In July 1935, a young American, Varian Fry, the editor of Living Age magazine, witnessed an anti-Jewish riot in Berlin. A few days later, seeking information about the causes of the riot, he paid a visit to the office of Ernst Franz Sedgwick Hanfstaengl, nicknamed “Putzi,” Adolf Hitler’s official liaison to the American press, among others. Both men had attended Harvard University, although at different times.

Perhaps that was why Hanfstaengl was so open with Fry about the “Jewish Question” and how Hitler and the Nazis were going to solve it.

Some days later, the New York Times published an article quoting Fry and what Hanfstaengl had to say about the future of German Jewry. “Mr. Fry,” the article read, “said that in his talk with Mr. Hanfstaengl he was told that there were two anti-Semitic groups in the Nazi Party, one the radical section that desired to solve the Jewish Question with bloodshed and the other a moderate group that wishes to segregate the Jews by law into a specified area.”

That may have been one reason why Varian Fry went to France in 1940 and helped more than 2,000 Jewish refugees escape the clutches of the occupying Nazi forces, including famous names such as Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt.

In 1994, Fry was given the title Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem. He is the only Amercan to have been honored for his actions in saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

But a year earlier, at Harvard’s graduation in June 1934, another confrontation of sorts took place between two graduates of the Harvard class of 1909. One was Maine’s second Jewish judge, sitting on Portland’s municipal court, and the same Putzi Hanfstaengl who a year later would deliver his assessment of German Jewry’s fate under the Nazis.


In a sense, as with the meeting between Fry and Hanfstaengl, it was a confrontation between good and evil.

Judge Max Pinansky (1887-1951) has largely been forgotten except for a few brief mentions in studies dealing with Portland Jewry. But in the first decades of the 20th century, he played important roles not only in the religious life of Portland’s Jewish community but also in the political, legal, interreligious and interracial histories of Maine’s largest city.

Max L. Pinansky was born in East Boston. He graduated from Harvard College in 1909 and in 1913, after becoming a member of the Massachusetts bar, moved to Portland to set up his legal practice and to marry a local woman, Annie R. Bernstein.

Immediately after arriving, Pinansky formed an organization known as the Modern Synagogue Society, later called Temple Israel. It was an effort to introduce a form of religious modernization to a Jewish community that was strictly traditional in its religious observance. The religious services in this congregation were held mainly in English and most notably allowed men and women to sit together.

By 1919, in the face of fierce opposition from the Orthodox Jewish community, Temple Israel was forced to dissolve.

Pinansky was also a member of the Portland School Board for nine years and served one term as a Republican member of the Maine Senate, where he pursued a moderate to liberal agenda with a focus on education, especially the effort to create a policy of equal funding for all public school students in Maine which, unfortunately, failed to gain majority support.


Finally, Pinansky was the founder and president of an organization that was extraordinarily progressive for its time. The Inter-Racial Fellowship of America was made up of representatives of Portland’s Christian and Jewish communities as well as the religious leaders of its African American community. In a meeting of the group in 1937, a visiting speaker, Bishop W.J. Walls of the A.M.E. Zion Church, angrily declared that African Americans “were still slaves in an economic sense.” Part of that anger may have been heightened by the fact that Bishop Walls, as an African American, had been denied accommodations at several Portland hotels. He only found a hotel room after Judge Pinansky personally intervened on his behalf.

Putzi Hanfstaengl’s decision to attend his 25th Harvard reunion was the beginning of his fall from grace within the Nazi Party. An early and intimate adviser to Hitler from the 1920s, Hanfstaengl (1887-1975), who was descended from an old and wealthy German family known for their art publishing business, was literally a giant of a man, standing 6-feet-4 with a massive head and jaw.

At Harvard, he was a popular member of the class of 1909, regaling his classmates with his piano playing and his “good old boy” manner.

After graduation, he ran part of the family business in Manhattan until America entered World War I and he was forced to return to Germany after the end of the war.

In 1922, he met Hitler and soon became Hitler’s closest confidant. Putzi maintained that his description to Hitler of the cheers that accompanied the traditional Harvard-Yale football game resulted in the creation of the massive crowd demonstrations held by the Nazis and their shouts of “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil.” – Hail Victory.

But for the most part, he functioned as Hitler’s piano player and spokesperson for the Nazi Party’s relationships with the foreign, but especially the American, press corps.


In June 1934, Hanfstaengl was greeted upon his arrival in New York by demonstrators protesting the Nazi persecution of its political opponents, especially the arrest and jailing of Ernst Thaelmann, the head of the German Communist Party.

But he managed to avoid direct confrontations until he was approached during the reunion by Rabbi Joseph Schubow, a Harvard graduate of the class of 1920, who asked Hanfstaengl if his comments to the American press that the Jewish problem would soon be restored to normal meant “by extermination.” Putzi refused to answer and joined his classmates who cheered and threw confetti at him as they marched in the alumni procession.

Suddenly, Hanfstaengl was marching next to a member of his class, a man he claimed he could not remember from his undergraduate days. It was Max Pinanksy, who as a Jewish student at Harvard, most likely one of the “grinds” who commuted to the campus, lived at home and excelled in his academic subjects, would not have been a part of Putzi’s crowd.

According to newspaper reports, Judge Pinansky asked Putzi if he would issue a statement regarding the condition of the Jews in Germany, but Hanfstaengl refused the request as he had done with Rabbi Schubow.

“If Hitler Could See Hanfy (Hanfstaengl’s nickname among his Harvard classmates) Now,” a newspaper headline read, displaying a photo of Putzi marching with Pinansky.

In fact, after Hanfstaengl returned to Germany, Hitler did see such a photo, one which Putzi claimed had him shaking hands with Judge Pinansky. It led to a sharp rebuke by the Nazi leader and perhaps the beginning of Putzi’s fall from grace as an apologist for the Nazi regime. Ultimately, he would flee Nazi Germany, be interned as an enemy alien in Great Britain and return to the United States to work for the American government analyzing Hitler’s potential political and military decisions.

It was a brief confrontation, but one which highlighted the human incarnations of good and evil: The Jewish judge and humanitarian concerned with the welfare of his Jewish and wider communities, and the racist and vicious anti-Semite who would tell the future American ambassador to Germany, James G. McDonald, in 1933 that “the Jews are the vampire sucking German blood. We shall not be strong until we free ourselves of them.”

Abraham J. Peck is research professor of history at the University of Southern Maine. He is extremely grateful to Paul Mills, Farmington attorney and a well-known analyst and historian of Maine politics, for his pioneering work on the meeting between Pinansky and Hanfstaengl.

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