Of the American-Jewish self-help groups assisting Jews in leaving Europe and rebuilding their lives in the United States, the Boston Committee for Refugees was the first. Established in 1933, it consisted entirely of volunteers. Under the leadership of Walter H. Bieringer and Willy Nordwind, the Committee chiefly endeavored to obtain affidavits for would-be immigrants and see to it that they would find employment upon arrival in the U.S. Since the Great Depression, the State Department had orders to keep people “likely to become a public charge” out. It was of great importance to ensure the livelihood of the refugees. The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany and the colossal failure of the Évian Conference on Refugees reinforced the urgency of helping the desperate asylum seekers. On August 26th, 1938, the Committee’s Acting Executive Secretary sent Bieringer a list of recent arrivals in need of placement.
Due to the perception prevalent since the middle of the 19th century that immigrants, preferably from Europe, were needed to populate the vast expanses of Argentina, the country’s immigration policy was comparatively generous. But already following WWI, the country’s needs for manpower were perceived as saturated, and by the 20s, administrative barriers to immigration were put up. With victims of Nazi persecution seeking refuge, immigration policy was tightened even more. Nevertheless, many thousands of German Jews as well as political adversaries of the regime found refuge in Argentina. Among them was Max Busse. His sister, Anna Nachtlicht, had heard about plans of the Argentine government to ease immigration and make it possible to request permits for siblings. Max immediately went to make inquiries, but the results were sobering. In this December 26th letter, he is forced to tell her that no such plans seem to exist. Relatives in France had offered the Nachtlichts to stay with them to wait for their visas for a third country. Perhaps, Max suggests, it would be easier to apply from there.
No one reading the November issue of the Aufbau could have missed the front-page editorial message in bold print: under the heading “The Great Trial,” forceful language is employed to decry the abject failure of “the heads of state of the so-called democracies,” who have sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. Jewish refugees are left stranded in no man’s land in Bohemia, in Germany, the Nazis are dealing an “economic death blow” to the Jews, the British are jeopardizing the Zionist project, and “little more than a faint memory” remains of the Evian Conference, summoned in July to tackle the problem of resettling Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Surely, this is “an era of complete sinfulness.” Will those under threat finally brace up?
Since the early 1880s, federal immigration law in the US included a provision seeking to keep out people likely to become a “public charge.” Under the impact of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover reinforced the ban in 1930. Aid organizations were hard pressed to find employment for the newcomers: on October 26, a representative of the Employment Department of the Greater New York Coordinating Committee for German Refugees explains to Willy Nordwind of the Boston Committee for Refugees the challenges of finding work for a man who had managed to enter the country but barely spoke any English and had no work experience to boast save as a candy salesman. Nevertheless, the representative promises to continue his efforts on the immigrant’s behalf.
Would the sisters Helen and Eva Hesse remember this year’s Rosh Hashanah someday? For their parents, Wilhelm and Ruth Hesse, the new year’s celebration of 1938 was a break with tradition. The family had made the decision to emigrate from Hamburg. Helen was five years old at this point in time. Her little sister Eva had just turned two. Their father kept a diary for both his daughters during this period. Over the entry for Rosh ha-Shana 5699 in large, typeprinted letters are the words: “We’re emigrating,” the theme of this year’s new year celebration. The rest of the entry Wilhelm wrote by hand. Until then, however, he wanted his daughters’ lives to be as carefree as possible. That it went very differently for their parents is clear at the end of the diary entry. There Wilhem Hesse wrote: “Later they’ll be amazed what their parents had to suffer in these times. We’re emigrating.”
Ludwig Gottschalk of Bonn did not mince words in this August 31st letter to his friends, Betty and Morris Moser, in New York. By now, Jews in Germany were living in such a state of demoralization and constant fear that the wish to leave was omnipresent, regardless of what was to be expected “outside.” According to his information, the U.S. Consulate General in Stuttgart was so overburdened by all the applications for immigration that new affidavits were currently not even being processed. The Gottschalks already had a waiting number and expected to be able to emigrate relatively soon. Meanwhile, they were learning English. Ludwig alluded to the changes that had occurred in Germany since his friends had left by calling them “Israel” and “Sara.” On August 17th, a decree had been issued forcing Jews to add one of these names to their given names in order to make their Jewish identity obvious.
