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.
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.
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.
On November 3rd, 1938, Herszel Grynszpan, a young Jew of Polish extraction, had received a message saying that his parents and two siblings had been expelled from their home in Hannover to Poland. The Polish parliament had recently passed a law according to which citizens who had spent five or more years abroad could be stripped of their citizenship. Fearing to be left irrevocably with over 70,000 Polish Jews, the Nazi regime had deported about 17,000 of them just days earlier. Herszel, who had managed to enter France in 1936, was living with his uncle and aunt at this point. Upset about the fate of his fellow countrymen, he walked into the German embassy in Paris on November 7th, shot to death a German career diplomat, 29 year-old Ernst vom Rath, and was arrested immediately.
At the end of October, Adolph Markus looked back on an eventful month. Preceded by the Munich Conference, at which representatives of Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy decided that Czechoslovakia was to cede its borderlands (“Sudetenland”) to Germany in exchange for peace, German troops had occupied these areas, which had a sizeable German population totaling about 3 million. As Markus points out, with the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia had lost its line of defense. According to his diary entry, both in Britain and in France, people’s relief that war had been averted was soon followed by deep suspicion regarding Hitler’s true intentions. On a more personal note, the author mentions a hair-styling course and English classes which he has been taking in Vienna, clearly in preparation for emigration. Meanwhile, due to the expectation that soon all Jews would be expelled from his home town, Linz, half of the contents of his apartment had been sold.
On September 29, 1938, the signatories of the Munich Treaty had decreed that Czechoslovakia was to cede to Germany its northern and western border areas, the Sudetenland, which was inhabited predominantly by Germans. Immediately after the incursion of German troops, there were eruptions of violence against Jews. Of the 25,000 to 28,000 Jews living in the area, thousands were driven to flee. On October 25, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on the catastrophic material effects of the mass flight: the losses were estimated at 7 billion crowns at least in wages and property left behind. To make things worse, since Munich, open expressions of antisemitism had also proliferated on the Czech side—both by the populace and those representing the government.
Since the “Anschluss,” Czechoslovakia had enormously tightened its policy towards refugees from Austria, specifically Jewish ones. The official border crossings were closed to Austrian Jews – many had no choice but to enter Czechoslovakia via the dangerous paths of what was known as the “Green Border,” stretches of land not secured by checkpoints along the course of the border. Even international diplomatic interventions, such as those of the International League of Human Rights (as reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on October 13th, 1938), couldn’t sway Czechoslovakia from its restrictive course. Sir Neill Malcolm, the Commissioner of Refugees for the League of Nations, had called on the Czechoslovakian prime minister to reconsider the practice of deporting Austrian refugees. Without success.
The Fascist Grand Council of Italy, a central organ of the Mussolini regime, published a “Declaration on Race” at the beginning of October which in many places was reminiscent of the Nuremberg Laws. Anti-Semitic through and through, the document codified many regulations regarding marriage, Italian citizenship, and the employment of Jews in civil service in Italy. On October 9th, only a few days after its publication, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported about this Fascist body of legislation. “Intermarriage” between “Aryan” Italians and “members of the Hamitic (North African), Semitic or other ‘non-Aryan’ races” would henceforth be forbidden. Another regulation hit those Jews who had emigrated to Italy from Austria and Germany especially hard. All Jews who had settled in Italy after 1919, were to lose their Italian citizenship and be expelled.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency described the situation of Austrian refugees in Czechoslovakia with far-sightedness. If none of their precarious circumstances changed (work ban, impoverishment, missing prospects…) the situation could soon become “a psychological problem as well as an economic and political one.” The JTA estimated that in the middle of September 1938 there were more than 1,000 refugees in Czechoslovakia, most of them in Brno, less than 50 kilometers from the Austrian border. Now a police measure stipulated a bail of 2,000 Czech crowns (70 dollars) for persons who had already spent more than two months in Czechoslovakia. Otherwise they would face deportation. Who could pay this money on their behalf was completely unclear. Neither the Jewish community of Brno nor the League of Human Rights had the means to do so.
“Free-of-charge”: it may seem like a generous “offer,” but behind this “free-of-charge” offer was ice-cold calculation. The Nazis’ evil intent was that all Jews still remaining in Burgenland, Austria, should leave the region. In Nazi jargon, this was called cleansing. After the “Anschluss,” Burgenland was the first Austrian region in which they had begun to systematically dispossess and expel the Jewish population. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on September 12th that out of the 3,800 Jews, who had previously lived in Burgenland, 1,900 had already been expelled, 1,600 people had fled temporarily to Vienna, and another 300 were interned in ghettos in Burgenland. According to JTA, the “offer” of the emigrant-smuggling group was financed by the Gestapo with 100,000 marks from the assets of the recently dispossessed Jews of the region.
