Jewish furriers began to do business at the Leipzig Trade Fair in the middle of the 16th century. For hundreds of years, Jewish traders were allowed into Leipzig only during the fair, but even so, they significantly contributed to the city’s wealth. In the wake of the legal equalization of the Jews in the 19th century, Jewish furriers began to settle in Leipzig, concentrating on a street known as Brühl. Over time, Jews helped to turn the city into an international center of the fur trade. After 1933, many Jewish furriers fled to centers of the trade abroad. Siegmund Fein, born in Leipzig in 1880, was still in Leipzig in 1938. His and his wife’s ordeal under the Nazis culminated during the November pogroms. Siegmund Fein was incarcerated at the Buchenwald concentration camp from November 11th to 30th and badly maltreated. After his release, he was refused appropriate medical care. On December 20th, he fled to Brussels. The painting displayed here, “Head of a Girl” by the German classicist painter Anselm Feuerbach was confiscated by the Nazis – along with other works of art from the Feins’ collection.
Had Austria’s history taken a normal course, Hanna Spitzer, a private teacher, would probably have stayed in Vienna and grown old there as a respected member of society. As a daughter of the late jurist and patron of the arts, Dr. Alfred Spitzer, she was co-heir to a major art collection comprising works by such greats as Kokoschka and Slevogt. Egon Schiele was represented too – among other works, with a portrait of Alfred Spitzer, who had been his sponsor and lawyer, and later his estate trustee. But the flood of anti-Semitic measures which had been unleashed by the “Anschluss” (the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany) made it unbearable and dangerous to stay: this copy of a tax clearance certificate dated November 24, 1938 testifies to Hanna Spitzer’s efforts to gather the papers required for emigration. Already in January, she had arranged for the shipping of 11 containers of household effects and paintings to Melbourne and a delivery to the address of her sister, Edith Naumann, in Haifa.
The works of the Expressionist painter and graphic artist Bruno Gimpel were classified as “degenerate” during the Third Reich. Neither his voluntary service as an aide in a military hospital during World War I nor his “mixed marriage” with an “Aryan” woman spared him the usual repressive measures. On November 22nd, 1938 he received a letter from the Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste, the Nazi authority in charge of the visual arts, which yet again denied him membership and banned him from all branches of his profession. In 1935, this institution of the Third Reich had once before rejected a request for admission by the Dresden artist. Since 1937, he had no choice but to make a living by giving drawing lessons to Jewish children.
Harry Kranner was a boy of 12 when the Nazis staged a wave of anti-Jewish violence unprecedented in scope and intensity – purportedly a “spontaneous outburst of popular rage” in reaction to the murder of an employee of the German embassy in Paris at the hand of a young Jew. However, Harry’s diary entries show that he was keenly aware of the events around him. In the early morning of November 10th, when the violent events of the night spilled over from Germany into Austria, two Gestapo officers had come to the family’s home in Vienna – ostensibly in search of weapons. Harry understood how extraordinarily lucky he was to have gotten away with nothing more than a scare. He had heard about Jews being locked into or out of their apartments. But one big worry remained: by November 12th, there was still no trace of his uncle Arthur, who had been arrested along with thousands of other Jews. Following a news report that all arrestees were to be deported to the Dachau and Mauthausen concentration camps from the Vienna Westbahnhof, Harry’s father and aunt rushed there, hoping to find uncle Arthur, but to no avail. Meanwhile, it was reported that the Jews were going to be charged a hefty penalty for the violence to which they themselves had fallen victim.
Days after his 12th birthday on April 15th, 1938, Harry Kranner, along with all his Jewish schoolmates, had been expelled from the Kandlgasse Realgymnasium in Vienna. By November, Harry’s mother, Gertrude, and his stepfather, Emil Fichmann, were making preparations for emigration. Harry shows great excitement about the prospect of traveling and the various pieces of equipment he’ll receive. In the November 8th entry in his new diary, given to him by his mother for the purpose of recording his emigration experience, he enthusiastically reports about his new leather gloves. But the bulk of the entry is concerned with the strong earthquake the night before.
The passport of Martha Braun, a Viennese housewife, was issued on September 16, during the brief time window between the passing of the Executive Order on the Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names (August 17, 1938) and its entry into force (January 1939). According to this executive order, Jews were to add the middle name “Sara” or “Israel” to their given names. With the date of issue falling in September, Mrs. Braun received a passport without the stigmatizing addition – for the time being.
