An Irish-American Oskar Schindler

In 1939 some newspapers reported about how an Irish-American lawyer called Albert Coyle managed to secure the escape of more than 500 Jews from Germany to the United States. Coyle, though, rapidly fades from the pages of history and died in relative obscurity in 1956. But are the stories about him really true? And what else do we know of Albert Coyle.

This is how The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser reported the story on 18th May 1939:

“Gestapo not a bad bunch”

Energetic Mr Albert F. Coyle, international lawyer visiting London from New York, prefers to conduct his interviews in the street. “Now we can talk,” he said, beginning to move westwards. By the time Charing Cross was reached Mr Coyle had revealed that he has spent the last three years travelling backs and forwards between New York and Berlin arranging the emigration of Jews from Germany to Cuba and Mexico. He said “I act on behalf of relatives in the United States. They pay me to negotiate with the German authorities and entrust me with the necessary finance.”

Trafalgar Square traffic was bearing down on Mr Coyle as he went on: “Right now I am fixing things for 36 people to quit Germany. I make four or five trips to Europe a year and in the past three years have obtained the freedom of nearly 500 people. Many of them were either in prison or in concentration camps. I rarely see the people themselves but deal direct with the Gestapo, the German secret police. They are not a bad bunch of boys when you handle them the right way.”

Albert Freeman Coyle had been born in California in 1891. His father, Joseph Albert Coyle, had died when Coyle was still young. Joseph was reputedly born in New Orleans in 1852 apparently to Irish immigrants. Joseph had been a notary and worked in real estate and so had the means to send Albert to Stanford, where he obtained a degree in law. While there he obtained a scholarship to complete further studies including a doctorate, in divinity, at Yale. Coyle identified himself as a Methodist and occasionally preached in church. While at Stanford, Coyle had worked for the college President (later Chancellor) David Starr Jordan and had established a reputation for himself as a public speaker, in particular on themes around economic and social justice. Coyle also married a fellow student, Margaret Kennedy.

After failing to gain entry to the military when the US entered the first world war (due to poor eyesight), Coyle enlisted as a YMCA ‘secretary’. The YMCA provided canteen and support services to the US Army both at base camp and at the front. In early 1919 he went to the Arkangelsk front in Russia with the 339th Regiment of the US Expeditionary Force in North Russia. The US Army and British Empire troops were there supporting the Northern Army of the ‘White’ Russians in the civil war against the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky. When the American detachments were withdrawn in mid-June 1919, local Russian units decided to go over to the Bolsheviks. Coyle and another YMCA secretary called Clinton Arenson had been staffing a facility at Chekuevo on the Onega River and remained at their posts to be captured by the Bolsheviks in July.

The American Expedition had lost numerous men during their deployment on the Arkangelsk front, fighting in freezing conditions in an unforgiving landscape. The ‘Polar Bear Regiment’ (as they were known) wrote their own ‘Roll of Honour’ memorial including this verse:

In Toulgas woods we scattered sleep,
Chekuevo and Kitsa’s tangles creep
Across our lonely graves. At night
The doleful screech owl’s dismal flight
Heart-breaking screams in Russia.

(See Joel R. Moore and Harry H. Mead and Lewis E. Jahns The History of the American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki).

YMCA Oberskaya
A YMCA post on Arkangelsk front, from The History of the American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki

Coyle was held by the Bolsheviks for almost two months and was one of the last US prisoners of war to be released. By the time he returned to the US via Bergen in Norway he was now competent in Russian as well as German and French with first-hand experience of life under the Soviets. Given his existing record of public speaking on social and economic topics, it is perhaps unsurprising that Coyle drifted into labour and left wing politics, taking up a role with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (one of the main railway unions) for much of the next ten years.

In November 1920, seemingly through the offices of his former Stanford mentor David Starr Jordan, Coyle became the official reporter for the inquiry held by the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland in Washington, DC. While Starr Jordan had spent time in Ireland and was a supporter of the Irish Republic, the Irish Republic was also one of the few states to officially recognise the Soviet Union. Coupled with Coyle’s own Irish roots, he was a perfect fit for the role and acted as notary for the hearings through the end of 1920 and into early 1921. When the evidence had been presented, Coyle compiled and published the material to counter British propaganda. This was to some extent the template for both Who Burnt Cork City and Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom.

