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.”
One of the first official acts of the new Nazi rulers in 1933 had been the elimination of the independent press. Already in February, the freedom of the press was abolished, and from October, only such individuals who were deemed politically reliable and could prove their “Aryan” descent were admitted to journalistic professions. Ernst Feder (b. 1881), a jurist and erstwhile editor for domestic affairs at the “Berliner Tageblatt,” fulfilled neither of these requirements. In his Parisian exile, he resumed his activities as a journalist as one of the founders of the German-language Pariser Tageblatt (1933-36) and as a freelance writer. On the pages of his diary, he covers a plethora of topics, ranging from the personal to the philosophical and political. Among his friends and fellow exiles was the gynecologist and endocrinologist, Dr. Selmar Aschheim (b. 1878). As Feder notes in his diary on December 30th, the eminent physician and scientist was looking for an alternative source of income, should he be denied the possibility to practice in France. Especially older emigrants often had to overcome major obstacles in order to gain a foothold abroad. Language barriers and admission examinations, for which decades of professional experience were not seen as a substitute, additionally exacerbated the situation.
Stella was not thrilled about the idea of living in Palestine. Like her friend, Annemarie Riess, with whom she shared her feelings on December 28th, she had fled to Italy. But as a Jew, she was no longer welcome there, either. According to the fascist regime’s new racial laws, non-native Jews were to leave the country within six months. 2,000 of the 10,000 foreign Jews who had settled down in Italy before 1919 were exempt from the provision. At least Stella had an immigration certificate for Palestine, issued by the Mandatory Government, and at a Tel Aviv clinic, an unpaid position that came with free room and board was waiting for her. Nevertheless, she continued to try to get permission to enter the US or England. Actually, even the offer on an unpaid position was more than many immigrant physicians could expect in Palestine. Since 1936, there was a surplus of physicians in the land, and a new wave of immigration after the annexation of Austria in February 1938 (“Anschluss”) had aggravated the situation even more.
Due to the perception prevalent since the middle of the 19th century that immigrants, preferably from Europe, were needed to populate the vast expanses of Argentina, the country’s immigration policy was comparatively generous. But already following WWI, the country’s needs for manpower were perceived as saturated, and by the 20s, administrative barriers to immigration were put up. With victims of Nazi persecution seeking refuge, immigration policy was tightened even more. Nevertheless, many thousands of German Jews as well as political adversaries of the regime found refuge in Argentina. Among them was Max Busse. His sister, Anna Nachtlicht, had heard about plans of the Argentine government to ease immigration and make it possible to request permits for siblings. Max immediately went to make inquiries, but the results were sobering. In this December 26th letter, he is forced to tell her that no such plans seem to exist. Relatives in France had offered the Nachtlichts to stay with them to wait for their visas for a third country. Perhaps, Max suggests, it would be easier to apply from there.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
Martha Lippmann, the widow of a wool merchant in Stolzenau/Weser in Lower Saxony, and her mother were the last family members left behind in Germany when the November pogroms (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”) ravaged German Jewry. Her daughter, Gertrude, fled to Belgium; her older son, Erich, to America; and her younger son, Hans Martin, to England. News of the wave of anti-Jewish violence increased the urgency with which emigrants attempted to intercede on behalf of loved ones left behind in Germany. In a letter dated Nov. 16th, Max Stern, Gertrude’s husband, tells Erich about a planned appointment with a Belgian lawyer on behalf of Martha Lippmann, the goal of which is to obtain a temporary visa for her. Erich himself had contacted William Dodd, the former US Ambassador to Germany, thanks to whom he himself had made it to the US. But so far this appeal was to no avail.
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 fact that they had eluded the dangers of Nazism didn’t mean that it was time for immigrants to let down their guard. The editorial of the November issue of Aufbau exhorted the newcomers to acquire knowledge about the workings of American politics in order to be able to prevent developments similar to those that had brought the present government to power in Germany. In particular, the author warns against the curtailment of rights by “constitutional” means. The most potent protest against attempts to undermine democracy, in his opinion, was “protest by ballot.” Only those candidates who stood for true Americanism, as he saw it—for peace and justice, or, in other words, for democracy—deserved to be elected.