Thanks to decades of scholarly work, notably his seminal works “The Religious Views of the Pharisees” (“Die Religionsanschauungen der Pharisäer,” 1904) and “Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History” (“Der Jüdische Gottesdienst in seiner Entwicklung,” 1913), Prof. Ismar Elbogen was well known internationally, when in 1938, he overcame years of hesitation and decided that the time had come to leave. His efforts as chairman of the education committee of the Reich Representation of German Jews had been severely hampered by the regime, and his last book published in Germany, “The History of Jews in Germany” (“Die Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland,” 1935) had been censored heavily by the propaganda ministry. In the 1920s, several institutions of higher learning in the US (he taught at Hebrew Union College and turned down an offer to teach at Columbia University) had offered him lectureships, so that he had significant contacts overseas when the time came to leave Germany. In today’s report, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency informs its readers of the noted scholar’s impending departure.
After three decades of making his fellow Austrians laugh, cabaret artist Fritz Grünbaum’s career was brought to an abrupt end by the Anschluss. His politics alone would have sufficed to make him intolerable for the new regime: Grünbaum had returned from action in World War I not only a decorated soldier but also an avowed pacifist. As for Nazism, he did not mince words. Since 1933, he had been getting more political, and when during a 1938 performance a power outage caused the stage lights to go out, he commented glibly, “I see nothing, absolutely nothing. I must have accidentally gotten myself into National Socialist culture.” His last performance at the famous cabaret “Simpl” in Vienna just two days before the Anschluss was followed by an artistic ban on Jews. Grünbaum and his wife Lilly, a niece of Theodor Herzl, tried to flee to Czechoslovakia but were turned back at the border. On May 24, he was interned at the Dachau concentration camp. Grünbaum was also known as a serious art collector, mostly of modernist Austrian works, and a librettist.
Even though he professes to be in low spirits due to the serious situation and therefore hardly inclined to write and take photographs as regularly as before, Wilhelm Hesse, a lawyer in Hamburg, describes the development of his daughter Helen in some detail in his diary. He reports on her capacity to think logically and a desire to learn so strong that the parents feel they have to make her slow down a bit. Hesse also writes with satisfaction about Helen’s progress in a Jewish kindergarten, but he does not fail to mention that she must learn to get along better with her little sister, Evchen. Since the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935—Helen was two years old at the time—Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend non-Jewish kindergartens, and Jewish kindergarten teachers were prohibited from taking care of non-Jewish children. The Hesse family was religiously observant and might have opted for a Jewish institution even under normal circumstances.
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.
In Austria’s new reality, opinions could change very quickly. In a news item from April 8, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that Catholic clergyman, Pastor Breckle of Trinity Church in Vienna, wrote an article in “Catholic Action,” that referred to the Jews as “uninvited guests” in Europe. Breckle accused the Jews of “pushing themselves to the forefront” and praised Hitler’s approach as “free and humane.” Breckle had until recently been considered friendly toward the Jewish community.
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.
For four years, Aufbau, the newsletter of the German-Jewish Club in New York, had served immigrants as a cultural and emotional anchor and as a source of useful information. The December issue brings a gushing report on the Club’s newly established weekly radio program. Among the prominent speakers who were asked to contribute speeches to inaugurate the program was Dr. Joachim Prinz, a former Berlin rabbi and outspoken opponent of the Nazis. Forging a bridge from the days of the exodus from Egypt via a history of emigrations to the present predicament, he made no attempt to minimize the emigrants’ plight. At the same time, likening the situation of his community to that of Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, he saw the potential in the challenges of emigrant life in America. The new program, he felt, was “an important instrument of education as Jews and as people of freedom.” The call of the moment was clear: “We must embrace Tomorrow and bury Yesterday. We must try to be happy again.”
At 16, Heinz Ludwig Katscher was among the older German-Jewish children the British government had agreed to accept as temporary asylees. His parents, the engineer Alfred Katscher and his wife, Leopoldine, as well as his younger sister, Liane, had stayed behind in Vienna. The boy, traveling with a group of youngsters all of whom were too young to go to an unknown place on their own, had clearly expressed feelings of homesickness in his first letters home, since his father refers to the topic lovingly and reassuringly. Even though Mr. Katscher obviously misses his beloved son, he comes across as upbeat: allegedly, the “American permits” are on their way, thanks to which the family is feeling “more determined and secure.” He is exuberant in his praise for his son’s accomplishment in traveling to England without his family and expresses his confidence in the teenager’s ability to make the right decisions regarding his future in England.
