind, which were denied to the Germans.

Of course, he was able to personally meet with President Roosevelt and articulated his views which were quite informative and revelatory. The war would take its course, Geist’s career continued, but he was never able to go back to post-war Germany as a member of the Foreign Service. His life and efforts have been basically forgotten, but his story is an important one that should remembered by the many he helped and their descendants. 





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A lifelong New Yorker, who now lives full-time in Palm Beach County, Richard was raised in Mount Vernon, New York and he was educated in the Mount Vernon public schools He graduated from Boston University with a BA in American History. After spending a year on Wall Street as a research analyst with Bache & Co., he joined a manufacturing and importing firm, where over the next twenty-five years he rose to the position of chief operating officer. After the sale of that business, Richard entered into the financial services field with Metropolitan Life and is a Registered Representative, who has been associated with Acorn Financial Services which is affiliated with John Hancock Life Insurance Company of Boston, Ma. Today, he is a retired broker who had specialized in long-term care insurance and financial planning. One of Richard’s recent activities was to advise and encourage communities to seek ways to incorporate “sustainability and resiliency” into their future infrastructure planning. After a lifetime in politics, with many years working as a district leader, which involved party organizational work, campaign chair activity and numerous other political tasks, Richard has been involved with numerous civic and social causes. In recent years, Richard served in 2005 as the campaign coordinator of the Re-Elect Paul Feiner Campaign in Greenburgh, NY and he again chaired Supervisor Feiner’s successful landslide victory in 2007. Over the next few years, he advised a number of political candidates. He has served as an appointed Deputy Supervisor of the Town of Greenburgh, with responsibilities regarding the town’s “liaison program.” He was a member of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board of the Town of Greenburgh, NY. Richard has lectured on FDR, The New Deal and 20th century American history in the Mount Vernon schools, at the Westchester Council of Social Studies annual conference in White Plains, and at many senior citizen groups, which include appearances at the Old Guard of White Plains, the Rotary Clubs of Elmsford and White Plains, and various synagogue groups around Westchester. In the winter of 2006 Richard was the leader of the VOCAL forum, sponsored by the Westchester County Office of Aging, which addresses the concerns of Westchester County’s Intergenerational Advocacy Educational Speak-out forums for senior citizens. Richard has given lectures for the Active Retirement Project, which is co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Center on the Hudson, the Greenburgh Hebrew Center, and other groups around Westchester County. Richard also is the founder and Chairperson of the Jon Breen Memorial Fund, that judges and grants annual prizes to students at Mount Vernon High School who submit essays on public policy themes. He also sponsors the Henry M. Littlefield History Prize for the leading MVHS history student. Richard serves on the Student College Scholarship Committee of Mount Vernon High School. In past years Richard chaired and moderated the Jon Breen Fund Award’s cablecast program with the Mayor and local and school officials. Richard has been a member of Blythedale Children’s Hospital’s Planned Giving Professional Advisory Board, and was a founding member of the committee to re-new the FDR Birthday Balls of the 1930’s and 1940’s with the March of Dimes’ effort to eliminate birth defects. Their renewal dinner was held at Hyde Park on January 30, 2003. Richard is currently an active contributor to the Roosevelt Institute, which is involved in many pursuits which included the opening of the Henry A. Wallace Center at Hyde Park, and the Eleanor Roosevelt – Val-Kill Foundation. In 2007, he proposed to the City of Mount Vernon an effort to develop an arts, educational, and cultural center as part of a downtown re-development effort. Richard was a team partner with the Infrastructure & Energy Solutions Group. IEFG which has developed innovative strategies for the 21st Century. Richard hosted a weekly program on WVOX-1460 AM radio, called “The Advocates,” which was concerned with “public policy” issues. The show, which was aired from 2007 until May 15, 2013, has had amongst its guests; Representative Charles Rangel, Chairperson of the House Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, along with hundreds of others. All the 300 shows are archived at http://advocates-wvox.com. Richard currently gives lectures on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR and the Jewish Community, The New Deal, FDR and Douglas MacArthur, 20th Century American Foreign Policy Resulting in Conflict, and Israel’s Right to Exist. Richard lives in Boynton Beach, Fl, with his wife Linda of 44 years. They have two married children. Their daughter Dana is a Rutgers College graduate, with a MS from Boston University, and is the Assistant Director of Recruitment at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Their son Jon is an electrical engineering graduate of Princeton University and a senior software architect at NY/Mellon Bank in NYC. Richard J. Garfunkel rjg727@comcast.net Recent Appearances: KTI Synagogue, Rye Brook, NY- Long Term Care & Estate Conservation- Anshe Shalom Synagogue, New Rochelle, NY- Long Term Care- American Legion Post, Valhalla, NY- Long Term Care and Asset Protection- Doyle Senior Ctr, New Rochelle, NY-Long Term Care and Asset Protection- AME Methodist Ministers, New Rochelle, NY, LTC and Charitable Giving- Profession Women in Construction, Elmsford, NY, LTC and Business Benefits- Kol Ami Synagogue- White Plains, NY, Long Term Care and Disability - Beth El Men's Club-New Rochelle, NY-Long Term Care-Is it Necessary- Greater NY Dental Meeting Javits Ctr, NY, NY- LTC and Disability- IBEW Local #3 , White Plains, NY, Long Term Care and Asset Protection, Health Fair -Bethel Synagogue, New Rochelle, NY-LTC and Disability, Heath Fair- Riverdale Mens Club CSAIR- Riverdale, NY- LTC- Life Weight Watchers of Westchester and the Bronx-LTC and Tax Implications Sunrise Assisted Living of Fleetwood, Mount Vernon, NY-LTC Sprain Brook Manor of Scarsdale-LTC- November 15, 2001 Sunrise Assisted Living of Stamford, Connecticut, February 2002 Kol Ami Synagogue, White Plains, NY, February, 2002 The Old Guard Society of White Plains, NY, April, 2002 The Westchester Meadows, Valhalla, NY August, 2002 Kol Ami Synagogue, White Plains, NY, October, 2002 JCC of Scarsdale, Scarsdale, NY, November, 2002 The Westchester Meadows, Valhalla, NY, January, 2003 The Rotary Club of White Plains, NY January, 2003 The Westchester Meadows, Valhalla, NY April, 2003 Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, NY January, 2004 Mount Vernon High School, Mount Vernon, NY March 2004 Kol Ami/JCC of White Plains, NY November, 2004 The Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, January 2005 The Sunrise of Fleetwood, Mount Vernon, April, 2005 The Woodlands of Ardsley, assisted living, November, 2005 The Woodlands of Ardsley, assisted living, December, 2005 The Woodlands of Ardsley, assisted living, January, 2005 Rotary Club of Elmsford, April, 2006 Kiwanis Club of Yonkers, June, 2006 Greenburgh Jewish Center, November, 2006 Temple Kol Ami, White Plains, February, 2007 Hebrew Institute, White Plains, March, 2007 Temple Kol Ami, White Plains, NY, April, 2007 Westchester Meadows. Valhalla, November, 2007 Hebrew Institute. White Plains, November, 2007 Art Zuckerman Radio Show- January, 2008 JCC of the Hudson, Tarrytown, February, 2008 Matt O’Shaughnessy Radio Show, March, 2008 WVOX –Election Night Coverage, November, 2008 WVOX – Inaugural Coverage, January 20, 2009 The Advocates-host of the WVOX Radio Show, 2007- 2010 Rotary Club of Pleasantville, February, 2009 Hebrew Institute of White Plains, May, 2009 JCC Hudson, Tarrytown, December, 2009-10-11-12 Brandeis Club, Yonkers, March 25, 2010

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