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.
It was under adventurous circumstances that Gisella Jellinek made her way to Palestine in June 1938. As part of a group of several hundred youths, she was smuggled into the area of the Mandate. The moment she came ashore in Palestine, she had to make use of the Hebrew language skills she had acquired at the Zionist agricultural training camp in Austria, in order to avoid being identified as an illegal immigrant by the British authorities. Roughly two months after her arrival, Gisella, who now called herself Nadja, turned 18. In this belated birthday note, her sister Berta wishes her “heroism, courage, and to be a good Haverah (kibbutz member).”
Barely one month after the collapse of the Weimar Republic, a “democracy without a user’s manual,” as he called it in “The German Masked Ball,” and one day after the Reichstag fire, the writer and Social Democrat Alfred Döblin left Germany. After a brief interlude in Switzerland, he moved to Paris with his wife and three sons in September 1933. Occasional publications with the German-language “publisher-in-exile” (Exilverlag) Querido (Amsterdam) yielded minimal income, and Döblin’s lack of French language skills were a major stumbling block to his gaining a foothold professionally. From 1936 on, the Döblins were French citizens. The 10th of August was the author’s 60th birthday.
One of the first official acts of the new Nazi rulers in 1933 had been the elimination of the independent press. Already in February, the freedom of the press was abolished, and from October, only such individuals who were deemed politically reliable and could prove their “Aryan” descent were admitted to journalistic professions. Ernst Feder (b. 1881), a jurist and erstwhile editor for domestic affairs at the “Berliner Tageblatt,” fulfilled neither of these requirements. In his Parisian exile, he resumed his activities as a journalist as one of the founders of the German-language Pariser Tageblatt (1933-36) and as a freelance writer. On the pages of his diary, he covers a plethora of topics, ranging from the personal to the philosophical and political. Among his friends and fellow exiles was the gynecologist and endocrinologist, Dr. Selmar Aschheim (b. 1878). As Feder notes in his diary on December 30th, the eminent physician and scientist was looking for an alternative source of income, should he be denied the possibility to practice in France. Especially older emigrants often had to overcome major obstacles in order to gain a foothold abroad. Language barriers and admission examinations, for which decades of professional experience were not seen as a substitute, additionally exacerbated the situation.
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 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.
In the meantime, Hedwig Weiler, the blossoming 18-year-old idealist whom Franz Kafka fell in love with during a vacation in Triesch (Moravia) in 1907 has turned into a PhD-holding academic and the wife of the engineer Leopold Herzka. The events of the year 1938 in Austria have caused their circle of friends to drift apart in all directions. On November 6, 1938, in a letter to her former neighbors in Vienna, the Buxspan (later Buxpan) family, she enumerates a long list of relatives and common friends, who have either emigrated already or are preparing to do so. What is especially hard for Hedwig Herzka is the prospect of her daughter, Edith, leaving for South America. It has made Hedwig a bundle of nerves.
At the end of October, Adolph Markus looked back on an eventful month. Preceded by the Munich Conference, at which representatives of Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy decided that Czechoslovakia was to cede its borderlands (“Sudetenland”) to Germany in exchange for peace, German troops had occupied these areas, which had a sizeable German population totaling about 3 million. As Markus points out, with the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia had lost its line of defense. According to his diary entry, both in Britain and in France, people’s relief that war had been averted was soon followed by deep suspicion regarding Hitler’s true intentions. On a more personal note, the author mentions a hair-styling course and English classes which he has been taking in Vienna, clearly in preparation for emigration. Meanwhile, due to the expectation that soon all Jews would be expelled from his home town, Linz, half of the contents of his apartment had been sold.
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.
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.
Speak English fluently! This may have been among the resolutions of Jewish immigrants in the United States for the upcoming Jewish new year. The September edition of “Aufbau” featured a whole array of offers for learning English. Sundry advertisements wooed immigrants with, for example, “a low fee” and “original” methods in order to improve one’s English within a few weeks. These advertisements hit on a market. Because, to those who’d come to the United States, the English language posed an initial and legitimate, yet essential hurdle. Whoever wanted to work in the American environment and build a new life had to be able to be understood.
Ludwig Gottschalk of Bonn did not mince words in this August 31st letter to his friends, Betty and Morris Moser, in New York. By now, Jews in Germany were living in such a state of demoralization and constant fear that the wish to leave was omnipresent, regardless of what was to be expected “outside.” According to his information, the U.S. Consulate General in Stuttgart was so overburdened by all the applications for immigration that new affidavits were currently not even being processed. The Gottschalks already had a waiting number and expected to be able to emigrate relatively soon. Meanwhile, they were learning English. Ludwig alluded to the changes that had occurred in Germany since his friends had left by calling them “Israel” and “Sara.” On August 17th, a decree had been issued forcing Jews to add one of these names to their given names in order to make their Jewish identity obvious.
