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'

Letter 1 - January 15, (1919)

Holland-America Line, Rotterdam - S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam

Dear Family,-

We’re off! Today the lake gives promise to a real storm. It’s snowing-it’s rolling- the wind is sailing thru the top decks- the front of the boat dips away beneath an occasional large wave- several people are already beginning to feel the effects.

I have succeeded in inveigling the chief steward into giving me a cabin to myself, which makes things more comfortable for both Dr. Friedenwald* and myself. He is not feeling so fit, but is sleeping a lot, and loafing a lot, and reading my novels (Mr. Frank Cahn* sent me three novels and a dozen current magazines to the boat.) The rest of the party consists of Dr. Rubinow*, Miss Shapiro, and Mr. Szold*. The latter two are frequently among the missing.

I’ve been doing lots of reading under the guidance of Dr. F. Pamphlets on the history, the geography, the population, the economic condition, etc. of Palestine. But this work has not kept me from enjoying the company of this YMCA bunch.

The food is not bad- but then it’s not good.

Lots of love and kisses,


Friedenwald, Dr. Harry
:- b. Baltimore 1864 – d. Baltimore 1950; leading opthamologist, dedicated Zionist; orthodox Jew

Cahn, Frank:- Baltimore neighbour whose four children were of parallel ages with the Sonneborn children and friends

Rubinow, Dr. Isaac Max:- b. Russia 1875 – d. U.S.A. 1936; U.S. economist and social worker, active in Zionist affairs; Director of Medical Centre (AZMU) staffed by Hadassah from 1918 – 1922

Szold, Robert:- b. U.S A. 1889 – d. 1970’s; Attorney and Zionist leader thru friendship with Brandeis* starting in 1915

Brandeis, Louis Dembitz:- b. Louisville, Ky. 1856 – d. Washington D.C. 1941; Leader of American Jewish Zionist from 1913 on; Justice of U.S. Supreme Court 1916 -1939

Letter 2 - January 29, (1919)

Holland-America Line, Rotterdam - S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam

Dear Family,-

Altho you were very insistent on the fact you wanted me to keep a diary I’ve been trying it and don’t like the idea. In the first place it’s a colorless, monotonous job to daily record what you do and think, and it rarely proves to be sincere. Secondly, it usually turns out to be a characterless pamphlet and makes dry reading. So in addition to my weekly cable I am going to write letters- full letters- which you can have transcribed in book form and will answer the same purpose as a diary much more satisfactorily.

The trip has been a fine one. Dr. Rubinow and Mr. Szold are both most brainy and interesting men. Miss Shapiro has been trying to teach some of us Hebrew. In addition the large crowd of YMCA entertainers have afforded me, at least, ample amusement. They are all vaudeville performers and very poor ones at that for the most part. And in addition to these there are a few quite attractive girls all of whom serve to keep me well entertained most of the time.

Except for the first day out the trip has proved an unusually calm one- the boat hardly rolls and vibrates not at all. Everybody is well and happy. Last night we had a dance which was a huge success. I met a very nice girl- American born- who married an Englishman who has just returned from France. She is returning home and invited me to visit them if we are in London long enough.

This machine is much too small for my fingers, so until I get used to it my writing will not be perfect. However, Dr. F. promises me enough work to give me good practise when once we start work in earnest.

Lots of love to all,


Letter 3 - January 30, (1919)

Holland-America Line, Rotterdam - S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam

Dear Family,

We have had an unusually calm trip and will arrive at Falmouth late Saturday evening and will disembark early Sunday morn. Last night our theatrical folk gave a Benefit for the Belgian Orphans or something. My sympathy is certainly with the poor boys in France who are to be afflicted with the sort of stuff most of this crowd has to offer.

I’ve been doing considerable work studying what’s going to be done when we arrive in Palestine. Dr. Friedenwald’s mission is of course one of general investigation. But specifically, in conjunction with Dr. Rubinow, he is planning to organize and socialize the medical facilities. They plan to develop a central medical institution with its governing board which will cover the whole country. The plan to give equally good treatment to all regardless of social status or wealth. And eventually they hope to make this a state institution, with salaries paid by tax etc. As the people are very poor and the doctors make very little at best it should be comparatively easy to carry out.

The chances are we will be in London very little over a week. The first thing we will do is plan the remainder of our travels,- that is, if my French visa awaits me. Then there is some sort of meeting to occupy us for a short time. Then we hope to leave by the shortest possible route via France, Italy, Egypt into Palestine. The chances are we will not even stop in Paris, much to my regret.

