Mike Nichols: Coming to America, 1939

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Mike Nichols was one of the greats of American stage and screen.  Successful as comedian, actor, and director (of stage and screen), he is one of the few to have won the so-called EGOT prize – receiving at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award.  He first came to prominence as part of the late-1950s comedy team of “Nichols and May” with Elaine May.  He then moved on to direct plays, among them Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple.  He later began successfully directing motion pictures.  Some notable examples are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Catch-22, and Working Girl.  He also had success on television, most notably Angels in America.  He was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors and the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, among others.

This American success story was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1931, as Igor Michael Peschkowsky.  His father, Pavel, was a doctor and son of post-Bolshevik Revolution Russian refugees.  His father fled Germany’s Jewish persecution in late 1938.  A few months later, in April 1939, Michael and his younger brother traveled across the Atlantic unaccompanied by an adult to be with their father in New York.  Their mother, Brigitte Landauer Peschkowsky, escaped Germany through Italy and came to the U.S. in 1940.  Pavel Peschkowsky had Americanized their last name to “Nichols” based on his Russian patronymic.

The visa case files in the National Archives are not comprehensive and what documents are there often tell only a fragment of the story.  In this case, there is one preserved telegram about the Peschkowsky travel to the United States.

notes unaccompanied children Michael and Paul Peschkowsky arriving on ship Bremen,
Telegram from Berlin Consulate to Secretary of State, April 25, 1939 (NAID 1253942)

The telegram was signed by Raymond Geist, then the senior American consular officer in Germany.  Geist, who had been assigned to Germany for many years, had been very aggressive in pushing for the admission of more refugees into the United States.  Unaccompanied children were key beneficiaries of his work.  In addition to his consular responsibilities, Geist provided some of the most illuminating reports on the political and social situation in Nazi Germany before the outbreak of World War II. 

Source:  Consulate Berlin to Department of State, Telegram 283, April 25, 1939, file 811.111 PESCHKOWSKY, MICHAEL, Visa Case Files, 1933-1940, Entry A1-705 (NAID 1253492), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. 

For more information on the important work of Raymond Geist, see: Richard Breitman, The Berlin Mission: The American who Resisted Nazi Germany from Within

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