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.”
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.
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.
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 an ad in the Aufbau aimed at German immigrants, the Compass Travel Bureau in New York offered “expert advice in all matters related to immigration and the handling of all the formalities of traveling.” The reference to “formalities” elides the excruciating bureaucratic hurdles facing prospective emigrants. Jews desperate to leave Germany first had to obtain quota numbers and a plethora of documents from various German authorities and to contend with the slow postal service as they sought sponsors in America.
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.
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.
Months after leaving Germany, 12-year old Herbert Friedmann (later Freeman) was still in Zurich waiting to reunite with his family already in the USA. Because of the previous, apparently intentional, misdiagnosis at the US consulate in Stuttgart stating that the boy was a “carrier of tuberculosis,” he had not been able to immigrate with his mother and brother. Finally, on February 2, 1938 a local physician attested to the boy’s “significantly above average” state of health, ascribing the previous diagnosis to an error. Ironically, the physician who issued this critical medical certificate was Dr. Ernst Hanhart, a geneticist and eugenicist who during the Nazi period published extensively on “racial hygiene” and wrote articles in support of the forced sterilization of deaf-mutes.
Herbert Freeman was born Herbert Friedmann on December 13, 1925 in Frankfurt/Main, Germany. His father, Leo Friedmann, immigrated to the United States first. Herbert, his mother, and his brother applied for a US visa in Stuttgart. During the obligatory health check-up, the perfectly healthy Herbert was diagnosed as a “tuberculosis carrier” and was unable to join his mother and brother on their journey to the United States in 1936. After repeated unsuccessful attempts, in order to circumvent the Stuttgart US Consulate, 12-year-old Herbert was sent to Zurich (permission to file an application outside Germany was obtained in no small part thanks to the intervention of Albert Einstein). The letter was written during Herbert’s stay in Switzerland. He mentions his upcoming visit to the US Consulate and reapplying for the visa, and describes his days while separated from his relatives.