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.”
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.
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?
With a documented presence reaching back as far as the 12th century and as the second largest community after Berlin, Jews in Frankfurt were a profoundly established part of society. But under the Nazis, Frankfurt Jews, like all of German Jewry, were made to feel like unwelcome strangers in their own city and country, and large numbers of them were leaving Germany. The November issue of the “Jüdische Gemeindeblatt für Frankfurt” shows the omnipresence of the topic of emigration. Numerous ads were offering services and equipment specifically for emigrants. The “Aid Association of Jews in Germany” offered the latest news regarding immigration requirements to various countries but also a warning not to fall into the trap of fraudsters charging would-be emigrants hefty fees for useless advice. However, one contribution sticks out; in a letter from Houston, Texas, a former resident of Frankfurt shares her first impressions. The heat was challenging, potatoes didn’t feature prevalently enough on the menu, mosquito nets (“more mosquitoes than in Palestine”) and plastic flowers required some getting used to, not to mention giant spiders and flying cockroaches. On the other hand, there were built-in cupboards and large beds, as well as, best of all, the “almost unbelievable hospitality” of the locals.
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.
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.
Numerous Jewish organizations, such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, German Jewish Children’s Aid and the Boston Committee for Refugees were dedicated to the rescue of refugees from Nazi Germany. In 1938, it was a non-Jewish body, the American Friends Service Committee, that came up with a particularly good project: from mid-June to the beginning of September, it ran a camp in the Hudson Valley for about 70 persons, mostly Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and about one third Americans, for the two sides to get to know each other by working, studying and singing together, sharing household chores, attending lectures and religious services and playing sports or games with each other. The author of this article in the October issue of the Aufbau is full of gratitude for what he calls “a remarkable contribution to the internal integration of our people in the country.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of the American-Jewish self-help groups assisting Jews in leaving Europe and rebuilding their lives in the United States, the Boston Committee for Refugees was the first. Established in 1933, it consisted entirely of volunteers. Under the leadership of Walter H. Bieringer and Willy Nordwind, the Committee chiefly endeavored to obtain affidavits for would-be immigrants and see to it that they would find employment upon arrival in the U.S. Since the Great Depression, the State Department had orders to keep people “likely to become a public charge” out. It was of great importance to ensure the livelihood of the refugees. The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany and the colossal failure of the Évian Conference on Refugees reinforced the urgency of helping the desperate asylum seekers. On August 26th, 1938, the Committee’s Acting Executive Secretary sent Bieringer a list of recent arrivals in need of placement.
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.
In July 1938, 17-year-old Marianne Pollak traveled all by herself from Teplitz/Teplice (Czechoslovakia) to England. Not accustomed to the climate there, the young girl developed rheumatism and was in generally miserable condition. Every few days, her mother wrote her caring, supportive letters. While clearly vexed by Marianne’s unhappiness, Mrs. Pollak and her husband made sure to communicate to her the importance of her staying in England. Apparently, Marianne was in an individual hakhsharah program, meaning that she was acquiring skills preparing her for pioneer life in Palestine. In Eastern Europe, the Zionist Pioneer organization “HeChalutz” (“The Pioneer”) had been offering agricultural and other training courses for prospective settlers in pre-state Palestine since the late 19th century. A German branch was established in 1923, but the concept gained traction in western Europe only during the Great Depression and had its broadest reach during the years of persecution by the Nazis. Instead of being prepared collectively on farms, youngsters could also get their training individually, as seems to have been the case with Marianne.
The percentage of Jews among German physicians was so high that, initially, a comprehensive employment ban did not seem expedient to the Nazis. Instead, they issued the “Administrative Order regarding the Admission of Jewish Physicians” of April 22, 1933, which excluded “non-Aryan” doctors from working with the Statutory Health Insurance Funds unless they began their practice before WWI or could prove that they or their fathers had been frontline soldiers in the war. Starting in 1937, Jews could no longer obtain doctoral degrees. In an August 3, 1938 notice, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency draws attention to the fourth supplementary regulation added to the Reich Citizenship Law, passed days earlier, according to which, effective September 30, Jewish physicians were to lose their medical licences.
