Depicted here is the facade of the Jewish Hospital in Hamburg. The photograph is part of an album preceded by an inscription dated May 29, 1938. The hospital was endowed by merchant and banker Salomon Heine, also known as the “Rothschild of Hamburg,” in memory of his late wife Betty and inaugurated in 1843. The poet Heinrich Heine, Salomon’s nephew and beneficiary, honored the occasion with his poem Das neue israelitische Hospital zu Hamburg, in which he called it “A hospital for poor, sick Jews, for human beings who are thrice miserable, afflicted with three vicious ailments, with poverty, bodily pain, and Jewishness!” Even though the Nazi regime had been undermining the hospital’s finances since 1933, it had withstood these measures and was still able to take care of its patients in May 1938.
Already a few months back, the dentist Max Isidor Mahl and his wife, Etta, a textile worker, had submitted their visa application to the American consulate in Vienna. Ever since, they had been waiting. Etta was a native of Poland, Max Isidor a native of Ukraine. The American immigration quotas for both these countries were already filled. But time was of the essence: this bill shows that already in October, the Mahls had their entire household shipped to the United States in order to bring it to safety. Transportation from Vienna to Hamburg and then, on a freighter, to New York was expensive. It cost almost 800 Reichsmarks for the couple to send the 11 boxes containing their household effects out of the country.
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.”
As the only member of her family, 18-year-old Ursula Meseritz left Germany in July and embarked from Le Havre to New York aboard the R.N.S. “Britannic.” Adolf Floersheim, a former neighbor and a resident of the U.S. since 1937, provided an affidavit for the young woman. Her parents, Olga and Fritz Meseritz, who had arranged for her emigration, remained in Hamburg. A travel agency, Plaut Travels, on Madison Avenue in New York, apparently run by German-Jewish immigrants, prepared the itinerary for Ursula’s next journey to the West Coast, with a leisurely detour to the capital, and sent it to her on August 8th.
Ruth and Wilhelm Hesse, residents of Hamburg, had two little girls, Helen (b. 1933) and Eva (b. 1936). Wilhelm kept diaries for both girls. Between the May 3 and August 2 entries, there is a long gap (a very brief notice regarding Helen’s birthday on June 30 seems to have been added later). As Wilhelm writes, the seriousness of the times made it hard to write, so much so that 5-year-old Helen, who had been in a children’s home in Wohldorf-Duvenstedt since the middle of May, complained that she was not receiving any letters from her parents. While Wilhelm is generally pleased with his daughter’s development, he mentions that Helen and three of her little friends had taken a beating for picking 20 unripe peaches from a tree and biting into them. Perhaps the children’s blissful lack of awareness of what was brewing around them and their innocent transgression provided the young father with a minimal sense of normalcy.
On May 9, the Ärztegruppe of the German-Jewish Club (an informal association of physicians within the city’s main German emigre organization) in New York offered a lecture on the topic of abortion. During the Weimar Republic, repeated efforts had been made to abolish or at least reform the anti-abortion paragraph (§218). Its opponents pointed out that it put the working class at a disadvantage, since poverty was the chief motivation for abortion. In 1926, a member of the Reichstag representing a coalition of three right-wing parties, including the NSDAP, proposed legalizing abortion for Jews only. Under the Nazi regime, which promoted the production of “racially valuable” offspring, abortion was illegal unless it prevented the birth of children considered “undesirable.” In the US, the depression had led to an increased demand for abortion, and by the beginning of the 1930s hundreds of birth control clinics had sprung up. Poverty and the lack of access to qualified practitioners often led to the injury or death of pregnant women through self-induced miscarriage. The lecturer, Dr. Walter M. Fürst, was a recent arrival from Hamburg.
In 1935, under mounting pressure, the orthodox Hamburg physician Henri Hirsch left Germany and joined his brother Sigmund in Genoa, Italy. Shortly therafter, he was joined by his second wife, Roberta and by some of his young adult sons, and moved with them to Merano. In 1938, Henri Hirsch died. In this letter to his nephew Julius, Sigmund Hirsch tries to assuage the young man’s worries about an impending war, exhorting him to put his faith in God and promising help. Since he had been based in Italy for a while, many seem to have pinned their hopes on him: with palpable regret, he relates how little he can do for the “thousands” of people asking him for help.
Even though he professes to be in low spirits due to the serious situation and therefore hardly inclined to write and take photographs as regularly as before, Wilhelm Hesse, a lawyer in Hamburg, describes development of his daughter Helen in some detail in his diary. He reports on her capacity to think logically and a desire to learn so strong that the parents feel they have to make her slow down a bit. Hesse also writes with satisfaction about Helen’s progress in a Jewish kindergarten, but he does not fail to mention that she must learn to get along better with her little sister, Evchen. Since the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935—Helen was two years old at the time—Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend non-Jewish kindergartens, and Jewish kindergarten teachers were prohibited from taking care of non-Jewish children. The Hesse family was religiously observant and might have opted for a Jewish institution even under normal circumstances.
Jenny Brinitzer was born in Riga, Latvia in 1884. After studies in Berne, Berlin and Kiel, she managed to establish herself as the first female physician in Hamburg Altona. There, the mother of three worked for 20 years in a joint practice with her husband, the dermatologist Dr. Eugen Brinitzer. In 1933, Jews constituted about one fourth of Hamburg’s physicians. Jewish physicians who worked directly for health insurance funds or for the public health service had been dismissed within the first two years of the Nazi regime. Starting in 1935, the Nazis began circulating a list of 150 Jewish doctors in Hamburg as part of their campaign to separate Jewish doctors from their “Aryan” patients. In April 1938, Dr. Jenny Brinitzer and her husband left Germany and emigrated to Bangalore, India.
The April 6 event at the Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural Association) in Hamburg was dedicated to dance. Elsa Caro, also known by her stage name, Juana Manorska, used challenging music not originally intended for dance as the inspiration for her performance. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the fixed, formulaic repertoire of movements in classical ballet seemed limiting and outdated to some. German dancers, among them Elsa Caro and the “half-Jewish” Gret Palucca, were at the forefront of those experimenting with new forms, a movement that gave birth to Ausdruckstanz, also known as “Expressionist Dance” or “modern dance.”
Wilhelm Hesse was the son of an orthodox business man. He resided in Hamburg with his wife Ruth and his two little daughters, Helen and Eva, whose early years he recorded in diaries that he kept for the children. The entries are interspersed with references to Jewish holidays and photographs of the children. In this entry, he documents proudly and in detail the progress of his daughter Helen, who is not yet five years old at time. A lawyer with a doctorate, Hesse had been laid off already in April 1933.
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 his opening speech at the inauguration ceremony for the new Jewish community center in Hamburg, Max M. Warburg, scion of a renowned family of bankers, describes the challenges the community is facing at the present moment and states the mission of the building and its leadership in troubled times. Describing theater as a source not only of “uplift and joy” but also of “moral fortitude,” Warburg declares the community center to be intended first and foremost as a home for the performances of actors and musicians of the Jewish Kulturbund.