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 May 9, the Ärztegruppe of the German-Jewish Club (an informal association of physicians within the city’s main German émigré organization) in New York offered a lecture on the topic of abortion. During the Weimar Republic, repeated efforts had been made to abolish or at least reform the anti-abortion paragraph (§218). Its opponents pointed out that it put the working class at a disadvantage, since poverty was the chief motivation for abortion. In 1926, a member of the Reichstag representing a coalition of three right-wing parties, including the NSDAP, proposed legalizing abortion for Jews only. Under the Nazi regime, which promoted the production of “racially valuable” offspring, abortion was illegal unless it prevented the birth of children considered “undesirable.” In the US, the depression had led to an increased demand for abortion, and by the beginning of the 1930s hundreds of birth control clinics had sprung up. Poverty and the lack of access to qualified practitioners often led to the injury or death of pregnant women through self-induced miscarriage. The lecturer, Dr. Walter M. Fürst, was a recent arrival from Hamburg.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
Since the early 1880s, federal immigration law in the US included a provision seeking to keep out people likely to become a “public charge.” Under the impact of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover reinforced the ban in 1930. Aid organizations were hard pressed to find employment for the newcomers: on October 26, a representative of the Employment Department of the Greater New York Coordinating Committee for German Refugees explains to Willy Nordwind of the Boston Committee for Refugees the challenges of finding work for a man who had managed to enter the country but barely spoke any English and had no work experience to boast save as a candy salesman. Nevertheless, the representative promises to continue his efforts on the immigrant’s behalf.
The dimensions of the triangles of the Star of David which Jewish “caregivers of the sick” were to add to the signs for their offices was from now on to be 3 1/2 cm. The specifications in the letter dated of October 12th, 1938, from the Berlin Reich Physicians’ Chamber were meticulous. And they did not end with specifications down to the millimeter: The background color was to be “sky-blue,” and the Star of David in the top left corner was to have a “lemon” color. On September 30th, according to the Reich Citizen Law, licenses for Jewish doctors had expired. Only a few got permission to continue to practice as “caregivers of the sick” of Jewish patients exclusively. The authors hinted that the patronizing had not yet reached its peak: in order to do justice to the requirements of the “Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names” (coming into force Jan. 1, 1939), it was advisable to add the name “Israel” or “Sara” to the practice sign already now, to avoid future costs.
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.
A central goal of “National Peace Action Week,” planned by the Canadian League of Nations Society, was to raise awareness among the Canadian public of the suffering of persecuted Jews. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on October 3rd, 1938 on the plan to establish a national committee of Jewish and other Canadian leaders for the purpose of sensitizing the public to the Jewish refugee crisis and requesting that appropriate measures be taken by the government. Because Canada had enforced restrictive isolationist policy against immigrants since at least the Great Depression, the country had no refugee policy. This already made it difficult for Jewish refugees to immigrate to Canada. An additional problem was widespread anti-Semitism among the public.
When on September 29th the so-called “Munich Agreement” between Hitler, the British Premier Chamberlain, the French Premier Daladier, and the Italian dictator Mussolini was concluded, over 20,000 Jews had already fled from the regions of the Sudetenland. This was reported by the Jewish Telegraph Agency on the day of the Agreement. With a months-long propaganda campaign by the Nazis and raucous threats that the Wehrmacht would invade Czechoslovakia, it had already been clear to many Jews for weeks that they would have no future in the Sudetenland. With the Agreement, the Czech regions, in which the Sudeten German minority lived, would be surrendered to the German Reich. Czechoslovakia did not sit at the bargaining table in Munich.
The lives of many Jews had become undone within the span of half a year, through occupational bans, Aryanization, dispossession, and denaturalization. After the Anschluss, many Austrian Jews again found themselves in an unstable and chaotic situation. It was all the more cynical then that many of them seemed to be confronted with a complicated, in some ways pedantic bureaucracy regarding visas. A September 27th, 1938 letter from the American Consulate General to Tony (Antonie) and Kurt Frenkl gives example of this: “Your visa application can be accepted at the earliest within months.” The quotas for Central European immigrants were filled. In order to be put on a waiting list for a visa, applicants had to fill in a pre-registration form. And, in order to “avoid delays,” an individual affidavit had to be submitted per person. So Tony and Kurt had to wait even longer, bracing themselves for the next bureaucratic hurdle.
