The Arrival of Hannah Arendt
This film describes the arrival of Hannah Arendt - a Jewish, German-American political theorist and publicist - in New York and her reflections on flight and helping people start over.
This page traces the flight history and biography of the Austrian painter and writer Egon Vitalis Biel on the basis of self-testimonies. He was born in Vienna in 1902 and converted from Judaism to Catholicism before the Nazis came to power. Austria’s annexation by Germany in 1938 forced him to flee, which brought him initially to France to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Paris. During his time in France, which was marked by poverty and uncertainty, he tried to organise his emigration to the USA. Here he comes in touch for the first time with the American Guild, where the Jewish painter and writer Uriel Birnbaum has campaigned for him. He remained in constant correspondence with the Guild for the next few years. A more precise classification of the chronological sequence is given in the context.
Memorandum, March 22 1942
The name of the alien is Egon Vitalis Biel.
He was born in Vienna, Germany, on November 27, 1902, and the name of his wife is Hertha Maria, née Urbach, who was born in Vienna, Germany, on April 19, 1904. Mr. Biel has made a name for himself as a very gifted young painter. His works have not only become known to the European public through various expositions in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and other cities, but have also found recognition in this country, where Mr. Biel held an exposition at the Marie Harriman Gallery, in New York, in 1938. In addition, Mr. Biel is a promising young writer. Mr Biel is at present interned at
Athis de l’Orne, (France)
Camp 9, Section 3
His wife is residing at Chateau des Celestins,
Marcoussis, Seine et Oise (France)
Which was also Mr. Biel’s residence.
NANCE MEROWIT, residing at 23 Bank Street, Borough of Manhattan, City and State of New York, being duly sworn deposes and says:
1. That I am a native born citizen of the United States having been born in the City of New York, State of New York.
2. That it is my intention and desire to have my friends whose names appear below, at present residing at the Chateau des Celestins, Marcoussis, Seine et Oise, France, to come to the United States for permanent residence. That the name of the alien is Egon Vitalis Biel, who was born in Vienna, Germany, on November 27, 1902; and that the name of his wife is Hertha Maria, née Urbach, who was born in Vienna, Germany on April 19, 1904. Mr Biel is a writer and a painter by profession and has been a friend of your deponent for upwards of fifteen years. I have visited him and his wife at their home in Vienna on a number of occasions and I know them to be individuals of good moral habits and standing. Mr Biel has made a name for himself as a very gifted young painter. His works have not only become known to the European public through various expositions in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and other cities, but have also found recognition in this country, where Mr. Biel held an exposition at the Marie Harriman Gallery in New York, in 1938. In addition, Mr Biel is a promising young writer. This affidavit is given for the purpose of bringing him and his wife to this country, should they be given a quota number and be permitted to come to the United States. That I am extremely anxious to assist them and feel that they would become most useful citizens of the United States.
3. That I am a housewife by profession and my average earnings amount to over $5,000 per annum.
4. That I possess the following financial assets of which corroborative evidence is herewith attached.
(a) I have a monthly income from my former husband, Clement E. Merowit, of $275 per month which was decreed by a court of competent jurisdiction and by a separate agreement the pertinent parts of which are hereto attached as a photostatic copy.
(b) In addition thereto I own 50% of the shares of stock of 40 Gramercy Park North Inc. which is the owner in fee of a huge apartment house located at 44 Gramercy Park North, Borough of Manhattan, City and State of New York. Annexed hereto are photostatic copies of said shares of stock. Said building is assessed at $675,000 and its actual value is $1,005,000. Annexed hereto is a certified copy of a tax receipt for the said building and that the said building is at the present time encumbered by a first mortgage of $575,000 and that the equity in the said building is close to one half million dollars. That I receive as dividends from the said stock approximately on the average, a little over $2,000 per annum.
(c) That annexed hereto are two copies from my bank accounts which show bank balances as of November 28, 1938. That since that time there have been deposited additional sums so that at the Bank for Savings I now have approximately $1,300 and at the National City Bank of New York I have approximately $200,00.
(d) I n addition to this I have accounts receivable from good credit risks in the sum of $720 for moneys loaned by me and payable demand.
(e) That I have household fixtures and furnishings a modest estimate of which would be around $10,000.
5. That I have no dependents upon me, my two sons being self supporting.
6. That I am willing and able to receive, maintain and support the aliens Egon Vitalis Biel and his wife after their immigration to the United States, and hereby assume such obligations guaranteeing that they will not at any time become a burden upon any community in the United States, and hereby assume such obligations guaranteeing that they will not at any time become a burden upon any community in the United States. In particular, I am willing to provide them with board and lodging, and pocket money of $5.00 per weel, whenever this should be necessary.
7. That this affidavit is made by me voluntarily and my own free will for the purpose of inducing the American Consul to issue a visa to Mr. and Mrs. Egon Vitalis Biel, so that they may enter the United States for permanent residence here.
Sworn to before me this 22nd day of March, 1940.
