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.
As the only member of her family, 18-year-old Ursula Meseritz left Germany in July and embarked from Le Havre to New York aboard the R.N.S. “Britannic.” Adolf Floersheim, a former neighbor and a resident of the U.S. since 1937, provided an affidavit for the young woman. Her parents, Olga and Fritz Meseritz, who had arranged for her emigration, remained in Hamburg. A travel agency, Plaut Travels, on Madison Avenue in New York, apparently run by German-Jewish immigrants, prepared the itinerary for Ursula’s next journey to the West Coast, with a leisurely detour to the capital, and sent it to her on August 8th.
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.
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.
On July 19, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that the United States Consulate General in Berlin stopped accepting new visa applications. According to the Consulate, about 2000 people have applied for visas per month. Due to the high demand, the Consulate prioritizes clearing the files of the applications on hand for the time being. The oftentimes hard-won affidavits and other documents of new applicants will not be accepted anymore, though new applicants will be put on a waitlist. In consequence, this means that Jews who are planning to leave Germany or the annexed Austria for the USA will have to wait until next year to get a chance at obtaining a visa. It can be assumed that the 60,000 to 70,000 applications by emigrants from Germany/Austria which are waiting to be processed will already significantly surpass the annual US quota of 27,370 visas for immigrants from the Deutsches Reich.
At a time when more and more German Jews became anxious to leave the country, this letter from a German-Jewish emigrant in Shanghai, addressed to the “gentlemen of the Hilfsverein [Aid Society of Jews in Germany]” and published in the “Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Berlin,” must have infused prospective emigrants with new hope: the writer exuberantly thanks the Hilfsverein for counseling him and gushes over the multitude of professional options available to immigrants at his new location, “provided, of course, that you have a skill and are able to work intensely.” According to him, musicians, physicians, and merchants are greatly in demand, and the situation is especially promising for secretaries and shorthand typists – on condition that they have perfect command of the English language, which could by no means be taken for granted among German Jews. The newcomers were not the only Jews in the country; a Sephardic community had been present in Shanghai since the middle of the 19th century, and settlement by Ashkenazi Jews had begun in the early 20th century and intensified in the wake of the Russian Revolution.
Nothing in this May 19 Jewish Telegraphic Agency report from its Jerusalem correspondent could provide German or Austrian Jews eager to leave for safer shores with the hope that life in Palestine would grant them peace and quiet. Between Arab attacks on Jewish workers or Jewish-built infrastructure and labor unrest among unemployed Jews, the only reassuring aspect of Palestine was its distance from the epicenter of Nazi activity. Since the beginning of the Great Revolt, Arabs, British, and Jews in Palestine had been embroiled in an often violent conflict—scarcely an attraction for weary Central-European Jews eager for peace.
For Arthur Wolf, a fervent Austrian patriot and veteran of WWI, the Nazi takeover of Austria in March meant the collapse of his world, the loss of his homeland and equal rights. Wolf was the manager of a textile factory in Tannwald (then Czechoslovakia). His Russian-born wife, Maria, had stayed behind in Austria with the couple’s son, Erich (b. 1923). Given recent events, the tone of Maria’s April 19 letter to Arthur is remarkably playful. She marvels about 15 year-old Erich’s poetry, speaks warmly about their mother-son relationship and expresses longing for Arthur, avoiding any obvious references to current events.
After more than one hundred successful years in business, the cotton weaving mill M.S. Landauer in Augsburg announces the sale of the company. Throughout the Nazi period, as part of the program of “Aryanization”, Jews were coerced into selling their property to non-Jews, usually significantly below market value. In some cases, owners preempted official orders by selling to a trusted business associate, which did not generally help them avoid major losses. Ironically, the founder of the F.C. Ploucquet company, which now owned the plant, had been of Huguenot extraction and thus himself belonged to a community that had experienced severe persecution.
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.
Not wishing to leave behind the family business and hoping that the Jews’ situation would improve over time, Alfred Rahn had initially been reluctant to consider emigration. However, in 1937 the family obtained US visas and sold the business to a non-Jew. Since they had not officially approved the sale, the Nazis accused Rahn of trying to hide funds. As a result, he had to serve a 14-month prison term. From prison, Rahn writes to his wife Lilli in a matter-of-fact way about his hope to be transferred to a different section of the prison, the work imposed on him, and the books he reads. He manages to create the impression that nothing much is amiss.
Markus Wolf (center in the photo above), one of the sons of the communist physician and writer Friedrich Wolf (right), was born in 1923 in Hechingen in the Swabian Alps. After the Nazi seizure of power the family initially emigrated to Switzerland, then to France, and in 1934 to the Soviet Union. The Wolf family resided at the Hotel Lux in Moscow where a large number of communist refugees from Germany had been given shelter. During the years of the Great Terror (1936–38), deeply suspicious of the foreigners, in whom it saw potential spies for the Reich, Stalin’s regime tortured and interrogated many of the German emigrants. Among the approximately 600,000 victims of the purge were 178 German communists, most of them residents of the Hotel Lux. The Wolf family survived.