While antisemitism was by no means a new phenomenon in Yugoslavia—as a matter of fact, especially since World War I, the entire political spectrum found reasons to attack Jews—under the impact of events in Germany, the situation deteriorated in the 1930s. Fritz Schwed from Nuremberg was under no illusions regarding his and his family’s temporary refuge. In this lengthy letter to his old friend from Nuremberg days, Fritz Dittmann, who had fled to New York, Schwed describes the dismal situation of emigrants in Yugoslavia, who are routinely expelled with just 24 hours’ notice. Even older people who have resided in the country for decades are not exempt from this cruel policy. Emigrants are forbidden to work, and when they are caught flouting the prohibition, they have to be prepared for immediate expulsion. Concluding that “There no longer is room for German Jews in Yugoslavia, and it seems to me, nowhere else in Europe, either,” Schwed explores possibilities to immigrate to Australia or South America.
Not long after power was handed to the Nazis, the motto “Police – your friends and helpers,” which already during the Weimar Republic often reflected a hope rather than reality, lost any hint of meaning for opponents of the regime and for the country’s Jews. A law introduced as early as February 1933 stipulated that police officers who resorted to the use of firearms against people perceived as enemies of the regime were to go unpunished. As part of an unholy trinity, in tandem with the SA and SS, the police quickly became an instrument of Nazi terror. Therefore, obtaining a police clearance certificate was probably not the easiest of the requirements of would-be immigrants applying for US visas. On December 24th, 1938, this important document was issued to Ernst Aldor, a resident of Vienna.
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.
Had Austria’s history taken a normal course, Hanna Spitzer, a private teacher, would probably have stayed in Vienna and grown old there as a respected member of society. As a daughter of the late jurist and patron of the arts, Dr. Alfred Spitzer, she was co-heir to a major art collection comprising works by such greats as Kokoschka and Slevogt. Egon Schiele was represented too – among other works, with a portrait of Alfred Spitzer, who had been his sponsor and lawyer, and later his estate trustee. But the flood of anti-Semitic measures which had been unleashed by the “Anschluss” (the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany) made it unbearable and dangerous to stay: this copy of a tax clearance certificate dated November 24, 1938 testifies to Hanna Spitzer’s efforts to gather the papers required for emigration. Already in January, she had arranged for the shipping of 11 containers of household effects and paintings to Melbourne and a delivery to the address of her sister, Edith Naumann, in Haifa.
On August 13th, 1869, the synagogue on Michelsberg in Wiesbaden had been officially opened in a festive ceremony. The building was meant to serve the increased spatial needs of the congregation but also testified to its increased wealth and civic self-assurance. In the presence of representatives of other faith communities, Rabbi Süskind had referred to the liberal house of worship as a “planting ground for patriotic virtues” which was to prove its unifying power not only within the circle of one’s own co-religionists, but “also in the wider circles of humanity.” After the pogrom that took place through the night of November 9th into 10th, 1938 (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”), all that was left of the magnificent building in Moorish-Byzantine style was the external wall. The interior was entirely gutted.
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.
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 Vienna, Hans Hochhauser, together with his brother, had been a successful manufacturer and exporter of leather goods. But just one day after the “Anschluss,” he had packed up his life and fled Austria with his wife, Greta, and his daughter, Ilse, on adventurous paths: turned back at the Czech border, the family traveled to Switzerland by train and from there to England on a chartered flight, from whence the family finally made it to the United States. Having arrived in New York, Hans Hochhauser had to start from scratch: his new company was called “Hochhauser Leather Co. Inc.” In this letter to the US Consulate General in Vienna dated October 14, 1938, accompanying an affidavit for his cousin, Arthur Plowitz, he pointed out that while his new company was still in its beginnings, he was able to take advantage of his old business network.
The claim of the editorial in the October issue of Aufbau was clear: reminding readers that they were now “Americans with all rights, but also with all duties.” It acknowledged the existence mainly of familial and cultural ties but at the same time emphasized the importance of facing the future rather than looking to the past. The slogan was “America First!,” which can be understood as a call to Jewish immigrants to integrate into American society. The author of the editorial also supplied arguments: Europe could no longer guarantee the fundamental values of freedom and justice. In the United States, however, with its Bill of Rights, it was worth it to stand and fight for these values. The Jewish Club, as publisher of Aufbau, positioned itself clearly within American society, and expected this attitude from its readers and members as well.
