As the influx of refugees from Nazi Germany intensified, what had begun in 1934 as the anniversary brochure of the German Jewish Club in New York quickly turned into a professional publication and a lifeline for the uprooted. With its offer of a wide range of cultural and athletic activities, the monthly was an emotional anchor for the newcomers, but it also offered practical help getting settled in the new country. This issue of the Aufbau from June 1938 features a large number of rental ads, mostly for fully furnished rooms, often in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Northern Manhattan, thereby giving some extra income to the owners or main tenants while providing affordable housing to refugees who usually arrived with very little money and property.
Section 17 of the Third Supplementary Decree on the Reich Citizenship law (Reichsbürgergesetz), issued on June 14, called for marking Jewish businesses at a date yet to be determined. The Nazis lost no time. According to this article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, days later, the word “Jew” and Nazi slogans were smeared on Jewish shop windows throughout Berlin in an organized fashion, with the same red, hard-to-remove oil paint used everywhere. There could be no doubt that the action was carried out with blessings from above. While no opposition from the non-Jewish population is recorded, the correspondent does point out that unlike in Vienna and in less affluent parts of Berlin, the crowd on Kurfürstendamm looked on quietly, without major enthusiasm. Tension among Jews was intensified by reports of plans to build labor camps where Jews apprehended in recent raids were to be put to work.
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.
Since discussing the possibility of emigration with his relatives in Vienna on April 20, Adolph Markus of Linz had taken up English lessons at the synagogue twice to three times a week. On April 29, his brother-in-law had been picked up by the Gestapo, and the Markuses’ tension and nervousness was beginning to rub off on the children. Two weeks later, Mrs. Markus was questioned by the Gestapo about the value of a house she owned and all her other property. Finally, on June 18, two Gestapo officers appeared at the family’s home: While going over the contents of some boxes, one of them tried to frame Adolph Markus by sneaking in a communist leaflet. Markus mustered the calm and self-assurance to point out to the officers that he had never been politically active in any way. His allusion to his frontline service in World War I, combined with the remark that if they were to arrest him, they would have to take along his two little boys, since their mother was in the hospital, made them change their mind. They left – threatening to return after six weeks if he wasn’t going to leave the country on his own accord.
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.”
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.
Under the impact of the Nazi rise to power and increasing antisemitism in Europe, the great Yiddish writer and cultural activist Melekh Ravitch had had the foresight to raise the funds for a trip from his native Poland to Australia as soon as 1933 in order to scout the inhospitable Kimberley region as a possible place for Jewish settlement. His optimistic conclusion was that the challenges of the Outback could be tackled with “mer vaser, veyniker bir”—“more water, less beer.” By 1938, the territorialist Frayland Lige also began to look into the possibility. As per the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s report on June 15, the government was willing to consider individual cases of Jews wishing to immigrate but was not willing to support Jewish mass settlement in the country.
Despite the patriotism often espoused by German Jews and their manifold contributions to society, the Reichsbürgergesetz (“Reich Citizen Law”) of 1935 officially assigned an inferior status to Jews, declaring them to be mere “nationals” and further segregating them from the rest of the population. Over time, supplementary decrees were issued that provided the exact Nazi definition of what made a person a Jew and forced Jewish public servants into retirement. On June 14, 1938, the third such supplementary decree stipulated that Jewish-owned businesses were to be marked as such.
The Jewish community of Eisenstadt in the Burgenland region of Austria had never been a large one, but as the oldest Jewish community in the area, it dated back to the 14th century and had a rich cultural life. The moment Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938, Jews were vulnerable. Under the deeply racist Gauleiter Tobias Portschy, the Burgenland was the first part of Austria to expel its Jewish population. In June 1938, Hilde Schlesinger Schiff was in Eisenstadt helping her parents get ready to relocate. In a birthday letter to her daughter Elisabeth, Hilde calls Elisabeth “a true Jewish child, not settled, always ready to be on the move,” in contrast with her own emotional connectedness to Eisenstadt, from which she is now forced to uproot herself. Mrs. Schlesinger Schiff writes that she hopes her parents will soon be allowed to immigrate to Czechoslovakia, but bureaucratic hurdles remain. Meanwhile, she is clearly taken aback by the eagerness of non-Jews to snatch up the family’s property at a low price, calling it “grave robbery.”
