It was more of a wistful farewell than a joyful Bar Mitzvah: Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky seemed to be fully conscious of the situation in which his congregants at the Prinzregentenstraße Synagogue in Berlin found themselves. In his address on the occasion of the Bar Mitzvah of 15 teenagers, he captured the mood of this day of celebration: everything clearly bears “the stamp ‘for the last time.’” Many families, whose sons celebrated their Bar Mitzvah on this day, sat on packed suitcases. One family was departing the very next day. The synagoge, in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf neighborhood, had been one of the only synagogues first built during the Weimar Republic. It had also quickly developed into a center of Jewish culture. Now, at the end of September 1938, it was clear to the rabbi that his congregation was facing major changes: “In a few years, much of what’s here today will be gone and perhaps also forgotten.”
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.
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.
This advertising brochure shows the Prater, a large public garden and popular amusement park in Vienna’s central 2nd district, in the 1930s. Here, on Saturday, April 23, hundreds of Viennese Jews were rounded up and subjected to beatings and maltreatment in front of jeering onlookers. Some were forced to eat grass. Jews of both sexes, regardless of age and health, were made to run in circles until they collapsed. Many of those thus humiliated suffered heart attacks, some died.
Usually the Jewish National Workers Alliance, as the Labor Zionist fraternal order was known, occupied itself with serious matters. Among other things, it strove to strengthen the working class and offered help in cases of economic hardship, illness, or death of its members. In 1911, it had established the first modern insurance system for Jewish workers. On April 9, 1938 it strayed from its core mission and held a Passover Ball in the German-Jewish stronghold of Washington Heights in New York. Among other items, the program featured “Cologne humorists.” German immigrants would have recognized that this referred to Cologne carnival jesting, a tradition associated with the Catholic carnival season that dates back to the Middle Ages. The venue was the ballroom of the Paramount Mansion, which also housed several institutions that promoted the interests of German Jewish immigrants.
After the tribulations of their forced emigration, often accompanied by a loss of status, property, and basic faith in humanity, German Jews might not have been expected to feel particularly nostalgic for their former home. This ad from the Aufbau, the New York-based German-Jewish paper published by the German-Jewish Club, shows that nevertheless, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany were not necessarily in a hurry to give up their eating habits.
This view of Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv shows some of the typical buildings in the background to which it owes its unofficial name, “The White City.” Since 1933 and especially after the “Reichsbürgergesetz” came into effect in 1935, Bauhaus-trained architects had left Germany and were now putting their mark on Tel Aviv, either through their own creations or through their influence on others. The photo is dominated by the Migdalor building, which was built in 1935 and housed the city’s first air-conditioned movie theater. On the external wall there is a huge advertisement for Jean Renoir’s 1937 movie “Grand Illusion,” which due to its pacifist message was banned in Nazi Germany.
Between the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 and the year 1938, about 16.000 Jews had immigrated to the United States. Many German Jews had made their home in New York, especially in the neighborhood of Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, gaining it the nickname “Frankfurt on the Hudson.” The event schedule of the German-Jewish Club lists a “Family evening with Kaffee-Klatsch” which offers “artistic and musical interludes.” The event is geared towards the needs of the older members of the community, as “a substitute for lodge, singing club, social club and other associations,” promising participants an opportunity to discuss what they had on their minds. In addition to cultural activities in German, the massive influx of German-speaking Jews to Washington Heights led to the establishment of numerous new synagogues, beginning with “Tikvoh Chadoshoh”—“New Hope.”
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.
With Adolphe Adam’s comic opera “If I were King” and Ladislaus Bus-Fekete’s “Cape of Good Hope,” the Berlin Kulturbund offered its guests lighthearted distractions. The Jewish audience in Berlin in 1938 must have been receptive to an opera in which the powerless but honest hero wins and the bad guy gets his well-deserved punishment.
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.