Despite the restrictive immigration policy of the British colonial power, twenty-year-old Paul Egon Cahn, a car mechanic from Cologne, managed to flee to Kenya with the help of this passport. Paul’s sisters, Erika and Inge, reached safety in England and Australia respectively. The siblings’ parents, Siegfried and Regina Cahn, remained behind in Germany. In many cases, refugees not only had to cope with the loss of their homes and property and the separation from their relatives but were also forced to take on the challenges posed by foreign climate zones and cultures.
The reply of the secretary of the Kenya Jewish Refugee Committee, Israel Somen, to Paul Egon Cahn’s request for help was rather reserved: the young man urgently wished to bring his parents from Cologne to join him, but he didn’t have the £100 which were to be paid to the British Colonial Office in Mombasa for entry permits. The financial situation of the Committee was utterly strained, so that Somen could only advise the young man to submit an orderly application with the immigration board in Nairobi. In addition, he would have to furnish proof that he was able to pay for his parents’ upkeep and that he had paid the fee for the permits. Only then would it be conceivable that the authority would follow the request, provided the Refugee Committee would give him security. This, too, Somen emphasized, was contingent on Paul Egon Cahn’s ability to prove that his parents would not be a financial burden on the Committee or on the local authorities.
In 1903, in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom, the British government agreed to allow European Jewish settlement in a territory then known as the “East Africa Protectorate,” today’s Kenya. Due to massive opposition from within the Zionist movement, the plan, known by the misleading name “Uganda Scheme,” did not come to fruition. 35 years later, Paul Egon Cahn, most recently a resident of Cologne, found himself in Rongai, Kenya. After the November pogroms, the 20-year-old car mechanic began to try to get his parents out of Germany. While European settlers and members of the local Indian community in Kenya opposed the immigration of Jewish refugees, the “Kenya Jewish Refugee Committee,” which had facilitated his immigration, was supportive. Thus, the young man turned to its secretary, Israel Somen, for help: he urgently needed the £100 the British Colonial Office charged for two entry permits.
Even though the climate under the Vargas regime in Brazil was becoming increasingly anti-Jewish, refugees could count on the support of allies. Already in 1933, an aid organization for German-Jewish refugees had come into being in Sao Paulo. And in 1936 in Porto Alegre, where Bernhard and Anni Wolf had recently fled from East Frisia, refugees established a Jewish culture and welfare society. The overall attitude of the Church was ambiguous; nevertheless, a Catholic aid committee for refugees lent significant aid to the newcomers. After an unsuccessful attempt to arrange their immigration to Brazil at the consulate in Cologne, Bernhard’s brother Richard and his wife Jola pinned all their hope on their relatives in Brazil.
Fearing a massive influx of Polish Jews from Nazi-annexed Austria, the Polish parliament had passed a law in March 1938 allowing for the possibility of revoking the citizenship of anyone who had lived outside the country for at least five years. On October 15th, a decree was published according to which only persons with a valid control stamp in their passports would be allowed into the country. The decree was to go into effect on October 30th. In light of the presence of well over 70,000 Polish Jews in Reich territories, the regime acted fast: within the framework of the so-called “Polenaktion” (“Polish Action”), from October 27 to 29, thousands of Polish Jews were expelled by the Nazis. Many of these Polish citizens had little or no connection to their country of origin and they had nothing and no one to return to. One of the victims of the decree was Ida, the housekeeper of the Schönenberg family in Cologne. On October 29th, Dr. Schönenberg, Ida’s employer for the past three years, writes to his son Leopold in Palestine and describes how she had to report to the police with barely 3 1/2 hours prior warning. Ida was a native of Cologne and had a fiancé in Germany.
An astonishing number of German physicians apparently not only had no qualms about being co-opted by the Nazi regime but actively subscribed to its racist and eugenic doctrines, conveniently ignoring their ostensible commitment to the Hippocratic Oath with its stipulation to do no harm. On top of propagating an ideology which declared Jews to be a danger to the “German race,” medical organizations in Germany expelled Jews, making it harder and harder for them to make a living. Under such circumstances, it’s not surprising that Dr. Max Schönenberg, a physician in Cologne, and his musician wife, Erna, supported their son Leopold’s emigration to Palestine in 1937, even though the boy was only 15 years old at the time. In this September 18th, 1938 letter to his son, Dr. Schönenberg touches upon various weighty topics, among them the regime’s recent decision to revoke Jewish doctors’ medical licenses and his uncertainty about his professional future (some Jewish physicians were given permission to treat Jewish patients).
After the Anschluss, the problem of refugees from Germany and Austria became even more pressing. In order to address the issue, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had called for an international conference in Évian in July, 1938. The conference was anticipated with great hopes by the German-Jewish community but, due to the refusal of the international community to adjust immigration quotas to actual needs, the impact of Évian was extremely limited. Nevertheless, the Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Rheinland und Westfalen (Jewish Community Newsletter for Rhineland and Westphalia) tried to present some positive results by pointing out the readiness of several South American countries to absorb Jewish refugees. Regardless of the palpable attempt to remain hopeful, the underlying tone of this front page article in the July 23 issue is not one of excessive optimism.
Usually the Jewish National Workers Alliance, as the Labor Zionist fraternal order was known, occupied itself with serious matters. Among other things, it strove to strengthen the working class and offered help in cases of economic hardship, illness, or death of its members. In 1911, it had established the first modern insurance system for Jewish workers. On April 9, 1938 it strayed from its core mission and held a Passover Ball in the German-Jewish stronghold of Washington Heights in New York. Among other items, the program featured “Cologne humorists.” German immigrants would have understood that this referred to Cologne carnival jesting, a tradition associated with the Catholic carnival season that dates back to the Middle Ages. The venue was the ballroom of the Paramount Mansion, which also housed several institutions that promoted the interests of German Jewish immigrants.