This is truly a lazy life we’re leading. We all lay in bed mornings and read until about eleven; then we arise take baths etc., stroll around the deck, eat, talk, read, drink tea, and soon dinner is ready,- and we usually retire early.

I broke the lock to my trunk, which I will have fixed when we get to London.

Love and kisses,


Letter 4 - February 03, (1919)

Hyde Park Hotel, Knightsbridge, London

Dear Family,-

All safely arrived in “Good Old England” and happy.

Saturday eve we anchored in Falmouth harbour and Sunday noon, after a careful inspection of credentials, we clambered onto a little tender and were brought ashore. En route we passed several captured U boats- evil looking camouflaged monsters with huge guns mounted fore and aft. We landed beside a dry dock which held several torpedoed and mined steamers.

Ashore there was very little inspection of baggage- we merely claimed our own and stated that it contained nothing unlawful. It was then loaded onto a special train and travelled with us to London City.

Unfortunately we did not get started until about four o’clock- unfortunately because the country- Cornwall- is most picturesque. The land gives the impression of extreme age,- covered with warped old trees, ruins of old stone houses, impressive medieval churches, and occasional villages. These villages compare to none I’ve seen. They are entirely of stone- grey and black- and are never more than one room high; except for the inevitable church.

We arrived at London at midnight- having had a progressive supper at every waystation. We were met by Louis Robison* and several others to whom we had wired when we cabled you and he had made our reservations. With trunks we arrived here shortly after and Dr. Friedenwald and I together went to bed- together in one room, of course. The silence, the extremely impressive quietness, kept me awake for some little time.

This morning at nine we arose, breakfasted without sugar and only one lump of butter, and spent an hour looking vainly for a taxi. The streets are filled with uniforms- the war is not over. There is a subway strike, and the buses are all overcrowded. Finally we got a taxi and visited Shmaryahu Levin* who is in town. We spent a very pleasant hour with him- he is a rabid enthusiast and a beautiful talker. We then went to the Zionist headquarters where we had a conference with the powers what be here and briefly outlined our aims. The political aspects of the problem were keenly contested by Mr. Szold who is trying to establish some permanent executive body with definite powers in Palestine. The English compatriots have depended largely on the activity of isolated individuals to act in Palestine; and when these men leave, an entirely new regime takes political change and the results is not all to be desired.

The English govt. has, it seems, shown signs of its extreme willingness to accept the “trusteeship” as desired. And the established boundaries are apparently far beyond what had been hoped for.

After the meeting the five of us- Miss Shapiro, Dr. Rubinow. Mr. Szold, Dr. Friedenwald and myself with Mr. Robison and Dr. De Sola Pool*, who leaves in three days for Palestine via the Medit. And Egypt with his wife and child- had lunch together.

After lunch we visited the British Passport Office- a new institution- where we were informed that the various visas were no good and new ratifications were required from all consulates. This will undoubtedly delay us a little- and I don’t regret an opportunity to see a little of this ponderous old town. It is possible that in spite of all, we will have to make the direct trip to Egypt via boat anyway.

The afternoon was wasted over the passport question and late in the evening another conference took place wherein the power of those of us going to Palestine was discussed in a very satisfactory manor. It appears that Dr. Friedenwald has the complete confidence of all concerned and will be allowed to work unmolested.

After supper we visited Mr Cowan*, an active Zionist who lives in the neighbourhood. He was in America in 1904 and no doubt you, Father, were present at dinner by Dr. F. for him. He made a most unfavourable impression at the time for he has a most unpleasant personality- but is actually a hard worker and a real power in England.

We have arrived here just too late to have to use those novelties of war- the meat and sugar cards. They are apparently just passing out of existence. But I’m drinking coffee without sugar!

In all the neighbouring parks are countless trophies of war- from little trench mortars to giant howitzers and long range field pieces. Looking at them in various stages of rust and dilapidation, it is hard to realize that several months ago some of them were playing an active part on the western front.

The renowned London fog has proved no disappointment to me. During the day it is an impenetrable barrier in all directions; and at night with only a few street lamps burning it casts a weird and ghastly cloak over everything. Walking out of doors one unconsciously lowers one’s voice and speaks almost in whispers.

It’s nearly midnight and we must be up by eight tomorrow to register at nine at the Police Station- a requirement of all transients.

