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.
On January 5, 1938, Kuno Fleischer wrote to the shareholders of his family’s paper factory in the small Baden-Wurttemberg town of Eislingen about a recent business dispute and alluded darkly to a time when “grave decisions will have to be made swiftly.” He told his fellow owners—his brother and nephews—that he would soon travel to the United States to “orient himself” adding, “No one of us can predict how things will turn out, and no one can take offense at our holding on for as long as possible to what we have built together.”
Following the November Pogroms, individuals and groups in England, among them faith-based organizations, demonstrated through their relentless refugee advocacy and organizing how effective determined action by citizens can be. Among those who lobbied the British government specifically on behalf of Jewish children was the Society of Friends (Quakers). After initial rejection by Prime Minister Chamberlain, a delegation composed of Jews and Quakers met with Home Secretary Hoare, following which the government gave permission to issue visas and facilitate the children’s entry into the country. Within the shortest time, host families were recruited, donations solicited, tickets booked, transit visas organized (the children traveled via Hoek van Holland). The network of Jewish and non-Jewish helpers included Dutch volunteers who welcomed the children at the border, gave them food and drink and accompanied them all the way to the ship in Hoek van Holland. The first group arrived at Harwich on December 2. The organized efforts to rescue Jewish children from Nazi Germany later came to be known as “Kindertransport.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mrs. Pollak in Teplitz (Teplice), Czechoslovakia, was vacillating between relief that her daughter was safely out-of-reach from the Nazis reach and worry about 17-year-old Marianne’s physical and emotional wellbeing. After changing her initial plans to go to Palestine on Youth Aliyah, the young girl was now in England all by herself. The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany had heightened fears of a similar fate in Czechoslovakia. Refugees were kept out of the country, and local Jews had double the reason to worry – both as Czechs, and as Jews. With news from Vienna and Palestine bleak and Czechoslovakia’s future uncertain, Mrs Pollak made a loving effort to reassure Marianne that things would get easier for her in the new country over time.
The German lawyer Paul Schrag was employed at the Institut d’Economie Européenne in Brussels. He was planning to embark on the journey to the United States from Le Havre on July 15 with his Jewish wife, Suzanne, and their infant child. In his letter of July 2 to Prof. Max Gutzwiller in Fribourg, Switzerland, Schrag asks for a letter of reference for use in the United States. Gutzwiller, a fierce critic of the Nazis and also married to a Jewish woman, had left his chair for German Private Law and Roman Law at the University of Heidelberg in 1936. Schrag obviously enjoyed the esteem of his employers. The management of the institute had agreed to reserve the position of director general for him until the end of the year and even entrusted him with a “research mission” in order to enable him to look into his professional prospects in America without major pressure.
The family of Therese Wiedmann (née Toffler) in Vienna was secular and very well integrated. While the Tofflers were keenly aware of the situation in Germany, no one among Therese’s relatives foresaw that so many Austrians would be so quick to welcome Hitler and abandon Austrian independence. After the “Anschluss” in March 1938 she immediately lost her job with Tiller AG. Her grandfather, until recently the president of the company, was no longer permitted to enter his office. Her father, Emil, the executive manager, was kept around for the time being, in order to familiarize the new, “Aryan” management with the company’s operations. Luckily, he had transferred part of his assets to England before the “Anschluss.” In better days, the company was deemed sufficiently Austrian to be appointed a purveyor to the royal-imperial court, for which it produced army uniforms. This passport, issued to Therese Wiedmann on June 11, 1938, contains a visa that includes “all countries of the earth” and “return to the German Reich.”
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.
In the spring of 1938, the Berlin electrician Moses Wainstein was making arrangements to join the steady stream of Jewish emigrants. His destination was faraway Montevideo. He was planning to travel from Berlin to Marseille, where he intended to board a ship for South America. On March 1, he received the requisite French transit visa. Uruguay was regarded as a country with strong democratic traditions, little pressure on newcomers to adapt, and good job prospects for tradesmen. Jewish relief organizations and travel agencies advised prospective emigrants on choosing their new home, finding the best route possible, and procuring the required papers.