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.
Already in the late 19th century, hostility towards Jews was common in German spas, some of which advertised themselves as “free of Jews.” In the Baltic and North Seas, entire islands presented themselves as anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, some had a small Jewish population. On the beaches of the North Sea health resort of Wangerooge, swastika flags were displayed as early as 1920, just after becoming the symbol of the Nazi party. When the Nazis had been voted into power, the situation became even harder for the island’s Jews. On December 22nd, 1938, Fritz Jacoby, himself a beneficiary of the work of the Boston Committee for Refugees and a recent arrival to the United States, turned to Willy Nordwind, its co-chair, on behalf of Marga Levy, a 24-year-old native of Wangerooge. In the wake of the pogrom of November 9-10, all of her male relatives had been incarcerated, there was no money and no way to make a living. Thus, the grateful Mr. Jacoby implores the Committee to provide the young woman with a “domestic affidavit” which would enable her to “work day and night to feed her parents.”
For many Jewish children in Germany, going to school had become an ordeal: the constant anti-Jewish indoctrination of German students was poisoning the atmosphere, teachers as the agents of this policy rarely supported the Jewish children, and the mere act of getting to school and back could be like running the gauntlet. As a result, Jewish schools began to proliferate, and those who could afford it sent their children to boarding schools abroad. When Ruth Berlak, in Berlin, received this friendly note from St. Margaret’s School in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, informing her of the acceptance of her 13-year-old daughter, Marianne, as a pupil, little more than a month had passed since the Nazi regime had decreed the removal of Jewish children from German schools. Marianne’s maternal grandfather was Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck, the president of the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany. Her father’s father was Leo Berlak, the chairman of the Association of Jewish Heimatvereine, clubs devoted to the maintenance of local traditions.
The banishment of Jews from public spaces was far advanced by now. Already in 1933, Jewish creative artists had been dismissed from state-sponsored cultural life. Since November 12th, 1938, Jews were no longer admitted even as audience members at “presentations of German culture” and were banished from concert halls, opera houses, libraries and museums. More and more restaurants and shops denied access to Jews. On Dec. 12th, 1938, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency pointed out a striking discrepancy: while abroad, the “German News Bureau,” the central news agency of the Reich which followed the directives of the Propaganda Ministry, spread the information that from January 1st, 1939, certain anti-Semitic measures would be relaxed, quite the opposite had been communicated to Jews inside the Reich. One fact, however, was not hidden: the goal was to prompt all Jews to emigrate, “also in the interest of the Jews themselves,” as the Bureau put it.
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.
Sent to take stock after the November Pogroms in Germany, the American Joint Distribution Committee’s emissary to Germany, George Rooby, traveled to several cities to collect first-hand impressions. His findings were deeply disturbing: Berlin, Nuremberg, Fürth, Frankfurt-on-Main, no matter where he went, he saw synagogues burnt down, Jewish shops demolished and ransacked, Torah scrolls desecrated, and was met by terror-stricken Jews whose leadership had been forbidden to operate or taken to concentration camps. Non-Jews extending a helping hand exposed themselves to the danger of Nazi reprisals. The almost complete absence of small children and babies was explained to Rooby as a result of the fact that nativity among Jews had receded considerably since the Nazis’ accession to power. Leaders of Jewish communities had assured him that there was enough money to cover immediate welfare needs. Those organizations, however, whose goal was to advance emigration, were facing a serious lack of funds. Generally, hope prevailed that the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany would soon be allowed to operate again and play its part in accelerating emigration. Its success, of course, depended on the willingness of other countries to receive German Jews. Rooby’s conclusion was unambiguous: the only hope to escape the violence was emigration.
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.
