One of the tools in the hands of the Nazis to terrorize Jews was arbitrary incarceration: the Enabling Act of March 24th, 1933, handed the regime the legal basis for the perfidious institution of “protective custody”: persons deemed to “endanger the security of the people” could be detained without concrete charges. Ostensibly, the policy was aimed at political adversaries. In fact, however, it was frequently used against Jews. The salesman Hans Wilk was among its first victims: in 1933, at 24 years of age, he spent over four months at the Lichtenburg concentration camp. During the November pogroms of 1938, he was among the roughly 30,000 Jewish men incarcerated in concentration camps. On December 16th, he was released from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg near Berlin. The requirement to report immediately to the State Police in his home town of Potsdam indicated that the harassment was not yet over.
Martha Lippmann, the widow of a wool merchant in Stolzenau/Weser in Lower Saxony, and her mother were the last family members left behind in Germany when the November pogroms (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”) ravaged German Jewry. Her daughter, Gertrude, fled to Belgium; her older son, Erich, to America; and her younger son, Hans Martin, to England. News of the wave of anti-Jewish violence increased the urgency with which emigrants attempted to intercede on behalf of loved ones left behind in Germany. In a letter dated Nov. 16th, Max Stern, Gertrude’s husband, tells Erich about a planned appointment with a Belgian lawyer on behalf of Martha Lippmann, the goal of which is to obtain a temporary visa for her. Erich himself had contacted William Dodd, the former US Ambassador to Germany, thanks to whom he himself had made it to the US. But so far this appeal was to no avail.
When Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s tragedy “Emilia Galotti” was put on at the non-Zionist agricultural training camp run by the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany in Groß-Breesen (Silesia), the talented and energetic Friedel Dzubas, 23, was central to making it happen: not only did he direct the performance, design the costumes and design and create the stage decoration, he also played the role of Odoardo, the tragic heroine’s father. Lessing, the son of a Lutheran pastor and a central figure of the German enlightenment, had taken up the cause of the Jews early on in life and eternalized his close friend, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, in his play “Nathan the Wise.” His determined stance earned him a place of honor in the hearts and minds of German Jews as well as in their libraries.
The passport of Martha Braun, a Viennese housewife, was issued on September 16, during the brief time window between the passing of the Executive Order on the Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names (August 17, 1938) and its entry into force (January 1939). According to this executive order, Jews were to add the middle name “Sara” or “Israel” to their given names. With the date of issue falling in September, Mrs. Braun received a passport without the stigmatizing addition – for the time being.
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.
In May 1938, Betty Blum had contacted her nephew Stanley Frankfurt in New York. Her son Bruno had lost his position in Vienna, and it was unlikely that he would find other employment. She did not elaborate on the situation of Austria’s Jews in general since the country’s annexation by Nazi Germany but wondered whether Stanley could do something for Bruno. When Bruno received Stanley’s July 16 letter, he must have been both relieved and taken aback. While assuring him that he had been active on his behalf doing the paperwork necessary to prepare for his immigration to the US, his cousin in New York also saw fit to point out to him that if his intention was coming to America for the purpose of “living a life of ease,” he was on the wrong track. Was Stanley really so uninformed about the plight of Austrian Jewry under the new authorities? It can be assumed that his sincere efforts on his Austrian cousin’s behalf made up for the bafflement that must have been caused by his inappropriate insinuation.
Erika Langstein was a young English teacher living in Vienna. In June 1938, having experienced the persecution of Jews in the Austrian capital for several months already, Erika sent a letter to Donald Biever, an American citizen, imploring him to help her and her Jewish father flee Austria by issuing an affidavit for them. Nothing would be unusual about this, except for the fact that the young woman had met Biever just once, briefly, on a train ride a year earlier, and had not communicated with him since. Despite the tenuous nature of their relationship, Erika describes to Biever the hopeless of the situation in Vienna. She also attaches a photo, in case Biever does not remember their encounter.
Ruth Wertheimer was born in Halberstadt (Saxony Anhalt) in 1915. Thanks to the revenue from a successful corset and lingerie shop with several branches, the family was living comfortably. However, in 1929, several years before the Nazis’ ascent to power, the family business had already suffered economic damage due to a libelous, antisemitically motivated claim against one of its proprietors, Ruth’s aunt Johanna. In 1932, while attending a business school in Berlin, where the family had moved in Ruth’s childhood, she was subjected to such intense antisemitism from teachers and classmates that she decided to quit before graduating. The passport displayed here was issued on May 16 in Paris and also lists Paris as Ruth’s place of residence. Her mother and stepfather had moved there in 1935. In Paris, Ruth resumed her studies.
