#MakeLove — The Student and the Stranger Who Helped Pay for College

Published on September 17, 2015

Christopher Robinson, a 20-year-old college junior from a small town in upstate New York, is indebted to a stranger, Luzie Hatch, a little-known German Jewish woman who escaped the Holocaust and died in Rye Brook, N.Y., in 2001.

Their paths crossed because of shared circumstances. At a relatively young age—but for very different reasons—both found themselves in need of a chance. Ms. Hatch received one from a cousin who helped her flee to the U.S. She, in turn, has given a chance to Mr. Robinson, whose family lacked steady income and a home after their trailer was condemned, by helping pay for his tuition at Clarkson University.

Every year, thousands of students receive scholarships from people they never knew. In many cases, the money is donated by, or in memory of, a graduate who was wealthy, a civic leader or especially devoted to an alma mater. Often, there are compelling stories behind the giver and sometimes the receiver.

This one begins with Ms. Hatch, whose Jewish family lived comfortably in Berlin until 1933, when Hitler came to power and began persecuting the country’s Jewish citizens. Her father, Edwin, wrote to an uncle in Albany, N.Y, who owned a knitting company, and asked for help getting the family to America. The uncle, then 76, wrote back saying the proposal was “sheer insanity” and that millions of Americans were desperate for work. Her father gave up. Her uncle died.

Three years later, conditions worsening, Ms. Hatch, then 24, appealed to her uncle’s son—her American cousin, who was in his 40s and had taken over the knitting company. She told him she could speak English and promised to get work and not be a burden. He agreed to bring her to America, a process that involved writing affidavits to assure immigration officials she had a sponsor and sending money for her trip.

Within months of her 1938 arrival in New York City, Ms. Hatch landed a job with the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy organization where she spent nearly three decades as administrative assistant. During much of those early years, her free time was devoted to trying to secure passage for her remaining relatives, who wanted help fleeing an increasingly brutal Nazi regime.

Acting as an intermediary, she translated their desperate pleas from German into English and relayed them in letters to her American cousin, who then relied on her to gently deliver the news when options were exhausted. She wrote of her efforts, meeting with immigration officials, securing documents and researching funding alternatives. Her father, Edwin, her stepmother and half-brother eventually arrived in the U.S., where her father, a former retail executive, built wooden toys in a factory. Many friends and relatives didn’t make it.

Those hundreds of letters were kept in a bulging binder in her crowded Queens studio apartment. They were discovered after she died and compiled in a 2014 book, “Exit Berlin,” by Charlotte Bonelli, director of archives at the American Jewish Committee. Those who knew her, including co-workers and her few relatives, didn’t know of her efforts. “I see compassion now that I didn’t see before,” says Vera Wurst, who was related to Ms. Hatch’s stepmother.

What Ms. Wurst remembered most was that Ms. Hatch, who never married, was intelligent, independent and frugal to an extreme, saving used tea bags, magazines and blankets and pillows from airlines. Ms. Wurst thought it was because she didn’t have much to spend, which turned out not to be the case.

Over the years, Ms. Hatch invested her modest income, amassing a small fortune of $1.5 million.At tax time, she would arrive at the office of her attorney, Stephen Solomon, with receipts and papers in shopping bags. He developed a fondness for Ms. Hatch and would invite her for Passover with his family if she didn’t have plans.

When it became clear that Ms. Hatch had grown too frail to stay in her studio, he moved her to a nursing home near his house so he could visit. At one point, they discussed what to do with her remains and estate. She wanted to be cremated and didn’t care where her ashes went. “That is your problem,” he recalls her saying. They rest in an urn in his office.

As for the $1.5 million, she decided to establish a foundation in her father’s name for college students. “She always had a thing about educating youth,” says Roger Blane, who administers the Edwin Hatch Foundation. After she retired, Ms. Hatch volunteered with the American Jewish Committee to educate German exchange students about the Holocaust. In 1992, she received Germany’s Order of Merit, a high civilian honor, for her efforts.

She didn’t select which universities would receive the funds, so the foundation’s three officers selected their alma maters: Binghamton University, Lehigh University and Clarkson. So far, about $800,000 has been distributed, according to Mr. Blane, to 23 students, who, as stipulated in her will, “without such aid, would not be able to pursue their education.”

That was the case for Mr. Robinson. One of four children, he lived with his parents in rural Warrensburg, N.Y., in the foothills of the Adirondacks. Money was scarce. His father worked in a pizza shop. Chris joined him there when he was 14. When the family outgrew the original trailer, they added makeshift rooms, which were drafty. The roof leaked.

School became a refuge from a chaotic home life. His fourth-grade teacher bought him a used trumpet so he could play in a band. He took accelerated math and science programs in middle school and competed with friends to see who could top 100% on tests with bonus points. In high school, he took advanced physics and calculus, and interned at an engineering firm.

His junior year, the family trailer was condemned. Chris spent months sleeping on the couch at various friends’ houses before moving in with his former science teacher, who was married and had three small children. It was a good environment. Chris cheered at the children’s soccer games, attended family picnics and became part of their extended family’s Christmas celebrations. There, he learned courtesies he was never taught growing up, like why and how to write a thank-you note for gifts. “I didn’t really know that was a proper thing to do. I learned a lot of things that will hopefully make me a better person,” he says.

As graduation approached, Sarah Landers, his guidance counselor, helped him apply for financial aid to Clarkson, his top choice. He received a significant amount but was short $7,338, so she suggested that he write a letter, thanking the Potsdam, N.Y., university, explaining his situation and asking whether additional financial aid was available. In his letter, he described being left without a home and family support and wanting to be the first person in his family to attend college.

Clarkson awarded him an Edwin E. Hatch scholarship. Mr. Robinson, who is now in his third year, majoring in engineering, meets regularly with a mentor at Clarkson assigned to him as part of the scholarship program, and hopes to work in the auto industry. This year, he is part of a team building a small race car for a student design competition organized by SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers.

A few months ago, he learned about Ms. Hatch’s background. “I thought the Hatch Foundation was just a nice program and I was really thankful for it,” says Mr. Robinson. “I think what she did was incredible.”

Ms. Landers, his high school counselor, says at times he has been embarrassed by all the help he has received. “Chris, you just need to return the favor to someone someday,” she recalls telling him. “Someone will need help, and you will know what it’s like.”

By Clare Ansberry WSJ

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