The rest of the 1920s saw Coyle engage in labour and class-based actions in the United States and Europe. At one point ‘outed’ as a communist, he was under the scrutiny of the authorities at various times through his life. Active in the Sacco and Vanzetti reprieve campaigns, he remained involved in the unions and in 1927 was part of a delegation that travelled to the Soviet Union to report on progress in the ten years since the revolution of 1917. The delegation also went to Britain, Belgium and Germany and Coyle made a number of return trips to Europe in the late 1920s meeting both Stalin and the former Kaiser as well as other luminaries such as Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett.

His union activities, and possibly the investment of union pension funds in risky bonds in projects in the Philippines, Cuba and Bolivia saw him embroiled in a number of scandals with high profile US Senators in the 1930s. Notably these were to be some of the countries that were considered as routes by which European Jews could gain indirect entry to the United States. By the late 1930s, then, Coyle again appears to be a regular traveller to Europe. At that time almost every state operated limited entry visa and immigration policies, with some having even stricter regimes for Jews.

Coyle’s name can be found buried in the correspondence around individual cases. In April 1939, Irene Harand, a prominent anti-semitic campaigner in Austria who had stayed in London after the Anschluss, commissioned Albert Coyle to go to Vienna and intervene on behalf of Moriz Zalman and Hertha Breuer (both prominent Jewish lawyers). Coyle made it clear to the Viennese judge that all efforts were made by Harand and the foreign relatives and friends to save Zalman’s life. The attempts were in vain. Moriz Zalman died in Sachsenhausen in May 1940 while Hertha Breuer died in 1942 at the age of 37 (see Christian Klösch, Kurt Scharr and Erik Weinzierl’s Gegen Rassenhass und Menschennot).

Moriz Zalman, 1882-1940. BildArchivAustria.

Coyle corresponded with prominent individuals in the campaign to open up the United States to Jewish refugees, such as Felix S. Cohen and Joseph Chamberlain. Coyle described to Cohen one of the routes that was used, presumably based on his own experience, as “only one little freight line running every six weeks or so from Genoa to Vera Cruz and accommodating at most eight to ten passengers” (see Dalia Tsuk Mitchell’s biography of Cohen, Architect of Justice).

Albert Coyle appeared to specialise in rescuing Jewish lawyers and jurists. He is known to have tried to obtain a non-quota visa for an international lawyer, Martin Domke, who was imprisoned in a French internment camp in 1940 (see Laurel Leff’s Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe). He also acted for Martin Exiner, a German Jewish lawyer and prominent Zionist who managed to escape to Palestine (see Daniel Wildmann’s Der veränderbare Körper).

So there appears to be plenty of evidence to back up Coyle’s claims in 1939. However, in the early 1940s bypassing regulations to facilitate Jewish immigration wasn’t universally popular in the United States. Coyle, already embroiled in bondholder scandals over the Philippines and Cuba, was prosecuted for failing to have the appropriate license to practise law. Then in 1941-42 he was pursued through the courts over money that had been supplied to him to assist the passage of Jews from Europe. By that time, with war having broken out, routes out of Germany and Austria had become even scarcer and it is unclear whether Coyle was really facing legal action over frustrations at a lack of progress.

Either way, Coyle spent much of the 1940s fighting his way through the courts. In the late 1940s and early 1950s his name pops up as a guest speaker at Rotary Clubs and other venues championing the Soviet Union. Watch this space though, as he merits significantly more attention as it would be worthwhile trying to corroborate his claim to be Irish-America’s own Oskar Schindler.


Albert Freeman Coyle, 1891-1956.


2 thoughts on “An Irish-American Oskar Schindler

  1. I’d love to know if you find out more about Coyle’s role in helping Jewish jurists and lawyers. Unsung heroes’ stories should, eventually be sung.


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