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.
Until 1938, about 60,000 Jews lived in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna, a fact that earned it the moniker “Isle of Matzos.” Between the end of World War I and the rise of “Austrofascism” in 1934, the Social-Democratic municipal government began to create public housing. By the time of the Anschluss in March 1938, there was a massive housing shortage in the city. The Nazis began to evict Jewish tenants from public housing. In light of the tendency of the police to ignore encroachment on Jewish property, it was easy for antisemitic private landlords to follow this example. Being a Jew was enough of a reason for eviction. When house owner Ludwig Munz filled in the eviction order form for his tenants Georg and Hermine Topra, he came up with as many as three reasons: his own purported need for the place, back rent, and consideration for the neighbors, who could not be expected to put up with having to live side-by-side with Jews.
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.
Barely one month after the collapse of the Weimar Republic, a “democracy without a user’s manual,” as he called it in “The German Masked Ball,” and one day after the Reichstag fire, the writer and Social Democrat Alfred Döblin left Germany. After a brief interlude in Switzerland, he moved to Paris with his wife and three sons in September 1933. Occasional publications with the German-language “publisher-in-exile” (Exilverlag) Querido (Amsterdam) yielded minimal income, and Döblin’s lack of French language skills were a major stumbling block to his gaining a foothold professionally. From 1936 on, the Döblins were French citizens. The 10th of August was the author’s 60th birthday.
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.
Hugo Jellinek was a man of many talents. The outbreak of WWI forced him to quit medical school in Vienna. As a soldier, he was severely wounded in Samarkand and fell in love with his nurse, who later became the mother of his three daughters. The couple settled down in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. His young wife having died in 1926, he fled the Soviet Union in 1930 and ultimately returned to Vienna, where he utilized his knowledge of 8 languages as a translator and also worked as a freelance journalist. Thanks to a warning about impending arrest by the Nazis, he was able to escape to Brünn (Czechoslovakia) in June 1938. His eldest daughter, eighteen year-old Gisella Nadja, departed for Palestine the same day. In this colorful letter, Hugo shows fatherly concern for Nadja’s well-being, but also talks at length about the hardship he himself has faced as a refugee and reports that his cousin’s son is interned at the Dachau Concentration Camp. He mentions with gratification what he calls the “League,” probably referring to the aid center of the “League for Human Rights,” which was looking after the refugees, defying Hitler’s sinister goals. Ultimately, however, the most important thing for him was the fight for a country of one’s own.
In May 1938, Betty Blum had contacted her nephew Stanley Frankfurt in New York. Her son Bruno had lost his position in Vienna, and it was unlikely that he would find other employment. She did not elaborate on the situation of Austria’s Jews in general since the country’s annexation by Nazi Germany but wondered whether Stanley could do something for Bruno. When Bruno received Stanley’s July 16 letter, he must have been both relieved and taken aback. While assuring him that he had been active on his behalf doing the paperwork necessary to prepare for his immigration to the US, his cousin in New York also saw fit to point out to him that if his intention was coming to America for the purpose of “living a life of ease,” he was on the wrong track. Was Stanley really so uninformed about the plight of Austrian Jewry under the new authorities? It can be assumed that his sincere efforts on his Austrian cousin’s behalf made up for the bafflement that must have been caused by his inappropriate insinuation.
Lilly Popper (later Lilian Singer) was born in 1898 into a German-speaking family in Brünn (Brno). After graduation from the Gymnasium (high school), she began medical school in Vienna, later transferring to Berlin. There, in 1923, she got her driver’s license, which was just beginning to become socially acceptable for women. After a longer interruption, during which she worked for her father’s business and for a company in Amsterdam, she went back to school and in 1933 graduated from the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, which had been accepting women as guest auditors since 1892 (and as full-time students since 1908), an opportunity initially seized by a disproportionately large number of Jewish women. With the “Law against the Overcrowding of German Universities” of April 1933, the Nazis limited the access of both Jews and women to higher education, but these regulations did not apply to foreigners. After graduation, Lilian returned to Czechoslovakia. In 1938, she was a resident in surgery at a teaching hospital in Prague. The suitcase shown in the photograph accompanied her on her many journeys.