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.
Jews wishing to escape the chicanery and physical danger under the Nazis by emigrating had to procure a large number of documents to satisfy both the Nazi authorities and the authorities in the country of destination. In order to obtain permission to leave Germany, applicants had to prove that they did not owe any tax money to the Reich. In addition to the taxes levied on all citizens, prospective emigrants had to pay the co-called “Reich Flight Tax.” Originally introduced during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the original purpose of the tax was to prevent capital flight from further depleting the national coffers. Under the Nazis, its main purpose was to harass and expropriate Jews. The tax authorities under the Nazi regime certainly did a thorough job. When the Weichert family of Vienna, consisting of the lawyer Joachim Weichert, his wife Käthe, and the couple’s two children, Hans and Lilian, prepared to leave, a tax clearance certificate was issued even to the ten-year-old son. The document was valid for one month. Having all required documents ready and still valid by the time their quota number came up was an additional challenge faced by those wishing to emigrate.
In his article “Ten Commandments for Assiduous Language Learners,” published in the July issue of the Aufbau, Dr. Eugene I. Stern recommends making use of the entire arsenal available to the modern student of American English: radio, gramophone, newspapers, and novels. The meticulousness with which he describes what he considers the most promising methodology for language acquisition meets every stereotype associated with German Jews. Dr. Stern does not promise any shortcuts, and his assessment of the language learner’s prospects is not the most optimistic. He opens by declaring mastery of a foreign language to be an unattainable goal. Nevertheless, younger German-Jewish immigrants in America tended to acquire proficiency in English within a few years, while their counterparts in pre-state Palestine were notoriously slow and reluctant to pick up Hebrew. German Jews in America were assisted in their endeavors by various institutions, such as the National Refugee Service, the Adult Education Council, the YMCA, the YWCA, which offered free English classes to the newcomers.
When the Halutz (Pioneer) Movement first began to establish itself in Germany in the 1920s, it had a hard time gaining traction among the country’s mostly assimilated Jews, who saw themselves as “German citizens of Jewish faith.” The Movement, which aimed to prepare young Jews for life in Palestine by teaching the Hebrew language as well as agricultural and artisanal skills, got its first boost during the Great Depression (from 1929), which made emigration more attractive as an opportunity for economic improvement. But even more significant growth took place after the Nazis’ rise to power: so-called “Hachscharot” sprung up all over Germany, instilling young Jews with a meaningful Jewish identity and imparting valuable skills. The photo presented here shows graduates of the Jewish Professional School for Seamstresses on Heimhuderstraße.
In his “Remarks about the Feast of Weeks,” published in the June issue of the “Jewish Community Paper for the Rhenish Palatinate Region,” Rabbi Dr. Ernst Steckelmacher of Ludwigshafen poses a real challenge to his readers. He interprets the Book of Ruth, one of the readings during the Feast of Weeks, as an example of Judaism’s emphasis on the precedence of the universal over the particular. Through Ruth, who embodies universal humanity, the book shows that goodness can be found anywhere. This was not an intuitive message at a time when the ostracism of Jews from German society forced them to turn inward. June 6, 1938, was not only the second day of Shavuot, but also the 80th birthday of Sir Moses Montefiore, the President of the World Union of Progressive Judaism. Dr. Steckelmacher acknowledges this occasion and reinforces his universalist message by drawing attention to the similar sentiments of Sir Montefiore.
By May 1938, emigration seemed to be on the mind of every German and Austrian Jew. This article in the <i>Hannover Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt</i>, for example, exhorts prospective emigrants to lose no time and start studying English as soon as possible. According to the paper, at least two-thirds of German-Jewish emigrants were likely to settle down in English-speaking countries, and even those heading to Latin America would profit from a solid knowledge of English. On the other hand, proficiency in Spanish could be useful because of extensive trade relations between North and South America. The answer to the question “Spanish or English?” therefore was an emphatic “Both!”