Speak English fluently! This may have been among the resolutions of Jewish immigrants in the United States for the upcoming Jewish new year. The September edition of “Aufbau” featured a whole array of offers for learning English. Sundry advertisements wooed immigrants with, for example, “a low fee” and “original” methods in order to improve one’s English within a few weeks. These advertisements hit on a market. Because, to those who’d come to the United States, the English language posed an initial and legitimate, yet essential hurdle. Whoever wanted to work in the American environment and build a new life had to be able to be understood.
Alfred Basch, born September 27th, 1915, in Magdeburg, was henceforth stateless. With the publication of his name in the Gazette of the German Reich, he was deprived of German citizenship. The basis for this was the “Law on the Revocation of Naturalizations and the Deprivation of German Citizenship.” It had been valid for five years. Yet in recent months the number of denaturalizations had clearly risen, often affecting persons and families, who after World War I thanks to the comparably liberal naturalization policy of the Weimar Republic, had become German citizens. On the basis of this law, in September 1938 alone, 116 families became stateless from one day to the next. And that wasn’t enough. The publication of their full names and places, as well as dates of birth, set them up as targets for discrimination, making it impossible for them to go on living a normal life, even if only temporarily.
On Rosh Hashanah, Arthur Kochmann had two wishes for the Association of Synagogues for Upper Silesia: that in the new year, every member’s wishes would be fulfilled, but also that Jews in Upper Silesia “would maintain their inner unity at all times” – two wishes which unfortunately had to come into conflict with each other many times in the fall of 1938. The number of emigrants from Gleiwitz had risen considerably over the past few months. Arthur Kochmann points at the dramatic consequences for many smaller synagogues in and in the vicinity of Gleiwitz: many would have to be closed and sold. For a long time, a provision for the protection of minorities from 1922 had protected many Jews in Gleiwitz from the anti-Semitic laws of the Nazis, but with its expiration in 1937, the reprieve came to an end.
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.
At first glance it may seem abstruse. A certificate of good conduct from the police confirms to an employee of an insurance company, Franz Resler of Vienna, that he has not made himself suspicious, especially “not by panhandling.” At second glance, however, it is exactly the emphasis on panhandling that points to all the existential crises in which many Austrian Jews increasingly found themselves in 1938. With the “Anschluss” the Nazis had massively increased the economic pressure on Jews living in Austria. “Aryanisation” of companies and occupational bans deprived numerous people of their livelihood. As a result, Franz Resler and his wife Anna planned their emigration to Argentina, where Franz Resler’s sister Fanny had been living since the 1920s.
Appointed date: uncertain. The American Consulate General at Breslau didn’t even tell Carl Proskauer and his family a date in the distant future on which they could once again apply for a U.S. visa. The quota was already full. The American quota determined how many persons per country of birth (not per country of citizenship!) were allowed to immigrate to the United States annually. In the year 1938, the number of visa applications from Germany rose rapidly. For individual cases such as that of Curt Proskauer and his family, this meant yet another round of excruciating waiting periods and exhausting paperwork, since many documents, which the Breslau dentist and historian of medicine had already submitted to the American Consulate General, would expire after a certain period. Whether Curt Proskauer could apply for a visa again by then? Uncertain!
The League of Nation’s report was alarming. Sir Neill Malcom, the High Commissioner for German Refugees in the League, estimated that 550,000 more people would soon be forced to leave the German Reich. Non-governmental refugee organizations were already completely overwhelmed. What to do? The conference of Evian just two months earlier had failed. Large host countries, such as the United States, had not adjusted their immigration quotas. On September 5th, the JTA reported on Sir Malcom’s proposals – which, in light of the international situation, were themselves inadequate: countries which had not so far given refugees permission to work were encouraged to more strongly cooperate with each other and at least allow people to earn a small sum for a new start in exile.
“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).
Hitler’s plans for Czechoslovakia could not have been clearer: on May 30th, 1938, he declared to the Wehrmacht (German army) that it was his “immutable resolve” to shatter the country “in the foreseeable future.” Already months before, he had incited the leader of the Sudeten German Party, which was partly bankrolled by Nazi Germany, to conjure up a confrontation by making unreasonable demands on behalf of the German minority in the country. Under the influence of events in Germany, anti-Semitism had increased. But, so far, it had only led to boycotts and physical violence in the border areas of Northern and Western Bohemia, which were predominantly inhabited by Germans. While this crisis was brewing in the background, the psychiatrist and writer Josef Weiner, his wife, Hanka, and their two young daughters were on vacation in the central Bohemian town of Nespeky. Hanka’s letter (in Czech) to her father, the renowned Prague lawyer Oskar Taussig, smacks of a perfectly idyllic holiday atmosphere and spares its reconvalescent recipient anything unpleasant.
