In gloomy times like these, a letter promising a work opportunity in Canada constituted a much needed ray of hope. Although in possession of what Heinrich Heine famously referred to as “the admission ticket to European culture”—a certificate of baptism—Anton Felix Perl was dismissed on “racial” grounds from his position as a resident at the General Hospital in Vienna in 1938. Luckily for Dr. Perl, he had the support of a prominent advocate, the Archbishop of Winnipeg, who gave him valuable advice regarding emigration to Canada as well as promising practical help in this letter dated April 25, 1938.
This drawing shows the interior of the Prinzregentenstraße Synagogue in Berlin (Wilmersdorf). Built in 1930, the building was designed to fulfill the needs of a liberal congregation. As shown in the picture, the synagogue boasted a magnificent organ. Rabbi Leo Baeck gave the sermon at the opening ceremony. From 1933, when Jews began to be pushed out of Germany’s cultural life, the synagogue also became a Jewish cultural center.
On August 13th, 1869, the synagogue on Michelsberg in Wiesbaden had been officially opened in a festive ceremony. The building was meant to serve the increased spatial needs of the congregation but also testified to its increased wealth and civic self-assurance. In the presence of representatives of other faith communities, Rabbi Süskind had referred to the liberal house of worship as a “planting ground for patriotic virtues” which was to prove its unifying power not only within the circle of one’s own co-religionists, but “also in the wider circles of humanity.” After the pogrom that took place through the night of November 9th into 10th, 1938 (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”), all that was left of the magnificent building in Moorish-Byzantine style was the external wall. The interior was entirely gutted.
In 1938, Yom Kippur fell on October 5th, a Wednesday. The educational department of the “Reich Representation of Jews in Germany” had published a booklet this year which contained numerous suggestions as to how the holiday could be observed in schools. It reads like a didactic handout which could have been written exactly the same way in earlier or in later years. There is no reference to the difficult circumstances in which Jews and, not the least, Jewish schoolchildren found themselves in Germany in 1938. In the previous five years, the Nazis had gradually implemented “racial segregation” in public schools. Already by 1936, the ratio of Jewish students in public schools was nearly half of what it had been before.
During the night of September 30th going into October 1st, the synagogue of Mellrichstadt in Lower Franconia was completely devastated. In fact, the mob had it in for the congregants: Sudeten German refugees had incited the public to ambush worshippers on their way to the synagogue. However, the Jewish congregation had been warned with sufficient time and services canceled. Now the angry mob of Sudeten Germans and residents of Mellrichstadt stood before the door of the synagogue. Stones were thrown, the door was broken open and the interior destroyed. The mob did not spare the Torah scrolls and other ritual items. After that night, the synagogue could no longer be used.
It was more of a wistful farewell than a joyful Bar Mitzvah: Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky seemed to be fully conscious of the situation in which his congregants at the Prinzregentenstraße Synagogue in Berlin found themselves. In his address on the occasion of the Bar Mitzvah of 15 teenagers, he captured the mood of this day of celebration: everything clearly bears “the stamp ‘for the last time.’” Many families, whose sons celebrated their Bar Mitzvah on this day, sat on packed suitcases. One family was departing the very next day. The synagoge, in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf neighborhood, had been one of the only synagogues first built during the Weimar Republic. It had also quickly developed into a center of Jewish culture. Now, at the end of September 1938, it was clear to the rabbi that his congregation was facing major changes: “In a few years, much of what’s here today will be gone and perhaps also forgotten.”
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.
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.
After six years in Palestine, Alfred Hirsch’s verdict was unequivocal: given the country’s political, climatic and economic structure, even people of the highest intelligence and stamina could not achieve much. He did not mince words in trying to dissuade his nephew, Ulli, from coming. Living in the very secular Haifa, Alfred Hirsch was convinced that for a young, Orthodox Jew like Ulli, life in Palestine would be a big disappointment at that point in history. Between the atmosphere generated by the collective misery of a large number of uprooted, depressed people and the political unrest, which led to major economic problems, the timing just didn’t feel right to Uncle Alfred. (The political unrest mentioned is the 1936-39 Arab Revolt in reaction to the massive influx of European Jews and the prospect of the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, as stipulated by the Balfour Declaration in 1917.)
