Willi Jonas and his wife Hilde owned a shoe shop in tranquil Basel, Switzerland. Deeply worried about their relatives in Germany, Willi Jonas sent his Swiss chauffeur to sound out the situation. In a November 18th, 1938 letter, the couple tell emigré friends in America about their loved ones’ experiences during and since the night of pogroms (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”). Louis Jonas, a cattle dealer in Waldbreitbach near Neuwied, has gotten away without material losses. However, after having had to spend 4 days in jail and being released only due to the fact that he is above 50, all he wants is to get out. The news from Worms is even more alarming: Paul Weiner has been taken to a concentration camp and nobody has seen fit to notify his wife, Berta (née Jonas), as to which. The couple’s home was almost entirely wrecked, some of their property stolen.
Only one day after the “Anschluss” Fritz Löhner was arrested in Vienna and shortly thereafter deported to the concentration camp at Dachau. Löhner was born in Bohemia in 1883. As a young child, he moved with his parents to Vienna. By the 1920s, Beda, as Fritz Löhner sometimes called himself, had become one of the most renowned opera librettists in Vienna. On top of that, he wrote numerous lyrics (some still known today), not to mention satires and pieces for cabaret, always with a clear attitude: his time as an officer in World War I had turned him against the military. On the 23rd of September 1938, the Nazis transferred him from Dachau to the concentration camp at Buchenwald.
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.
The Jewish businessman Felix Perls was born in Beuthen (Upper Silesia) in 1883. By April 1st, 1938, following Nazi regulations, he had to relinquish his position as director of the Upper Silesian Lumber Industry Corporation. Two months later, he and his wife, Herta, moved to Berlin-Grunewald, in order to escape the hostility in Beuthen. Perls tampered with his 1938 postal ID. He changed its date of issue and its validity period. Postal ID cards were needed for receiving confidential mail but were accepted as identification documents elsewhere too.
Until 1938, about 60,000 Jews lived in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna, a fact that earned it the moniker “Isle of Matzos.” Between the end of World War I and the rise of “Austrofascism” in 1934, the Social-Democratic municipal government began to create public housing. By the time of the Anschluss in March 1938, there was a massive housing shortage in the city. The Nazis began to evict Jewish tenants from public housing. In light of the tendency of the police to ignore encroachment on Jewish property, it was easy for antisemitic private landlords to follow this example. Being a Jew was enough of a reason for eviction. When house owner Ludwig Munz filled in the eviction order form for his tenants Georg and Hermine Topra, he came up with as many as three reasons: his own purported need for the place, back rent, and consideration for the neighbors, who could not be expected to put up with having to live side-by-side with Jews.
This certificate, issued by the Rabbinate of the Vienna Israelite Community, was just one among a plethora of documents that Edmund Wachs had gathered in order to facilitate his emigration to the United States. Shortly after the Anschluss, Wachs was put in “protective custody,” a power handed to the Nazis by the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State,” also known as the “Reichstag Fire Decree.” The Reichstag Fire of February 27th, 1933, an act of arson involving the German Parliament building in Berlin, served as cause and justification for this law. It was passed on the following day and legalized the arbitrary arrest of anyone suspected of lack of loyalty towards the regime. The law did not stipulate the exact elements of the alleged offence and was widely used against Jews and political opponents.
Nobody saw fit to inform the worried wives of thousands of Jewish men arrested by the Nazis about their spouses’ whereabouts and the expected period of imprisonment. Many of them decided to go to the Rossauer Lände detention facility and the central police station in order to get information on the whereabouts of their loved ones. According to this June 3 report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the detainees had been taken away in overcrowded railroad cars, many of them forced to remain in uncomfortable positions for up to five hours before departure. While there were intimations that those sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany would be exploited as construction workers in order to enlarge the camp and subsequently be released, many had no idea where their husbands were. The author of the report sees the “extraordinary callousness with which police have withheld information” as “one of the most terrifying aspects of the situation.”
April 30 1938 marked the tenth and last day of “Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich,” a punitive campaign targeting individuals deemed “work-shy” and “asocial.” The designation was sufficiently broad to target a vast array of elements deemed “undesirable” by the Nazis. Between 1,500 and 2,000 men thus classified were taken to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in this first wave of such arrests, including Jews. They were identified by black triangles on their prison uniforms.
During the years of the authoritarian regime installed in Austria in 1934 (“Austrofascism”), the police prison at Rossauer Lände in Vienna (nicknamed “Liesl” by the locals) had already been used as a lockup not only for criminals but also for political dissidents. After the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938, the first 150 Austrians were taken to the Dachau concentration camp from this notorious prison. Some, like Edmund Wachs, were held there in “protective custody,” a convenient tool used by the nazis to rid themselves of Jews and political opponents, since it could be imposed arbitrarily and left the prisoners little or no recourse to legal support. In this postcard, Edmund’s brother, the attorney Dr. Karl Wachs, reassures Edmund that he is doing everything he can to press his case and asks him for patience.
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.
Not wishing to leave behind the family business and hoping that the Jews’ situation would improve over time, Alfred Rahn had initially been reluctant to consider emigration. However, in 1937 the family obtained US visas and sold the business to a non-Jew. Since they had officially approved the sale, the Nazis accused Rahn of trying to hide funds. As a result, he had to serve a 14-month prison term. From prison, Rahn writes to his wife Lilli in a matter-of-fact way about his hope to be transferred to a different section of the prison, the work imposed on him, and the books he reads. He manages to create the impression that nothing much is amiss.
Preparing for emigration to the United States, Alfred Rahn sold the family business, the M.S. Farrnbacher Ironmongery, in November 1937 without the consent of the Nazi authorities. Instead of leaving for the US at the end of December as planned, he therefore had to serve a 14 months prison term. From his prison cell in Fürth, Alfred Rahn expresses gratitude to his wife for gifts already received and asks for further necessities. His wife Lilly was a literary scholar and the last Jewish doctoral student to have graduated from the University of Erlangen (in 1934).