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.
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.
Article 1 of §15 of the Nazi Conscription Law (introduced on May 21, 1935) stipulated that “Aryan descent is a prerequisite for active military service.” In the 1936 amendment, the language was even clearer: “A Jew cannot perform active military service.” In order to get permission to leave the country, prospective male emigrants had to present a document to the local military authorities confirming their Jewish descent and thus proving that they were not simply seeking to shirk their duties by emigrating. On August 4, 1938, the registry of the Vienna Jewish Religious Community, based on the documentation available to them, attested to Bruno Blum’s Jewish ancestry on both sides as part of the paperwork he had to submit in order to get permission to emigrate.
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.
Ruth and Wilhelm Hesse, residents of Hamburg, had two little girls, Helen (b. 1933) and Eva (b. 1936). Wilhelm kept diaries for both girls. Between the May 3 and August 2 entries, there is a long gap (a very brief notice regarding Helen’s birthday on June 30 seems to have been added later). As Wilhelm writes, the seriousness of the times made it hard to write, so much so that 5-year-old Helen, who had been in a children’s home in Wohldorf-Duvenstedt since the middle of May, complained that she was not receiving any letters from her parents. While Wilhelm is generally pleased with his daughter’s development, he mentions that Helen and three of her little friends had taken a beating for picking 20 unripe peaches from a tree and biting into them. Perhaps the children’s blissful lack of awareness of what was brewing around them and their innocent transgression provided the young father with a minimal sense of normalcy.
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.
As a deaf-mute Jew, Ursula Meseritz was doubly inferior in the eyes of the Nazis. Since July 14, 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring had been in effect, which legalized the forced sterilization of the deaf, the blind, the cognitively disabled, epileptics, and others. Ursula had attended the only Jewish institution for the deaf-mute in Germany, the “Israelitische Taubstummenanstalt” in Berlin Weißensee. Under the Nazi regime, the use of sign language was forbidden in public schools, and in 1936, Jewish students were excluded from institutions catering to the needs of the deaf-mute. According to a “Questionnaire for Emigrants,” which she had submitted in April 1938, Ursula had been trained as a lab worker for clinical diagnostics and was hoping to work in this field in the United States. The captions on these photographs (dated July 17, 1938) show that in spite of the difficult times, the 19-year-old had not lost her sense of humor. They appear to show Ursula and her sister with their parents celebrating one last time before Ursula departed for the US.
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.”
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.
A WWI veteran, Alfred Schütz had studied law, sociology, and philosophy at the University of Vienna. Since the late 1920s, he had worked for the international banking house Reitler & Co. During the German invasion of Austria, he happened to be on a business trip to France. He opted to stay abroad, leaving behind his wife and child. A friend who had visited Vienna from London writes about his conversation with Schütz’s wife, Ilse. In his letter, he dissuades Alfred from returning to Austria due to the new regime’s attitude of suspicion towards the international banking industry. In light of the impending danger, a temporary separation from his family seemed like a better option to Schütz than coming back to Vienna.
The notoriously authoritarian Prussian education system had traditionally aimed for obedience and discipline, often breaking children’s wings early on. In the “Ahawah” (Hebr. for “love”) Children’s Home on Auguststraße in Berlin’s central borough, a different spirit reigned: children shared in decision-making through a “Children’s Council”, the goal being to transform them into citizens rather than subjects. Corporal punishment was forbidden and employees were encouraged to create the atmosphere of a home. Beate Berger, a nurse and head of the children’s home since 1922, took a group of children with her when she emigrated to Palestine in 1934 and returned to Germany many times in the ensuing years to rescue more children. The photos show costumed children at the Purim celebration of the children’s home.
Immediately after the Nazis seized power, on January 30, 1933, Berlin-based Recha Freier founded the Jüdische Jugendhilfe (“Committee for the Assistance of Jewish Youth”) soon to be known as Jugend-Alija (“Youth Aliyah”). The organization’s goal was to bring Jewish children past the age of elementary school to safety in Palestine. In the youth supplement of the Israelitisches Familienblatt of February 17, 1938, the children’s feelings are described as they depart for Palestine: Not only did they have to cope with the separation from their parents and families, but also with the uncertainty about their future.
An unidentified author congratulates the German mountain climber and physicist Hermann Hoerlin, based in Stuttgart, on his upcoming wedding with Käthe Schmid, who was considered a “Half-Jew” in Nazi parlance. The “Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor,” adopted in 1935, forbade marriages between Jews and non-Jews. Despite the law, the couple Hoerlin-Schmid obtained a special permit and the wedding could go ahead.