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.
In the 1920s, the Catskill Mountains began to develop into a resort area that enjoyed great popularity with Jewish immigrants often unwelcome in non-Jewish hotels. Therefore, by the 1930s, “Borscht Belt” began to catch on as a moniker for the region. After humble beginnings, with Eastern European Jewish farmers in the area renting out rooms to city dwellers in need of peace and quiet, over time, boarding houses turned into small hotels and some of the small hotels into big hotels. While Jews of Eastern European extraction constituted the majority of hosts and vacationers, the political events of the 1930s led to an increase in the number of German-speaking Jews wishing to trade the hustle and bustle of the city for the relaxed atmosphere of the Catskills. In the July issue of the Aufbau, the Park Plaza Hotel in Fleischmanns, New York (named after Ch.L. Fleischmann, a Hungarian Jew who in the 19th century invented America’s first commercially produced yeast) offered Independence Day weekend vacations with four meals a day and a special 4th of July dinner. It can be assumed that the prospect of celebrating their new country among fellow European Jews in an establishment “widely acknowledged for exquisite, copious American, Hungarian, and Viennese cuisine” was attractive to the grateful newcomers.
The existential crisis of Jewish doctors in Germany, which had passed through various stages (exclusion from public service and health insurance funds, prohibition of cooperation between Jewish and “Aryan” physicians, etc.) escalated with the employment ban in July 1938 and required a creative approach. On August 25th, Dr. Felix Pinkus, a renowned Berlin dermatologist, wrote to his friend, Dr. Sulzberger, in America, in order to win him over as a fellow campaigner in an aid project. The sociologist and national economist Franz Oppenheimer had come to the idea of establishing a kind of residential colony for former doctors from Germany. The funding for this would be covered by contributions from American-Jewish doctors. According to Oppenheimer’s calculations, roughly 1,000 physicians would use this remedy. (Dr. Pinkus estimated that it was closer to 3,000).
In July 1938, 17-year-old Marianne Pollak traveled all by herself from Teplitz/Teplice (Czechoslovakia) to England. Not accustomed to the climate there, the young girl developed rheumatism and was in generally miserable condition. Every few days, her mother wrote her caring, supportive letters. While clearly vexed by Marianne’s unhappiness, Mrs. Pollak and her husband made sure to communicate to her the importance of her staying in England. Apparently, Marianne was in an individual hakhsharah program, meaning that she was acquiring skills preparing her for pioneer life in Palestine. In Eastern Europe, the Zionist Pioneer organization “HeChalutz” (“The Pioneer”) had been offering agricultural and other training courses for prospective settlers in pre-state Palestine since the late 19th century. A German branch was established in 1923, but the concept gained traction in western Europe only during the Great Depression and had its broadest reach during the years of persecution by the Nazis. Instead of being prepared collectively on farms, youngsters could also get their training individually, as seems to have been the case with Marianne.
On July 19, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that the United States Consulate General in Berlin stopped accepting new visa applications. According to the Consulate, about 2000 people have applied for visas per month. Due to the high demand, the Consulate prioritizes clearing the files of the applications on hand for the time being. The oftentimes hard-won affidavits and other documents of new applicants will not be accepted anymore, though new applicants will be put on a waitlist. In consequence, this means that Jews who are planning to leave Germany or the annexed Austria for the USA will have to wait until next year to get a chance at obtaining a visa. It can be assumed that the 60,000 to 70,000 applications by emigrants from Germany/Austria which are waiting to be processed will already significantly surpass the annual US quota of 27,370 visas for immigrants from the Deutsches Reich.
On July 18, the commissioner of Dillkreis county in Hessen instructed the mayors of the cities Herborn, Dillenburg, and Haigern as well as police officials of the county to conduct a statistical survey of the Jewish population in their communities every three months. An official of the city of Herborn received the memorandum ordering the count and made notes showing that 51 Jews lived in the city on June 30, 1938. Three Jews had left their homes in the prior quarter. These local censuses of the Jewish population complemented other surveys that tracked the movement of Jews on a national level. To monitor and control the Jews in the country, the National Socialists used a variety of administrative tools, such requiring Jews to declare their financial assets, carry identification papers at all times, or change their names.