Not a long letter, only a brief postcard was sent to Ludwig Guckenheimer from his old friend Kurt. Yet these few lines give a vivid impression of the situation in which his friend found himself. Kurt had sent the postcard from Genoa on the 14th of September. He’d been trying to prepare his emigration from there for some time. Kurt knew “that it’s time to rush.” Until now he’d failed for lack of money, but most of all from lack of sponsors. Many countries had massively heightened financial and bureaucratic hurdles to immigration in recent years. The United States for example expected, alongside numerous official certificates, at least two affidavits from close relatives. But Kurt wasn’t discouraged. Hope lay in efforts by his brother-in-law in Dallas.
Gisela Kleinermann (top row, right) had recently turned 10 years old. With her arm around her classmate, she looks, with a slight smile, into the camera. At this time, Gisela may already have known that she will not be part of this class of the Jewish school in Dresden any longer. In late summer 1938, her mother Erna prepared her family’s emigration to the United States. Step by step, in recent years the Nazis forced segregation in public schools. In many Jewish communities—as well as in Dresden—new Jewish schools were founded as a result.
Even though expressions of anti-Semitism were common in Austrian vacation resorts decades before the annexation of Austria, a phenomenon that lead to the coining of the term “Summer Resort Anti-Semitism,” they remained popular with Austrian Jews. But when Liesl Teutsch’s uncle spent his vacation in Filzmoos in the Austrian province of Salzburg in August 1938, its spectacular vistas could not distract him from the unsettling circumstances. In this postcard to his niece in Vienna, he makes it very clear that it is not just the poor weather that prevented true rest and relaxation. He seems to be apprehensive of returning to Vienna, where an uncertain future awaits him.
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.
Article 1 of §15 of the Nazi Conscription Law (introduced on May 21, 1935) stipulated that “Aryan descent is a prerequisite for active military service.” In the 1936 amendment, the language was even clearer: “A Jew cannot perform active military service.” In order to get permission to leave the country, prospective male emigrants had to present a document to the local military authorities confirming their Jewish descent and thus proving that they were not simply seeking to shirk their duties by emigrating. On August 4, 1938, the registry of the Vienna Jewish Religious Community, based on the documentation available to them, attested to Bruno Blum’s Jewish ancestry on both sides as part of the paperwork he had to submit in order to get permission to emigrate.
Ludwig Schönmann, born in Neu-Isenburg in Germany in 1865, had come to Austria early in life and was thus spared the first five years of the Hitler regime. But from the day the German army entered Austria to annex the neighboring country in March 1938, the 73-year-old witnessed all the same persecution that had befallen Jews in Germany – only at an accelerated pace. Jewish businesses were ransacked and their owners expropriated. Jews were publicly humiliated and expelled from the Burgenland region, where they had first settled in the 13th century. Jewish students and teachers were pushed out of the universities, and the infamous Nuremberg Laws were extended to Austria, leading to the removal of Jews from public service. The first page of a memorial album in honor of Ludwig Schönmann lists July 24 as the day of his death.
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.
Wilhelm Hesse was a loving and profoundly involved father. Since the births of his daughters, Helen (1933) and Eva (1936), he had meticulously documented the girls’ development in diaries which he kept for them. In addition to little texts and poems he composed, he included numerous photographs as well as material referring to Jewish holidays. Occasionally, the frequently humorous, sometimes even childlike tone is interrupted by material documenting the political situation, such as a call by Rabbi Leo Baeck for Jewish unity and solidarity in the name of the Reich Representation of German Jews. But Helen and her sister Eva were lucky enough to be too young to grasp what was looming around them. June 30 was Helen’s 5th birthday.
The Gestapo warrant for protective custody dated June 29, 1939 confirmed the hitherto merely formal arrest of the Jewish and communist painter Lina (Lea) Grundig (also see June 1). After her conviction of high treason, she was held at the Dresden Court Jail.