Willy Nordwind, co-chair of the Boston Committee for Refugees, tirelessly endeavored to save Jews from the grip of the Nazis by helping them immigrate to the United States. Himself an immigrant from Germany and familiar with the requirements, he helped organize affidavits and saw to it that newcomers with fields of expertise as heterogeneous as “tobacco and clothing retail business,” “tourism,” “expert buyer and salesman of hosiery,” and “wholesale fish dealer” found employment in America. Most of the people he helped were total strangers to him, but some of his beneficiaries were personal acquaintances. On November 28th, 1938, his friend Seppel pleads with Nordwind to find a special arrangement for him that would speed things up. Requests for visas had risen sharply since the pogrom night of November 9th to 10th (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”), and the usual waiting period for the processing of affidavits was far too long.
The news of the brutal acts of violence perpetrated against German and Austrian Jews during the November pogroms sent shockwaves through Jewish communities. On November 15, a group of Jewish leaders in Britain requested that their government grant temporary shelter to Jewish youngsters who were to be returned to their countries later on. On November 25, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on the planned opening of a camp for 600 child refugees from Germany on the east coast of England. The British chapter of the World Movement for the Care of Children from Germany was to recruit families to offer foster homes for 5,000 children. The plan had government approval – provided the children were under 17 years of age and the costs of their support would not be a burden to the public.
Could Willy Nordwind of the Boston Committee for Refugees—an organization not dealing specifically with unaccompanied child immigrants—be entrusted with the well-being of a 16-year-old girl? The Relief Organization of Jews in Germany was not ready to take chances: rather than just sending Frieda Diamont on her way, the organization turned to the National Council of Jewish Women in New York to ascertain Mr. Norwind’s integrity. The Council’s Merle Henoch passed on the case to Jewish Family Welfare in Boston, Mass., where Nordwind, too, was based. For her there was no doubt: as generous a helper as Willy Norwind must be a trustworthy ally.
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.
With a documented presence reaching back as far as the 12th century and as the second largest community after Berlin, Jews in Frankfurt were a profoundly established part of society. But under the Nazis, Frankfurt Jews, like all of German Jewry, were made to feel like unwelcome strangers in their own city and country, and large numbers of them were leaving Germany. The November issue of the “Jüdische Gemeindeblatt für Frankfurt” shows the omnipresence of the topic of emigration. Numerous ads were offering services and equipment specifically for emigrants. The “Aid Association of Jews in Germany” offered the latest news regarding immigration requirements to various countries but also a warning not to fall into the trap of fraudsters charging would-be emigrants hefty fees for useless advice. However, one contribution sticks out; in a letter from Houston, Texas, a former resident of Frankfurt shares her first impressions. The heat was challenging, potatoes didn’t feature prevalently enough on the menu, mosquito nets (“more mosquitoes than in Palestine”) and plastic flowers required some getting used to, not to mention giant spiders and flying cockroaches. On the other hand, there were built-in cupboards and large beds, as well as, best of all, the “almost unbelievable hospitality” of the locals.
The arrival of Gertrude Münzer’s first letter from Palestine was a cause for joy, relief and hope to her family that had remained behind in Austria. The Münzers were a well-integrated family, but after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, the tide turned and they had to endure increasing hardship, starting with their eviction from their home and Moses Münzer losing his job. With parental encouragement, Gertrude was the only member of her family to go to Palestine with a Zionist youth group. Inspired by her example, her older brother, Benno, had gone on hakhsharah. In his reply to Gertrude, dated November 4th, her father pleads with the 15-year-old girl to recruit support for him at the kibbutz or elsewhere to enable him to follow with the rest of the family.
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.
Ernst Patzer, an employee of the criminal investigation department of the Berlin police and seriously disabled in World War I, had lost his job in March 1938. The reason was the Public Service Law of 1937 which barred those married to Jews from public service – and Patzer had been married to a German-Jewish woman for 25 years. This additional move of the Nazi regime to push Jews and their relatives out of all spheres of life hit the Patzers very hard: he was the sole wage earner and, after 25 years of service, lost not only his position but also any claim to his pension. This letter of October 24, 1938, shows how step by step, Ernst Patzer was excluded from civic participation. In vain he wrote, as a former frontline soldier, to Hitler and Göring, in order to obtain continued employment with a government agency. The marriage lasted, and he finally found work as an auditor with AEG (a producer of electrical equipment). The Patzers survived National Socialism.
