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.”
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.
Hugo Jellinek was a man of many talents. The outbreak of WWI forced him to quit medical school in Vienna. As a soldier, he was severely wounded in Samarkand and fell in love with his nurse, who later became the mother of his three daughters. The couple settled down in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. His young wife having died in 1926, he fled the Soviet Union in 1930 and ultimately returned to Vienna, where he utilized his knowledge of 8 languages as a translator and also worked as a freelance journalist. Thanks to a warning about impending arrest by the Nazis, he was able to escape to Brünn (Czechoslovakia) in June 1938. His eldest daughter, eighteen year-old Gisella Nadja, departed for Palestine the same day. In this colorful letter, Hugo shows fatherly concern for Nadja’s well-being, but also talks at length about the hardship he himself has faced as a refugee and reports that his cousin’s son is interned at the Dachau Concentration Camp. He mentions with gratification what he calls the “League,” probably referring to the aid center of the “League for Human Rights,” which was looking after the refugees, defying Hitler’s sinister goals. Ultimately, however, the most important thing for him was the fight for a country of one’s own.
The first major rupture in artist Gustav Wolf’s biography had occurred during World War I. He had volunteered for frontline duty and was badly injured. His brother Willy was killed in combat. The works in which he processed his wartime experiences leave no doubt about his feelings. Instead of glorifying war, he shows its horrors. His confrontation with antisemitism during and after the war led him to an increased awareness of his own Jewishness. In 1920 he accepted a professorship at the Baden Art School in Karlsruhe, trying to realize his ideal of an equitable partnership between teacher and student. After a year, he quit this “dead activity,” referring to the school as “an academy of schemers.” In 1929, he designed the set for Fritz Lang’s silent film “Woman in the Moon,” an early science-fiction movie. Upon the Nazi rise to power in 1933, he canceled his memberships with all the artists’ associations to which he had belonged. In his letter to the Baden Secession, he explained his decision with the following words: “I must first get my bearings again. The foundations of my existence have been called into question and shaken.” After extended stays in Switzerland, Italy and Greece, he returned to Germany in 1937. In February 1938, he boarded a ship to New York. June 26, 1938 was his 49th birthday.
Since 1937, Lina and Siegmund Günzburger of Lörrach in southwest Germany and their son, Herbert, had been preparing their paperwork for emigration. The requirements amounted to nothing short of a nightmare. Prospective emigrants had to procure numerous personal documents, letters of recommendation, and affidavits. They were also required to prepare an inventory of all their belongings and to document that they had paid all their taxes. Apparently, the required documents also included this copy of the marriage certificate for Siegmund’s grandparents. Especially perfidious was the so-called “Reich Flight Tax.” Originally introduced in the waning days of the Weimar Republic to prevent capital flight in reaction to the government’s austerity policy, under the Nazis, it became a tool to cynically punish the Jews for leaving a country that was doing everything it could to make it unbearable for them to stay.
Marseille was one of the most important ports of departure for the refugees on their way overseas. It was here that Moses Wainstein obtained the papers he still needed for his emigration to Uruguay. This certificate of vaccination was written in Spanish for submission to the authorities there. The former Berliner had already had his belongings shipped to Marseille by a German company. Wainstein was 40 years of age at this point.
The passage in July 1933 of a law allowing the government to revoke the citizenship of those naturalized after the end of WWI had given Nazi officials a tool to deprive “undesirables” of their citizenship. The law targeted the Nazis’ political adversaries as well as Jews; 16,000 Eastern European Jews had gained German citizenship between the proclamation of the republic on November 9, 1918 and the Nazi rise to power in January 1933. Among those whose names appear on the expatriation list dated March 26, 1938 are Otto Wilhelm, his wife Katharina and the couple’s three children, residents of Worms and all five of them natives of Germany.
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.