Fred Stein’s letter to friends and relatives

In a letter from 1946, Fred Stein describes the flight story of his family in detail to his friends and relatives. After Fred and Lilo Stein had already left Germany in 1933, they first lived in Paris for several years, where they made photography their profession. In this excerpt from his letter, Stein reports on this professional new beginning and the emigrant networks in the city.

Fred Stein, self-portrait, 1941, with kind permission of Peter Stein © Fred Stein Archive

We left Dresden and Germany in the night – between “Harvest-Thanksgiving and Hindenburg’s birthday. 11The harvest thanksgiving festival was celebrated by the National Socialists for the propaganda of their “blood and soil” ideology as “Reichserntedankfest” (Reich Harvest Thanksgiving Festival) with a mass event, for the first time on October 1, 1933. Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), who as Reich President (1925-1934) had appointed Hitler as Reich Chancellor, had his birthday on October 2. The ocean of swastikas on the last day, made the otherwise difficult departure, easier.

After a short stay in the (at the time independent) Saar we arrived on Oct. 7, 1933 on French soil – which we regarded at the time as temporary. Now the problem of a profession was urgent. Jurisprudence was out of the question for people without money. (There was no night study in France). We did not have – as many former lawyers had already – a lot of clients among the refugees. A lawyer was only allowed to practice ten years after naturalization (which was nearly impossible for a former German – and at the time it was not yet our plan to leave Germany forever. So jurisprudence which had been very close to my heart was out of the question for me. A substitute idea was to sell insurance (together with Herbert Zucker) – but the lack of talent for business is so incarnate with me that I was very unhappy and not successful at all. In the meantime Lilo tried to become a cook for a collective of 35 people in a toy factory in a suburb of Paris – so that I could possibly enter there later. She did not know the amount of work with which they burdened her – (Later 2 or 3 people did what she had tried to do alone.)  and she broke down. I looked for a handycraft, not because of enthusiasm but because of desparation- and the consideration that I need an international profession.

By chance I came in contact with a photographer who didn’t have any money at all, and (we passed as capitalists ???) since we got money from the family in Germany. During the first years that money definitely helped us since we were very thrifty.  We had brought a Leica along (the first model, bought used as a wedding present to ourselves) (Lilo Stein: We had wanted to become photographers with Bino’s help.) We dissolved the association after 3 months of unpleasant working and living together.

With that Leica and the small enlarger we had bought in Paris, we had the audacity to open in our room “Studio Stein”. (the earlier failure had been called “Studio Pour Tous”). It really took “chuzpe” since we had not learned photography. The so-called partner had not let me take a single shot –  I only retouched prints (which Lilo does with unbelievable skill.) We put a portrait in the showcase (outside the building) – the other picture in the case was of Montmartre – which was the first photo I took in Paris – and that photo is also published in our Paris calendar. (Before this , altogether, we had taken 3 rolls of film with the Leica.)

The taking of photographs – especially of people – was such a pleasure for us, and friends whose judgement we appreciated, often assured us that we made good pictures… we  – in spite of pitiful material success – continued with it. In order to get into business, at festive events we donated “Bons” (free sample portraits) to clubs etc. We learned of these events from newspapers and advertisements on walls. At these events, besides donating portraits, we opened our studio in a corner of the hall, announcing it with a primitive sign – and returned home in the morning, dead tired, but with a little money in our pockets. We started early on to photograph “personalities”, of course free of charge – and that was in the long run a meaningful use of our “publicity fund”. […] I had started on my own – in 1935 – to take pictures during mass meetings of the Popular Front – and to offer the pictures to weekly newspapers.  To compete with the large agencies as a one man undertaking was impossible – but I obtained contacts with editors – which finally led to orders and in some cases (as during the World’s Fair in Paris in 1937) to regular series.

I have to correct myself. We were always a two-man undertaking because Lilo has built up everything together with me – and was often the one who encouraged me to keep going – especially when technical difficulties appeared – which I hated – and which could not always be solved by looking it up in a book or calling a colleague at the last moment. But she left me to do all the outside work, which was especially  practical after we had children.

The work for the newspapers brought me in contact with the German Antifaschistic Journalists Organization in Paris – to whose directorate (5 people) I then belonged  for years.  I was also a member of the “Association Professionelles de la Presse Etrangere en France (French Foreign Press Association), was a delegate to the German “Kulturkartell” seat in Paris, and still in close contact with Socialist friends in Paris (from German emigration).