In 1938, the first day of Passover fell on April 16. As they did every year, the inhabitants of the Jewish Residential Home for Youth and Apprentices in Berlin gathered around a festively set dinner table for the second Seder. Under the dedicated management of Paul and Friedel Joseph, the home provided its charges with opportunities that went well beyond practical needs like housing and vocational training. They also strove to provide them with cultural and intellectual stimulation that would expand their horizons. The boys and young men, ranging in age from 14 to 21, had been removed from their homes due to behavioral problems. According to Friedel Joseph, life in the home was still going on “relatively unimpeded” at this point, but the political situation cannot have been lost on its inhabitants. The Passover message of liberation from bondage under a tyrannical ruler must have resonated very strongly at this year’s celebration.
Having barely begun his career as a teacher at the Goethe-Gymnasium in Frankfurt/Main, Hans Epstein lost his job shortly after the Nazi rise to power in 1933. After a brief intermezzo as a teacher at the famous “Philanthropin” in Frankfurt/Main, a progressive Jewish school with the motto “For Enlightenment and Humanity”, he became a co-founder of the “Anlernwerkstatt”, which prepared Jewish youngsters for emigration to the US. The mathematician Otto Toeplitz, a passionate educator who had lost his position at the University of Bonn in 1935, was now teaching children and organizing the emigration of students to the United States. In this letter, Epstein asks Toeplitz for a letter of recommendation and for contacts in the United States that might be useful for his endeavors.
At the end of February 1938, there still seemed to be at least a few rays of hope for Austrian Jewry. In a sermon at the Vienna Central Synagogue, Chief Rabbi Israel Taglicht expressed the confidence of Austrian Jewry in Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. A few days earlier, the Chancellor had asserted that Austria would hold fast to the principles of the Constitution of May 1934, which granted Jews equality before the law and religious freedom. About the same time, the pro-Nazi mayor of Graz had been dismissed for raising a swastika flag over City Hall. To prevent Nazi demonstrations, the University of Graz and the Technical College had been temporarily closed.
Few among the immigrant New York audience expected to attend a trilingual event of the Theodor Herzl Society had ever encountered native speakers of modern Hebrew: Hence, it is no wonder the Aufbau assumed that the Hebrew part would constitute the greatest attraction. The featured artist of the evening, actor Albert Klar (Sklarz), born and raised in Tel Aviv, had begun his career in Berlin under renowned directors such as Reinhardt and Piscator. He had made his way to New York thanks to an invitation from the great Yiddish actor and director, Morris Schwartz, who hired him for his Yiddish Art Theater. The venue was Ansche Chesed, a synagogue on the Upper West Side founded by German immigrants.
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.
By 1938, the Hirsch family from Hamburg had emigrated to Italy. In light of the volatile situation in Europe, members of the family began to look into options for emigration to the United States or South America. Julius Hirsch had met Elisabeth Schiff on a visit to Belgium in 1935 and fallen in love with her. The Schiff family had no plans to leave Europe, and when visas for El Salvador were procured for Julius and other members of his family, he must have been pained at the prospect of being so distant from his beloved. This letter from a friend in Hamburg reassures him that a temporary separation is not such a bad thing. Forced to remain in Italy because the US denied him the necessary transit visa, Julius ultimately reunited with Elisabeth in England.
In the traveling exhibition “Degenerate Art,” initiated in Munich in 1937, the Nazis used 650 works of art confiscated from 32 museums in order to force their idea of art upon the populace: newer trends like expressionism, surrealism, or fauvism, to name just a few, were regarded as “Jewish-Bolshevist” and roundly disparaged. The front page of the exhibition catalog shows a piece titled “Large Head” from the workshop of the German-Jewish artist Otto Freundlich, one of the first exponents of abstract art. It was created in 1912 to symbolize hope for a new beginning. Even apart from Freundlich’s Jewish background and his artistic leanings, being a communist made him politically unacceptable in the eyes of the regime.
This view of Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv shows some of the typical buildings in the background to which it owes its unofficial name, “The White City.” Since 1933 and especially after the “Reichsbürgergesetz” came into effect in 1935, Bauhaus-trained architects had left Germany and were now putting their mark on Tel Aviv, either through their own creations or through their influence on others. The photo is dominated by the Migdalor building, which was built in 1935 and housed the city’s first air-conditioned movie theater. On the external wall there is a huge advertisement for Jean Renoir’s 1937 movie “Grand Illusion,” which due to its pacifist message was banned in Nazi Germany.