Leaving behind an increasingly antisemitic Germany, the Frank family of Frankfurt am Main fled to the Netherlands shortly after the Nazis rose to power. They settled on Merwedeplein in Amsterdam’s River Quarter, where more and more German-speaking immigrants were finding refuge. So large was the influx of Jews that some in the Dutch Jewish community were worried it would affect their standing in society and cause antisemitism. The Franks’ older daughter, Margot, went to school on Jekerstraat. Anne attended the Sixth Montessori School, a mere 5 minutes away from the family home. Fifteen of her classmates were Jewish. She loved telling and writing stories. Anne was curious, demanding, interested and very articulate. As her good friend Hanneli Goslar’s mother would say, “God knows everything, but Anne knows better.” In 1938, Anne’s father, Otto, applied for immigration visas to the United States. June 12 was her 9th birthday.
The family of Therese Wiedmann (née Toffler) in Vienna was secular and very well integrated. While the Tofflers were keenly aware of the situation in Germany, no one among Therese’s relatives foresaw that so many Austrians would be so quick to welcome Hitler and abandon Austrian independence. After the “Anschluss” in March 1938 she immediately lost her job with Tiller AG. Her grandfather, until recently the president of the company, was no longer permitted to enter his office. Her father, Emil, the executive manager, was kept around for the time being, in order to familiarize the new, “Aryan” management with the company’s operations. Luckily, he had transferred part of his assets to England before the “Anschluss.” In better days, the company was deemed sufficiently Austrian to be appointed a purveyor to the royal-imperial court, for which it produced army uniforms. This passport, issued to Therese Wiedmann on June 11, 1938, contains a visa that includes “all countries of the earth” and “return to the German Reich.”
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 1935, the Nazi party press had orchestrated a campaign to exclude Jews from public swimming pools, citing “unpleasant incidents” or warning the public of the “danger” allegedly posed by Jews. Suddenly, signs inscribed with texts like “Jews are not permitted access to this facility” were put up almost everywhere. Stölpchensee, one of the lakes just outside Berlin, was the last public bathing spot to which Berlin Jews had access. Fritz and Friedel F. were married and lived in Berlin, where Fritz owned a lamp store. In June of 1938, their weekend cottage at Stölpchensee was still a family escape from the city and harassment.
Hans Joseph Pinkus was a direct descendant of Samuel Fränkel, founder of a textile factory in Neustadt (Upper Silesia), which for a while was the primary employer in the entire region and one of the world’s foremost producers of linens. His grandfather, Max, had been a personal friend and patron of the Nobel Prize-winning author Gerhart Hauptmann. His great-uncle, the scientist Paul Ehrlich, had been a Nobel laureate, too. Lili, Hans Joseph’s stepmother, was hardly intimidated by this pedigree. In this letter, written on June 8, 1938, she gives him a major dressing down for having neglected his correspondence with his parents and sternly inquires whether he flunked his exam in the Czech language. At this point, 16 year-old “Pipo,” as the family called him, was staying with his step-grandmother in Brünn (Brno, Czechoslovakia) and attending school there. His parents and half-sisters lived in Neustadt: the directorship of the the S. Fränkel company had been handed down to male members of the Pinkus family for several generations and was now held by his father, Hans Hubert.
The Anschluss, Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany in March 1938, precipitated a wave of anti-Jewish violence. Emboldened by their new status and by the utter defenselessness of the Jewish population, Nazis and their sympathizers entered Jewish homes and seized whatever property they liked. Jewish-run businesses were ransacked or destroyed, and Jews of all ages were forced to carry out the demeaning task of scrubbing streets to remove political slogans under the eyes of jeering onlookers. With no protection to be expected from police, a feeling of utter abandonment and hopelessness drove many Jews to take their own lives. In the first two months after the Anschluss, 218 Jews escaped the state-sanctioned cruelty by taking their own lives. The JTA’s June 7 dispatch lists the most recent suicides—including that of a family of four—and deaths at the Dachau concentration camp.