The observance of Shabbat, holidays, and kashrut was so deeply ingrained in the life of the Lamm family in Munich that even the Catholic cook, Babett, saw to it that the traditional customs were adhered to. While traditional in their understanding of Judaism, the Lamms were open to worldly matters. After high school, Hans briefly studied law, but, understanding that in the new political climate, there was no way a Jew could advance in the field, he embarked on a career in journalism instead. The career paths of Jewish jounalists at the time were also stymied by the fact that non-Jewish papers would not hire them and Jewish ones were forced to close down one by one. In 1937, Lamm relocated to Berlin, where he studied with Leo Baeck and Ismar Elbogen at the Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, in order to deepen his understanding of Judaism. Deeply rooted in German culture as he was, it was difficult for him to decide to emigrate. Yet eventually, his older brother convinced him that there was no future for Jews in Germany. In this letter, the 25 year-old Lamm cordially and politely, yet without palpable emotion, bids farewell to the editors of the Jewish monthly, Der Morgen, a high-level publication to which he had been contributing, expressing his gratitude for their support.
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.
In Anni Buff’s personal recipe book, dated June 25, 1938, traditional Bavarian dishes, like liver dumplings, Christmas stollen, and cottage cheese doughnuts, certainly outweighed traditional Jewish ones, such as matzo balls. The Jewish community in her native Krumbach was well integrated. Since its peak in the early 19th century, when it constituted about 46% of the population, its ranks had declined considerably, and by 1933, only 1,5% of Krumbachers were Jewish. In spite of this negligible presence of Jews, National Socialism with its rabidly antisemitic message took hold fast, and even before it became national policy, Jews in the little town were harassed by SA men. By 1938, the abuse had become so unbearable that Anni’s father Julius, who dealt in upholstery material, began to explore possibilities to find a new home on safer shores, such as the US, the Dominican Republic, or Shanghai. Not even the fact that he had lost a brother in WWI and had himself served in the 16. Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment—along with a young Austrian named Adolf Hitler—did anything to improve his standing with Nazi authorities.
When the Halutz (Pioneer) Movement first began to establish itself in Germany in the 1920s, it had a hard time gaining traction among the country’s mostly assimilated Jews, who saw themselves as “German citizens of Jewish faith.” The Movement, which aimed to prepare young Jews for life in Palestine by teaching the Hebrew language as well as agricultural and artisanal skills, got its first boost during the Great Depression (from 1929), which made emigration more attractive as an opportunity for economic improvement. But even more significant growth took place after the Nazis’ rise to power: so-called “Hachscharot” sprung up all over Germany, instilling young Jews with a meaningful Jewish identity and imparting valuable skills. The photo presented here shows graduates of the Jewish Professional School for Seamstresses on Heimhuderstraße.
After his first official attempt to immigrate had failed under adventurous circumstances, 20 year-old Heinz Ries of Berlin made another effort to get permission to live in the US permanently and legally. For months, he had struggled in the shadows as an undocumented immigrant in New York. After obtaining an affidavit of support, Ries traveled to Havana and visited the US consulate there on June 23, 1938. Finally, he was admitted legal entry into the United States. After the war he returned to Germany for some time, first in the employment of the Allies, then as a photo journalist for the New York Times. The photographs of the Berlin Blockade and the Airlift, taken during these years, made him world-famous under the name Henry Ries.
Samuel (later “Billy”) Wilder had a mind of his own: born in 1906 into an Austrian-Jewish family in the Galician town of Sucha Beskidzka, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was expected to join his father’s business, which consisted mainly of a chain of railroad restaurants. But after the Realgymnasium and a brief stint at law school in Vienna (he dropped out after three months), he decided to follow his true leanings. At the paper Die Stunde, a tabloid of questionable repute, he got his first shot at practicing his writing skills. In 1926, an opportunity arose for him to move to Berlin, where he freelanced for various tabloids and took up screenwriting. After the Nazis’ ascent to power, Wilder first moved to Paris and was given the opportunity to direct his first movie, Mauvaise graine. In 1934 he entered the US on a visitors visa. From 1936, he was under contract at Paramount Pictures. June 22, 1938 was his 32nd birthday – the sixth he celebrated in exile.
As the influx of refugees from Nazi Germany intensified, what had begun in 1934 as the anniversary brochure of the German Jewish Club in New York quickly turned into a professional publication and a lifeline for the uprooted. With its offer of a wide range of cultural and athletic activities, the monthly was an emotional anchor for the newcomers, but it also offered practical help getting settled in the new country. This issue of the Aufbau from June 1938 features a large number of rental ads, mostly for fully furnished rooms, often in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Northern Manhattan, thereby giving some extra income to the owners or main tenants while providing affordable housing to refugees who usually arrived with very little money and property.
