This Day in Jewish History

1888: Man Who Would Lose His Shipping Empire to the Nazis, but Who Saved Jews First, Born

Arnold Bernstein, proud soldier for the Kaiser, saw the Nazi peril early, but only slowly realized: 'All my decent life and my merits would be of no help.'

Postcard of SS Belgenland (1914)
Wikimedia Commons

January 23, 1888, is the birthdate of Arnold Bernstein, a German Jew who served in the Kaiser's army in World War I, but would lose the shipping empire he built up before World War II as the price for his life.

Bernstein perceived the danger of Nazism from early on, but even as he was making arrangements to transfer his business and family to North America, he maintained hope that somehow he would be able to stay in Germany. And though he made a yeoman’s effort to restart his maritime empire once in the United States, Bernstein never was able to return to his former glory.

In the Kaiser's artillery

Arnold Bernstein was born in Breslau, in the Prussian province of Silesia, today Wroclaw, Poland. His father, Max Bernstein, was a liquor merchant. His mother was the former Franciska Altmann.

His family were assimilated Jews, and Arnold, as he wrote decades later in his unpublished English-language memoir, was a “lazy, unruly and obstante [sic]” student. Leaving school before graduating, he became an apprentice to his father until, in 1909, he moved to Hamburg to make a career for himself, starting with a job as an intern for the local office of the American firm Quaker Oats.

After a period in London, he returned to Breslau in 1911 to try and save his father’s failing business. Ultimately, though, the firm went bankrupt.

Arnold served proudly in the Kaiser’s army, in artillery, during World War I, and was awarded the Iron Cross, first class, among other citations. (In his war diary, he observed how, “One cannot deny admiration to a nation which sends the flowers of its manhood to a grim war, bedecked with flowers as if they were going to a dance.”)

In 1919, Bernstein married Lilli Kimmelstein, from a well-off Jewish Hamburg family, and set up an import-export company of his own, soon moving into the shipping business itself.

In the early 1920s, he acquired a number of ships, and began shipping ore from the Rhineland. He also set up a line for German-Russian-Iranian trade and later became involved in transporting new Ford automobiles from the U.S. to Europe – in 1929 alone, 19,000 of them.

It was Bernstein who dispensed with the costly practice of shipping cars in individual crates, enabling him to turn his ships into “floating garages.”

Meanwhile, shipping Jews to Palestine

After Hitler’s rise to power, in January 1933, Bernstein took advantage of a visit to the U.S. to file citizenship applications for himself and his family. (Nonetheless, it would not be until 1939, after he had spent more than two years in prison in Germany for violating currency exchange laws, that he and Lilli and their three children sailed for New York.)

In the meantime, amidst this personal difficulty, , however, Bernstein created the Palestine Shipping Company, which brought a large number of Jews to the Land of Israel during the 1930s via the SS Tel Aviv. He also bought the Red Star passenger line, which employed some 1,000 people in Germany alone.

He felt that his treatment by Nazi Germany was both humiliating and profoundly disappointing: “Suddenly I felt that I was in the hands of ruthless enemies who would not respect either law nor human rights and that all my decent life and my merits would be of no help.”

Bernstein was released from prison after paying a $30,000 fine, and turning over ownership of his Red Star Line to the Holland-America Line. (Palestine Shipping soon went bankrupt.)  

In the United States, Bernstein worked hard to become a player anew in trans-Atlantic commerce, organizing first the Arnold Bernstein Shipping Company and in the 1950s, the Atlantic Banner Line. His idea was to offer one-class passenger service from the U.S. to Europe at a low price.

It might have worked if, post-war, consumer air travel hadn’t started to come into its own: By 1957, for example, the number of passengers making the crossing by air surpassed those traveling by sea. Bernstein’s efforts to regain the German assets he was forced to relinquish were largely stymied as well by American courts. Finally, in 1959, he sold his remaining assets and retired to Florida.

Arnold Bernstein died in Palm Beach on March 6, 1971, at the age of 83.