28 W 83.Str.
N.Y., March 23, 1942
[…] And now I am in medias res: I now have a great request to make of you. Prince Loewenstein and you have contributed in a really powerful way to my and my wife’s rescue. Above all by making use of your friends and connections through which the rapid obtaining of an affidavit from Mr. Villard, which is fundamental for all further steps of the Rescue-Committee. And also through impressive written interventions, etc. Miss Kolnai has told me about the decisive importance of your steps. It is therefore a pleasant and natural duty for me to give our most sincere and heartfelt thanks to Prince Loewenstein, Mr. Villard and you, dear Doctor, to tell you that I would consider it a special pleasure and satisfaction to be able now, for my part, to prove my goodwill and gratitude to the helpers by deed. (I ask you to especially express Mr. Villard our great gratitude and also to allow me to present him with some of my best works and to ask him to chose something) – Unfortunately, I have not progressed, on the contrary, I am still constantly pestering you with requests. But, especially in this particularly difficult time of the beginning – further complicated by the circumstances as: My wife’s illness, very poor knowledge of the language, complete financial dependence, complete lack of knowledge of professional possibilities, etc. and all above a very bad physical and most of all, mental state, as a result of the unimaginable things that have been endured since September 39,..- I have to ask you for your support!
Back to my big request. It concerns the Catholic Committee. Please, allow me to speak quite frankly. This committee shows itself to me almost exclusively in the form of my “case-worker” Mrs. Johnson, a somewhat moody, distressed lady, who cannot necessarily muster the right insight and understanding of the situation, because she has no idea of the the special atmosphere of an artist (what of course is not her own opinion but m y judgement), nothing of the, to a certain extent, justified exception that I allow myself to claim within my own circles, in short, because -entre nous- she belongs to that type of charmingly naïve Americans who are completely clueless in cultural matters, who have visited Europe and especially all the Italian museums, but who are not able to differentiate between a gifted display arranger and a productive artist. – In the interest of my current life circumstances that are unfortunately still completely dependent on the C.C., and especially to enable me to get rid of this unenjoyable dependence as soon as possible, it would be extremely grateful and beneficial if you,- or if you may thing Prince Loewenstein, could be asked to deal with this matter,- […].
Here, too, I leave it entirely up to you to act as you see best and appropriate. I hopy, dear Mr. Zuehlsdorff, that you will not take my long letter unkindly and that you understand how difficult my situation is and that there is an urgency that something useful should be done very soon. If you see another possibility of “clearing things up” and “making the C.C. docile” for instance by taking approaching high ecclesiastical authorities or the like, you are of course at liberty to do so, and I am most grateful to you and all concerned in advance.
I hope to be able to speak to you personally soon, and I remain your devoted friend with the best regards from my wife and myself.
Another small but illustrative appendix:
My wife’s condition makes it necessary to rent a sunny, spacious room with an indoor bathroom and kitchen. Besides, I can only work in a bright, spacious room, although even that is not easy, because painting requires a studio. (This may, for my sake, be reserved for later times.) The C.C. had an understanding and approved the renting of a room suitable in these two regards. Such a room costs 10 dollars a week, even in the area where I now live. However, the CC’s entire weekly assistance consists of a 15 dollar-cheque. Although I personally pointed out several times, both to Mrs. Johnson and to Rev. Komora, that the proper feeding of my very run-down wife, the food for myself, other expenses such as driving, telephoning, writing, laundry, etc. are all the less feasible with the remaining weekly 5 dollars, as, according to the order of the doctor sent by the CC, my wife needs to be very well fed, nothing happened to remedy the situation. After my wife left for the hospital, I was promised that I would continue to be payed the 15 $ – and that I alone would make myself at home – but I have the justified feeling that they will not be be aware of my special circumstances until I am clearly pointed out to the C.C. from the appropriate side that I need to be singled out from the crowd of other refugees (which, by the way, has dwindled quite a bit today).-
28 W 83.Str.
New York, May 21, 1942
Dear Mr. Zuehlsdorff,
Many thanks for your kind words and the copy of the letter from Prince Loewenstein to Mrs Allison. Please let the prince know how thankful I am.