The increased influx of European Jews seeking safety from the Nazis to Palestine led to resistance on the side of Palestinian Arabs. In 1936, an armed revolt erupted. During this period, Jewish settlers made use of a law from the times of the Ottoman Empire, according to which an unauthorized structure could not be demolished once it had a roof. By cover of night and with prefabricated pieces, they erected a fence surrounded by a stockade, so that, in the event of discovery by officials from the British Mandate, nothing could be done about it. At the same time, a structure of this kind was immediately defensible against attacks by local Arabs. One of these settlements was Ma’ayan (later known as Ma’ayan Tsvi), situated west of Zikhron Ya’acov on the northern coastal plain. Its 70 founding members, as members of the Maccabi Movement in Germany (and, since 1935, in Palestine itself), were prepared for pioneer life in the land.
The Jewish businessman Felix Perls was born in Beuthen (Upper Silesia) in 1883. By April 1st, 1938, following Nazi regulations, he had to relinquish his position as director of the Upper Silesian Lumber Industry Corporation. Two months later, he and his wife, Herta, moved to Berlin-Grunewald, in order to escape the hostility in Beuthen. Perls tampered with his 1938 postal ID. He changed its date of issue and its validity period. Postal ID cards were needed for receiving confidential mail but were accepted as identification documents elsewhere too.
It was under adventurous circumstances that Gisella Jellinek made her way to Palestine in June 1938. As part of a group of several hundred youths, she was smuggled into the area of the Mandate. The moment she came ashore in Palestine, she had to make use of the Hebrew language skills she had acquired at the Zionist agricultural training camp in Austria, in order to avoid being identified as an illegal immigrant by the British authorities. Roughly two months after her arrival, Gisella, who now called herself Nadja, turned 18. In this belated birthday note, her sister Berta wishes her “heroism, courage, and to be a good Haverah (kibbutz member).”
An illness during a journey forced Wilhelm Graetz to extend his stay in Switzerland. In light of the escalating situation in Germany, he decided to relinquish his home in Berlin. The formerly well-off couple was in no position to help out their four children financially but benefitted from widely spread contacts. Wilhelm Graetz had been a member of the board of the Berlin Jewish Community, and as the chairman of the German “ORT,” he knew potential helpers in many places. In August, a trip took him to Hungary. On the 27th, his wife Agnes made use of her time by asking the well-known territorialist and “ORT” leader, David Lvovich, to help one of her three daughters, who urgently needed an affidavit in order to be able to emigrate to America.
The existential crisis of Jewish doctors in Germany, which had passed through various stages (exclusion from public service and health insurance funds, prohibition of cooperation between Jewish and “Aryan” physicians, etc.) escalated with the employment ban in July 1938 and required a creative approach. On August 25th, Dr. Felix Pinkus, a renowned Berlin dermatologist, wrote to his friend, Dr. Sulzberger, in America, in order to win him over as a fellow campaigner in an aid project. The sociologist and national economist Franz Oppenheimer had come to the idea of establishing a kind of residential colony for former doctors from Germany. The funding for this would be covered by contributions from American-Jewish doctors. According to Oppenheimer’s calculations, roughly 1,000 physicians would use this remedy. (Dr. Pinkus estimated that it was closer to 3,000).
Even though expressions of anti-Semitism were common in Austrian vacation resorts decades before the annexation of Austria, a phenomenon that lead to the coining of the term “Summer Resort Anti-Semitism,” they remained popular with Austrian Jews. But when Liesl Teutsch’s uncle spent his vacation in Filzmoos in the Austrian province of Salzburg in August 1938, its spectacular vistas could not distract him from the unsettling circumstances. In this postcard to his niece in Vienna, he makes it very clear that it is not just the poor weather that prevented true rest and relaxation. He seems to be apprehensive of returning to Vienna, where an uncertain future awaits him.
Kurt Kleinmann of Vienna and Helen Kleinman in America had never met in person. After Kurt came up with the creative idea to contact a family with a similar name in New York, hoping that his American namesakes might be willing to help him procure an affidavit, an increasingly intense correspondence developed between the young man and the Kleinmans’ daughter. With determination, Helen took the matter into her hands. Three months after Kurt first contacted the Kleinmans, when Helen wrote this letter, not only was Kurt’s emigration underway, but Helen had also enlisted the help of an aunt to submit an affidavit for a cousin of his, with whom he had in the meantime managed to flee to Switzerland. What’s more she had enlisted yet another aunt to do the same for Kurt’s sister and brother-in-law, who were still stranded in Vienna.