Section 17 of the Third Supplementary Decree on the Reich Citizenship law (Reichsbürgergesetz), issued on June 14, called for marking Jewish businesses at a date yet to be determined. The Nazis lost no time. According to this article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, days later, the word “Jew” and Nazi slogans were smeared on Jewish shop windows throughout Berlin in an organized fashion, with the same red, hard-to-remove oil paint used everywhere. There could be no doubt that the action was carried out with blessings from above. While no opposition from the non-Jewish population is recorded, the correspondent does point out that unlike in Vienna and in less affluent parts of Berlin, the crowd on Kurfürstendamm looked on quietly, without major enthusiasm. Tension among Jews was intensified by reports of plans to build labor camps where Jews apprehended in recent raids were to be put to work.
At a time when more and more German Jews became anxious to leave the country, this letter from a German-Jewish emigrant in Shanghai, addressed to the “gentlemen of the Hilfsverein [Aid Society of Jews in Germany]” and published in the “Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Berlin,” must have infused prospective emigrants with new hope: the writer exuberantly thanks the Hilfsverein for counseling him and gushes over the multitude of professional options available to immigrants at his new location, “provided, of course, that you have a skill and are able to work intensely.” According to him, musicians, physicians, and merchants are greatly in demand, and the situation is especially promising for secretaries and shorthand typists – on condition that they have perfect command of the English language, which could by no means be taken for granted among German Jews. The newcomers were not the only Jews in the country; a Sephardic community had been present in Shanghai since the middle of the 19th century, and settlement by Ashkenazi Jews had begun in the early 20th century and intensified in the wake of the Russian Revolution.
Since discussing the possibility of emigration with his relatives in Vienna on April 20, Adolph Markus of Linz had taken up English lessons at the synagogue twice to three times a week. On April 29, his brother-in-law had been picked up by the Gestapo, and the Markuses’ tension and nervousness was beginning to rub off on the children. Two weeks later, Mrs. Markus was questioned by the Gestapo about the value of a house she owned and all her other property. Finally, on June 18, two Gestapo officers appeared at the family’s home: While going over the contents of some boxes, one of them tried to frame Adolph Markus by sneaking in a communist leaflet. Markus mustered the calm and self-assurance to point out to the officers that he had never been politically active in any way. His allusion to his frontline service in World War I, combined with the remark that if they were to arrest him, they would have to take along his two little boys, since their mother was in the hospital, made them change their mind. They left – threatening to return after six weeks if he wasn’t going to leave the country on his own accord.
On June 17, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that in the last four days, the Nazi authorities have re-intensified their raids on cafés in Berlin and elsewhere in the country, which between June 13 and 17 have led to the arrests of 2,000 Jews. During the Weimar Republic, there had been a thriving Kaffeehauskultur—artists and intellectuals practically saw certain cafes as their homes, where they would spend half of their days and nights discussing art, literature, and politics. Under the Nazis, this phenomenon quickly disappeared; they suspected subversive activities among these free thinkers. The public sphere was infested with informers. By the time of the Juni-Aktion, in the context of which these raids were carried out, the original clientele had largely disappeared. Ostensibly, the raids were targeting “anti-social elements.” In fact, however, they constituted the first mass-arrest of Jews. The Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Gobbels, had summarized the intention with the pithy words: “Our password is chicanery, not the law.”
Erika Langstein was a young English teacher living in Vienna. In June 1938, having experienced the persecution of Jews in the Austrian capital for several months already, Erika sent a letter to Donald Biever, an American citizen, imploring him to help her and her Jewish father flee Austria by issuing an affidavit for them. Nothing would be unusual about this, except for the fact that the young woman had met Biever just once, briefly, on a train ride a year earlier, and had not communicated with him since. Despite the tenuous nature of their relationship, Erika describes to Biever the hopeless of the situation in Vienna. She also attaches a photo, in case Biever does not remember their encounter.
Under the impact of the Nazi rise to power and increasing antisemitism in Europe, the great Yiddish writer and cultural activist Melekh Ravitch had had the foresight to raise the funds for a trip from his native Poland to Australia as soon as 1933 in order to scout the inhospitable Kimberley region as a possible place for Jewish settlement. His optimistic conclusion was that the challenges of the Outback could be tackled with “mer vaser, veyniker bir”—“more water, less beer.” By 1938, the territorialist Frayland Lige also began to look into the possibility. As per the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s report on June 15, the government was willing to consider individual cases of Jews wishing to immigrate but was not willing to support Jewish mass settlement in the country.