When on September 29th the so-called “Munich Agreement” between Hitler, the British Premier Chamberlain, the French Premier Daladier, and the Italian dictator Mussolini was concluded, over 20,000 Jews had already fled from the regions of the Sudetenland. This was reported by the Jewish Telegraph Agency on the day of the Agreement. With a months-long propaganda campaign by the Nazis and raucous threats that the Wehrmacht would invade Czechoslovakia, it had already been clear to many Jews for weeks that they would have no future in the Sudetenland. With the Agreement, the Czech regions, in which the Sudeten German minority lived, would be surrendered to the German Reich. Czechoslovakia did not sit at the bargaining table in Munich.
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.
No one reading the November issue of the Aufbau could have missed the front-page editorial message in bold print: under the heading “The Great Trial,” forceful language is employed to decry the abject failure of “the heads of state of the so-called democracies,” who have sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. Jewish refugees are left stranded in no man’s land in Bohemia, in Germany, the Nazis are dealing an “economic death blow” to the Jews, the British are jeopardizing the Zionist project, and “little more than a faint memory” remains of the Evian Conference, summoned in July to tackle the problem of resettling Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Surely, this is “an era of complete sinfulness.” Will those under threat finally brace up?
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.
On September 29, 1938, the signatories of the Munich Treaty had decreed that Czechoslovakia was to cede to Germany its northern and western border areas, the Sudetenland, which was inhabited predominantly by Germans. Immediately after the incursion of German troops, there were eruptions of violence against Jews. Of the 25,000 to 28,000 Jews living in the area, thousands were driven to flee. On October 25, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on the catastrophic material effects of the mass flight: the losses were estimated at 7 billion crowns at least in wages and property left behind. To make things worse, since Munich, open expressions of antisemitism had also proliferated on the Czech side—both by the populace and those representing the government.
Since 1876, the Prager Tagblatt was known as a bastion of liberal- democratic positions. Over time, it acquired a staff of first-rate writers, including greats such as Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Kurt Tucholsky, Egon Erwin Kisch and Alfred Döblin – to name but a few. The paper was valued for its excellent reporting, its outstanding feuilleton and its unique style: even the political reporting was not devoid of humor. As a liberal-democratic paper with a predominantly Jewish staff, the Tagblatt had unequivocally positioned itself against the Nazi regime. Several of the roughly 20,000 political adversaries of the Nazis who had escaped to Czechoslovakia joined the ranks of the publication’s contributors. After the entry of the German Army to the Sudetenland in early October of 1938, the situation of German-speaking democrats came to a head in Czechoslovakia, too: according to this report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, dated October 11, the editor-in-chief of the Prager Tagblatt, Rudolf Thomas, and his wife committed suicide out of despair over the situation.
Erika Mann begins her book with a captivating description. She tells of a meeting with a Mrs. M. from Munich. At this time, Erika lived with her parents Thomas and Katia Mann in exile. Mrs. M. wanted to emigrate with her family too. This wish was incomprehensible to Erika Mann. After all, as affluent “Aryans,” Mrs. M. and her family had nothing to fear. But Mrs. M. made a more convincing statement: “I want the boy to become a decent human being–a man and not a Nazi.” This sentence would become the jumping-off point for Erika Mann’s study of indoctrination and the National-Socialist educational system. Her well-respected book appeared under the title “School for Barbarians : Education Under the Nazis” in the United States in 1938.
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.
Hitler’s plans for Czechoslovakia could not have been clearer: on May 30th, 1938, he declared to the Wehrmacht (German army) that it was his “immutable resolve” to shatter the country “in the foreseeable future.” Already months before, he had incited the leader of the Sudeten German Party, which was partly bankrolled by Nazi Germany, to conjure up a confrontation by making unreasonable demands on behalf of the German minority in the country. Under the influence of events in Germany, anti-Semitism had increased. But, so far, it had only led to boycotts and physical violence in the border areas of Northern and Western Bohemia, which were predominantly inhabited by Germans. While this crisis was brewing in the background, the psychiatrist and writer Josef Weiner, his wife, Hanka, and their two young daughters were on vacation in the central Bohemian town of Nespeky. Hanka’s letter (in Czech) to her father, the renowned Prague lawyer Oskar Taussig, smacks of a perfectly idyllic holiday atmosphere and spares its reconvalescent recipient anything unpleasant.