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.
Close to 50 years before issuing an affidavit of support for his nephew, Karl Grosser, in Vienna, Frank W. Fenner had himself immigrated to the United States from Europe. A restaurant and confectionery owner in Mendon, Michigan, he pledged to support his young relative until the 26-year-old became financially independent. Finding a sponsor was a key prerequisite for obtaining an immigration visa that was often hard to fulfill. The visa process began by registering with the nearest US consulate, at which point a number on the waiting list was assigned. The length of the list depended on the number of Jews from a given country allowed to enter the US according to the quota system that had been in place since 1924. Despite the severe refugee crisis, quotas were not raised in 1938. During the waiting period, applicants had to procure all the required documents as well as certified copies. Prospective immigrants were lucky if their documents were still valid when their numbers came up.
Nobody saw fit to inform the worried wives of thousands of Jewish men arrested by the Nazis about their spouses’ whereabouts and the expected period of imprisonment. Many of them decided to go to the Rossauer Lände detention facility and the central police station in order to get information on the whereabouts of their loved ones. According to this June 3 report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the detainees had been taken away in overcrowded railroad cars, many of them forced to remain in uncomfortable positions for up to five hours before departure. While there were intimations that those sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany would be exploited as construction workers in order to enlarge the camp and subsequently be released, many had no idea where their husbands were. The author of the report sees the “extraordinary callousness with which police have withheld information” as “one of the most terrifying aspects of the situation.”
In 19th century, the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith began to publish lists of spas and hotels at which Jewish guests were not welcome. Some resorts even advertised themselves as judenfrei (“free of Jews”). After World War I, the phenomenon known as Bäder-Antisemitismus (“spa antisemitism”) increased, and with the Nazi rise to power in 1933, it became official policy. By 1935, Jews had been effectively banned from the Northern German bathing resorts, and from spas in the interior of the country by 1937. It was not until the Anschluss in March 1938 that Jews were pushed out of Austrian spas as well. Bad Ischl and other locations in the Salzkammergut region were particularly popular with Jews, to the point that in 1922, the Austrian-Jewish writer Hugo Bettauer quipped that “it caused a stir when people suspected of being Aryans showed up.” In a notice from June 2, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that at the behest of the Nazi commissioner in charge, Jews were to be “segregated in Jewish hotels and pensions” and were no longer permitted to attend cultural events in Bad Ischl.
Her paintings were political accusations and constituted a threat to the Nazi regime. Lea Grundig, born in 1903 as Lina Langer, was arrested with her husband, Hans, by the Dresden Gestapo on June 1, 1938, and not for the first time. The explanation given on the form was “Suspicion of subversive activity.” What was meant was her art. With picture cycles like “Under the Swastika” or “It’s the Jew’s Fault,” Grundig, who since 1933 had been barred from her profession, hauntingly documented the brutality of the persecution of Jews and communists by the Nazis. In 1935, she gave one of her paintings the portentous title, “The Gestapo in the house.”
Time and again, unsettling news about sectarian violence in Palestine reached Jewish readers in the diaspora. On May 25, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a prime source of information on the situation of the Jews under the Nazis and of developments in the Yishuv, reports under the headline “6 Deaths Added to Terror Toll in Palestine.” It writes about the latest victims in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tiberias—both Jews and Arabs—and the circumstances of their deaths.
After the so-called “Aryan Paragraph” of the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” of April 7, 1933 came into effect, members of certain professions were required to prove their “purely Aryan descent” in order to continue practicing their professions. The 38 year-old surgeon Dr. Walter Bernhard Kunze of Freiberg in Saxony was among those who had to fill in a form regarding his lineage for the “Aryan certificate.” The form, dated May 15, 1938, contains personal data reaching back to the generation of his grandparents. To the form, the corresponding documents from the civil registry office and the parish office had to be attached. Obtaining the numerous copies from the church and communal offices in the places of birth and residence of the grandparents often entailed a significant bureaucratic burden to the individual. The “Aryan certificate” was an effective tool of National Socialist racial policy by which persons seen as “non-Aryan” could be stigmatized and increasingly marginalized.