Between the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 and the year 1938, about 16.000 Jews had immigrated to the United States. Many German Jews had made their home in New York, especially in the neighborhood of Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, gaining it the nickname “Frankfurt on the Hudson.” The event schedule of the German-Jewish Club lists a “Family evening with Kaffee-Klatsch” which offers “artistic and musical interludes.” The event is geared towards the needs of the older members of the community, as “a substitute for lodge, singing club, social club and other associations,” promising participants an opportunity to discuss what they had on their minds. In addition to cultural activities in German, the massive influx of German-speaking Jews to Washington Heights led to the establishment of numerous new synagogues, beginning with “Tikvoh Chadoshoh”—“New Hope.”
In light of the looming danger, a young jazz musician from Breslau, Werner Dambitsch, considered various options for emigration. Like many others, he viewed Cuba, a destination for which it was significantly easier to obtain a visa, as a “waiting room” on the way to the final destination for many, the United States. While his application for immigration to Cuba was being processed, Dambitsch, to be on the safe side, seems to also have applied for a visa at the Colombian Embassy in Berlin. The document presented here is a doctor’s notice written by the doctor of the Colombian Embassy and attesting the perfect health of the prospective emigrant, one of the indispensable preconditions for receiving a visa.
The Austrian Adolph Markus had started a diary on January 12, the day Hitler forced the “Berchtesgaden Treaty” on the Austrian chancellor, Schuschnigg. The treaty stipulated the release of National-Socialist prisoners, gave free rein to Nazi political organizing, and granted a greater measure of participation in government activities to their political representatives. Markus personally witnessed the thuggish behaviour of the released prisoners and their reception by sympathizers in the streets of Linz. In his diary entry on February 20, he records the events of the preceding day and reveals his worries for his country.
Not wishing to leave behind the family business and hoping that the Jews’ situation would improve over time, Alfred Rahn had initially been reluctant to consider emigration. However, in 1937 the family obtained US visas and sold the business to a non-Jew. Since they had not officially approved the sale, the Nazis accused Rahn of trying to hide funds. As a result, he had to serve a 14-month prison term. From prison, Rahn writes to his wife Lilli in a matter-of-fact way about his hope to be transferred to a different section of the prison, the work imposed on him, and the books he reads. He manages to create the impression that nothing much is amiss.
The orthodox Jüdische Presse quotes the state-run Austrian wire service Amtliche Nachrichtenstelle with a reassuring assessment of the situation of Jews in Italy: While there was an antisemitic movement “like everywhere else,” it was very moderate, and rather than targeting Italian Jewry, it opposed “World Jewry” due to the latter’s notoriously anti-fascist stance. Interestingly, the moderate nature of the antisemitic movement in Italy is seen as a result of the absence of a “Jewish movement” in the country. Indeed, Zionism had attracted very few followers in Italy, and between 1926 and 1938, only 151 Italian Jews had emigrated to Palestine.
Immediately after the Nazis seized power, on January 30, 1933, Berlin-based Recha Freier founded the Jüdische Jugendhilfe (“Committee for the Assistance of Jewish Youth”) soon to be known as Jugend-Alija (“Youth Aliyah”). The organization’s goal was to bring Jewish children past the age of elementary school to safety in Palestine. In the youth supplement of the Israelitisches Familienblatt of February 17, 1938, the children’s feelings are described as they depart for Palestine: Not only did they have to cope with the separation from their parents and families, but also with the uncertainty about their future.
In mid-February 1938, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, for years an attentive observer of the situation of German Jews, reports once again on the precarious position of Jews in Germany and the struggle of the Jewish Winter Relief to do justice to the acute needs of the community’s poorest. While the new, obligatory contribution addressed ongoing needs and made it easier to survive the winter, the numerous laws imposed by the Nazis since 1933 that banned Jews from various professions lead to an irreversible deterioration of their material situation.
Bertha Pappenheim (1859–1936), born and raised in Vienna, was a leading German-Jewish feminist. Better known as the patient Anna O. in Sigmund Freud’s “Studies on Hysteria,” she later moved to Frankfurt a.M., where she gradually shifted the emphasis of her activism from charitable work to women’s empowerment. In 1907, she established a home in Neu-Isenburg for young Jewish women in need of protection, a feat she considered her most important achievement. Under the Nazis, the home had to register all inhabitants with the police. In the letter displayed here, the secretary of the home asks Rabbi Dr. Merzbach at the District Rabbinate in Darmstadt to immediately send the papers of a resident of the home, Esther Kleinmann, who would otherwise face deportation.