Based on his handwriting and style, it seems that Michael Seidemann was quite young when he wrote this postcard to his grandmother, Louise Seidemann, in Breslau. Interestingly, the address from which he sent it was identical to that of the synagogue of the town, Oldenburg. Even though the earliest records of Jewish presence in Oldenburg are from the 14th century, it was only in 1855 that the congregation opened its first synagogue built specifically for this purpose. As a result of Emancipation, Jews came to contribute to Oldenburg’s commerce by selling shoes, books, bicycles, and musical instruments, as cattle dealers and in agriculture, among other things. Their share of the population rarely exceeded 1%. Nevertheless, in the 1920s, antisemitic thugs began attacking Jewish businesses. In 1933, the town had 279 Jewish inhabitants, out of a total of 66,951. By the time Michael wrote this postcard, only two out of dozens of Jewish shops and businesses remained in the town.
Thanks to decades of scholarly work, notably his seminal works “The Religious Views of the Pharisees” (“Die Religionsanschauungen der Pharisäer,” 1904) and “Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History” (“Der Jüdische Gottesdienst in seiner Entwicklung,” 1913), Prof. Ismar Elbogen was well known internationally, when in 1938, he overcame years of hesitation and decided that the time had come to leave. His efforts as chairman of the education committee of the Reich Representation of German Jews had been severely hampered by the regime, and his last book published in Germany, “The History of Jews in Germany” (“Die Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland,” 1935) had been censored heavily by the propaganda ministry. In the 1920s, several institutions of higher learning in the US (he taught at Hebrew Union College and turned down an offer to teach at Columbia University) had offered him lectureships, so that he had significant contacts overseas when the time came to leave Germany. In today’s report, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency informs its readers of the noted scholar’s impending departure.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, Austrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion, were required to keep a Heimatschein, a document testifying to their belonging to a certain locality. In practice, this was of relevance mainly if the holder fell upon hard times: according to the law, it was the home community listed in the Heimatschein that had to support the person in case of poverty or joblessness. The document shown here was issued on July 25, 1938, well over four months since the Nazi takeover, showing that for the time being, at least in this context, the policy had not changed vis-à-vis the country’s Jews.
After the prohibition of Jewish settlement in Chemnitz in the Middle Ages, it was not until the late 1860s that Jews could legally settle in the Saxonian city. By the end of the 19th century, the community had grown so large that its synagogue on Neugasse 3 no longer sufficed, and in 1899, Rabbi Dr. Mühlfelder festively inaugurated a new building at Stephansplatz. A number of smaller prayer rooms accommodated the religious needs of the Eastern European Jews who had been coming to the city since the beginning of World War I and over time began to constitute more than half of the city’s Jewish population. On a Friday in what must have been the congregation’s most difficult year to date, a woman named Gerda gave this photograph of the Synagogue to the congregation’s Rabbi, Dr. Hugo Fuchs, with a note expressing her hope that it might brighten his Sabbath.
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.
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.
For many Jewish children, going to public school turned into hell under the Nazis. Just getting there could mean running a gauntlet of anti-Jewish slights. At school, exclusion by fellow students and teachers was the rule. In order to spare their children this ordeal, parents who could afford it sent their children to Jewish schools. Before 1933, most assimilated German Jews attended public schools. However, in the hostile climate of the Nazi regime attendance at Jewish schools grew. Dr. Elieser L. Ehrmann, a pedagogue and employee of the school department of the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany had developed curricula for teachers at Jewish schools which aimed to deepen the knowledge of Jewish holidays and the customs accompanying them and thus instill a positive Jewish identity. The excerpt shown here is from Ehrmann’s “Curriculum for the Omer and Shavuot [Feast of Weeks],” published in 1938 by the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany. That year, the first day of Shavuot fell on June 5.
In 1933, the distinguished philosopher of religion Martin Buber decided to relinquish his honorary professorship at Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main in protest against the Nazi rise to power. Consequently, the regime forbade him to give public lectures. In the years to follow, Buber founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education and countered the Nazis’ efforts to marginalize and destroy German Jewry by strengthening Jewish identity through education. It was not until May 1938 that he followed a call to the Hebrew University to assume the new chair for Social Philosophy and moved to Jerusalem with his wife Paula, a writer. The couple settled down in the Talbiyeh neighborhood in the Western part of the city, which at the time was inhabited by both Jews and Arabs. It borders on Rehavia, then a major stronghold of immigrants from Germany. Buber was among those envisioning peaceful coexistence in a bi-national state.
