When you work at a Jewish history museum, it's easy to find Jewish history everywhere. This past week, I happened upon an interesting story in an unlikely place, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
I had read that they recently opened a new core exhibition and was anxious to visit. While the library has much to recommend it, the newly available phone conversations between LBJ and a wide range of personalities including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Kennedy were fascinating. It was inspiring to hear the President and the Civil Rights leader in candid conversations filled with both passion and calculated strategy.
However, for me, the biggest surprise was a smaller section on immigration toward the end of the exhibit. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we are immersed in stories of immigration, because of our location and because it is such an important part of the Jewish American experience. Yet, I had never heard that President Johnson himself helped rescue an Austrian composer from Nazi-dominated Europe in 1938, the same time period our current exhibition Against the Odds: American Jews and the Rescue of Europe’s Refugees covers.
According to the exhibit, and to oral testimony given to the Library, Erich Leinsdorf was 25 years old when, as an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in 1937, he realized he couldn’t safely return to Vienna because he was Jewish. At the urging of his Texan friend, Charles Marsh, Leinsdorf was introduced to freshman congressman from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Marsh, a supporter of Johnson’s campaign, pleaded with the future president to help Leinsdorf extend his visa, which was soon to expire. While the visa had already been rejected, Johnson was able to have the date changed which meant Leinsdorf could stay another 6 months. He then helped him to make his way to safety in Cuba and then back to the United States where he became a citizen in 1942.
While the story might have ended there, it didn’t. The conductor and future president continued to be friendly. Once elected to the highest office, Leinsdorf was a frequent guest at the White House. Johnson appointed him to the board of the Kennedy Center, named him assisting director of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, and even threw parties to celebrate his accomplishments as a conductor.
But the most moving story is that in 1965, the President invited Erich Leinsdorf to be his guest on Liberty Island when he signed the new immigration bill which, the president hoped, would prevent discrimination in immigration policies. They even drove together to the ceremony.
Leinsdorf said, “During that drive he referred to that bill, and said, ''What do you think of that
bill?" He spoke very, very movingly about his feeling that the name of a person…
should not influence if he could get in the United States or not--which meant actually he was very much opposed to the racial or national quota which had been the 1922 law. He referred to the fact that my own case, which he had handled as a young man in 1938, had been perhaps the beginning to open his eyes to the difficulty which a man could have. He always manifested that he was very happy and proud to have gotten
me into the country. It was a very strong bond between us because I was very grateful.”
Read the full testimony here:
Note: It is worth mentioning that our curators came across this story in their extensive research, but it didn’t fit into the scope of the exhibit. I was happy to discover it on my own and then clarify it with them. Also worth noting is that the LBJ Library does a good job of discussing the president's failings, especially as they relate to Vietnam.
Public Domain image from 1937, shortly before Johnson met Leinsdorf: