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.
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.
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.
After the Anschluss, the problem of refugees from Germany and Austria became even more pressing. In order to address the issue, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had called for an international conference in Évian in July, 1938. The conference was anticipated with great hopes by the German-Jewish community but, due to the refusal of the international community to adjust immigration quotas to actual needs, the impact of Évian was extremely limited. Nevertheless, the Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Rheinland und Westfalen (Jewish Community Newsletter for Rhineland and Westphalia) tried to present some positive results by pointing out the readiness of several South American countries to absorb Jewish refugees. Regardless of the palpable attempt to remain hopeful, the underlying tone of this front page article in the July 23 issue is not one of excessive optimism.
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.
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.
In the spring of 1938, the Berlin electrician Moses Wainstein was making arrangements to join the steady stream of Jewish emigrants. His destination was faraway Montevideo. He was planning to travel from Berlin to Marseille, where he intended to board a ship for South America. On March 1, he received the requisite French transit visa. Uruguay was regarded as a country with strong democratic traditions, little pressure on newcomers to adapt, and good job prospects for tradesmen. Jewish relief organizations and travel agencies advised prospective emigrants on choosing their new home, finding the best route possible, and procuring the required papers.
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.
If advertisements in newspapers reflect the main needs of society, then the Berlin Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt (Jewish Community Paper) from January 1938 can serve as a perfect example of such needs in times of crisis. By January 1938, when the majority of German Jews were preparing for emigration or actively looking for ways to leave the country, advertisements for travel agencies and shipping companies dominated the commercial space of the newspaper. The main destinations of German-Jewish emigrants were Palestine as well as North- and South America.
America was struggling with economic difficulties, and an unfavorable attitude towards “aliens” prevailed in Congress. Among much of the populace, the idea of admitting large numbers of Jewish immigrants was not popular, and President Roosevelt was not inclined to relax America’s immigration restrictions. Thus, when Alice Rice of Virginia Beach tried to facilitate the immigration of her Czech relatives, she received the standard answer from the acting chief of the Foreign Office’s visa division, Eliot B. Coulter. He emphasized the importance of proving that the applicants were not likely to become “public charges” and pointed to the provisions of the 1917 Immigration Act, which, in addition to economic prerequisites, made immigration dependent on a host of conditions grounded in considerations of a political, racial, moral and health-related nature, as well as stating that a person 16 or more years of age was eligible for immigration only if literate. Despite the valiant efforts of Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, whose department was in charge of immigration and naturalization issues at the time, US policy was not revised to accommodate the needs created by the wave of refugees coming out of Nazi Germany. Interestingly, one of the justifications for this was that the German quota was actually never filled – without mentioning, of course, that this was a result of the “public charge” provision, which made it impossible for many German Jews, who had been systematically driven into poverty by the Nazis, to successfully apply for visas.
On November 10th, in the course of the pogroms sweeping the entire Reich, Ernst Aldor, an electrical engineer, was arrested in his own home in Vienna for the crime of being a Jew. He was deported to the Dachau concentration camp 366 kilometers west of his home town. On December 9th, he was released. During the period of his incarceration, his wife Renée received an entry permit for Bolivia and a telegram from her cousin, Emil Deutsch, in America, confirming that an affidavit was being prepared. Australia was a third option the couple had considered as a place of refuge. To prepare for emigration, Renée Aldor, a native of Hungary, procured this document from the registry office at police headquarters in Vienna, dated December 20th, listing all her residences in the city since 1920.
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.
Even though the climate under the Vargas regime in Brazil was becoming increasingly anti-Jewish, refugees could count on the support of allies. Already in 1933, an aid organization for German-Jewish refugees had come into being in Sao Paulo. And in 1936 in Porto Alegre, where Bernhard and Anni Wolf had recently fled from East Frisia, refugees established a Jewish culture and welfare society. The overall attitude of the Church was ambiguous; nevertheless, a Catholic aid committee for refugees lent significant aid to the newcomers. After an unsuccessful attempt to arrange their immigration to Brazil at the consulate in Cologne, Bernhard’s brother Richard and his wife Jola pinned all their hope on their relatives in Brazil.
With a documented presence reaching back as far as the 12th century and as the second largest community after Berlin, Jews in Frankfurt were a profoundly established part of society. But under the Nazis, Frankfurt Jews, like all of German Jewry, were made to feel like unwelcome strangers in their own city and country, and large numbers of them were leaving Germany. The November issue of the “Jüdische Gemeindeblatt für Frankfurt” shows the omnipresence of the topic of emigration. Numerous ads were offering services and equipment specifically for emigrants. The “Aid Association of Jews in Germany” offered the latest news regarding immigration requirements to various countries but also a warning not to fall into the trap of fraudsters charging would-be emigrants hefty fees for useless advice. However, one contribution sticks out; in a letter from Houston, Texas, a former resident of Frankfurt shares her first impressions. The heat was challenging, potatoes didn’t feature prevalently enough on the menu, mosquito nets (“more mosquitoes than in Palestine”) and plastic flowers required some getting used to, not to mention giant spiders and flying cockroaches. On the other hand, there were built-in cupboards and large beds, as well as, best of all, the “almost unbelievable hospitality” of the locals.
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.