The first major rupture in artist Gustav Wolf’s biography had occurred during World War I. He had volunteered for frontline duty and was badly injured. His brother Willy was killed in combat. The works in which he processed his wartime experiences leave no doubt about his feelings. Instead of glorifying war, he shows its horrors. His confrontation with antisemitism during and after the war led him to an increased awareness of his own Jewishness. In 1920 he accepted a professorship at the Baden Art School in Karlsruhe, trying to realize his ideal of an equitable partnership between teacher and student. After a year, he quit this “dead activity,” referring to the school as “an academy of schemers.” In 1929, he designed the set for Fritz Lang’s silent film “Woman in the Moon,” an early science-fiction movie. Upon the Nazi rise to power in 1933, he canceled his memberships with all the artists’ associations to which he had belonged. In his letter to the Baden Secession, he explained his decision with the following words: “I must first get my bearings again. The foundations of my existence have been called into question and shaken.” After extended stays in Switzerland, Italy and Greece, he returned to Germany in 1937. In February 1938, he boarded a ship to New York. June 26, 1938 was his 49th birthday.
Erika Langstein was a young English teacher living in Vienna. In June 1938, having experienced the persecution of Jews in the Austrian capital for several months already, Erika sent a letter to Donald Biever, an American citizen, imploring him to help her and her Jewish father flee Austria by issuing an affidavit for them. Nothing would be unusual about this, except for the fact that the young woman had met Biever just once, briefly, on a train ride a year earlier, and had not communicated with him since. Despite the tenuous nature of their relationship, Erika describes to Biever the hopeless of the situation in Vienna. She also attaches a photo, in case Biever does not remember their encounter.
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 Claude G. 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 Claude Montefiore.
Since 1937, Lina and Siegmund Günzburger of Lörrach in southwest Germany and their son, Herbert, had been preparing their paperwork for emigration. The requirements amounted to nothing short of a nightmare. Prospective emigrants had to procure numerous personal documents, letters of recommendation, and affidavits. They were also required to prepare an inventory of all their belongings and to document that they had paid all their taxes. Apparently, the required documents also included this copy of the marriage certificate for Siegmund’s grandparents. Especially perfidious was the so-called “Reich Flight Tax.” Originally introduced in the waning days of the Weimar Republic to prevent capital flight in reaction to the government’s austerity policy, under the Nazis, it became a tool to cynically punish the Jews for leaving a country that was doing everything it could to make it unbearable for them to stay.
Ruth Wertheimer was born in Halberstadt (Saxony Anhalt) in 1915. Thanks to the revenue from a successful corset and lingerie shop with several branches, the family was living comfortably. However, in 1929, several years before the Nazis’ ascent to power, the family business had already suffered economic damage due to a libelous, antisemitically motivated claim against one of its proprietors, Ruth’s aunt Johanna. In 1932, while attending a business school in Berlin, where the family had moved in Ruth’s childhood, she was subjected to such intense antisemitism from teachers and classmates that she decided to quit before graduating. The passport displayed here was issued on May 16 in Paris and also lists Paris as Ruth’s place of residence. Her mother and stepfather had moved there in 1935. In Paris, Ruth resumed her studies.
While Sigmund Freud, the “father of psychoanalysis,” clearly did not underestimate the significance of the Anschluss—“Finis Austriae” was the succinct commentary he jotted down in his diary—even the search of his home and publishing house by the Nazis did not prompt him to explore emigration. As a matter of fact, he reportedly commented on the unsolicited visit of the Nazis, who had made off with a substantial amount of money, with the dry remark, “I have never taken so much for a single visit.” But when his daughter Anna, herself a renowned psychoanalyst, was interrogated by the Gestapo shortly thereafter, the usually restrained Freud’s reaction was highly emotional, and he began weighing the various offers of asylum he had received. May 6, 1938 was his last birthday in Vienna.