From its inception, the Horthy government had made no secret of its antisemitism. As a matter of fact, in 1920, Hungary was the first European country after World War I to introduce a numerus clausus to limit Jews’ access to higher education. First in reaction to territorial and demographic losses in WWI, later in the wake of the Great Depression, there was a striking proliferation of fascist and right wing extremist movements in Hungary, some calling themselves “national-socialist.” One such group was the rabidly antisemitic Arrow Cross Party, founded in 1935. In 1938 a bill was introduced to restrict the economic and cultural freedom of Jews in the country. This May 11 report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency describes Count Apponyi’s vehement critique of the bill in the Chamber of Deputies. Dr. Istvan Milotaj, deputy of a right-wing party, defended the bill, claiming that Jews could not be assimilated and that even figures such as Disraeli and Blum had “spiritually remained Jews.”
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.
In the wake of Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, the Polish parliament (“Sejm”), fearing the return of up to 20,000 Polish citizens from Austria, passed a bill according to which Poles who had lived abroad for more than five years were to lose their citizenship. The situation of the Jews had improved somewhat under the Piłsudski government (1926–1935), but after the marshal’s death, especially in the atmosphere created by the “Camp of National Unity” (from 1937 onward), antisemitism was resurgent. Universities applied quotas to Jewish students and introduced “ghetto benches” for them, Jews were held responsible for the Great Depression, Jewish business were boycotted and looted, and hundreds of Jews were physically harmed, some killed.
The entire front page of Bratislava’s German-language religious-Zionist “Allgemeine Jüdische Zeitung” is dedicated to the Anschluss. Jews are called upon to stand by their Austrian coreligionists. An anonymous source notes the impoverished state of many Jews in Austrian lands and the resulting need to restructure social services as well as address the increasingly urgent issues of occupational retraining and emigration. The reader is reminded that Austria is still a member of the League of Nations and that Austrian law stipulates equal rights for religious and national minorities. Among other sources quoted is the British Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Butler, who reports having received assurances that the German government would “endeavor to achieve a moderation” of its policy towards minorities. The paper also reports that the President of the World Jewish Congress, Rabbi Wise, has appealed to the League of Nations to help Austrian Jewry. The rest of the picture is bleak: newspapers suspended, prominent Jews arrested, a Jewish theater closed, Jewish physicians dismissed, and other chicanery. The paper calls upon Jews everywhere to come to the aid of their Austrian brethren.
The newspaper Die Stimme was considered the official mouthpiece of the National Zionist Committee in Austria. In its March 9 issue, it quotes a JTA report on the conference of the World Zionist Executive in London. Although tensions in Austria were running high, the conference had other pressing matters on its agenda, such as immigration to Palestine and changes in the British attitude towards it. Among the proposals discussed were lowering the price of the shekel in a number of Eastern European countries and establishing coordinating councils for Zionist activities.
Few among the immigrant New York audience expected to attend a trilingual event of the Theodor Herzl Society had ever encountered native speakers of modern Hebrew: Hence, it is no wonder the Aufbau assumed that the Hebrew part would constitute the greatest attraction. The featured artist of the evening, actor Albert Klar (Sklarz), born and raised in Tel Aviv, had begun his career in Berlin under renowned directors such as Reinhardt and Piscator. He had made his way to New York thanks to an invitation from the great Yiddish actor and director, Morris Schwartz, who hired him for his Yiddish Art Theater. The venue was Ansche Chesed, a synagogue on the Upper West Side founded by German immigrants.
The orthodox Jüdische Presse quotes the state-run Austrian wire service Amtliche Nachrichtenstelle with a reassuring assessment of the situation of Jews in Italy: While there was an antisemitic movement “like everywhere else,” it was very moderate, and rather than targeting Italian Jewry, it opposed “World Jewry” due to the latter’s notoriously anti-fascist stance. Interestingly, the moderate nature of the antisemitic movement in Italy is seen as a result of the absence of a “Jewish movement” in the country. Indeed, Zionism had attracted very few followers in Italy, and between 1926 and 1938, only 151 Italian Jews had emigrated to Palestine.