Lots of love,


Robison, Louis:- New York City; father of Rudolf’s Zionist colleague, Al.

Levin, Shmaryahu::- b. Russia 1867 – d. Haifa 1935; brilliant writer, speaker, publicist for Zionism all over the Jewish world; during his enforced stay in the U.S.A during W.W.1, won over Jacob Schiff to Zionism.

Pool, Dr. David De Sola:- b. London 1885 – d. New York City 1960s; Rabbi of Shearith Israel in New York (Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue); President of Young Judea 1915-1919; Member of Zionist Commission in Palestine 1919-1921; wife, Tamar.

Cowan – probably Joseph Cowen:- b. England 1868 – d. London 19321; British Zionist activist; founder of the Jewish Colonial Trust, 1919.

Letter 5 - February 05, (1919)

Hyde Park Hotel, Knightsbridge, London

Dear Family,-

All visas have been obtained and we are ready to eave for Paris Sunday. We required additional Italian and English visas, an American ratification, and had to be checked in at the Police.

The weather is damp and cold; it drizzles and rains and snows by turns. My rubbers and heavy coat are in constant use.

The subway strike has forced us to do all of our travelling about town in taxis, which are scarcer than lump sugar here. The waiters’ strike has forced us to eat in small places – but all Kosher places are small, and they have very excellent meals. Tomorrow an electricians’ strike is promised, which will compel us to undress by candle. And yet we have no complaint – our conferences convene undisturbed.

Yesterday morning we spent in the Italian and American consulates. All afternoon and evening we were in conference consisting of Drs. Friedenwald, Poole, Rubinow, Jacobson* (a Russian) and Messrs. Szold, Helfin (a Dutch man living in Jerusalem), Louis Robison and myself. Various plans of action were discussed and nothing definite arrived at.

Today we paid our final visit to the French consul in the morning. Early in the afternoon I went to H. Samuels and Co., bankers, to whom Mr. Naumberg* gave me a letter of introduction. They seemed to be very nice, suave gentlemen. I was invited to have supper with one of them but was compelled to refuse because of an important meeting.

Late in the afternoon we all met including Miss Shapiro and Mrs. Poole and walked (not by choice) to Parliament where we had tea with one Sir Alfred Monte*- a most commonplace and wholly uninteresting individual who, however has given the Zionists £25,000. At the conclusion of the formality he kindly consented to grant us permission to look thru the building – an unusual occurrence these days – and provided us with a guide. It is a truly fascinating old building, of gigantic proportions. It is filled with myriads of pictures of historic scenes and persons. Here and there are statues – one a lean gaunt solemn faced old man, another a short, pudgy-faced, sidewhiskered rotund morsel, a third a fiery eyed youth, etc. There was some beautiful woodwork, especially in soe of the committee rooms which line the corridors on all sides. But the most attractive work of all was a series of frescoes in the “King’s dressing room” (where he dons his royal gown etc. before making his appearance before either House). They represented a number of scenes from King Arthur, and were truly beautifully done. Especially the high coloring effects were fine.

We then passed thru the House of Commons (no visitors are allowed when in session) and were told that we couldn’t see the House of Lords as its members were being sworn in – but later it was announced that the Lords had risen – so we entered their abode. Tradition plays a big part in all the operation of these bodies. To accomplish anything must be a severe tax on one’s patience and perseverance.

By six-thirty we were returned to the office where we were to meet one Dr. Eder*, a physician, who since the absence of Dr. Weitzman* from Palestine has been the acting head of the Zionist Commission. He gave a most interesting talk on what had been done and offered some valuable suggestions as to what still remains. He’s an Englishman by birth (there are apparently but few who are Zionists) and a very fine man.

I’m tired. Goodnight!

Lots of love and kisses,


Jacobson, Victor:- b. Russia 1869 – d. Palestine 1934; Zionist leader, member of Zionist Executive, 1913-1921

Naumberg, Mr.:- New York friend of the Sonneborns

Monte, Sir Alfred Mond:- b. Great Britain 1868 – d. London 1930; Industrialist, Cabinet Minister; became Zionist leader after 1917. Founded Tel Mond in Palestine; built own villa in Tiberias, 1929.