At first glance it may seem abstruse. A certificate of good conduct from the police confirms to an employee of an insurance company, Franz Resler of Vienna, that he has not made himself suspicious, especially “not by panhandling.” At second glance, however, it is exactly the emphasis on panhandling that points to all the existential crises in which many Austrian Jews increasingly found themselves in 1938. With the “Anschluss” the Nazis had massively increased the economic pressure on Jews living in Austria. “Aryanisation” of companies and occupational bans deprived numerous people of their livelihood. As a result, Franz Resler and his wife Anna planned their emigration to Argentina, where Franz Resler’s sister Fanny had been living since the 1920s.
Appointed date: uncertain. The American Consulate General at Breslau didn’t even tell Carl Proskauer and his family a date in the distant future on which they could once again apply for a U.S. visa. The quota was already full. The American quota determined how many persons per country of birth (not per country of citizenship!) were allowed to immigrate to the United States annually. In the year 1938, the number of visa applications from Germany rose rapidly. For individual cases such as that of Curt Proskauer and his family, this meant yet another round of excruciating waiting periods and exhausting paperwork, since many documents, which the Breslau dentist and historian of medicine had already submitted to the American Consulate General, would expire after a certain period. Whether Curt Proskauer could apply for a visa again by then? Uncertain!
Ellis Levy, a Jewish attorney who lived in New York, decided to take up the cause of the immigrants fleeing Nazi persecution. In a letter to Mayor LaGuardia, an excerpt of which was published in the August issue of Aufbau, he pointed out that many of the newcomers were arriving in the country penniless, often after having been forced to abandon their studies or professional training. At the time of Mr. Ellis’s intervention, a bill regarding the possibility of opening city colleges to non-citizens was about to be brought before the Board of Higher Education. The attorney asked Mayor LaGuardia to exercise his influence on the Board to bring about a positive decision. This, he argued, would serve both the needs of the immigrants and the interests of U.S. democracy. And, indeed, it was decided, effective September 1 of that year, to admit to city colleges persons with adequate prior education who were in the process of naturalization.
Jews were hardly the only “undesirables” the US Immigration Act of 1924 aimed to keep out of the country. When the law was introduced, efforts to exclude certain nationalities, especially Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants, had been going on for half a century. In the early 1920s, a quota system was introduced that favored immigrants from Northern Europe. The quotas were not adjusted to address the severe refugee crisis created by the persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany. Even for nationals of the favored countries of origin, just doing all the paperwork to get on the waiting list for an American visa was a major headache, and the waiting could be demoralizing. As documented by this ticket issued to Helina Mayer in Mainz by the US Consulate General in Stuttgart, applicants could expect to be summoned for examination according to their number in line, provided they had submitted “satisfactory proof” that their livelihood in the US was secured.
In the August issue of the Aufbau, an unidentified group of young immigrants was given the opportunity to call for the preservation and activation of democracy in the United States. They argue that the fascist regimes in Europe used the economic crises created by the unbridled military buildup in their countries to legitimize the confiscation of Jewish property. While praising the Roosevelt administration’s generosity and its openness to social reforms for the benefit of those who had escaped fascism, the group warns against the reactionary forces attacking this policy and their attempts to undermine democracy in the United States. The Aufbau editorial board noted its reservations regarding the group’s assessment of the role of economic factors in history but wrote that it was happy to grant the young people space to voice their concerns.
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.
Close to 50 years before issuing an affidavit of support for his nephew, Karl Grosser, in Vienna, Frank W. Fenner had himself immigrated to the United States from Europe. A restaurant and confectionery owner in Mendon, Michigan, he pledged to support his young relative until the 26-year-old became financially independent. Finding a sponsor was a key prerequisite for obtaining an immigration visa that was often hard to fulfill. The visa process began by registering with the nearest US consulate, at which point a number on the waiting list was assigned. The length of the list depended on the number of Jews from a given country allowed to enter the US according to the quota system that had been in place since 1924. Despite the severe refugee crisis, quotas were not raised in 1938. During the waiting period, applicants had to procure all the required documents as well as certified copies. Prospective immigrants were lucky if their documents were still valid when their numbers came up.
Marseille was one of the most important ports of departure for the refugees on their way overseas. It was here that Moses Wainstein obtained the papers he still needed for his emigration to Uruguay. This certificate of vaccination was written in Spanish for submission to the authorities there. The former Berliner had already had his belongings shipped to Marseille by a German company. Wainstein was 40 years of age at this point.
On April 4, 1938, Arthur Sweetser, a member of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, met with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the meeting, the two discussed the situation of German and Austrian Jews urgently seeking ways to emigrate. Roosevelt brought up the idea of an international conference. His reasoning was simple: only under determined US leadership could the problem be solved and other nations be convinced to take in Jewish refugees. It remains disputed whether the idea of a joint debate on the situation of the Jews under the Nazi regime came from Roosevelt himself or rather from high-ranking State Department officials.
In light of the looming danger, a young jazz musician from Breslau, Werner Dambitsch, considered various options for emigration. Like many others, he viewed Cuba, a destination for which it was significantly easier to obtain a visa, as a “waiting room” on the way to the final destination for many, the United States. While his application for immigration to Cuba was being processed, Dambitsch, to be on the safe side, seems to also have applied for a visa at the Colombian Embassy in Berlin. The document presented here is a doctor’s notice written by the doctor of the Colombian Embassy and attesting the perfect health of the prospective emigrant, one of the indispensable preconditions for receiving a visa.