Fearing a massive influx of Polish Jews from Nazi-annexed Austria, the Polish parliament had passed a law in March 1938 allowing for the possibility of revoking the citizenship of anyone who had lived outside the country for at least five years. On October 15th, a decree was published according to which only persons with a valid control stamp in their passports would be allowed into the country. The decree was to go into effect on October 30th. In light of the presence of well over 70,000 Polish Jews in Reich territories, the regime acted fast: within the framework of the so-called “Polenaktion” (“Polish Action”), from October 27 to 29, thousands of Polish Jews were expelled by the Nazis. Many of these Polish citizens had little or no connection to their country of origin and they had nothing and no one to return to. One of the victims of the decree was Ida, the housekeeper of the Schönenberg family in Cologne. On October 29th, Dr. Schönenberg, Ida’s employer for the past three years, writes to his son Leopold in Palestine and describes how she had to report to the police with barely 3 1/2 hours prior warning. Ida was a native of Cologne and had a fiancé in Germany.
In the early years of the Nazi regime, Jews had sought refuge mainly in neighboring European countries, but also in Palestine and the United States. With the Nazis’ reach expanding and options for immigration diminishing, China increasingly turned into a destination for Jews seeking to escape. The SS Conte Verde was one of the steamers that brought refugees to Shanghai from the Italian ports of Genoa and Trieste. The voyage to China took one month and was quite costly – a challenge for German Jews whose financial situation had been severely eroded under the Nazis.
Numerous Jewish organizations, such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, German Jewish Children’s Aid and the Boston Committee for Refugees were dedicated to the rescue of refugees from Nazi Germany. In 1938, it was a non-Jewish body, the American Friends Service Committee, that came up with a particularly good project: from mid-June to the beginning of September, it ran a camp in the Hudson Valley for about 70 persons, mostly Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and about one third Americans, for the two sides to get to know each other by working, studying and singing together, sharing household chores, attending lectures and religious services and playing sports or games with each other. The author of this article in the October issue of the Aufbau is full of gratitude for what he calls “a remarkable contribution to the internal integration of our people in the country.”
A classical anti-semitic trope of the 19th century was the notion that Jews are weak, unathletic and effeminate. In order to counter this stereotype, the Zionist physician, writer and politician Max Nordau created the antithetical concept of the “muscular Jew” at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel (1898). Drawing on paragons of Jewish fighting spirit like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, he called for the regeneration of the Jewish people through physical exercise. Barely two months later, the Jewish sports club Bar Kochba was founded in Berlin. More and more Jewish sports clubs came into being, many of which were affiliated with the Zionist movement. The Frankfurt/Main chapter of the Bar Kochba Club was established in 1904. One of its teams can be seen here posing for the camera.
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.
On May 27, 15 year-old Heinz Alfred (later Henry) Kissinger celebrated his birthday in his native Fürth one last time. Heinz had attended the Jewish elementary school and a Gymnasium in his home town. From 1933, Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend public schools, so that only the Israelitische Realschule was open to him and his younger brother, Walter. Elsewhere, too, the new times made themselves felt in the children’s lives. Suddenly, they were no longer allowed to join the other kids and swim in the river Altmühl when they were visiting with their grandparents in Leutershausen. Heinz was an avid fan of the local soccer team and a player himself, but under the Nazis, Jews were prohibited from attending their games. Even though his father, Louis, had been put on permanent furlough from his job as a teacher at a girls school when the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service came into effect in 1933, he was inclined to stick it out in Germany. It was thanks to his resolute mother, Paula (née Stern), that in April 1938, Louis Kissinger applied for passports. By May, the family’s preparations for emigration were in full gear. Relatives of hers had emigrated to the US already before 1933 and were now helping with the bureaucratic groundwork.
After their triumphant entry into Austria, the Nazis lost no time in intimidating the country’s Jews and forcing them out of positions of influence and out of society at large. Prominent bankers and businessmen were arrested, other Jews—especially those employed in fields that were considered “Jewish,” such as the theater and the press—removed from office and replaced by “Aryans.” At the same time that the atmosphere in Austria became unbearably hostile towards Jews, organizations aiming to facilitate Jewish emigration to Palestine were raided and it was announced that the passports of “certain people” would be voided. It bears mentioning that the number of Jews in Austria in March 1938 was about 206,000—no more than 3% of the total population.
The soccer team Hakoah Wien’s match against SV Straßenbahn Wien, the sports club of the Vienna tramway company, ended in a 2:2 tie on March 7, 1938. Hakoah was part of the famous Viennese Jewish sports club, Sportverein Hakoah Wien. The club had been established in 1909 as a result of the changing attitude towards the body and health in the liberal Jewish community. This membership card belonged to one of the club’s foremost coaches, the swim coach Zsigo Wertheimer. Wertheimer had coached Ruth Langer, who famously refused to join the Austrian Olympic team in 1936, when she was just 15 years old.
The handsome, blond, and athletic scion of a noble family in Lower Saxony, Gottfried von Cramm had all the features sought by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. Nevertheless, the two-time winner of the French Open tennis tournament (1934 and 1936) explicitly refused to be used as a poster boy for Nazi ideology and never joined the NSDAP. After repeatedly spurning opportunities to ingratiate himself with the regime, it was another issue that got him into trouble. On March 5, 1938, von Cramm was arrested under Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which prohibited homosexual conduct. He was alleged to have had a relationship with a Galician Jew, the actor Manasse Herbst. Reformers had nearly succeeded in overturning the statute during the Weimar republic, but the Nazis tightened it after their ascent to power.
Among the many kinds of physical activity offered to the readers of the Aufbau by the German-Jewish Club, such as ping-pong, skiing, swimming and even a Katerbummel (a morning stroll after a night of heavy drinking), there was also an invitation to go ice-skating in Tibbetts Brook Park in Yonkers, New York. A familiar activity among sympathetic fellow German-speakers at a venue featuring a Tudor revival bathhouse may have awakened memories of better days in Europe. Despite their traumatic experiences under Nazism and their forced departure, many German Jews continued to feel a profound cultural connection to the country they had called their home.
“May you continue for a long time to be granted the opportunity to dedicate your tried and tested skills to the welfare and benefit of the city.” With these words, Berlin mayor Heinrich Sahm congratulated Prof. Erich Seligmann, Director of Scientific Institutes at the Public Health Department and an eminent authority on issues of public health, on his 25th year of service in 1932. Barely half a year later, in March 1933, Seligmann was dismissed, despite his recognized scientific achievements and his outstanding knowledge in the field of epidemics control, which he had demonstrated inter alia as a staff surgeon in World War I. In this diary entry dated February 4, 1938, Seligmann writes about “widespread confiscation of passports from Jews” and “an atmosphere of hopelessness.” Seligmann was planning a trip to Rome, where he and his wife Elsa hoped to meet their son Rolf.