Within the first few months after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, Dr. Joachim Weichert, a Czech-born lawyer, lost most of his clients. He had no choice but to compile the documents necessary for emigration. In June, the family was notified by the Consulate General of the United States that valid affidavits and other documents had arrived for them from America. Nevertheless, due to the fact that the Czech quota was exhausted for the time being, they were put on a waiting list and told they wouldn’t receive visas for the next eight months. By August 22nd, it had been almost two weeks since Dr. Weichert was ordered by the Devisenstelle (financial administrative office in charge of supervising monetary transactions and emigration) in Vienna to submit within one week an itemized list of his assets. In this official communication from August 22nd, he is given an ultimatum of three days, after which criminal measures will be taken.
Hugo Jellinek was proud of his daughter Gisella, who had become a glowing Zionist during Hakhsharah and just months before had immigrated to Palestine as part of a group of daring youngsters. For her 18th birthday, not only did he send his first-born daughter congratulations, he also shared his thoughts about current events with her. From his new vantage point in Brünn/Brno (Czechoslovakia), where he had fled from Vienna after a warning, German maneuvers alongside the Czechoslovakian border were worrying him. But he was convinced that, unlike in the case of Austria, the Wehrmacht would face fierce opposition. He felt very bitter about the suspicion of and lack of solidarity with needy Jewish refugees among wealthier members of the Jewish community in Brno. Moreover, he was greatly worried by the eviction notices Austrian Jews were receiving, among them his relatives. Among all the worry and complaint was a silver lining, an acquaintance with a woman.
Just a few doors down from the Palestine Office of the Jewish Agency, at No. 2 Meineke Street in Berlin, was the travel agency “Palestine & Orient Lloyd,” which closely cooperated with the Palestine Office in assisting thousands of Jews with emigration from Nazi Germany—and not only to Palestine. One of these emigrants was Dr. Rolf Katzenstein. On August 20th, 1938, the “Palestine & Orient Lloyd” issued this bill to him for passage to New York on August 27th aboard the Columbus from Bremen.
After six years in Palestine, Alfred Hirsch’s verdict was unequivocal: given the country’s political, climatic and economic structure, even people of the highest intelligence and stamina could not achieve much. He did not mince words in trying to dissuade his nephew, Ulli, from coming. Living in the very secular Haifa, Alfred Hirsch was convinced that for a young, Orthodox Jew like Ulli, life in Palestine would be a big disappointment at that point in history. Between the atmosphere generated by the collective misery of a large number of uprooted, depressed people and the political unrest, which led to major economic problems, the timing just didn’t feel right to Uncle Alfred. (The political unrest mentioned is the 1936-39 Arab Revolt in reaction to the massive influx of European Jews and the prospect of the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, as stipulated by the Balfour Declaration in 1917.)
The negligible number of Jews (50 out of a total of 31,576 in 1933) in the town of Merseburg, in Saxony, did not dissuade local Nazis from terrorizing them. As early as 1934, Bernhard Taitza, a local merchant, reported on Jewish residents’ anguish at Nazis marching past their homes while singing anti-Semitic songs. The atmosphere became so unbearable that in 1938 he made his way out of Germany to Prague. Days later, on August 18th, he submitted this questionnaire to HICEM, founded in 1927 as a coalition of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish Colonization Association and Emigdirect, another Jewish migration organization. With two children already residing in America, Taitza was fortunate enough to have an affidavit and didn’t have to worry too much as to whether he would regain possession of the money confiscated from him by the Nazis.
Twice in the course of German history, Jews were forced to change their names: the first time through the introduction of (often stigmatizing) family names during the Emancipation, the second time through the introduction of compulsory first names: “Sara” for Jewish women and “Israel” for Jewish men (August 17, 1938). Thus, Jews were singled out and made to stand apart from the rest of society. If the given name appeared on an officially approved list of Jewish names issued by the Nazis, no additional name was required. The regime also saw to it that Jews who had changed their family names in order to blend in and avoid discrimination had to return to their previous names.
A classical anti-semitic trope of the 19th century was the notion that Jews are weak, unathletic and effeminate. In order to counter this stereotype, the Zionist physician, writer and politician Max Nordau created the antithetical concept of the “muscular Jew” at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel (1898). Drawing on paragons of Jewish fighting spirit like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, he called for the regeneration of the Jewish people through physical exercise. Barely two months later, the Jewish sports club Bar Kochba was founded in Berlin. More and more Jewish sports clubs came into being, many of which were affiliated with the Zionist movement. The Frankfurt/Main chapter of the Bar Kochba Club was established in 1904. One of its teams can be seen here posing for the camera.