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.
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.
For a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat like the journalist, translator and writer Maurus (Moritz) Mezei, the changes that quickly took hold in Austria after the country’s unimpeded annexation by Nazi Germany must have been doubly troubling. During the period known as “Red Vienna,” the first-ever period of democratic rule in the city from 1918 to 1934, the Mezei family had moved to the “Karl-Marx-Hof,” a public housing project. Starting in 1938, “non-Aryan” families, including the Mezeis, were threatened with expulsion from the compound. Tenant protections initially remained in place for Jews, but they no longer applied to public housing. On June 10, Mezei had applied for immigration to Switzerland, but the reply, written on July 14, was negative. Only if he was to procure an immigration visa from a country overseas would Swiss immigration authorities reconsider his case and possibly grant temporary asylum.
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.
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 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.
For four years, Aufbau, the newsletter of the German-Jewish Club in New York, had served immigrants as a cultural and emotional anchor and as a source of useful information. The December issue brings a gushing report on the Club’s newly established weekly radio program. Among the prominent speakers who were asked to contribute speeches to inaugurate the program was Dr. Joachim Prinz, a former Berlin rabbi and outspoken opponent of the Nazis. Forging a bridge from the days of the exodus from Egypt via a history of emigrations to the present predicament, he made no attempt to minimize the emigrants’ plight. At the same time, likening the situation of his community to that of Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, he saw the potential in the challenges of emigrant life in America. The new program, he felt, was “an important instrument of education as Jews and as people of freedom.” The call of the moment was clear: “We must embrace Tomorrow and bury Yesterday. We must try to be happy again.”
On August 17th, a provision was added to the Law on Alteration of Family and Personal Names, forcing German Jews to identify themselves as Jews by adding the name “Sara” or “Israel” to their given names. This provision was slated to come into effect on January 1st, 1939. The registry office in charge and local police were to be notified of the implementation of the provision until the end of January. This notification by the Friedmann family, dated December 21st, 1938, to the local police authorities in Schwandorf, Bavaria, falls into this context. It also communicates that the registry offices in charge have been notified of the imminent name changes of Amalie, Bruno, Lillian and Georg Friedmann.
While Dr. Hermann Mansbach and his wife, Selma, had left their home in Mannheim and relocated to Haifa in September 1938, their son, Herbert, a dentist like his father, was stuck in Switzerland, trying to join his parents. The young man had left Germany following a Nazi decree according to which the conferment of doctorates to Jews was to cease immediately. Obtaining a certificate for entry into Palestine proved to be difficult, and to make things worse, Herbert had been defrauded of all his money. On December 19th, Hermann Mansbach gave an account of his new life in Palestine to the Frank family in Zurich, who were helping his son, and to Herbert himself. He describes the difficulty of starting over poor as a result of Nazi regulations and his struggle to learn English and Hebrew and to make money. As if that weren’t enough, political unrest was simmering in the background. Mrs. Mansbach adds that she and her husband never leave home at the same time in order to avoid missing a patient. Things are hard, but, as Dr. Mansbach says, their lot is certainly better than being in a concentration camp.
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.
As the wife of a successful architect, Anna Nachtlicht had enjoyed social prestige and experienced years of material comfort. However, in 1932, the Great Depression forced the couple to auction off their art collection, and in 1933, Leo Nachtlicht lost his occupation. Eventually, the couple was left with no other choice but to rent out rooms. The couple’s two adult daughters, Ursula (b. 1909) and Ilse (b. 1912) contributed to the household. But the situation became untenable. As Anna Nachtlicht writes to her brother Max in Argentina on December 17th, the family had “every reason” to fear that they were about to lose their apartment in Berlin-Wilmersdorf, on top of everything else. While there was realistic hope that their daughters would soon find employment in England, Anna and Leo’s efforts to find refuge abroad had remained largely unsuccessful. Relatives on Leo’s side in France had agreed to house the couple temporarily, until a third country would offer them a permanent home. Anna Nachtlicht clearly resented having to ask for help and deplored the dependence on others, but the constant decline of the situation and dark forebodings left her no choice. She had heard that Argentina was about to change its immigration policy and make it possible to request permits for siblings. With undisguised despair, she asks her brother in Buenos Aires to immediately request a reunification with her and facilitate their emigration.