In her diary entry of October 15th, 1938, the non-Jewish Berlin journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich reminisces about her many Jewish friends who have left Germany since 1933. “This desperate rebellion against laws based on race and blood! Can’t everybody be at home where he wishes to be at home?” In her childhood, she writes, people were divided into good and bad, decent and not decent, lovable or worthy of rejection. But now, even among dissenters, “Jew” and “Aryan” seem to have replaced evaluation based on human qualities. And all the anti-Jewish chicanery – who even knows about it? Those who have no Jewish acquaintances remain clueless.
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.
It must have taken quite an effort for Eva Metzger-Hohenberg to write an imploring letter to her distant relative in Manhattan, Leo Klauber, a complete stranger to her. Her situation was precarious. There was no place for Jews in Germany anymore. Maria Metzger-Hohenberg appealed to Leo Klauber’s “humanity” and his “sense of a blood bond” and begged him to issue affidavits to her and her family. This letter from Vienna shows not only the desperate measures to which Jewish families had to resort, in order to make their emigration possible, but also drew a vivid picture of the situation in which many Jews found themselves in the Fall of 1938. Maria’s parents and her brother had to give up their butcher shop. Her husband’s wholesale business, which employed more than 140 staff members, was “aryanized.” In actuality, that meant it had to be sold for much less than its value. The fate of the Metzger-Hohenbergs was also that of countless other Jewish families during this time.
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.
The reason was short and simple: “Illegal entry” appears in the police document declaring a one-year ban on entry into Switzerland and Liechtenstein for Kurt Kelman. The 19-year-old student from Vienna would face imprisonment up to six months and a heavy fine if he violated this ban. Kurt Kelman had entered Switzerland from Austria not long ago and was imprisoned by the Zurich police afterward. Soon after the annexation of Austria, Switzerland passed visa obligations on Austrians. And recently it had tightened its already restrictive immigration policy. Border control and increased rejections at the border became commonplace. This was particularly hard on Austrian Jews such as the student Kurt Kelman. Since the annexation of Austria, the Nazis had heightened the pressure on Jews to emigrate enormously.
“A traitor!” The journalist and author Joseph Bornstein left no doubt with regard to his opinion of the former Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. Indeed, with friendly but very pointed words, he made it clear in a letter to his friend Bosch that Bosch’s “faith in the good faith in Schuschnigg” is totally wrong. Many Austrian Jews had long placed their hopes in Schuschnigg, who had tried as Chancellor to defend Austria from the influence of National-Socialist Germany. After the sender of this letter, Joseph Bornstein, lost his German citizenship in 1933, he immigrated to Paris. There he very quickly joined the intellectual milieu of other German journalists and authors in exile. He continued his collaboration with Leopold Schwarzschild and was active as editor-in-chief for the intellectual journal “Das neue Tagebuch” (The New Diary).
In August 1938 a new decree had been issued. Jewish people with names that were—in the perspective of the Nazis—not “typically Jewish” were to bear (starting January 1, 1939, the latest) a second given name: “Sara” for women, “Israel” for men. The September issue of Aufbau put the perfidy of this regulation in a nutshell: “If the motives on which this regulation is based were not so abysmally cruel, there would be nothing from its content about which to complain. ‘Israel’ means ‘Fighter for God’ and ‘Sarah’ or ‘Sara’ […] means ‘Princess.’” Not only did the Nazis help themselves to the content of Jewish culture, but they also misused it in order to restrict the private sphere of Jews on a massive scale.
Ludwig Gottschalk of Bonn did not mince words in this August 31st letter to his friends, Betty and Morris Moser, in New York. By now, Jews in Germany were living in such a state of demoralization and constant fear that the wish to leave was omnipresent, regardless of what was to be expected “outside.” According to his information, the U.S. Consulate General in Stuttgart was so overburdened by all the applications for immigration that new affidavits were currently not even being processed. The Gottschalks already had a waiting number and expected to be able to emigrate relatively soon. Meanwhile, they were learning English. Ludwig alluded to the changes that had occurred in Germany since his friends had left by calling them “Israel” and “Sara.” On August 17th, a decree had been issued forcing Jews to add one of these names to their given names in order to make their Jewish identity obvious.