Eder, Dr. Montague David:- b.London 1866 – d. London 1936; British psychiatrist, member of the Zionist Executive

Weitzmann, Haim:- b. Russia 1874 – d.Rehovot 1952; Scientist whose work helped save Britain in W.W.1; Zionist activist from youth; instrumental in negotiating the Balfour Declaration of Homeland for the Jews in Palestine; First President of the State of Israel

Letter 6 - February 09, (1919)

Hotel Meurice, Rue de Rivoli, Paris

Dear Family,-

We’ve just arrived in Paris and Dr. Friedenwald is in the midst of a private conference with Dr. Weitzman, who is Zionist’s biggest diplomat and politician. So I will have time to recount our last three days.

Friday last, Dr Rubinow and I set out to see London. We went to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and were duly appreciative of its age and splendour. It is really one of the few Cathedrals I’ve ever seen which is an artistic unit inside and out. There is no gaudiness or cheapness or lack of taste so evident in the usual cathedral. From there we went to Westminster and spent several hours wandering about and remembering history. In here is some of the prettiest bits of stone work I’ve ever seen. The wall against the coronation chair, which is built around Jacob’s stone pillow, is carved entirely of stone. And it is done as delicately as the most delicate bit of woodwork. It is truly a masterpiece.

That evening we went to theatre, but the English sense of humor is most pathetic.

Saturday we started in company with Dr. Friedenwald to walk to the British Museum. But en route we stopped off to see Dr. S. Levin who is not well, and spent the morning there. We had lunch at a nice little French restaurant in Soho and headed for home to pack – as we had number of engagements in the evening.

At four oclock we issued forth in company with Miss Shapiro to visit Mrs. Weitzman for tea. She lives in Kensington. Bravely we set out. After walking some little time we inquired the distance. “Oh! A mile an’a half”. Fifteen minutes later we received the same answer. But eventually we arrived – with faces and fingertips frosty (the temp. is about -15 or -20F below). She proved to be a very nice woman with a very attractive home and son. Russian, she speaks perfect English, with just a trace of accent. We remained until about seven we started out to the other end of town, by bus this time, to Achad Ha’am’s. Mr. Robison went with us. We finally found our destination and gratefully grouped ourselves around an hospitable open fire in his study. Several moments later he joined us.

He is a very short man, below the average. He has sharp, clean cut features, very little hair and blue eyes. He greeted Dr. F most enthusiastically and launched immediately into a lengthy discussion of the future. His views are most optimistic – he feels that given any freedom at all to act in Palestine it will itself grow and flourish. After a most pleasant hour we left for Mr. Herbert Bentwich’s* home. He is a lawyer of some note in London and is also one of England’s initial Zionists. He has seven daughters and two sons. – all of whom shine by some accomplishment. One of the sons is a major in the British Army in Palestine and has just been appointed to some judicial position which will keep him permanently in Jerusalem. One daughter is a Red Cross nurse in Palestine, one is a painter, one is a cellist, one is a violinist of no little ability who every year gives a number of very successful concerts.

When we arrived here there was a small party in progress. We were most cordially received and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Several daughters and friends performed – everything from piano solos to string quartets – and all well done. Except for the fact that most of the rooms of the house were so cold one could see his breath we would have gladly stayed till the end. As is we left. You know the English have an aversion to steam heat – and now that coal is scarce open fireplaces are too expensive.

This morn we left at nine thirty, crossed a most calm and placid but icy cold channel, and arrived in Paris seven o’clock. I am most thankful for my leather vest and heavy overcoat. As is only my fingers and toes (in spite of the woollen sox) get cold.

Food is very reasonable here. Our first meal in France was in the little station at Boulogne – enclosed is menu.

Ah for the balmy air of Palestine. The chances are we will leave for Italy in three or four days.

Lots of Love,


Our party to Paris consisted of Dr. Rubinow, Dr.Eder, who has been living in Palestine, Dr. F. and Messrs. Szold, Robison and myself

Weitzmann, Vera:- b. Russia 1882 – d.1966; wife of Haim Weizmann. Founder of WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) while in England; active in Youth Aliya, Magen David Adon; aid for Israeli disabled veterans.

Achad Ha’am (Asher Zvi Guisberg):- b. Russia 1856 – d. Palestine 1927; early member of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) founded in 1882; essayist; Zionist, advocate of Palestine as the national spiritual center of world Jewry though not necessarily a political state.

Bentwich, Herbert:- b. England 1856 – d. London 1932; Influential British Zionist; member of the Jewish Delegation to the Paris Peach Conference after W.W.I; cellist daughter, Thelma, married to Palestine founder of musical activity there; mother of Shoshana Israeli.