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.
Julie Jonas in Hamburg and her daughters, Elisabeth and Margarethe, had sworn to report to each other truthfully on their emotional well-being. Almost daily, there was an exchange of postcards. For a few weeks, the two girls had been in England. Their father, the lawyer Julius Jonas, had outlasted several Nazi laws aimed at pushing Jews and opponents of the regime out of the legal professions. But with the issue of the “Fifth Decree Supplementing the Reich Citizenship Law” on November 30th, 1938, he was disbarred. December 15th was his birthday. Already on the day before, Julie Jonas had written to the children that their nerves had worn “rather thin” and that they weren’t at all in the mood for a birthday. Nevertheless she bravely tried to show her joy about the girls’ well-being.
Even the total defenselessness of German Jews in light of the acts of violence perpetrated during the November pogroms did not lead to an adjustment in international refugee policy that would be worth mentioning. Therefore, the Jewish Agency for Palestine had demanded from the British to permit the immediate immigration of 10,000 Jewish children to Palestine. As reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on December 14th, the British Mandatory Authorities viewed such a step as a danger to their diplomatic balancing act vis-à-vis the groups involved and rejected the request. It did, however, agree to temporarily admit them to England. Many Jewish parents were ready to make the painful decision to send their offspring abroad on their own, in order at least to spare them the constant hostility and the physical danger. Already before the attempt by the Jewish Agency, in November, the government had given the green light to the immigration of 5,000 unaccompanied children under the age of 17. The first group of children had gone to England at the beginning of December.
Until 1938, dozens of Jewish periodicals managed to withstand the mounting pressure of the regime. However, even since 1935, they were no longer publicly for sale, and since 1937, their freedom of reporting had been severely curtailed. After the Pogrom Night of November 9th to 10th (later known as “Kristallnacht”), a comprehensive prohibition brought the over-130-year history of the Jewish press in Germany to an abrupt halt. In order to be able nevertheless to spread official communiques through a paper aimed specifically at Jews, a Jewish newsletter, the “Jüdische Nachrichtenblatt” was established, the first issue of which was published on November 23rd in Berlin. Albeit edited by Jews, it was under total control of the Reich Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. On December 13th, the Vienna edition appeared for the first time.
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.
When, in November 1938, Gertrude Fichmann gave her 12-year-old son, Harry, a diary in which to record the family’s emigration experience, she had no idea at which point they would leave and where their journey would take them. Nor could she have anticipated just how eventful a time was coming up for Austrian Jewry in general and for her family in particular. As almost every day brought new, disturbing incidents, Harry would record the latest developments regularly and articulately. Witnessing the frightening events and watching the fear of the adults in his life clearly took a toll on him: on December 11th, he describes having spent the night tortured by nightmares.
Lilly and Sim, a married couple in Mährisch Ostrau (Moravia), had so far been spared major hardship – at least on a personal level. But fear was mounting in the city near the Czech-Polish border because new rumors came up on a daily basis about which cities the Germans would occupy next. The worst news was about the fate of fellow Jews: in this December 10th, 1938, letter, Lilly tells her friends abroad about no fewer than 8,000 Jews of Polish extraction, who within three days had been forced to leave the city, some of them after having lived there for 20, 30 or even 40 years. Her greatest wish – getting out – was hard to realize, and she simply could not face joining a refugee transport to a random country “with an impossible climate” to work as farm hands. Meanwhile, Sim was facing a promotion, but given the total uncertainty of the future – with an agreement between Czechoslovakia and Poland pending, the couple did not even know which nationality they were at this point – the prospect did not occasion much joy.