It was under adventurous circumstances that Gisella Jellinek made her way to Palestine in June 1938. As part of a group of several hundred youths, she was smuggled into the area of the Mandate. The moment she came ashore in Palestine, she had to make use of the Hebrew language skills she had acquired at the Zionist agricultural training camp in Austria, in order to avoid being identified as an illegal immigrant by the British authorities. Roughly two months after her arrival, Gisella, who now called herself Nadja, turned 18. In this belated birthday note, her sister Berta wishes her “heroism, courage, and to be a good Haverah (kibbutz member).”
The existential crisis of Jewish doctors in Germany, which had passed through various stages (exclusion from public service and health insurance funds, prohibition of cooperation between Jewish and “Aryan” physicians, etc.) escalated with the employment ban in July 1938 and required a creative approach. On August 25th, Dr. Felix Pinkus, a renowned Berlin dermatologist, wrote to his friend, Dr. Sulzberger, in America, in order to win him over as a fellow campaigner in an aid project. The sociologist and national economist Franz Oppenheimer had come to the idea of establishing a kind of residential colony for former doctors from Germany. The funding for this would be covered by contributions from American-Jewish doctors. According to Oppenheimer’s calculations, roughly 1,000 physicians would use this remedy. (Dr. Pinkus estimated that it was closer to 3,000).
Even though expressions of anti-Semitism were common in Austrian vacation resorts decades before the annexation of Austria, a phenomenon that lead to the coining of the term “Summer Resort Anti-Semitism,” they remained popular with Austrian Jews. But when Liesl Teutsch’s uncle spent his vacation in Filzmoos in the Austrian province of Salzburg in August 1938, its spectacular vistas could not distract him from the unsettling circumstances. In this postcard to his niece in Vienna, he makes it very clear that it is not just the poor weather that prevented true rest and relaxation. He seems to be apprehensive of returning to Vienna, where an uncertain future awaits him.
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.
After six years in Palestine, Alfred Hirsch’s verdict was unequivocal: given the country’s political, climatic and economic structure, even people of the highest intelligence and stamina could not achieve much. He did not mince words in trying to dissuade his nephew, Ulli, from coming. Living in the very secular Haifa, Alfred Hirsch was convinced that for a young, Orthodox Jew like Ulli, life in Palestine would be a big disappointment at that point in history. Between the atmosphere generated by the collective misery of a large number of uprooted, depressed people and the political unrest, which led to major economic problems, the timing just didn’t feel right to Uncle Alfred. (The political unrest mentioned is the 1936-39 Arab Revolt in reaction to the massive influx of European Jews and the prospect of the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, as stipulated by the Balfour Declaration in 1917.)
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.
Hugo Jellinek was a man of many talents. The outbreak of WWI forced him to quit medical school in Vienna. As a soldier, he was severely wounded in Samarkand and fell in love with his nurse, who later became the mother of his three daughters. The couple settled down in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. His young wife having died in 1926, he fled the Soviet Union in 1930 and ultimately returned to Vienna, where he utilized his knowledge of 8 languages as a translator and also worked as a freelance journalist. Thanks to a warning about impending arrest by the Nazis, he was able to escape to Brünn (Czechoslovakia) in June 1938. His eldest daughter, eighteen year-old Gisella Nadja, departed for Palestine the same day. In this colorful letter, Hugo shows fatherly concern for Nadja’s well-being, but also talks at length about the hardship he himself has faced as a refugee and reports that his cousin’s son is interned at the Dachau Concentration Camp. He mentions with gratification what he calls the “League,” probably referring to the aid center of the “League for Human Rights,” which was looking after the refugees, defying Hitler’s sinister goals. Ultimately, however, the most important thing for him was the fight for a country of one’s own.
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.