Not long after power was handed to the Nazis, the motto “Police – your friends and helpers,” which already during the Weimar Republic often reflected a hope rather than reality, lost any hint of meaning for opponents of the regime and for the country’s Jews. A law introduced as early as February 1933 stipulated that police officers who resorted to the use of firearms against people perceived as enemies of the regime were to go unpunished. As part of an unholy trinity, in tandem with the SA and SS, the police quickly became an instrument of Nazi terror. Therefore, obtaining a police clearance certificate was probably not the easiest of the requirements of would-be immigrants applying for US visas. On December 24th, 1938, this important document was issued to Ernst Aldor, a resident of Vienna.
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.
Already in the late 19th century, hostility towards Jews was common in German spas, some of which advertised themselves as “free of Jews.” In the Baltic and North Seas, entire islands presented themselves as anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, some had a small Jewish population. On the beaches of the North Sea health resort of Wangerooge, swastika flags were displayed as early as 1920, just after becoming the symbol of the Nazi party. When the Nazis had been voted into power, the situation became even harder for the island’s Jews. On December 22nd, 1938, Fritz Jacoby, himself a beneficiary of the work of the Boston Committee for Refugees and a recent arrival to the United States, turned to Willy Nordwind, its co-chair, on behalf of Marga Levy, a 24-year-old native of Wangerooge. In the wake of the pogrom of November 9-10, all of her male relatives had been incarcerated, there was no money and no way to make a living. Thus, the grateful Mr. Jacoby implores the Committee to provide the young woman with a “domestic affidavit” which would enable her to “work day and night to feed her parents.”
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.
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 many Jewish children in Germany, going to school had become an ordeal: the constant anti-Jewish indoctrination of German students was poisoning the atmosphere, teachers as the agents of this policy rarely supported the Jewish children, and the mere act of getting to school and back could be like running the gauntlet. As a result, Jewish schools began to proliferate, and those who could afford it sent their children to boarding schools abroad. When Ruth Berlak, in Berlin, received this friendly note from St. Margaret’s School in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, informing her of the acceptance of her 13-year-old daughter, Marianne, as a pupil, little more than a month had passed since the Nazi regime had decreed the removal of Jewish children from German schools. Marianne’s maternal grandfather was Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck, the president of the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany. Her father’s father was Leo Berlak, the chairman of the Association of Jewish Heimatvereine, clubs devoted to the maintenance of local traditions.
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.
The banishment of Jews from public spaces was far advanced by now. Already in 1933, Jewish creative artists had been dismissed from state-sponsored cultural life. Since November 12th, 1938, Jews were no longer admitted even as audience members at “presentations of German culture” and were banished from concert halls, opera houses, libraries and museums. More and more restaurants and shops denied access to Jews. On Dec. 12th, 1938, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency pointed out a striking discrepancy: while abroad, the “German News Bureau,” the central news agency of the Reich which followed the directives of the Propaganda Ministry, spread the information that from January 1st, 1939, certain anti-Semitic measures would be relaxed, quite the opposite had been communicated to Jews inside the Reich. One fact, however, was not hidden: the goal was to prompt all Jews to emigrate, “also in the interest of the Jews themselves,” as the Bureau put it.
When, in November 1938, Gertrude Fichmann gave her 12-year-old son, Harry, a diary in which to record the family’s emigration experience, she had no idea at which point they would leave and where their journey would take them. Nor could she have anticipated just how eventful a time was coming up for Austrian Jewry in general and for her family in particular. As almost every day brought new, disturbing incidents, Harry would record the latest developments regularly and articulately. Witnessing the frightening events and watching the fear of the adults in his life clearly took a toll on him: on December 11th, he describes having spent the night tortured by nightmares.
With the expressiveness of a poet, the jurist Paul Schrag on December 9th, 1938 describes to his friend Max Gutzwiller in Basel his circumstances after emigration. Since July, he had been living in a Manhattan hotel with his wife and baby. Apart from emigration and the professional uncertainties it occasioned, Schrag also had simple human matters to cope with. In September, his father had unexpectedly passed away, and now his sick mother needed to be taken care of. He experienced the catastrophe of humanity in the 1930s very profoundly and hoped for the onset of a “profound emotional and moral countercurrent.” A little bit of sanguinity was brought into his life by his little son, whose bliss remained untouched by current events and change of location.