With the expressiveness of a poet, the jurist Paul Schrag on December 9th, 1938 describes to his friend Max Gutzwiller in Basel his circumstances after emigration. Since July, he had been living in a Manhattan hotel with his wife and baby. Apart from emigration and the professional uncertainties it occasioned, Schrag also had simple human matters to cope with. In September, his father had unexpectedly passed away, and now his sick mother needed to be taken care of. He experienced the catastrophe of humanity in the 1930s very profoundly and hoped for the onset of a “profound emotional and moral countercurrent.” A little bit of sanguinity was brought into his life by his little son, whose bliss remained untouched by current events and change of location.
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.
Among the over 1,400 German synagogues destroyed on and around the pogrom night of November 9th to 10th (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”) was the Semper Synagogue in Dresden, named after its architect. While neo-Romanesque on the outside, the building featured an interior in Moorish Revival Style – a design imitated by numerous other architects of synagogues in Germany. When the building was burnt down by both the SA and SS, 98 years had passed since its festive opening in 1840, at which Rabbi Zacharias Frankel had consecrated it to the service of God “for all eternity” and extolled the “respect for religious freedom inspiring this people.”
For 19 years, Fritz Feldstein had been working at a bank in Vienna to the full satisfaction of his superiors. But, in 1938, after Nazi Germany annexed neighboring Austria, he lost his position. On July 5th, the family registered with the US consulate in Vienna, but for immigration, affidavits were needed. After months of deeply upsetting political changes, Fritz Feldstein ventured an unusual step. On Oct. 16th, he turned to a Julius Feldstein in Los Angeles who, he hoped, might be a relative, appealing to “the well-known American readiness to help.” Soon, a correspondence developed, also involving Fritz’s wife, Martha, and their daughter, Gerda. The 11-year-old was not only a skillful piano player, she obviously also had a knack for languages. On November 20th, she writes to the Feldsteins in California for the first time – in English.
The Intrators had been forced to flee once before: the anti-Jewish climate in their native country, Poland, had caused Rachel (Rosa) and Jakob in 1905 to make Berlin their home. Their son Alexander, born the same year, later became a successful concert violinist. Gerhard, five years his junior, went to law school, but the Nazis had hardly been brought to power when they began to systematically push Jews out of the legal professions. In light of the hopelessness of pursuing a juridical career in Germany, the 27-year-old emigrated to the US in 1937. Now he was making massive efforts to bring his parents. On November 19th, his father reported on the arrival of the affidavit which was needed for immigration. However, he added, they did not expect to receive their visas any time soon. Meanwhile, their circle of relatives and friends was getting smaller and smaller. Some were being forced by the Nazis to return to Poland, others simply disappeared.
Willi Jonas and his wife Hilde owned a shoe shop in tranquil Basel, Switzerland. Deeply worried about their relatives in Germany, Willi Jonas sent his Swiss chauffeur to sound out the situation. In a November 18th, 1938 letter, the couple tell emigré friends in America about their loved ones’ experiences during and since the night of pogroms (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”). Louis Jonas, a cattle dealer in Waldbreitbach near Neuwied, has gotten away without material losses. However, after having had to spend 4 days in jail and being released only due to the fact that he is above 50, all he wants is to get out. The news from Worms is even more alarming: Paul Weiner has been taken to a concentration camp and nobody has seen fit to notify his wife, Berta (née Jonas), as to which. The couple’s home was almost entirely wrecked, some of their property stolen.
Whoever had hoped that peace and quiet would return after the pogroms on and through the night of November 9th to 10th (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”) had been mistaken. In its November 17th dispatch, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency gives account of a new wave of arrests and violence. The initial round of violence had been orchestrated to look like a spontaneous outburst of popular rage after the assassination of an employee at the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, at the hand of a 17-year-old Jew. The pogrom was followed by a series of legislative measures eliminating Jews from commercial life in Germany and forcing them to “restore the streetscape” after the arson attacks on synagogues and the destruction of Jewish businesses. Apparently, the diplomat’s funeral in Düsseldorf was now serving as a subterfuge for renewed violence. The US consulate in Berlin was flooded by Jews seeking asylum for fear of additional assaults—in vain, as the article states.