For a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat like the journalist, translator and writer Maurus (Moritz) Mezei, the changes that quickly took hold in Austria after the country’s unimpeded annexation by Nazi Germany must have been doubly troubling. During the period known as “Red Vienna,” the first-ever period of democratic rule in the city from 1918 to 1934, the Mezei family had moved to the “Karl-Marx-Hof,” a public housing project. Starting in 1938, “non-Aryan” families, including the Mezeis, were threatened with expulsion from the compound. Tenant protections initially remained in place for Jews, but they no longer applied to public housing. On June 10, Mezei had applied for immigration to Switzerland, but the reply, written on July 14, was negative. Only if he was to procure an immigration visa from a country overseas would Swiss immigration authorities reconsider his case and possibly grant temporary asylum.
Käthe Hoerlin and Regina Ullmann had at least three things in common: both had Jewish ancestors, both converted to Catholicism, and both had the trajectories of their lives impacted by the Nazi regime. Regina Ullmann, a poetess and writer, was expelled from the Association for the Protection of the Rights of German Authors (Schutzverband Deutscher Schriftsteller) and left Germany to return to her native St. Gallen, Switzerland. Käthe Hoerlin’s first husband, the music critic Willi Schmid, was executed by the regime in 1934 in a case of mistaken identity. Days after this tragedy, Käthe, who was the secretary of the ill-fated Nanga Parbat expedition, got news that nine of its participants had died trying to climb the famed Himalayan peak. In 1938, thanks to the help of a Nazi official who had assisted her with her compensation claims after Schmid’s death, she got permission to get married to the non-Jewish alpinist and physicist Hermann Hoerlin (marriages between “half-Jews,” as she was classified, and “persons of German blood” required special permits which were rarely given). Hoerlin was highly critical of the regime’s interference in scientific research. This letter, which exudes sincere empathy and interest in her friend’s well-being in her new surroundings as well as groundedness in her Catholic identity, was written by Regina Ullmann just after the Hoerlins had emigrated to the United States.
When 28-year-old Kurt Kleinmann of Vienna wrote to the Kleinmans in America, he could not have hoped for a kinder, more exuberant response than what he received from 25-year-old Helen. After finding the address of a Kleinman family in the US, Kurt had asked the total strangers in a letter dated May 25 to help him leave Austria by providing him with an affidavit. He had finished law school in Vienna and was now running his father’s wine business. Helen readily adopts the theory that the Kleinmanns and the Kleinmans might actually be related to one another, promising her “cousin” to procure an affidavit for him within the week. Affably and vivaciously, she assures him that the Kleinmans will correspond with him to make the time until departure feel shorter.
“The position under discussion has been filled,” was the terse answer Johanna Rosenthal, a former postal clerk, received to her application for a job as a telephone operator. After 14 years of service with the Deutsche Reichspost, she had been dismissed at the end of 1933. As she points out in her letter, her employment in public service as a Jew has been made impossible by the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.” The provisional pension of 68 Reichsmark that she had been granted was not enough to live on, so she sought new employment.
Jews wishing to escape the chicanery and physical danger under the Nazis by emigrating had to procure a large number of documents to satisfy both the Nazi authorities and the authorities in the country of destination. In order to obtain permission to leave Germany, applicants had to prove that they did not owe any tax money to the Reich. In addition to the taxes levied on all citizens, prospective emigrants had to pay the co-called “Reich Flight Tax.” Originally introduced during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the original purpose of the tax was to prevent capital flight from further depleting the national coffers. Under the Nazis, its main purpose was to harass and expropriate Jews. The tax authorities under the Nazi regime certainly did a thorough job. When the Weichert family of Vienna, consisting of the lawyer Joachim Weichert, his wife Käthe, and the couple’s two children, Hans and Lilian, prepared to leave, a tax clearance certificate was issued even to the ten-year-old son. The document was valid for one month. Having all required documents ready and still valid by the time their quota number came up was an additional challenge faced by those wishing to emigrate.
Mrs. Pollak in Teplitz (Teplice), Czechoslovakia, was vacillating between relief that her daughter was safely out-of-reach from the Nazis reach and worry about 17-year-old Marianne’s physical and emotional wellbeing. After changing her initial plans to go to Palestine on Youth Aliyah, the young girl was now in England all by herself. The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany had heightened fears of a similar fate in Czechoslovakia. Refugees were kept out of the country, and local Jews had double the reason to worry – both as Czechs, and as Jews. With news from Vienna and Palestine bleak and Czechoslovakia’s future uncertain, Mrs Pollak made a loving effort to reassure Marianne that things would get easier for her in the new country over time.
