Saturday, 22 March 2008

'Letters Home' - Introduction

Rudolf Goldschmidt Sonneborn was born in Baltimore, USA on June 22nd 1898 and died June 1st 1986.

Writing his obituary in the New York Times on June 4th 1986, Wolfgang Saxon described Rudolf as a "
“New York Industrialist, a longtime leader of the American Zionist movement and one of the most prominent fund-raisers for the young state of Israel in the 1940’s and 1950’s…

“Mr. Sonneborn had a successful business career dealing with petrochemicals and specialty petroleum products. But he was better known for his friendships, going back to 1919, with such future Israeli leaders as David Ben-Gurion and Dr Chaim Weizman. Through them his name became prominently linked with the famous ship Exodus and other American efforts to send supplies and materiel to Palestine as the Jewish community there girded for a war of independence.

Once Israel was established, Mr. Sonneborn was in the forefront of campaigns that raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Israel. He became a familiar figure at dinners and other events, exhorting American Jews to dig deeper into their pockets to help a flood of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees settle in Israel.”

These 44 ‘Letters Home’ (written between January and August, 1919) were presented to family and friends in New York on the occasion of Rudolf's 80th birthday - June 22, 1978. (Photo published 1972)

They are Rudolf’s personal account of his first trip to Palestine, acting as ‘Secretary to the Zionist Commission’, where he celebrated his 21st birthday - 29 years BEFORE Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948.

This 'introduction' letter was written to Rudolf’s mother* by Henrietta Szold of the ‘Zionist Organization of America’ shortly before Rudolf's departure:


JANUARY 15, 1919

Mrs. Sigmund B. Sonneborn
2420 Eutaw Place

Baltimore, Md.

My dear Mrs Sonneborn

How curiously things come about. I was just going to write to you, on a different matter of course, when your letter about Elias Breeskin* was handed to me.

First as to Miss Dohme*. I shall be very glad to see Mr. Breeskin, and I am writing to him with this mail. I am not at all sure that I can be of any assistance, but I shall do my best, and I will write to you again when I have had my talk with him. I hope your confidence in me will be justified.

What I wanted to write to you about was Rudolf’s proposed trip. I was amazed to hear of his going and rejoiced. I can imagine that it must have required some degree of self-conquest on your part to give your consent, and yet I cannot believe that the struggle could have been a prolonged one, because, whether you are in sympathy with Zionism or not, you cannot but be thrilled by the romance of the great venture upon which we Jews are embarking. If all goes well at Versailles- and I refuse to believe that events will do anything but go well there- just think what it will mean in the days to come for your son to be able to say that he was witness with his own eyes of the beginnings of the restoration of his people- a people who are undertaking the unprecedented thing, gathering themselves together from the four quarters of the globe; learning to speak their language after two thousand years of forgetfulness; setting about the consistent development of a culture that has maintained itself in spite of adverse conditions; laying the foundations in short of a normal national life, human in its Jewishness and Jewish in its humanity after the abnormal living of generations upon generations.

I cannot conceal from you at the same time I am thinking of the effect Rudolf’s journey may have upon the young men of his own generation. He will be a propagandist through the act and through the influences which he is bound to bring back with him.

I saw Mr. Sonneborn this morning for a moment when he was here at our office. I am sorry that I could not have any sort of a talk with him and convey to him what he possibly knows, that Rudolf is going under the best possible auspices as the companion of Dr. Friedenwald, who will have associated with him so admirable a scholar and gentleman as Dr. Rubinow, the director of our Medical Unit.

Please give my love to your mother. I hope she is not fretting too much about Rudolf’s resolve.

In the hope of the New Zion. I am

Cordially yours

Henrietta Szold

*Camille Katherine Sonneborn nee Goldschmidt:- b. Washington D.C. 1874 – d. Baltimore 1960; Rudolf’s Mother.

*Breeskin, Elias:- talented young Russian Jewish immigrant violinist, protégé of the Sonneborn family.

*Dohme, Miss:- Baltimorean Christian fiancée of Elias Breeskin


LJP said...

I found your fascinating blog while doing research on the L. Sonneborn Sons, Petrolia, PA, one of the Sonneborn refineries. This is part of a project to preserve Petrolia's history (and the refinery's, as well) but I for one am very interested in the scientists that worked at the refinery during WWII and thereafter. Several of the scientists, as we understand it, had escaped the Nazis. But we wondered how they ever ended up in Petrolia (which, for us as residents or neighbors, is the "outback of nowhere"). Our understanding is that they did research that was instrumental to the American military in WWII. It would be nice to have these contributions documented.

Where did you get these amazing letters? And thanks, too, for the biographical footnotes which are helping me to put the Sonneborn story together. These were AMAZING people and I am convinced their contributions to American history should be documented.

Any suggestions would be appreciated.

LJP said...

I tried to post a comment yesterday, but cannot find it. I've never been on a blog at this site, so forgive me if this is redundant.

Last week I met someone who is collecting artifacts and assembling the history of a town called Petrolia in Pennsylvania (USA). In Petrolia, L Sonneborn Sons operated a refinery which is still open today--and (after decades of corporate names like WITCO) currently using the Sonneborn name.

The people working on Petrolia's history are interested in this refinery not only because it has been a presence since the early days of the town's existence, but because it has contributed greatly to both American military success in World War II and to petroleum science in general.

Several of the distinguished scientists at the site during World War II apparently had left Europe a step or two ahead of the Nazis. We are interested in their stories. It is amazing that distinguished European-educated scientists would end up in a place like Petrolia, which even today is about 35 minutes from anything!

I am wondering where you got these wonderful family documents, as I am trying to find any accounts of the Sonneborn's involvement with the refinery. Years ago, before the war I think, my father was the "chauffeur" for one of the Sonneborn's when he was in Petrolia. My dad went on to work at Sonneborn for over 45 years, once the war was over and he returned from service in Africa and Italy. But he passed on years ago and I wasn't smart enough to ask him these questions.

If you know of any resources that would help us, we would appreciate hearing from you. Thanks very much for posting this very interesting material about a family that made a huge difference in the world.

'Oldwatertower' said...

Thank you for your very interesting and positive comments about the Sonneborns. The Internet is a wonderful resource, especially 'Blogger' :-))

If you can leave an email address, I'll contact you with more info. Kind regards, 'oldwatertower'


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petrolia Researcher said...

Hello, I am the Project director for the Petrolia Area Historical Project. One of our project goals is to acquire as much information as possible on Ferdinand and Sigmund Sonneborn who in 1908 purchased the Daugherty Refinery in Petrolia which the Daugherty Family established in was named L. Sonneborn and Sons,Inc. after their father and their petroleum products were named "Amalie" after their mother.AS a youth I delivered the morning paper throughout the plant and had among my customers Drs. Schlinder, Kessler, Salzman, Kinsel, Blumer, Breth and Miley. We have been told that some of these scientists fled Nazi Germany. It has been reported that Dr. Sonneborn established the Petrolia site as the principal Research and Development laboratory in order to deter any espionage activity. Any stranger in the area would have been recognized immediately as everyone knew everyone. We are interested in biographic information on these scientists and their individual accomplishments. Their accomplishment in petroleum products contributed greatly to our winning WWII. We believe that Peter Robert or Robert Peter son of Henry Sonneborn II may be living and would be able to give us his insight into living in Petrolia as a Youth. Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank yoy, Joe

annulla said...

You say that the ‘Letters Home’ were presented to family and friends. Are you, perhaps, a member of the Sonneborn family?

annulla said...
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