Ellis Levy, a Jewish attorney who lived in New York, decided to take up the cause of the immigrants fleeing Nazi persecution. In a letter to Mayor LaGuardia, an excerpt of which was published in the August issue of Aufbau, he pointed out that many of the newcomers were arriving in the country penniless, often after having been forced to abandon their studies or professional training. At the time of Mr. Ellis’s intervention, a bill regarding the possibility of opening city colleges to non-citizens was about to be brought before the Board of Higher Education. The attorney asked Mayor LaGuardia to exercise his influence on the Board to bring about a positive decision. This, he argued, would serve both the needs of the immigrants and the interests of U.S. democracy. And, indeed, it was decided, effective September 1 of that year, to admit to city colleges persons with adequate prior education who were in the process of naturalization.
Until 1933, her Jewishness barely played a role in the life of Anneliese Riess, a thoroughly secular student of classical archeology. Once the Nazis came to power, however, it became clear to her that as a Jew in Germany, there was no future for her. She decided to emigrate to Italy, where she obtained a doctorate (Rome, 1936). With slim chances of finding work in her field in Italy, the young woman enrolled in a rigorous class for childcare assistants in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1937. After surgery in June 1938, she spent several months in Villars-sur-Ollon. In July, the Directorate General for Demographics and Race was established in Italy to formulate the nation’s racial policies. Thus, Rome ceased to be a possible place of refuge. In the same month, Riess’s father had arrived in the US and was making efforts to arrange for her immigration. This postcard, dated August 7th and addressed to Anneliese in Villars, was refreshingly free of any reference to the precarious developments in Europe and provided the welcome prospect of meeting up with a friend amidst all the uncertainty.
Jews were hardly the only “undesirables” the US Immigration Act of 1924 aimed to keep out of the country. When the law was introduced, efforts to exclude certain nationalities, especially Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants, had been going on for half a century. In the early 1920s, a quota system was introduced that favored immigrants from Northern Europe. The quotas were not adjusted to address the severe refugee crisis created by the persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany. Even for nationals of the favored countries of origin, just doing all the paperwork to get on the waiting list for an American visa was a major headache, and the waiting could be demoralizing. As documented by this ticket issued to Helina Mayer in Mainz by the US Consulate General in Stuttgart, applicants could expect to be summoned for examination according to their number in line, provided they had submitted “satisfactory proof” that their livelihood in the US was secured.
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.
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.
Wilhelm Hesse was a loving and profoundly involved father. Since the births of his daughters, Helen (1933) and Eva (1936), he had meticulously documented the girls’ development in diaries which he kept for them. In addition to little texts and poems he composed, he included numerous photographs as well as material referring to Jewish holidays. Occasionally, the frequently humorous, sometimes even childlike tone is interrupted by material documenting the political situation, such as a call by Rabbi Leo Baeck for Jewish unity and solidarity in the name of the Reich Representation of German Jews. But Helen and her sister Eva were lucky enough to be too young to grasp what was looming around them. June 30 was Helen’s 5th birthday.
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.
On June 17, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that in the last four days, the Nazi authorities have re-intensified their raids on cafés in Berlin and elsewhere in the country, which between June 13 and 17 have led to the arrests of 2,000 Jews. During the Weimar Republic, there had been a thriving Kaffeehauskultur—artists and intellectuals practically saw certain cafes as their homes, where they would spend half of their days and nights discussing art, literature, and politics. Under the Nazis, this phenomenon quickly disappeared; they suspected subversive activities among these free thinkers. The public sphere was infested with informers. By the time of the Juni-Aktion, in the context of which these raids were carried out, the original clientele had largely disappeared. Ostensibly, the raids were targeting “anti-social elements.” In fact, however, they constituted the first mass-arrest of Jews. The Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Gobbels, had summarized the intention with the pithy words: “Our password is chicanery, not the law.”
Under the impact of the Nazi rise to power and increasing antisemitism in Europe, the great Yiddish writer and cultural activist Melekh Ravitch had had the foresight to raise the funds for a trip from his native Poland to Australia as soon as 1933 in order to scout the inhospitable Kimberley region as a possible place for Jewish settlement. His optimistic conclusion was that the challenges of the Outback could be tackled with “mer vaser, veyniker bir”—“more water, less beer.” By 1938, the territorialist Frayland Lige also began to look into the possibility. As per the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s report on June 15, the government was willing to consider individual cases of Jews wishing to immigrate but was not willing to support Jewish mass settlement in the country.