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.
Lilly Popper (later Lilian Singer) was born in 1898 into a German-speaking family in Brünn (Brno). After graduation from the Gymnasium (high school), she began medical school in Vienna, later transferring to Berlin. There, in 1923, she got her driver’s license, which was just beginning to become socially acceptable for women. After a longer interruption, during which she worked for her father’s business and for a company in Amsterdam, she went back to school and in 1933 graduated from the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, which had been accepting women as guest auditors since 1892 (and as full-time students since 1908), an opportunity initially seized by a disproportionately large number of Jewish women. With the “Law against the Overcrowding of German Universities” of April 1933, the Nazis limited the access of both Jews and women to higher education, but these regulations did not apply to foreigners. After graduation, Lilian returned to Czechoslovakia. In 1938, she was a resident in surgery at a teaching hospital in Prague. The suitcase shown in the photograph accompanied her on her many journeys.
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.
Ostensibly for traffic-related reasons, the city of Munich informed the Jewish Religious Community on June 8 that it was to sell the magnificent, centrally located Main Synagogue and the lot on which it stood for a fraction of its actual value. On June 9, the demolition of the building, which for little more than 50 years had served as the spiritual and cultural center of the Jewish Community, began. According to this June 10 report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Chancellor Hitler had personally ordered the removal of the “eyesore.” Rabbi Baerwald, the spiritual leader of the community, received no more than a few hours advance warning in order to salvage the community’s most sacred objects. The recently acquired organ was passed on to a newly-built Catholic church. The loss of this building that had once been a symbol of pride, permanence, and belonging, was devastating to the Jewish Community of Munich.
After stints with various orchestras in Germany and Austria, in 1930, the conductor Erich Erck returned to Munich, where he had studied music. The Nazis forced him to relinquish his stage name and return to his family name, Eisner. His application for membership in the Reichsmusikkammer was rejected, since his Jewishness was seen as more damning than his combat service for Germany in WWI was redeeming. After he was banned from employment in 1935, he initiated the establishment of the Munich branch of the Jüdischer Kulturbund and became the executive director of its Bavarian State Association. He also took over the Orchestra of the Kulturbund (founded in 1926 as the “Jewish Chamber Orchestra”), in which capacity he appears on this photograph from the ensemble’s May 18, 1938 performance at Munich’s monumental Main Synagogue on Herzog-Max-Straße.
German shipping companies profited handsomely from the dire situation of the Jews. There was no way around them for emigrants who wanted to transfer their belongings abroad. By the end of 1937, 135,000 Jews had left Germany. The events of the year 1938 led to a new upsurge. The Berlin branch of the Gustav Knauer Shipping Company handled the belongings of Lotte Doerner (née Simon). Doerner and her husband had managed to leave Germany and settle in England. When unpacking their belongings, they noticed that their linens were missing. In the letter displayed here, the company politely informs Doerner that everything the company had picked up from her apartment had also been loaded into the van, and it could not offer any compensation. The Knauer company had also been commissioned to transport many of the 20,000 objects from German art museums that were classified as “degenerate” by the regime to the infamous Munich exhibit, “Degenerate Art,” and then into storage.
In the traveling exhibition “Degenerate Art,” initiated in Munich in 1937, the Nazis used 650 works of art confiscated from 32 museums in order to force their idea of art upon the populace: newer trends like expressionism, surrealism, or fauvism, to name just a few, were regarded as “Jewish-Bolshevist” and roundly disparaged. The front page of the exhibition catalog shows a piece titled “Large Head” from the workshop of the German-Jewish artist Otto Freundlich, one of the first exponents of abstract art. It was created in 1912 to symbolize hope for a new beginning. Even apart from Freundlich’s Jewish background and his artistic leanings, being a communist made him politically unacceptable in the eyes of the regime.