Hitler’s plans for Czechoslovakia could not have been clearer: on May 30th, 1938, he declared to the Wehrmacht (German army) that it was his “immutable resolve” to shatter the country “in the foreseeable future.” Already months before, he had incited the leader of the Sudeten German Party, which was partly bankrolled by Nazi Germany, to conjure up a confrontation by making unreasonable demands on behalf of the German minority in the country. Under the influence of events in Germany, anti-Semitism had increased. But, so far, it had only led to boycotts and physical violence in the border areas of Northern and Western Bohemia, which were predominantly inhabited by Germans. While this crisis was brewing in the background, the psychiatrist and writer Josef Weiner, his wife, Hanka, and their two young daughters were on vacation in the central Bohemian town of Nespeky. Hanka’s letter (in Czech) to her father, the renowned Prague lawyer Oskar Taussig, smacks of a perfectly idyllic holiday atmosphere and spares its reconvalescent recipient anything unpleasant.
Gusty Bendheim, a Berliner, had never met the American branch of her family. As a 42-year-old divorcee, she had no other choice but to turn to her overseas relatives. She asked these quasi-strangers for help facilitating emigration for herself and her children, Ralph (13) and Margot (17). Gusty was an enterprising sort: by the time she got married to Arthur Bendheim, a businessman from Frankfurt/Main, around 1920, she had established three button stores. After the wedding, Arthur took over management and Gusty became a housewife. In spite of the increasingly alarming anti-Jewish measures taken by the Nazi government, Arthur was not willing to leave. After the couple’s divorce in 1937, Gusty took matters into her own hands. In this August 14th, 1938 letter to her unknown relatives, in addition to her request for help, she states that her former husband is ready to pay the costs of travel for her and their children to the United States.
Ellis Levy, a Jewish attorney who lived in New York, decided to take up the cause of the immigrants fleeing Nazi persecution. In a letter to Mayor LaGuardia, an excerpt of which was published in the August issue of Aufbau, he pointed out that many of the newcomers were arriving in the country penniless, often after having been forced to abandon their studies or professional training. At the time of Mr. Ellis’s intervention, a bill regarding the possibility of opening city colleges to non-citizens was about to be brought before the Board of Higher Education. The attorney asked Mayor LaGuardia to exercise his influence on the Board to bring about a positive decision. This, he argued, would serve both the needs of the immigrants and the interests of U.S. democracy. And, indeed, it was decided, effective September 1 of that year, to admit to city colleges persons with adequate prior education who were in the process of naturalization.
Until 1938, about 60,000 Jews lived in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna, a fact that earned it the moniker “Isle of Matzos.” Between the end of World War I and the rise of “Austrofascism” in 1934, the Social-Democratic municipal government began to create public housing. By the time of the Anschluss in March 1938, there was a massive housing shortage in the city. The Nazis began to evict Jewish tenants from public housing. In light of the tendency of the police to ignore encroachment on Jewish property, it was easy for antisemitic private landlords to follow this example. Being a Jew was enough of a reason for eviction. When house owner Ludwig Munz filled in the eviction order form for his tenants Georg and Hermine Topra, he came up with as many as three reasons: his own purported need for the place, back rent, and consideration for the neighbors, who could not be expected to put up with having to live side-by-side with Jews.
In July 1938, 17-year-old Marianne Pollak traveled all by herself from Teplitz/Teplice (Czechoslovakia) to England. Not accustomed to the climate there, the young girl developed rheumatism and was in generally miserable condition. Every few days, her mother wrote her caring, supportive letters. While clearly vexed by Marianne’s unhappiness, Mrs. Pollak and her husband made sure to communicate to her the importance of her staying in England. Apparently, Marianne was in an individual hakhsharah program, meaning that she was acquiring skills preparing her for pioneer life in Palestine. In Eastern Europe, the Zionist Pioneer organization “HeChalutz” (“The Pioneer”) had been offering agricultural and other training courses for prospective settlers in pre-state Palestine since the late 19th century. A German branch was established in 1923, but the concept gained traction in western Europe only during the Great Depression and had its broadest reach during the years of persecution by the Nazis. Instead of being prepared collectively on farms, youngsters could also get their training individually, as seems to have been the case with Marianne.