In April 1938, Rabbi Leo Baeck, the president of the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany and as such the main representative of German Jewry, had presciently written, “And this year will be a difficult year; the wheel is turning faster and faster. It will really test our nerves and our capacity for careful thought.” Baeck had been an army chaplain in World War I and as a patriot must have been extremely pained by the persecution of German Jewry. With large parts of the community reduced to poverty, Jewish rights curtailed, Jews pushed to the margins of society, and no prospects for improvement, Rabbi Baeck’s 65th birthday on May 23 probably was quite a somber affair.
It is hard to imagine that the guiding hand of an adult was not involved in writing the toast that Heinz Neumann made at his bar mitzvah celebration on May 21 in Berlin: the way in which the boy expresses his gratitude for having been granted a carefree life by his parents despite the difficult times scarcely comes across as the style of a 13 year-old. Heinz promises to “keep in mind the ethical commandments of Judaism” and wishes everyone health, contentment and happier times. Luckily, in order to brighten things up a bit, one of his grandmothers and an aunt had composed a song with light-hearted lyrics based on the melody of a familiar German oompah tune in honor of the bar mitzvah. It can be assumed that the festive meal, crowned by a “Fürst Pückler Icecream Cake,” also raised the celebrants’ spirits.
A few inconspicuous lines in today’s issue of the Jüdische Rundschau advertise a lecture in Berlin’s “Ohel Jizchak” Synagogue by “Miss Regina Jonas” on the topic “Religious problems of the Jewish Community today.” Regina Jonas had studied with much dedication at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin and fought hard to reach her goal of becoming a rabbi. Not wishing to rock the boat in these troubled times, even liberal rabbis who might have been positively inclined toward the ordination of women, such as Leo Baeck, were not willing to ordain her. Her final thesis was a halakhic treatise on the topic “May a Woman Hold Rabbinic Office?” It was Rabbi Max Dienemann who in 1935 made her the first female rabbi in history. Interestingly, in spite of the passionate opposition in some quarters and doubts regarding the validity of Regina Jonas’s ordination, she enjoyed the respect even of some orthodox rabbis, who henceforth addressed her as Fräulein Rabbiner or “colleague.” The Jüdische Rundschau apparently preferred to play it safe.
In 1935, under mounting pressure, the orthodox Hamburg physician Henri Hirsch left Germany and joined his brother Sigmund in Genoa, Italy. Shortly thereafter, he was joined by his second wife, Roberta, and by some of his young adult sons, and moved with them to Merano. In 1938, Henri Hirsch died. In this letter to his nephew Julius, Sigmund Hirsch tries to assuage the young man’s worries about an impending war, exhorting him to put his faith in God and promising help. Since he had been based in Italy for a while, many seem to have pinned their hopes on him: with palpable regret, he relates how little he can do for the “thousands” of people asking him for help.
Even though he professes to be in low spirits due to the serious situation and therefore hardly inclined to write and take photographs as regularly as before, Wilhelm Hesse, a lawyer in Hamburg, describes development of his daughter Helen in some detail in his diary. He reports on her capacity to think logically and a desire to learn so strong that the parents feel they have to make her slow down a bit. Hesse also writes with satisfaction about Helen’s progress in a Jewish kindergarten, but he does not fail to mention that she must learn to get along better with her little sister, Evchen. Since the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935—Helen was two years old at the time—Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend non-Jewish kindergartens, and Jewish kindergarten teachers were prohibited from taking care of non-Jewish children. The Hesse family was religiously observant and might have opted for a Jewish institution even under normal circumstances.
In 1938, the first day of Passover fell on April 16. As they did every year, the inhabitants of the Jewish Residential Home for Youth and Apprentices in Berlin gathered around a festively set dinner table for the second Seder. Under the dedicated management of Paul and Friedel Joseph, the home provided its charges with opportunities that went well beyond practical needs like housing and vocational training. They also strove to provide them with cultural and intellectual stimulation that would expand their horizons. The boys and young men, ranging in age from 14 to 21, had been removed from their homes due to behavioral problems. According to Friedel Joseph, life in the home was still going on “relatively unimpeded” at this point, but the political situation cannot have been lost on its inhabitants. The Passover message of liberation from bondage under a tyrannical ruler must have resonated very strongly at this year’s celebration.