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.
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.
Thanks to a Rockefeller fellowship awarded to him in 1933, the distinguished Viennese economist Fritz Machlup had left Austria years before the “Anschluss.” In 1935, he was appointed Professor of Economics at the University of Buffalo. As was to be expected, after the Nazis established their hold in Austria, friends and colleagues pinned their hopes on him as a guarantor. In this April 5 missive to his friend Alfred Schütz, he expresses concern that his letters of support might lose credibility because he had written so many, but nevertheless includes a note in English offering to assist Schütz in establishing himself in the US.
In another dramatic report from Vienna, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency describes panicked Jews flocking to the US Consulate hoping in vain to receive some kind of support. Especially prominent Jewish citizens faced harassment and arrest by the secret police. Austrian Jewish leaders were forced to inform the police about their activities, while their German counterparts were unable to come to their support due to border restrictions. The situation of thousands of Jewish actors had become so desperate that even the Nazi representative of the Austrian Theater Guild acknowledged it and permitted a campaign in their support.
From March 12 to 14, Hitler visited Linz, which he had considered his home town since his adolescence there. In his address to the local populace he stylized himself as the enforcer of the people’s will and invoked the German soldiers’ “willingness to sacrifice” and the “greatness and glory” of the German people. While many reacted with enthusiasm, others were seized by fear. In his diary, Adolph Markus captures the anxious atmosphere at his workplace in Linz days after the “Anschluss.”
The handsome, blond, and athletic scion of a noble family in Lower Saxony, Gottfried von Cramm had all the features sought by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. Nevertheless, the two-time winner of the French Open tennis tournament (1934 and 1936) explicitly refused to be used as a poster boy for Nazi ideology and never joined the NSDAP. After repeatedly spurning opportunities to ingratiate himself with the regime, it was another issue that got him into trouble. On March 5, 1938, von Cramm was arrested under Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which prohibited homosexual conduct. He was alleged to have had a relationship with a Galician Jew, the actor Manasse Herbst. Reformers had nearly succeeded in overturning the statute during the Weimar republic, but the Nazis tightened it after their ascent to power.
By 1938, the Hirsch family from Hamburg had emigrated to Italy. In light of the volatile situation in Europe, members of the family began to look into options for emigration to the United States or South America. Julius Hirsch had met Elisabeth Schiff on a visit to Belgium in 1935 and fallen in love with her. The Schiff family had no plans to leave Europe, and when visas for El Salvador were procured for Julius and other members of his family, he must have been pained at the prospect of being so distant from his beloved. This letter from a friend in Hamburg reassures him that a temporary separation is not such a bad thing. Forced to remain in Italy because the US denied him the necessary transit visa, Julius ultimately reunited with Elisabeth in England.
Bertha Pappenheim (1859–1936), born and raised in Vienna, was a leading German-Jewish feminist. Better known as the patient Anna O. in Sigmund Freud’s “Studies on Hysteria,” she later moved to Frankfurt a.M., where she gradually shifted the emphasis of her activism from charitable work to women’s empowerment. In 1907, she established a home in Neu-Isenburg for young Jewish women in need of protection, a feat she considered her most important achievement. Under the Nazis, the home had to register all inhabitants with the police. In the letter displayed here, the secretary of the home asks Rabbi Dr. Merzbach at the District Rabbinate in Darmstadt to immediately send the papers of a resident of the home, Esther Kleinmann, who would otherwise face deportation.
In this short missive from Turin, written in a casual, sisterly tone to her sister Anneliese in Rome, Elsa Riess communicates her worries about their parents, who have remained in Berlin. Elsa is concerned about her father’s employment situation and declares her intention to find out about possible ways to help their parents, from whom she hasn’t heard for a while. Anneliese had come to Italy in 1933 to study archeology, earning her PhD in 1936. Because of her own uncertain material situation, she was not in a position to help her parents financially. Unemployable as a foreigner in Italy and hoping to increase her opportunities by adding a practical skill, she had decided to take a course as a baby and child nurse in Geneva in 1937.