In a year marred by numerous alarming anti-Jewish measures, the wedding of Frieda Ascher and Bernhard Rosenberg on October 23rd in Berlin must have provided a much needed reprieve for their families and friends. The officiant at the ceremony was Dr. Moritz Freier, an orthodox rabbi. Many young Jews, unable to find work as a result of the intensification of antisemitism in Germany, approached Rabbi Freier since his wife Recha had already come up with the idea of helping Jewish youth to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine and settle in Kibbutzim, a project known as “Youth Aliyah,” in January 1933.
This photograph, taken in October 1938, shows Moses Münzer, a tailor in Vienna, and his wife Lisa, with their five children, Elfriede, Benno, Nelly, Gertrude and Siegfried. After the “Anschluss,” Moses Münzer, like many Jews, lost his job. Lisa Münzer started working as a cook in the soup kitchen of the Brigittenauer Tempel on Kluckygasse, sometimes assisted by her children. By October 21st, 15-year-old Gertrude was on her way to Palestine on Youth Aliyah, an organization founded by Recha Freier, the wife of an orthodox rabbi in Berlin, before the Nazi rise to power. Its goal was to help Jewish youth escape anti-Semitism in the Reich and settle in Palestine. Gertrude left on her own, but the intention was for the family to reunite in Palestine.
Numerous Jewish organizations, such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, German Jewish Children’s Aid and the Boston Committee for Refugees were dedicated to the rescue of refugees from Nazi Germany. In 1938, it was a non-Jewish body, the American Friends Service Committee, that came up with a particularly good project: from mid-June to the beginning of September, it ran a camp in the Hudson Valley for about 70 persons, mostly Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and about one third Americans, for the two sides to get to know each other by working, studying and singing together, sharing household chores, attending lectures and religious services and playing sports or games with each other. The author of this article in the October issue of the Aufbau is full of gratitude for what he calls “a remarkable contribution to the internal integration of our people in the country.”
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.
In 1938, Yom Kippur fell on October 5th, a Wednesday. The educational department of the “Reich Representation of Jews in Germany” had published a booklet this year which contained numerous suggestions as to how the holiday could be observed in schools. It reads like a didactic handout which could have been written exactly the same way in earlier or in later years. There is no reference to the difficult circumstances in which Jews and, not the least, Jewish schoolchildren found themselves in Germany in 1938. In the previous five years, the Nazis had gradually implemented “racial segregation” in public schools. Already by 1936, the ratio of Jewish students in public schools was nearly half of what it had been before.
A central goal of “National Peace Action Week,” planned by the Canadian League of Nations Society, was to raise awareness among the Canadian public of the suffering of persecuted Jews. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on October 3rd, 1938 on the plan to establish a national committee of Jewish and other Canadian leaders for the purpose of sensitizing the public to the Jewish refugee crisis and requesting that appropriate measures be taken by the government. Because Canada had enforced restrictive isolationist policy against immigrants since at least the Great Depression, the country had no refugee policy. This already made it difficult for Jewish refugees to immigrate to Canada. An additional problem was widespread anti-Semitism among the public.
In August 1938, Irma Umlauf’s life had begun to unravel: she had been notified that the Jewish-owned company in Breslau for which she worked was going to be liquidated, leaving her jobless. And her landlord had terminated her lease. While there was no law in October 1938 stipulating that non-Jews could not have Jewish tenants, some landlords were eager to get rid of them. In Irma Umlauf’s case, the problem was that her Jewish co-tenants could no longer afford the place and had moved out. The non-Jewish landlord, according to Irma, was afraid to accept other Jewish tenants, and since Jews and non-Jews weren’t allowed to share living space, she had no choice but to leave. Among the other topics broached by Irma in this letter to her friend Hilde Liepelt in Berlin, is her job situation. Luckily, the Landesverband in Berlin gave her permission to do language lessons in the Jewish communities of Münsterberg and Fraustadt, both near Breslau, providing her both with means to live as well as allowing her to continue caring for her mother. A little extra income was generated by singing engagements.