The Zionist Federation of Germany was in a tricky position. While it supported the emigration of Jews from Nazi Germany, it struggled with the consequences of constantly losing capable staff members, especially on the leadership level. Nevertheless, Benno Cohn, member of the Federation’s executive board, generously supported yet another departing colleague with a deeply appreciative letter of recommendation. Rudolf Friedmann had been associated with the Zionist Central Office since 1933 in various capacities, serving it with the utmost diligence and dedication. Cohn praises his organizational abilities and ideas and warmly recommends Friedmann to any Zionist or other Jewish organization.
Until its forcible closure, reported on by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on July 7, 1938, the Loew Sanatorium served as a private hospital for the well-heeled in Vienna. Prominent Jewish and non-Jewish patients came here for treatment and surgery. Among the institution’s many illustrious patients were the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the composer Gustav Mahler, the painter Gustav Klimt and the socialite and composer Anna Mahler-Werfel. The JTA notice specifically mentions the Jewish physicians who lost their livelihood due to the hospital’s closure. According to the criteria established by the Nazis, there were no less than 3,200 Jews or “mixed-blood descendents of Jews” among Vienna’s 4,900 physicians, whereas about one third of the physicians in the country as a whole were Jewish.
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.
In the 1920s, the Catskill Mountains began to develop into a resort area that enjoyed great popularity with Jewish immigrants often unwelcome in non-Jewish hotels. Therefore, by the 1930s, “Borscht Belt” began to catch on as a moniker for the region. After humble beginnings, with Eastern European Jewish farmers in the area renting out rooms to city dwellers in need of peace and quiet, over time, boarding houses turned into small hotels and some of the small hotels into big hotels. While Jews of Eastern European extraction constituted the majority of hosts and vacationers, the political events of the 1930s led to an increase in the number of German-speaking Jews wishing to trade the hustle and bustle of the city for the relaxed atmosphere of the Catskills. In the July issue of the Aufbau, the Park Plaza Hotel in Fleischmanns, New York (named after Ch.L. Fleischmann, a Hungarian Jew who in the 19th century invented America’s first commercially produced yeast) offered Independence Day weekend vacations with four meals a day and a special 4th of July dinner. It can be assumed that the prospect of celebrating their new country among fellow European Jews in an establishment “widely acknowledged for exquisite, copious American, Hungarian, and Viennese cuisine” was attractive to the grateful newcomers.
This letter from a father to his children is dominated almost entirely by concerns about transferring people and goods out of Germany. According to the writer, regulations were changing so rapidly that it was hard to keep track. Lately it had been decreed that both for articles to be shipped and for personal baggage, itemized lists had to be submitted which were subject to authorization. This could be rather time-consuming. The writer of the letter points out that the speed with which answers are given is not keeping up with the speed of the changes necessitating inquiries.
The German lawyer Paul Schrag was employed at the Institut d’Economie Européenne in Brussels. He was planning to embark on the journey to the United States from Le Havre on July 15 with his Jewish wife, Suzanne, and their infant child. In his letter of July 2 to Prof. Max Gutzwiller in Fribourg, Switzerland, Schrag asks for a letter of reference for use in the United States. Gutzwiller, a fierce critic of the Nazis and also married to a Jewish woman, had left his chair for German Private Law and Roman Law at the University of Heidelberg in 1936. Schrag obviously enjoyed the esteem of his employers. The management of the institute had agreed to reserve the position of director general for him until the end of the year and even entrusted him with a “research mission” in order to enable him to look into his professional prospects in America without major pressure.
In his article “Ten Commandments for Assiduous Language Learners,” published in the July issue of the Aufbau, Dr. Eugene I. Stern recommends making use of the entire arsenal available to the modern student of American English: radio, gramophone, newspapers, and novels. The meticulousness with which he describes what he considers the most promising methodology for language acquisition meets every stereotype associated with German Jews. Dr. Stern does not promise any shortcuts, and his assessment of the language learner’s prospects is not the most optimistic. He opens by declaring mastery of a foreign language to be an unattainable goal. Nevertheless, younger German-Jewish immigrants in America tended to acquire proficiency in English within a few years, while their counterparts in pre-state Palestine were notoriously slow and reluctant to pick up Hebrew. German Jews in America were assisted in their endeavors by various institutions, such as the National Refugee Service, the Adult Education Council, the YMCA, the YWCA, which offered free English classes to the newcomers.
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.
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.