We had an apartment in Montmartre. One entered on the first floor and from the window in the apartment it was 7 fights [feets?] down. We sublet to boarders – who were comrades and friends – which  had pleasant and un-pleasant results – the bathroom which was used by everybody was our darkroom. The police were interested in some of our tenants – work was illegal for emigrees if they were not artists or journalists…..friends of ours had their independent workshops closed within 48 hours – even photographers. Only under the Popular Front government could emigrees from Germany get work permits.

Finally, in 1936, we moved to Porte St. Cloud and took a studio apartment. (A beautiful large studio with skylight) We were alone for the first time and felt very, very happy. Our work in France was at its peak until 1938. In the meantime the Spanish Civil War started.

Fred Stein’s letter of 1946, originally written in German, is only preserved in the English translation of his wife Lilo and son Peter shown here.


  • 1The harvest thanksgiving festival was celebrated by the National Socialists for the propaganda of their “blood and soil” ideology as “Reichserntedankfest” (Reich Harvest Thanksgiving Festival) with a mass event, for the first time on October 1, 1933. Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), who as Reich President (1925-1934) had appointed Hitler as Reich Chancellor, had his birthday on October 2.

Fred Stein (1909-1967) was born in Dresden as the son of a rabbi and initially started a lawyer’s career. After the National Socialists seized power and issued a decree revoking the license to practice law for Jews as early as June 1933, however, the career as a legal clerk was discontinued. Fred Stein’s political, antifascist and socialist commitment – and his awareness that the Gestapo was making inquiries about him – forced Stein to flee as early as October 1933. Together with his wife Lieselotte (née Salzburg, named Lilo), whom he had married the same year, he went on a fake honeymoon trip to France, from which they did not return.

Like many other refugees, the young couple tried to build up an interim life in Paris. Fred Stein turned his previous hobby, photography, into a profession. He meandered through Paris with the Leica, which he and Lilo had given each other as a wedding present. He developed two main subjects: the “sociology of the street” and “the psychology of the portrait.” Fred Stein photographed, among other things, the Jewish quarter of Marais, the glamour and poverty on the streets of Paris, the workers, beggars, sales clerks and children he met there, the café life of the emigrants. He also took photographs of children who had fled to France from the Spanish Civil War. In 1935 he portrayed participants in the International Writers’ Congress for the Defense of Culture in Paris. He also portrayed Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), with whom he had a long friendship, for over 30 years.

The productive network of exiled intellectuals based on solidarity also took place face to face in Fred and Lilo Stein’s apartment in Montmartre which became a meeting place for many refugees and the “Studio Stein” with the bathroom as a darkroom. Lilo contributed through retouching and laboratory work and her own photographs. Stein’s photographs were shown, among other places, in the bookstore and Galerie de la Pléiade, which was central to Parisian exile life. He also published them in illustrated magazines, especially left-wing ones such as the “Regards,” in which social reportage had become an essential element.

Stein remained politically active in Paris not only through his social-documentary photographic work: he became involved in the Anti-Fascist Journalists’ Association and wrote articles for the Socialist Workers’ Party under the pseudonym Fritz Berg. From September 1939 onwards, Fred Stein was sent to various internment camps because of his German origins. In the Villerbon camp, he administered a small camp library and organized mutual instruction courses with other inmates, which they jokingly called “la Sorbonne.” Amid the unrest following the German invasion of France, Fred Stein escaped the internment camp, and managed to find Lilo and their daughter Marion, born in 1938, in Toulouse. In 1941, with the help of the Emergency Rescue Committee headed by Varian Fry, the Stein family managed to escape to New York, where they settled permanently. Fred Stein continued his photographic work.

In a long letter to friends and relatives, written in 1946, Stein describes the family’s flight and life in Paris, as well as how he and Lilo built up a professional existence as photographers and became politically involved. The letter bears witness to the social, professional and activist emigration networks in the city and its political conditions. In the further course of the letter, Fred Stein describes how the family’s situation deteriorated after the war began: While Fred Stein was interned, Lilo lived in and around Paris, classified as an “enemy alien” due to her German heritage and under difficult conditions.


Letter by Fred Stein to his relatives and friends, 1946

Fred Stein’s letter of 1946, originally written in German, is only preserved in the English translation of his wife Lilo and son Peter shown here.

© Fred Stein Archive. Veröffentlicht mit freundlicher Genehmigung von Peter Stein, published with the kind permission of Peter Stein.