Kurt Kleinmann of Vienna and Helen Kleinman in America had never met in person. After Kurt came up with the creative idea to contact a family with a similar name in New York, hoping that his American namesakes might be willing to help him procure an affidavit, an increasingly intense correspondence developed between the young man and the Kleinmans’ daughter. With determination, Helen took the matter into her hands. Three months after Kurt first contacted the Kleinmans, when Helen wrote this letter, not only was Kurt’s emigration underway, but Helen had also enlisted the help of an aunt to submit an affidavit for a cousin of his, with whom he had in the meantime managed to flee to Switzerland. What’s more she had enlisted yet another aunt to do the same for Kurt’s sister and brother-in-law, who were still stranded in Vienna.
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.
In this letter, Isidor Nassauer, based in Neuwied am Rhein, cooly describes his emigration plans to his friends, the Moser family, who are already in the US. Unsolicited, his brother-in-law has sent an affidavit, which due to a missing signature could not be used and had to be sent back. While waiting for the signed document, Mr. Nassauer is taking English lessons. Even though he has no idea how he will subsist in America, the fact that “so much bread has been baked for strangers” there gives him confidence. He is most concerned about selling the family house and seems certain that selling or liquidating the business (a brush factory) will be easy. In general, Jews were forced to sell their property far below its actual value.
In his article “Ten Commandments for Assiduous Language Learners,” published in the July issue of the Aufbau, Dr. Eugene I. Stern recommends making use of the entire arsenal available to the modern student of American English: radio, gramophone, newspapers, and novels. The meticulousness with which he describes what he considers the most promising methodology for language acquisition meets every stereotype associated with German Jews. Dr. Stern does not promise any shortcuts, and his assessment of the language learner’s prospects is not the most optimistic. He opens by declaring mastery of a foreign language to be an unattainable goal. Nevertheless, younger German-Jewish immigrants in America tended to acquire proficiency in English within a few years, while their counterparts in pre-state Palestine were notoriously slow and reluctant to pick up Hebrew. German Jews in America were assisted in their endeavors by various institutions, such as the National Refugee Service, the Adult Education Council, the YMCA, the YWCA, which offered free English classes to the newcomers.
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.
Herbert Mansbach, a German dentistry student temporarily based in Switzerland, was lucky. A friend of his worked for the “Sick Fund” (Kupat Holim) of the General Workers’ Association in Israel (Histadrut) and was able to share valuable information with him pertaining to acceptance as a kibbutz member and employment in Palestine. The main prerequisites for kibbutz membership were affiliation with the HeHalutz pioneer youth movement and some knowledge of Hebrew. However, in order to be hired as a dentist in Tel Aviv, total mastery of Hebrew was a must. Herbert’s friend painted a sobering picture of the mental state of the new immigrants. The majority, he writes, come without enthusiasm—determination to succeed is more important.
By May 1938, emigration seemed to be on the mind of every German and Austrian Jew. This article in the <i>Hannover Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt</i>, for example, exhorts prospective emigrants to lose no time and start studying English as soon as possible. According to the paper, at least two-thirds of German-Jewish emigrants were likely to settle down in English-speaking countries, and even those heading to Latin America would profit from a solid knowledge of English. On the other hand, proficiency in Spanish could be useful because of extensive trade relations between North and South America. The answer to the question “Spanish or English?” therefore was an emphatic “Both!”
Three prominently placed ads on the front page of the “Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Baden” make amply clear what is on people’s minds in April 1938: emigration looms large. Three businesses in Karlsruhe are offering related goods and services, such as passage to South America, Africa, and Asia, furniture for emigrants, and home sales. In the April 27 issue, the topic comes up from various perspectives: the shrinkage of congregations as a result of members going abroad, English classes for prospective emigrants, the departure of esteemed leaders, practical advice on how to get support from Jewish aid organizations during the emigration process, and more. Other parts of life seem to be taking their normal course. Lehrhaus activities, student concerts, Kulturbund events, personal ads and other topics counter-balance the abnormality of the situation.
Few among the immigrant New York audience expected to attend a trilingual event of the Theodor Herzl Society had ever encountered native speakers of modern Hebrew: Hence, it is no wonder the Aufbau assumed that the Hebrew part would constitute the greatest attraction. The featured artist of the evening, actor Albert Klar (Sklarz), born and raised in Tel Aviv, had begun his career in Berlin under renowned directors such as Reinhardt and Piscator. He had made his way to New York thanks to an invitation from the great Yiddish actor and director, Morris Schwartz, who hired him for his Yiddish Art Theater. The venue was Ansche Chesed, a synagogue on the Upper West Side founded by German immigrants.