Marseille was one of the most important ports of departure for the refugees on their way overseas. It was here that Moses Wainstein obtained the papers he still needed for his emigration to Uruguay. This certificate of vaccination was written in Spanish for submission to the authorities there. The former Berliner had already had his belongings shipped to Marseille by a German company. Wainstein was 40 years of age at this point.
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 April 6 event at the Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural Association) in Hamburg was dedicated to dance. Elsa Caro, also known by her stage name, Juana Manorska, used challenging music not originally intended for dance as the inspiration for her performance. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the fixed, formulaic repertoire of movements in classical ballet seemed limiting and outdated to some. German dancers, among them Elsa Caro and the “half-Jewish” Gret Palucca, were at the forefront of those experimenting with new forms, a movement that gave birth to Ausdruckstanz, also known as “Expressionist Dance” or “modern dance.”
The passage in July 1933 of a law allowing the government to revoke the citizenship of those naturalized after the end of WWI had given Nazi officials a tool to deprive “undesirables” of their citizenship. The law targeted the Nazis’ political adversaries as well as Jews; 16,000 Eastern European Jews had gained German citizenship between the proclamation of the republic on November 9, 1918 and the Nazi rise to power in January 1933. Among those whose names appear on the expatriation list dated March 26, 1938 are Otto Wilhelm, his wife Katharina and the couple’s three children, residents of Worms and all five of them natives of Germany.
Having barely begun his career as a teacher at the Goethe-Gymnasium in Frankfurt/Main, Hans Epstein lost his job shortly after the Nazi rise to power in 1933. After a brief intermezzo as a teacher at the famous “Philanthropin” in Frankfurt/Main, a progressive Jewish school with the motto “For Enlightenment and Humanity”, he became a co-founder of the “Anlernwerkstatt”, which prepared Jewish youngsters for emigration to the US. The mathematician Otto Toeplitz, a passionate educator who had lost his position at the University of Bonn in 1935, was now teaching children and organizing the emigration of students to the United States. In this letter, Epstein asks Toeplitz for a letter of recommendation and for contacts in the United States that might be useful for his endeavors.
In 1933, the “Fatherland Front” had been established as the sole representative body of Austrian citizenry and as a replacement for parliamentary democracy. It had strong ties to the Catholic Church and was deeply antisemitic. Nevertheless, there were Jews among its ranks, and it saw itself as opposed to the (Protestant-dominated) Nazis. When Nazi groups, clearly emboldened by their recently improved status, took to the streets, proudly parading with swastikas, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on an antisemitic demonstration at the University of Vienna, an institution where anti-Jewish sentiment had been rampant for centuries. On the same day, the news agency informed its readership about counter demonstrations organized by the Vaterländische Front.
Despite the restrictive immigration policy of the British colonial power, twenty-year-old Paul Egon Cahn, a car mechanic from Cologne, managed to flee to Kenya with the help of this passport. Paul’s sisters, Erika and Inge, reached safety in England and Australia respectively. The siblings’ parents, Siegfried and Regina Cahn, remained behind in Germany. In many cases, refugees not only had to cope with the loss of their homes and property and the separation from their relatives but were also forced to take on the challenges posed by foreign climate zones and cultures.
In mid-February 1938, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, for years an attentive observer of the situation of German Jews, reports once again on the precarious position of Jews in Germany and the struggle of the Jewish Winter Relief to do justice to the acute needs of the community’s poorest. While the new, obligatory contribution addressed ongoing needs and made it easier to survive the winter, the numerous laws imposed by the Nazis since 1933 that banned Jews from various professions lead to an irreversible deterioration of their material situation.
Among the many kinds of physical activity offered to the readers of the Aufbau by the German-Jewish Club, such as ping-pong, skiing, swimming and even a Katerbummel (a morning stroll after a night of heavy drinking), there was also an invitation to go ice-skating in Tibbetts Brook Park in Yonkers, New York. A familiar activity among sympathetic fellow German-speakers at a venue featuring a Tudor revival bathhouse may have awakened memories of better days in Europe. Despite their traumatic experiences under Nazism and their forced departure, many German Jews continued to feel a profound cultural connection to the country they had called their home.