I am very sorry that you are not coming to N. Y. I would have loved to talk to you in person. But it’s only a pleasure deferred. In the meantime, various things happened to me over here and I want to tell you everything by letter as best I can. My situation is extremely difficult. For the following reason: the cath.committee gives me, as long as my wife is in hospital (and that will be about 2 more months.) the unreduced, weekly support. This allows me to live, but not to work. I asked Father Komora for a special loan of $50 to buy materials but he refused, saying that the C.C. did not have sufficient funds. That would mean, that I can not work and get the weekly income just to go for a walk in NY. Of course this won’t be sustainable á la longue and would force me to get a job. Well I would not wait until that happens, but would have taken a job for 20 dollars a week long ago if I would not know that my artistic career would be jeopardised to the utmost, but if it would be possible for some months, until October to work u n d i s t u r b e d and intensive.- my artistic and financial possibilities would be something else. Possibilities that would justify and make it a duty to support me. It would be foolish to put me in any kind of work without prospects for the future, even temporarily, when my very own work, if I am just given the time, will secure my existence in this country. But Father Komora does not understand this at all. He may have had bad experiences with some so-called “artists”, and for him I am just a “case” like 100 others. My claim, that I would make my way after some time and live off my earnings is in no way based on personal pipe dreams or the like, but the fact that Mrs. Allison has decided to “manage” my work here. To prove how serious she is about it and how many chances she senses in me, I can tell you, that she told me, she will do the whole, very tedious and time-consuming management at her own risk, that means free of charge, until the material successes occur. She added that she could have done something similar for countless European artists, but had never done it, because she had never seen the certainty of success in any of the cases she had encountered so far; with me she is sure about it. But, of course, my success would need some time, since
I have to become known here. However the high quality of my work (and the unanimous opinion of all the experienced experts to whom she showed my work) was enough to convince her that she was devoting her time and energy to a “good” cause. She also has the necessary connections and experience to “start” me here. On the 25th of the Month she opens an exhibition “Impressions of World Leaders” (12 large coloured, recent portraits) at the Americain Friends of Norway Society, that I painted in the last weeks. In June she is placing six pieces of my own in a very good N. Y. gallery, in the context of first-hand paintings of first masters, like Forain Wisthler, Dégas, Daumier and in August she organises an exhibition of my work in Milwaukee. In the autumn, around November, she will do a one man show just for me in a big N.Y. gallery and that will bring decisive results,… –p r o v i d e d, that provided that I can work undisturbed and concentrated on the projected material of a modern kind we want to come out with until then. Considering these enormous chances, I have through my work and the interest of that woman, who understands her business from the FF, it would be idiotic and a kind of cultural disgrace to put me in some kind of activity that someone else can do just aswell and better, but which can throw me off the track which has just opened up and ruin my artistically on a permanent base as a result. I can not ask Mrs. Allison to support me financially on top of everything else until I own a living. I have the impression, by the way, that she would not be able to do that. It is now to the catholic authorities to help me and make my career possible. I have tried in vain to explain the situation to Father Komora. Perhaps he does not understand enough Dutch (or I do not understand enough English). Only the respect for his clerical person keeps me from honestly telling you my impression. He provides me, as long a s m y w i f e i s i n t h e h o s p i t a l, the weekly help for one person, no quarter for working materials and then has the intention to just put me in a work of whatever kind. About my possibilities, my prospects and plans, not to mention my art, he has no idea! The man is well chosen for his job; only I am not in the right place with him. I know, that there are Americans, who are able and willing to help a promising artist but I have no way of reaching them. I have to rely completely C.C. which is unsuitable and lacks understanding of my situation! Dear Mister Dr. Zuehlsdorff, don’t be to cross with me, but there must be a way to help me, either to yet persuade the C.C. of the uniqueness of my case, or to interest other people effectually. I ask Prince Loewenstein and you to do something as soon as possible! I hesitate to go to Father Ford. You will understand that my artistic existence and career are at stake and that I, who have arrived here like a Godsend must not be allowed to have the carpet being pulled off under my feet, before it even could accumulate. I am threatened with being thrown off course overnight, which would be a real drama in view of the promising possibilities I found. You can not imagine (because you and nobody here can imagine what we have experienced over there) how agonized and tormented I am from my situation here, when I just had hoped to find some understanding and appropriate help. I can see the right path but no possibility of walking it.
Your very devoted
The painter, illustrator and writer Egon Vitalis Biel was born in Vienna in 1902 and converted from Judaism to Catholicism before the Nazis came to power. Austria’s annexation by Germany in 1938 forced him to flee, which brought him initially to France to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Paris. During his time in France, which was marked by poverty and uncertainty, he tried to organise his emigration to the USA. Here he comes in touch for the first time with the American Guild, where the Jewish painter and writer Uriel Birnbaum has campaigned for him. He remained in constant correspondence with the Guild for the next few years. His efforts to accelerate his emigration to the USA failed, however, partly because visitor visas were no longer issued in the USA to persons persecuted in Germany and he was not entitled to a non-quota visa.
The Guild was finally able to arrange an affidavit for him and his wife in 1941 with Nance Merowit as a vouching person, which at that time was indispensable for a German who had been persecuted to obtain a visa in the USA.
Once in the USA, Biel had to find a way to finance himself. The American Guild has since dissolved due to a lack of funds, so an artist’s grant is no longer an option for him. He receives support from the Catholic Committee, which pays the Biel couple $10 (adjusted to the current inflation rate, approx. $280) per week. In order to pursue his artistic career, Biel tries to organise funds for working materials and to be provided with more money overall, which is necessary so that he can concentrate on his artistic work. Because he is not getting anywhere with his concerns at the Catholic Committee, which focuses on refugees in general and not on artists or writers as the Guild does, he also falls back on his contacts from the dissolved Guild.
He turns to the former General Secretary, Dr. Volkmar Zühlsdorff, with the request to put pressure on the committee and to improve his situation. In the letters to Zühlsdorff, Biel’s increasing desperation becomes clear, but so does his self-confidence and conviction to become a successful artist in the USA and to restore his old life before the flight.