Every now and then, the diary of the Viennese boy Harry Kranner-Fiss deals with topics appropriate to a 12-year-old: doing mischief at school, excitement about new clothes, a “grown-up” haircut, playing with friends. But more often than not, Harry’s eloquent entries reflect his keen awareness of the threatened state of Jews in Austria in 1938: they deal with an uncle’s deportation to the Dachau concentration camp, his aunt being locked out of her apartment and the key being confiscated, his mother’s tears of fear and worry, with curfews, public humiliation and violence. No wonder that his stepfather was incessantly trying to find a way to leave the country. Promising reactions were slow in coming, but on December 7, 1938, just days after receiving a promise of an affidavit for immigration to the US, Harry was excited to record that from Australia too, a positive answer had arrived. According to an earlier entry, his stepfather had called on the British commission for Australia, which was visiting Vienna, in early November, but had been told to expect a waiting period of eight to nine months.
Otto Neubauer was worried that his efforts to facilitate his relatives’ emigration would come to naught. With the US intent on denying entry to refugees “likely to become a public charge,” he knew his developmentally disabled 34-year-old brother, Ernst, might be denied entry. He had no doubt that his father, Maximilian, a resident of Mannheim, would never leave Germany without his other son. On December 6th, 1938, Otto assured Herbert Reich, who had expressed his willingness to help the Neubauers immigrate to the US, that Ern(e)st was “harmless” and that his needs were minimal. To increase his brother’s chances to be admitted, Otto reasoned that it would be helpful to procure two affidavits.
Reacting to the November Pogroms, thus far the most massive outburst of anti-Jewish violence in Germany, the December editorial of the Aufbau does not make do with expressions of pain and mourning but forcefully calls to counter Nazi brutality with positive action. “The answer to barbarism has always been enlightenment,” it quoted US Commissioner of Education J.W. Studebaker, a staunch believer in democracy and the central role of public discussion and civic education in making it function. The editorial reassured Jewish brethren in Germany that all of America was united in working on “putting an end to barbarism in Central Europe.” It wholeheartedly endorsed the government’s position, propagating education and enlightenment as means to fight back “this gravest of assaults on human culture.”
Sent to take stock after the November Pogroms in Germany, the American Joint Distribution Committee’s emissary to Germany, George Rooby, traveled to several cities to collect first-hand impressions. His findings were deeply disturbing: Berlin, Nuremberg, Fürth, Frankfurt-on-Main, no matter where he went, he saw synagogues burnt down, Jewish shops demolished and ransacked, Torah scrolls desecrated, and was met by terror-stricken Jews whose leadership had been forbidden to operate or taken to concentration camps. Non-Jews extending a helping hand exposed themselves to the danger of Nazi reprisals. The almost complete absence of small children and babies was explained to Rooby as a result of the fact that nativity among Jews had receded considerably since the Nazis’ accession to power. Leaders of Jewish communities had assured him that there was enough money to cover immediate welfare needs. Those organizations, however, whose goal was to advance emigration, were facing a serious lack of funds. Generally, hope prevailed that the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany would soon be allowed to operate again and play its part in accelerating emigration. Its success, of course, depended on the willingness of other countries to receive German Jews. Rooby’s conclusion was unambiguous: the only hope to escape the violence was emigration.
Many Jews in Germany reacted to the November pogroms with despair, existential fear, and even suicide. But the situation was also highly vexing for those who had managed to flee abroad. From afar they had to watch how their synagogues went up in flames, how Jews were arrested by the thousand and locked up in concentration camps, how Jewish property was stolen or destroyed. The worst, however, was the uncertainty about the well-being of beloved relatives and the torture of not being able to help them quickly enough or at all. One of the many emigrants expressing such feelings was Erich Lipmann. In this letter from Ohio to his mother and grandmother in Lower Saxony, he describes his helplessness but also mentions efforts to get support from official places.
Thanks to his thriving practice in the Steinbühl neighborhood of Nuremberg, Dr. Adolf Dessauer had achieved a certain prosperity. His generous apartment offered a children’s room for his sons, Heinz and Rolf, maid’s quarters, space for his practice and a waiting room, a living and dining room, and, not least, a bedroom with furniture made of cherry wood. In 1937, due to the effects of anti-Semitic legislation targeting doctors, Dr. Dessauer was forced to give up his practice. Emigration was the only solution. But how to take the beautiful bedroom furniture abroad? The Nazis rendered this concern obsolete: During the November pogroms, in the night of November 9 to 10 (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”), the furniture was smashed to pieces and a portrait of the Nobel laureate, Paul Ehrlich, slashed and ruined. Only a few days after the shock of the brutal destruction, the Dessauers experienced a rare gesture of decency. A total stranger returned the portrait, which was by now perfectly restored.
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?