Kibbutz Giv’at Brenner was established in 1928 by young immigrants from Poland and Lithuania who were soon joined by a group from Germany. As in many other kibbutzim, conditions at Giv’at Brenner were initially harsh, causing some members to leave. In the 1930s, due to the absorption of new immigrants, the kibbutz grew. Over time, a thriving agriculture and various industrial enterprises, including a cannery and a factory for irrigation equipment developed. The picture presented here shows the carpentry shop of the kibbutz in 1938. A unique feature was Beit Yesha, a vegetarian convalescent home established in the mid thirties—the first of its kind in a kibbutz.
In early 1938, a variety of assumptions regarding the future of the Jews circulated. The official SS organ Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), for example, surmises that after the exclusion of Jews from “the spiritual and political life of the nation,” the physical separation from the majority of Jews within about twenty years will be no chimera. According to this notice disseminated by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Das Schwarze Korps, claims that the Jews are not willing to leave Germany and that the “small number” of Jewish emigrants should not be ascribed to “foreign exchange and other problems” but rather to the unwillingness of Jews in other countries to “lift a finger to give the emigrants or would-be emigrants a home.” In fact, by 1937, as many as 130,000 (out of a total of 600,000) Jews had left the country.
One month before Anschluss, the Austrian-Jewish weekly Die Wahrheit, exhorts Austrian Jews to learn from the development of antisemitism in Poland. The Vienna-based paper, which, since the twenties had increasingly advocated integration and distanced itself from Zionism, perceived Zionism as a dangerous breach with Polish-Jewish history: in the past, says the author of this article, Jews in Poland stood out with their patriotism and commitment to matters of national concern. He opines that their turning towards Palestine creates the impression of a lack of loyalty, thus giving ammunition to Jew-haters. Moreover, the article accuses Zionists of exerting undue pressure upon dissenters.
In February 1938, two brothers living in two different continents, Joszi Josefsberg in Europe (Chelles, France) and Arthur Josefsberg (New York) discuss in their correspondence how best to proceed to obtain affidavits to rescue their parents, who are still in Germany. But not only the fact that their parents’ emigration has not yet been secured worries Joszi—he is also concerned about their material survival. Such concerns were common among Jews who had left behind parents, siblings, and often spouses. Nazi efforts to force Jews out of numerous professions had made it harder and harder for those remaining in Germany to earn a living.
Already in 1936, the League of Nations had appointed Sir Neill Malcolm as “High Commissioner for German Refugees.” In light of the increasing stream of refugees from Nazi Germany, an inter-governmental conference was convened in February 1938 in Geneva under the aegis of the League of Nations. The orthodox paper Der Israelit reports on the first day of the gathering, which was attended by delegates from 14 states. Through the Nuremberg Laws, Jews had been downgraded from “citizens of the Reich” to mere “subjects.” As soon as they left Germany, they could be stripped off their citizenship entirely. Two members of the liaison committee, N. Bentwich from London and M. Seroussi from Paris, therefore demanded the extension of refugee status to stateless migrants as well.
The figures computed by the registry office of the Vienna Jewish Community and published here in the Jewish paper Die Stimme paint a bleak picture: between 1923 and 1937, the number of Jews in Vienna had decreased from 201,208 to around 167,000. The notice specifically mentions emigration between 1935 and 1936. Moreover, probably as a result both of the general insecurity and the changed age structure of the community, the number of births among Austrian Jews had gone down from 2,733 in 1923 to a mere 720 in 1937. Among the 2,824 deaths in 1937, 105 are entered as suicides.
The philosopher of religion Martin Buber was born on February 8, 1878, in Vienna. Best known for his 1923 work I and Thou, he also, in collaboration with Franz Rosenzweig, created a new translation of the Hebrew Bible into German. Buber was so popular with German-Jewish youth that the term “Bubertät” (“Buberty”) was coined to describe the phenomenon. Buber was among the proponents of a bi-national state in Palestine and in 1925, together with Gershom Scholem, Robert Weltsch, Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Simon and others, he founded “Brit Shalom,” an organisation that promoted Arab-Jewish coexistence on the basis of justice and equality. On February 8, he celebrated his 50th birthday.