Agnes Schneider – From Clerk to US Consul

“From Pirates to Passports: A Timeless Commitment to Service” was an exhibition at the U.S. Diplomacy Center in Washington D.C. in May 2019, in which I assisted with some passports and received a recognition award for my contribution from the U.S. Department of State during a meeting with Consul-General Timothy Scheerer at the embassy in Bangkok. Agnes Schneider US Consul

Since then, I have had several interactions with consular officers on history projects. Recently, Lindsay Henderson, a consular officer, and founding member of the Consular Affairs History Project, contacted me again for assistance on a specific consul she was researching. A name I had never heard before, but after doing some queries, it was clear that this name stood for a vivid and exceptional story.

Anges “Spider” Schneider

Lindsay was researching and unfolding a story of an extraordinary woman of her time and during her service for the state department. Agnes Schneider served as the consul for passport services in Paris from October 1944 until her retirement in 1960.

She was highly known throughout the expatriate community in France, hosting frequent salons at her house at Paris’ Hôtel de Crillon for everyone who was anyone (among her visitors were General Dwight Eisenhower and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor).

Ms. Schneider gained notoriety for using a flimsy pretext to summon Americans she suspected of harboring communist inclinations to the consular division of the American Embassy in Paris, where she seized their passports. She also had a critical perception of anyone wanting to renounce their American citizenship, and as a result, she was named in several lawsuits at the time. She was known as Spider Schneider throughout the neighborhood. Behaved in a manner reminiscent of the notorious Passport Office Director Frances Knight, a close ally of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), who ensured that people at home with alleged communist affiliations would not acquire a passport at all. Agnes Schneider US Consul

Even if we would find Agnes Schneider’s acts repulsive now, her background is far more nuanced than one might anticipate. Agnes was a talented soprano soloist who was sent to Berlin at the age of 17 to prepare for the opera. She was raised in the little Pennsylvanian town of Shamokin as the fifth of eight children in her parents’ colossal boarding house. The wealthy Israel family adopted her in Berlin, patrons of the arts and proprietors of one of the city’s largest and oldest department shops, who nurtured her as a family member for the rest of her life.

She accepted a job at Embassy Berlin as a clerk in the consular section after the start of World War I put an end to her opera dreams, and she worked there for the majority of the following two decades. She was one of the last Americans employed at the embassy when the United States entered World War II. She remained there until the Nazis detained her and other American diplomats, interning them in Bad Nauheim. She remained in custody until they were traded for German prisoners in May 1942.

Ms. Schneider did not travel to New York with the rest of her colleagues; instead, she sailed for London, where she started working at the American embassy and reconnected with the Israel family. The family had moved to London after their eldest son, Wilfrid Israel (an Albert Einstein friend), organized and assisted in funding the Kindertransport, which transported German Jewish children to the U.K. from 1938–1940. Wilfrid Israel was developing strategies to save Jewish children in Vichy France when his plane was tragically shot down in March 1943 off the coast of Portugal. Agnes Schneider was the last person he was known to have spoken to in London the evening before his final departure. Agnes Schneider US Consul

Although not yet found any evidence, it seems possible that Ms. Schneider played a part in aiding the Kindertransport attempt, given their close relationship. Additionally, according to her obituary, she assisted other Jewish families in leaving Germany. Research has shown that she was pretty human, and her legacy is far more nuanced than the nickname “Spider Schneider” from 1950s Paris would imply.

Agnes Schneider US Consul
US passport 1953, Paris issued by Agnes Schneider
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