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.
Sent to take stock after the November Pogroms in Germany, the American Joint Distribution Committee’s emissary to Germany, George Rooby, traveled to several cities to collect first-hand impressions. His findings were deeply disturbing: Berlin, Nuremberg, Fürth, Frankfurt-on-Main, no matter where he went, he saw synagogues burnt down, Jewish shops demolished and ransacked, Torah scrolls desecrated, and was met by terror-stricken Jews whose leadership had been forbidden to operate or taken to concentration camps. Non-Jews extending a helping hand exposed themselves to the danger of Nazi reprisals. The almost complete absence of small children and babies was explained to Rooby as a result of the fact that nativity among Jews had receded considerably since the Nazis’ accession to power. Leaders of Jewish communities had assured him that there was enough money to cover immediate welfare needs. Those organizations, however, whose goal was to advance emigration, were facing a serious lack of funds. Generally, hope prevailed that the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany would soon be allowed to operate again and play its part in accelerating emigration. Its success, of course, depended on the willingness of other countries to receive German Jews. Rooby’s conclusion was unambiguous: the only hope to escape the violence was emigration.
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.
Among the over 1,400 German synagogues destroyed on and around the pogrom night of November 9th to 10th (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”) was the Semper Synagogue in Dresden, named after its architect. While neo-Romanesque on the outside, the building featured an interior in Moorish Revival Style – a design imitated by numerous other architects of synagogues in Germany. When the building was burnt down by both the SA and SS, 98 years had passed since its festive opening in 1840, at which Rabbi Zacharias Frankel had consecrated it to the service of God “for all eternity” and extolled the “respect for religious freedom inspiring this people.”
Whoever had hoped that peace and quiet would return after the pogroms on and through the night of November 9th to 10th (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”) had been mistaken. In its November 17th dispatch, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency gives account of a new wave of arrests and violence. The initial round of violence had been orchestrated to look like a spontaneous outburst of popular rage after the assassination of an employee at the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, at the hand of a 17-year-old Jew. The pogrom was followed by a series of legislative measures eliminating Jews from commercial life in Germany and forcing them to “restore the streetscape” after the arson attacks on synagogues and the destruction of Jewish businesses. Apparently, the diplomat’s funeral in Düsseldorf was now serving as a subterfuge for renewed violence. The US consulate in Berlin was flooded by Jews seeking asylum for fear of additional assaults—in vain, as the article states.
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.
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.
In a year marred by numerous alarming anti-Jewish measures, the wedding of Frieda Ascher and Bernhard Rosenberg on October 23rd in Berlin must have provided a much needed reprieve for their families and friends. The officiant at the ceremony was Dr. Moritz Freier, an orthodox rabbi. Many young Jews, unable to find work as a result of the intensification of antisemitism in Germany, approached Rabbi Freier since his wife Recha had already come up with the idea of helping Jewish youth to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine and settle in Kibbutzim, a project known as “Youth Aliyah,” in January 1933.
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.”
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.”
Would the sisters Helen and Eva Hesse remember this year’s Rosh Hashanah someday? For their parents, Wilhelm and Ruth Hesse, the new year’s celebration of 1938 was a break with tradition. The family had made the decision to emigrate from Hamburg. Helen was five years old at this point in time. Her little sister Eva had just turned two. Their father kept a diary for both his daughters during this period. Over the entry for Rosh ha-Shana 5699 in large, typeprinted letters are the words: “We’re emigrating,” the theme of this year’s new year celebration. The rest of the entry Wilhelm wrote by hand. Until then, however, he wanted his daughters’ lives to be as carefree as possible. That it went very differently for their parents is clear at the end of the diary entry. There Wilhem Hesse wrote: “Later they’ll be amazed what their parents had to suffer in these times. We’re emigrating.”
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.)
This certificate, issued by the Rabbinate of the Vienna Israelite Community, was just one among a plethora of documents that Edmund Wachs had gathered in order to facilitate his emigration to the United States. Shortly after the Anschluss, Wachs was put in “protective custody,” a power handed to the Nazis by the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State,” also known as the “Reichstag Fire Decree.” The Reichstag Fire of February 27th, 1933, an act of arson involving the German Parliament building in Berlin, served as cause and justification for this law. It was passed on the following day and legalized the arbitrary arrest of anyone suspected of lack of loyalty towards the regime. The law did not stipulate the exact elements of the alleged offence and was widely used against Jews and political opponents.
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.
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.
Ostensibly for traffic-related reasons, the city of Munich informed the Jewish Religious Community on June 8 that it was to sell the magnificent, centrally located Main Synagogue and the lot on which it stood for a fraction of its actual value. On June 9, the demolition of the building, which for little more than 50 years had served as the spiritual and cultural center of the Jewish Community, began. According to this June 10 report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Chancellor Hitler had personally ordered the removal of the “eyesore.” Rabbi Baerwald, the spiritual leader of the community, received no more than a few hours advance warning in order to salvage the community’s most sacred objects. The recently acquired organ was passed on to a newly-built Catholic church. The loss of this building that had once been a symbol of pride, permanence, and belonging, was devastating to the Jewish Community of Munich.
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.