“The position under discussion has been filled,” was the terse answer Johanna Rosenthal, a former postal clerk, received to her application for a job as a telephone operator. After 14 years of service with the Deutsche Reichspost, she had been dismissed at the end of 1933. As she points out in her letter, her employment in public service as a Jew has been made impossible by the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.” The provisional pension of 68 Reichsmark that she had been granted was not enough to live on, so she sought new employment.
The observance of Shabbat, holidays, and kashrut was so deeply ingrained in the life of the Lamm family in Munich that even the Catholic cook, Babett, saw to it that the traditional customs were adhered to. While traditional in their understanding of Judaism, the Lamms were open to worldly matters. After high school, Hans briefly studied law, but, understanding that in the new political climate, there was no way a Jew could advance in the field, he embarked on a career in journalism instead. The career paths of Jewish jounalists at the time were also stymied by the fact that non-Jewish papers would not hire them and Jewish ones were forced to close down one by one. In 1937, Lamm relocated to Berlin, where he studied with Leo Baeck and Ismar Elbogen at the Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, in order to deepen his understanding of Judaism. Deeply rooted in German culture as he was, it was difficult for him to decide to emigrate. Yet eventually, his older brother convinced him that there was no future for Jews in Germany. In this letter, the 25 year-old Lamm cordially and politely, yet without palpable emotion, bids farewell to the editors of the Jewish monthly, Der Morgen, a high-level publication to which he had been contributing, expressing his gratitude for their support.
At a time when more and more German Jews became anxious to leave the country, this letter from a German-Jewish emigrant in Shanghai, addressed to the “gentlemen of the Hilfsverein [Aid Society of Jews in Germany]” and published in the “Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Berlin,” must have infused prospective emigrants with new hope: the writer exuberantly thanks the Hilfsverein for counseling him and gushes over the multitude of professional options available to immigrants at his new location, “provided, of course, that you have a skill and are able to work intensely.” According to him, musicians, physicians, and merchants are greatly in demand, and the situation is especially promising for secretaries and shorthand typists – on condition that they have perfect command of the English language, which could by no means be taken for granted among German Jews. The newcomers were not the only Jews in the country; a Sephardic community had been present in Shanghai since the middle of the 19th century, and settlement by Ashkenazi Jews had begun in the early 20th century and intensified in the wake of the Russian Revolution.
For Arthur Wolf, a fervent Austrian patriot and veteran of WWI, the Nazi takeover of Austria in March meant the collapse of his world, the loss of his homeland and equal rights. Wolf was the manager of a textile factory in Tannwald (then Czechoslovakia). His Russian-born wife, Maria, had stayed behind in Austria with the couple’s son, Erich (b. 1923). Given recent events, the tone of Maria’s April 19 letter to Arthur is remarkably playful. She marvels about 15 year-old Erich’s poetry, speaks warmly about their mother-son relationship and expresses longing for Arthur, avoiding any obvious references to current events.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 August 17th, a provision was added to the Law on Alteration of Family and Personal Names, forcing German Jews to identify themselves as Jews by adding the name “Sara” or “Israel” to their given names. This provision was slated to come into effect on January 1st, 1939. The registry office in charge and local police were to be notified of the implementation of the provision until the end of January. This notification by the Friedmann family, dated December 21st, 1938, to the local police authorities in Schwandorf, Bavaria, falls into this context. It also communicates that the registry offices in charge have been notified of the imminent name changes of Amalie, Bruno, Lillian and Georg Friedmann.
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.
Julie Jonas in Hamburg and her daughters, Elisabeth and Margarethe, had sworn to report to each other truthfully on their emotional well-being. Almost daily, there was an exchange of postcards. For a few weeks, the two girls had been in England. Their father, the lawyer Julius Jonas, had outlasted several Nazi laws aimed at pushing Jews and opponents of the regime out of the legal professions. But with the issue of the “Fifth Decree Supplementing the Reich Citizenship Law” on November 30th, 1938, he was disbarred. December 15th was his birthday. Already on the day before, Julie Jonas had written to the children that their nerves had worn “rather thin” and that they weren’t at all in the mood for a birthday. Nevertheless she bravely tried to show her joy about the girls’ well-being.
Until 1938, dozens of Jewish periodicals managed to withstand the mounting pressure of the regime. However, even since 1935, they were no longer publicly for sale, and since 1937, their freedom of reporting had been severely curtailed. After the Pogrom Night of November 9th to 10th (later known as “Kristallnacht”), a comprehensive prohibition brought the over-130-year history of the Jewish press in Germany to an abrupt halt. In order to be able nevertheless to spread official communiques through a paper aimed specifically at Jews, a Jewish newsletter, the “Jüdische Nachrichtenblatt” was established, the first issue of which was published on November 23rd in Berlin. Albeit edited by Jews, it was under total control of the Reich Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. On December 13th, the Vienna edition appeared for the first time.
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. Schrag’s background was Christian, but as the husband of a Jewish wife and the father of a Jewish son, he had deemed it advisable to move from exile in Belgium to a destination outside Europe. 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.