The special dietary requirements for the Passover week constituted an additional financial burden for German Jews, many of whom were scrambling to make ends meet. The Jewish Winter Relief Organization distributed 50,000 matzot to needy Jews and served about 1,000 guests at two seders. Donors to the organization’s Passover Appeal received a copy of Rabbi Selig Bamberger’s translation of the Haggadah with a sticker on the inside of the cover thanking them for their contribution. This photograph of holiday paraphernalia is from an album belonging to Heinrich Stahl, the president of the Berlin Jewish Community, who launched the Jewish Winter Relief Organization with Rabbi Leo Baeck in 1935.
Usually the Jewish National Workers Alliance, as the Labor Zionist fraternal order was known, occupied itself with serious matters. Among other things, it strove to strengthen the working class and offered help in cases of economic hardship, illness, or death of its members. In 1911, it had established the first modern insurance system for Jewish workers. On April 9, 1938 it strayed from its core mission and held a Passover Ball in the German-Jewish stronghold of Washington Heights in New York. Among other items, the program featured “Cologne humorists.” German immigrants would have understood that this referred to Cologne carnival jesting, a tradition associated with the Catholic carnival season that dates back to the Middle Ages. The venue was the ballroom of the Paramount Mansion, which also housed several institutions that promoted the interests of German Jewish immigrants.
Was Hans Petzold, a 36 year-old native of Berlin, hoping to save himself by ending his affiliation with Judaism? Under a regime obsessed with racial purity, such measures made little difference. According to the “resignation card file” of the Berlin Jewish Community, Petzold filed to leave the Jewish religion (Judentum) on April 7, 1938. Curiously, an additional note indicates that he left the Jewish community the following month, on May 30. These files now held by the Centrum Judaicum Foundation at the Neue Synagogue in Berlin record the departures some 20,000 Berlin Jews from the faith or the community for many reasons going back to the 19th century. Some converted, some joined the orthodox secession community Adass Jisroel, and others simply moved away. After 1933, some may have hoped to escape persecution by the Nazi authorities.
Wilhelm Hesse was the son of an orthodox business man. He resided in Hamburg with his wife Ruth and his two little daughters, Helen and Eva, whose early years he recorded in diaries that he kept for the children. The entries are interspersed with references to Jewish holidays and photographs of the children. In this entry, he documents proudly and in detail the progress of his daughter Helen, who is not yet five years old at this time. A lawyer with a doctorate, Hesse had been laid off already in April 1933.
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.
In response to numerous requests, the Prussian State Association of Jewish Congregations, a voluntary association founded in 1921, decided to provide gifts to girls in parallel with the religious books given to boys upon becoming B’nai Mitzvah. While the books given to boys were aimed at deepening Jewish knowledge, the book offered to girls, Jewish Mothers by Egon Jacobsohn and Leo Hirsch, offered biographical sketches of the mothers of Jewish luminaries including Theodor Herzl, Walter Rathenau, and Heinrich Heine. As early as the the 19th century, reform-oriented synagogues in Germany began offering a collective “confirmation” for boys and girls. In some places, an individual ceremony for girls was customary, but there was no such thing as the modern bat mitzvah ceremony in 1938.
This dark blue parochet (curtain for covering the Torah Ark in a synagogue) is part of the collection of the Israelitisches Blindeninstitut (Jewish Institute for the Blind) in Vienna. The institution was established in 1871 with the purpose of educating blind Jewish students. Professions taught ranged from manual occupations to translating and interpreting. Due to its excellent reputation, the school attracted students not only from Austria, but also from most other European countries. March 4 was one of its last days of undisturbed activity.
The philosopher of religion Martin Buber was born on February 8, 1878, in Vienna. Best known for his 1923 work I and Thou, he also, in collaboration with Franz Rosenzweig, created a new translation of the Hebrew Bible into German. Buber was so popular with German-Jewish youth that the term “Bubertät” (“Buberty”) was coined to describe the phenomenon. Buber was among the proponents of a bi-national state in Palestine and in 1925, together with Gershom Scholem, Robert Weltsch, Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Simon and others, he founded “Brit Shalom,” an organisation that promoted Arab-Jewish coexistence on the basis of justice and equality. On February 8, he celebrated his 50th birthday.