Ludwig Schönmann, born in Neu-Isenburg in Germany in 1865, had come to Austria early in life and was thus spared the first five years of the Hitler regime. But from the day the German army entered Austria to annex the neighboring country in March 1938, the 73-year-old witnessed all the same persecution that had befallen Jews in Germany – only at an accelerated pace. Jewish businesses were ransacked and their owners expropriated. Jews were publicly humiliated and expelled from the Burgenland region, where they had first settled in the 13th century. Jewish students and teachers were pushed out of the universities, and the infamous Nuremberg Laws were extended to Austria, leading to the removal of Jews from public service. The first page of a memorial album in honor of Ludwig Schönmann lists July 24 as the day of his death.
For a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat like the journalist, translator and writer Maurus (Moritz) Mezei, the changes that quickly took hold in Austria after the country’s unimpeded annexation by Nazi Germany must have been doubly troubling. During the period known as “Red Vienna,” the first-ever period of democratic rule in the city from 1918 to 1934, the Mezei family had moved to the “Karl-Marx-Hof,” a public housing project. Starting in 1938, “non-Aryan” families, including the Mezeis, were threatened with expulsion from the compound. Tenant protections initially remained in place for Jews, but they no longer applied to public housing. On June 10, Mezei had applied for immigration to Switzerland, but the reply, written on July 14, was negative. Only if he was to procure an immigration visa from a country overseas would Swiss immigration authorities reconsider his case and possibly grant temporary asylum.
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.
The Jewish community of Eisenstadt in the Burgenland region of Austria had never been a large one, but as the oldest Jewish community in the area, it dated back to the 14th century and had a rich cultural life. The moment Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938, Jews were vulnerable. Under the deeply racist Gauleiter Tobias Portschy, the Burgenland was the first part of Austria to expel its Jewish population. In June 1938, Hilde Schlesinger Schiff was in Eisenstadt helping her parents get ready to relocate. In a birthday letter to her daughter Elisabeth, Hilde calls Elisabeth “a true Jewish child, not settled, always ready to be on the move,” in contrast with her own emotional connectedness to Eisenstadt, from which she is now forced to uproot herself. Mrs. Schlesinger Schiff writes that she hopes her parents will soon be allowed to immigrate to Czechoslovakia, but bureaucratic hurdles remain. Meanwhile, she is clearly taken aback by the eagerness of non-Jews to snatch up the family’s property at a low price, calling it “grave robbery.”
The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938 had brought an abrupt end to 1,000 years of Jewish life in the Burgenland region, Austria’s easternmost state. The expulsion of the small Jewish population, carried out by the SS, local Nazi officials, and civilian collaborators, commenced immediately. This article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on the League of Nations’ intervention on behalf of 56 expellees who had ended up in “no man’s land” in the border area between Austria and Yugoslavia. The League’s High Commissioner for German Refugees requested the temporary accommodation of the displaced persons by Yugoslavia, to be followed by permanent resettlement elsewhere.
A month and a half after the “Anschluss,” Paul Steiner is still incredulous. Everything seems so unbelievable, he writes in his diary, that “even ones own words are becoming astonishing and dubious.” He wonders what the outside world is doing for the Jews in light of German barbarity, especially for the Burgenland Jews, who were brutally expelled right after the “Anschluss” and ended up stranded in totally inadequate shelters while their belongings were appropriated by their former neighbors. Steiner also imagines the “revenge” that Jews will exact, shaming the world with their achievements once they are given the right to self-determination.
Little more than a month after the Nazi takeover of Austria, a cascade of new regulations and actions taken by the new regime leaves little room for optimism. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports for April 14 from Vienna that Jews within 50 kilometers of the Czechoslovak border are to be expelled. Nazi commissars will be put in charge of Austrian businesses at the latter’s expense. According to the JTA, in the case of hundreds of Jewish-owned businesses, this provision has already been enforced. Finally, a law has been introduced establishing new procedures for determining the racial status of illegitimate children. The one positive item in this substantial dispatch is the prospect that all Jews currently interned at the Dachau concentration camp will not only be released but will also receive permits to enter Palestine.
The passage in July 1933 of a law allowing the government to revoke the citizenship of those naturalized after the end of WWI had given Nazi officials a tool to deprive “undesirables” of their citizenship. The law targeted the Nazis’ political adversaries as well as Jews; 16,000 Eastern European Jews had gained German citizenship between the proclamation of the republic on November 9, 1918 and the Nazi rise to power in January 1933. Among those whose names appear on the expatriation list dated March 26, 1938 are Otto Wilhelm, his wife Katharina and the couple’s three children, residents of Worms and all five of them natives of Germany.
As the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany deteriorated from day to day, the anti-Semitic atmosphere in other countries became increasingly tense. In neighboring Poland, anti-Semitic voices became louder and louder. As the C.V.-Zeitung, the organ of the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, reported, the Lower House of the Polish Parliament expressed its anti-Jewish sentiments in the form of a plan to remove Jews from the country: it called for the emigration of at least 100,000 Jews annually. Besides Palestine, Madagascar was discussed as a possible destination. The case of Polish Prime Minister Sławoj Składkowski shows how widely antisemitism was accepted: commenting on the “unpleasant events” (presumably, the numerous cases of physical violence against Jews), he claimed that Jews themselves were to blame, due to their lack of understanding of Polish peasantry, which, just as the Jews themselves, was striving for a higher standard of living.