Barely one month after the collapse of the Weimar Republic, a “democracy without a user’s manual,” as he called it in “The German Masked Ball,” and one day after the Reichstag fire, the writer and Social Democrat Alfred Döblin left Germany. After a brief interlude in Switzerland, he moved to Paris with his wife and three sons in September 1933. Occasional publications with the German-language “publisher-in-exile” (Exilverlag) Querido (Amsterdam) yielded minimal income, and Döblin’s lack of French language skills were a major stumbling block to his gaining a foothold professionally. From 1936 on, the Döblins were French citizens. The 10th of August was the author’s 60th birthday.
This certificate, issued by the Rabbinate of the Vienna Israelite Community, was just one among a plethora of documents that Edmund Wachs had gathered in order to facilitate his emigration to the United States. Shortly after the Anschluss, Wachs was put in “protective custody,” a power handed to the Nazis by the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State,” also known as the “Reichstag Fire Decree.” The Reichstag Fire of February 27th, 1933, an act of arson involving the German Parliament building in Berlin, served as cause and justification for this law. It was passed on the following day and legalized the arbitrary arrest of anyone suspected of lack of loyalty towards the regime. The law did not stipulate the exact elements of the alleged offence and was widely used against Jews and political opponents.
As the only member of her family, 18-year-old Ursula Meseritz left Germany in July and embarked from Le Havre to New York aboard the R.N.S. “Britannic.” Adolf Floersheim, a former neighbor and a resident of the U.S. since 1937, provided an affidavit for the young woman. Her parents, Olga and Fritz Meseritz, who had arranged for her emigration, remained in Hamburg. A travel agency, Plaut Travels, on Madison Avenue in New York, apparently run by German-Jewish immigrants, prepared the itinerary for Ursula’s next journey to the West Coast, with a leisurely detour to the capital, and sent it to her on August 8th.
Until 1933, her Jewishness barely played a role in the life of Anneliese Riess, a thoroughly secular student of classical archeology. Once the Nazis came to power, however, it became clear to her that as a Jew in Germany, there was no future for her. She decided to emigrate to Italy, where she obtained a doctorate (Rome, 1936). With slim chances of finding work in her field in Italy, the young woman enrolled in a rigorous class for childcare assistants in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1937. After surgery in June 1938, she spent several months in Villars-sur-Ollon. In July, the Directorate General for Demographics and Race was established in Italy to formulate the nation’s racial policies. Thus, Rome ceased to be a possible place of refuge. In the same month, Riess’s father had arrived in the US and was making efforts to arrange for her immigration. This postcard, dated August 7th and addressed to Anneliese in Villars, was refreshingly free of any reference to the precarious developments in Europe and provided the welcome prospect of meeting up with a friend amidst all the uncertainty.
Jews were hardly the only “undesirables” the US Immigration Act of 1924 aimed to keep out of the country. When the law was introduced, efforts to exclude certain nationalities, especially Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants, had been going on for half a century. In the early 1920s, a quota system was introduced that favored immigrants from Northern Europe. The quotas were not adjusted to address the severe refugee crisis created by the persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany. Even for nationals of the favored countries of origin, just doing all the paperwork to get on the waiting list for an American visa was a major headache, and the waiting could be demoralizing. As documented by this ticket issued to Helina Mayer in Mainz by the US Consulate General in Stuttgart, applicants could expect to be summoned for examination according to their number in line, provided they had submitted “satisfactory proof” that their livelihood in the US was secured.
Based on his handwriting and style, it seems that Michael Seidemann was quite young when he wrote this postcard to his grandmother, Louise Seidemann, in Breslau. Interestingly, the address from which he sent it was identical to that of the synagogue of the town, Oldenburg. Even though the earliest records of Jewish presence in Oldenburg are from the 14th century, it was only in 1855 that the congregation opened its first synagogue built specifically for this purpose. As a result of Emancipation, Jews came to contribute to Oldenburg’s commerce by selling shoes, books, bicycles, and musical instruments, as cattle dealers and in agriculture, among other things. Their share of the population rarely exceeded 1%. Nevertheless, in the 1920s, antisemitic thugs began attacking Jewish businesses. In 1933, the town had 279 Jewish inhabitants, out of a total of 66,951. By the time Michael wrote this postcard, only two out of dozens of Jewish shops and businesses remained in the town.