“He offered a steed, you bought a hack, the Jews are a deceitful pack” is what is written on this postcard, postmarked on September 21, 1938. Mocking, anti-Semitic postcards were common already during the German Empire and the Weimar Republic and, as an easily replicable means, gained influence on the way people thought. One of the oldest stereotypes may be that of the greedy Jew. In whatever part of the economy Jews were active, anti-Semites would impute usury and fraud. The use of anti-Semitic postcards to impart private messages gave anti-Jewish stereotypes far-reaching societal acceptance and thus created the breeding ground for the solution of the “Jewish question,” which was soon to become a terrible reality.
Jewish refugee organizations had wide networks. This was due to individuals such as Kurt Grossmann, who steadily made more connections with contacts and developed cooperation on an international level. Kurt Grossmann, a journalist and General Secretary of the German League of Human Rights from 1926 until 1933, had escaped from Berlin just before an arrest. He fled to Prague, where he established and developed Democratic Relief for Refugees. Grossmann knew how to use his network for the increasing number of Jewish refugees, who had reached Prague. Even in Paris, where he had lived since 1938, he campaigned for support from the local refugee aid organizations. For example, in a letter from Grossmann on September 19th, 1938, he urges M. Gaston Kahn of the Parisian Comité d’Assistance aux Réfugiés juifs to help Erna Winter and her child.
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 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.
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.
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.
Immediately after their rise to power in January 1933, the Nazis began to extend their control over every aspect of cultural life in Germany. As a popular medium capable of reaching large numbers of people—and one perceived as being dominated by Jews—film was of central importance to the new regime. Before the production of a new movie could begin, the script had to pass pre-censorship. The final product was scrutinized by the censorship authority for film (Film-Prüfstelle) of the Reich Propaganda Ministry. Under the Nazi regime, the state’s relationship with the film industry changed. While prior to 1933, authorities had primarily sought to censor or suppress material deemed harmful, the Nazi regime actively instrumentalized the film industry to promote National Socialist ideology. The anti-Semitic film “Juden ohne Maske” (“Jews unmasked”), whose authorization card from the censors is shown here, is such a case. It received the rating “valuable to national policy”, but it was also restricted to screenings for adult audiences in the context of NSDAP events.
As a deaf-mute Jew, Ursula Meseritz was doubly inferior in the eyes of the Nazis. Since July 14, 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring had been in effect, which legalized the forced sterilization of the deaf, the blind, the cognitively disabled, epileptics, and others. Ursula had attended the only Jewish institution for the deaf-mute in Germany, the “Israelitische Taubstummenanstalt” in Berlin Weißensee. Under the Nazi regime, the use of sign language was forbidden in public schools, and in 1936, Jewish students were excluded from institutions catering to the needs of the deaf-mute. According to a “Questionnaire for Emigrants,” which she had submitted in April 1938, Ursula had been trained as a lab worker for clinical diagnostics and was hoping to work in this field in the United States. The captions on these photographs (dated July 17, 1938) show that in spite of the difficult times, the 19-year-old had not lost her sense of humor. They appear to show Ursula and her sister with their parents celebrating one last time before Ursula departed for the US.
The “Aid Society of German Jews,” founded in Berlin in 1901, mainly supported Jewish immigrants to Germany. After the Nazis came into power, the association, now forced to call itself “Aid Society of Jews in Germany,” helped to facilitate Jewish emigration from Germany. In this context, it offered help with questions concerning government agencies, passport issues, or vocational retraining and also granted financial support. An important organ for its work was the periodical Jüdische Auswanderung (“Jewish Emigration”), which informed its readers about general living and work conditions but also about specific questions regarding Jewish culture in various countries. In the July 1938 issue, the US, Cuba, and the Philippines were introduced.