The reply of the secretary of the Kenya Jewish Refugee Committee, Israel Somen, to Paul Egon Cahn’s request for help was rather reserved: the young man urgently wished to bring his parents from Cologne to join him, but he didn’t have the £100 which were to be paid to the British Colonial Office in Mombasa for entry permits. The financial situation of the Committee was utterly strained, so that Somen could only advise the young man to submit an orderly application with the immigration board in Nairobi. In addition, he would have to furnish proof that he was able to pay for his parents’ upkeep and that he had paid the fee for the permits. Only then would it be conceivable that the authority would follow the request, provided the Refugee Committee would give him security. This, too, Somen emphasized, was contingent on Paul Egon Cahn’s ability to prove that his parents would not be a financial burden on the Committee or on the local authorities.
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.
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.
In 1903, in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom, the British government agreed to allow European Jewish settlement in a territory then known as the “East Africa Protectorate,” today’s Kenya. Due to massive opposition from within the Zionist movement, the plan, known by the misleading name “Uganda Scheme,” did not come to fruition. 35 years later, Paul Egon Cahn, most recently a resident of Cologne, found himself in Rongai, Kenya. After the November pogroms, the 20-year-old car mechanic began to try to get his parents out of Germany. While European settlers and members of the local Indian community in Kenya opposed the immigration of Jewish refugees, the “Kenya Jewish Refugee Committee,” which had facilitated his immigration, was supportive. Thus, the young man turned to its secretary, Israel Somen, for help: he urgently needed the £100 the British Colonial Office charged for two entry permits.
Willy Nordwind, co-chair of the Boston Committee for Refugees, tirelessly endeavored to save Jews from the grip of the Nazis by helping them immigrate to the United States. Himself an immigrant from Germany and familiar with the requirements, he helped organize affidavits and saw to it that newcomers with fields of expertise as heterogeneous as “tobacco and clothing retail business,” “tourism,” “expert buyer and salesman of hosiery,” and “wholesale fish dealer” found employment in America. Most of the people he helped were total strangers to him, but some of his beneficiaries were personal acquaintances. On November 28th, 1938, his friend Seppel pleads with Nordwind to find a special arrangement for him that would speed things up. Requests for visas had risen sharply since the pogrom night of November 9th to 10th (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”), and the usual waiting period for the processing of affidavits was far too long.
Could Willy Nordwind of the Boston Committee for Refugees—an organization not dealing specifically with unaccompanied child immigrants—be entrusted with the well-being of a 16-year-old girl? The Relief Organization of Jews in Germany was not ready to take chances: rather than just sending Frieda Diamont on her way, the organization turned to the National Council of Jewish Women in New York to ascertain Mr. Norwind’s integrity. The Council’s Merle Henoch passed on the case to Jewish Family Welfare in Boston, Mass., where Nordwind, too, was based. For her there was no doubt: as generous a helper as Willy Norwind must be a trustworthy ally.
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.
For 19 years, Fritz Feldstein had been working at a bank in Vienna to the full satisfaction of his superiors. But, in 1938, after Nazi Germany annexed neighboring Austria, he lost his position. On July 5th, the family registered with the US consulate in Vienna, but for immigration, affidavits were needed. After months of deeply upsetting political changes, Fritz Feldstein ventured an unusual step. On Oct. 16th, he turned to a Julius Feldstein in Los Angeles who, he hoped, might be a relative, appealing to “the well-known American readiness to help.” Soon, a correspondence developed, also involving Fritz’s wife, Martha, and their daughter, Gerda. The 11-year-old was not only a skillful piano player, she obviously also had a knack for languages. On November 20th, she writes to the Feldsteins in California for the first time – in English.
The Intrators had been forced to flee once before: the anti-Jewish climate in their native country, Poland, had caused Rachel (Rosa) and Jakob in 1905 to make Berlin their home. Their son Alexander, born the same year, later became a successful concert violinist. Gerhard, five years his junior, went to law school, but the Nazis had hardly been brought to power when they began to systematically push Jews out of the legal professions. In light of the hopelessness of pursuing a juridical career in Germany, the 27-year-old emigrated to the US in 1937. Now he was making massive efforts to bring his parents. On November 19th, his father reported on the arrival of the affidavit which was needed for immigration. However, he added, they did not expect to receive their visas any time soon. Meanwhile, their circle of relatives and friends was getting smaller and smaller. Some were being forced by the Nazis to return to Poland, others simply disappeared.
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.
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.
As Jews in Chemnitz were struggling to come to terms with the brutal violence they had experienced two days before – the magnificent synagogue had been set on fire and destroyed during the November Pogroms, in the night from November 9 to 10 (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”), and 170 members of the community deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp – the community’s representative, the merchant Josef Kahn, was contacted by the town’s mayor. With mind-boggling cynicism, he demanded the removal within three days of the ruins of “the synagogue […] which caught fire in the night from November 9th to 10th, 1938.” If the order wasn’t carried out within the prescribed time, the municipal building inspection department (Baupolizei) would arrange clearance at the owner’s expense.
Even though the climate under the Vargas regime in Brazil was becoming increasingly anti-Jewish, refugees could count on the support of allies. Already in 1933, an aid organization for German-Jewish refugees had come into being in Sao Paulo. And in 1936 in Porto Alegre, where Bernhard and Anni Wolf had recently fled from East Frisia, refugees established a Jewish culture and welfare society. The overall attitude of the Church was ambiguous; nevertheless, a Catholic aid committee for refugees lent significant aid to the newcomers. After an unsuccessful attempt to arrange their immigration to Brazil at the consulate in Cologne, Bernhard’s brother Richard and his wife Jola pinned all their hope on their relatives in Brazil.