Of the American-Jewish self-help groups assisting Jews in leaving Europe and rebuilding their lives in the United States, the Boston Committee for Refugees was the first. Established in 1933, it consisted entirely of volunteers. Under the leadership of Walter H. Bieringer and Willy Nordwind, the Committee chiefly endeavored to obtain affidavits for would-be immigrants and see to it that they would find employment upon arrival in the U.S. Since the Great Depression, the State Department had orders to keep people “likely to become a public charge” out. It was of great importance to ensure the livelihood of the refugees. The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany and the colossal failure of the Évian Conference on Refugees reinforced the urgency of helping the desperate asylum seekers. On August 26th, 1938, the Committee’s Acting Executive Secretary sent Bieringer a list of recent arrivals in need of placement.
Within the first few months after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, Dr. Joachim Weichert, a Czech-born lawyer, lost most of his clients. He had no choice but to compile the documents necessary for emigration. In June, the family was notified by the Consulate General of the United States that valid affidavits and other documents had arrived for them from America. Nevertheless, due to the fact that the Czech quota was exhausted for the time being, they were put on a waiting list and told they wouldn’t receive visas for the next eight months. By August 22nd, it had been almost two weeks since Dr. Weichert was ordered by the Devisenstelle (financial administrative office in charge of supervising monetary transactions and emigration) in Vienna to submit within one week an itemized list of his assets. In this official communication from August 22nd, he is given an ultimatum of three days, after which criminal measures will be taken.
Hugo Jellinek was proud of his daughter Gisella, who had become a glowing Zionist during Hakhsharah and just months before had immigrated to Palestine as part of a group of daring youngsters. For her 18th birthday, not only did he send his first-born daughter congratulations, he also shared his thoughts about current events with her. From his new vantage point in Brünn/Brno (Czechoslovakia), where he had fled from Vienna after a warning, German maneuvers alongside the Czechoslovakian border were worrying him. But he was convinced that, unlike in the case of Austria, the Wehrmacht would face fierce opposition. He felt very bitter about the suspicion of and lack of solidarity with needy Jewish refugees among wealthier members of the Jewish community in Brno. Moreover, he was greatly worried by the eviction notices Austrian Jews were receiving, among them his relatives. Among all the worry and complaint was a silver lining, an acquaintance with a woman.
Just a few doors down from the Palestine Office of the Jewish Agency, at No. 2 Meineke Street in Berlin, was the travel agency “Palestine & Orient Lloyd,” which closely cooperated with the Palestine Office in assisting thousands of Jews with emigration from Nazi Germany—and not only to Palestine. One of these emigrants was Dr. Rolf Katzenstein. On August 20th, 1938, the “Palestine & Orient Lloyd” issued this bill to him for passage to New York on August 27th aboard the Columbus from Bremen.
The negligible number of Jews (50 out of a total of 31,576 in 1933) in the town of Merseburg, in Saxony, did not dissuade local Nazis from terrorizing them. As early as 1934, Bernhard Taitza, a local merchant, reported on Jewish residents’ anguish at Nazis marching past their homes while singing anti-Semitic songs. The atmosphere became so unbearable that in 1938 he made his way out of Germany to Prague. Days later, on August 18th, he submitted this questionnaire to HICEM, founded in 1927 as a coalition of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish Colonization Association and Emigdirect, another Jewish migration organization. With two children already residing in America, Taitza was fortunate enough to have an affidavit and didn’t have to worry too much as to whether he would regain possession of the money confiscated from him by the Nazis.
Twice in the course of German history, Jews were forced to change their names: the first time through the introduction of (often stigmatizing) family names during the Emancipation, the second time through the introduction of compulsory first names: “Sara” for Jewish women and “Israel” for Jewish men (August 17, 1938). Thus, Jews were singled out and made to stand apart from the rest of society. If the given name appeared on an officially approved list of Jewish names issued by the Nazis, no additional name was required. The regime also saw to it that Jews who had changed their family names in order to blend in and avoid discrimination had to return to their previous names.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) of March 24, 1933, the newly installed government of Adolf Hitler left little doubt about how it viewed the rule of law. The act allowed the government to suspend the constitution whenever it saw fit, to formulate laws and decrees without the involvement of parliament, and even to create treaties between Germany and other countries without parliamentary consent or compliance with the constitution. The arbitrariness and randomness of the legal system this created were intensified by the frequent evocation of the Gesundes Volksempfinden (“healthy popular sentiment”), a term that implied that the people’s putatively uncorrupted, natural instincts should be the basis of Germany’s jurisprudence. One such case was the “Law on the Creation of Testaments and Contracts of Inheritance” (§48) of July 31. Invoking “the needs of the Volksgemeinschaft“—code for racially conceived German national community—the law invalidated contracts through which a deceased person’s property was bequeathed to a Jew.
In the eyes of the Nazis, the fact that both his parents had converted to Catholicism in the year of his birth, 1912, and that he was baptized as an infant, did not make Anton Felix Perl any less of a Jew. After attending a Catholic high school in Vienna, the Schottengymnasium, he went to medical school, from which he graduated in 1936. Two years into his residency at the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, he was dismissed on racial grounds. In this stressful situation, Dr. Perl contacted high-ranking Catholic clergymen in Canada. With the help of the archbishops of Winnipeg and Regina, his immigration was arranged, and after a seven-day voyage from Liverpool, he arrived in Canada and got his civil examination stamp from the immigration office in Quebec on July 29, 1938. Canada’s immigration policy was extremely restrictive, especially towards those persecuted for religious or “racial” reasons. For once, Dr. Perl’s baptism certificate proved useful.
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.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, Austrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion, were required to keep a Heimatschein, a document testifying to their belonging to a certain locality. In practice, this was of relevance mainly if the holder fell upon hard times: according to the law, it was the home community listed in the Heimatschein that had to support the person in case of poverty or joblessness. The document shown here was issued on July 25, 1938, well over four months since the Nazi takeover, showing that for the time being, at least in this context, the policy had not changed vis-à-vis the country’s Jews.
Ludwig Schönmann, born in Neu-Isenburg in Germany in 1865, had come to Austria early in life and was thus spared the first five years of the Hitler regime. But from the day the German army entered Austria to annex the neighboring country in March 1938, the 73-year-old witnessed all the same persecution that had befallen Jews in Germany – only at an accelerated pace. Jewish businesses were ransacked and their owners expropriated. Jews were publicly humiliated and expelled from the Burgenland region, where they had first settled in the 13th century. Jewish students and teachers were pushed out of the universities, and the infamous Nuremberg Laws were extended to Austria, leading to the removal of Jews from public service. The first page of a memorial album in honor of Ludwig Schönmann lists July 24 as the day of his death.
In this letter, Isidor Nassauer, based in Neuwied am Rhein, cooly describes his emigration plans to his friends, the Moser family, who are already in the US. Unsolicited, his brother-in-law has sent an affidavit, which due to a missing signature could not be used and had to be sent back. While waiting for the signed document, Mr. Nassauer is taking English lessons. Even though he has no idea how he will subsist in America, the fact that “so much bread has been baked for strangers” there gives him confidence. He is most concerned about selling the family house and seems certain that selling or liquidating the business (a brush factory) will be easy. In general, Jews were forced to sell their property far below its actual value.
Immediately after their rise to power in January 1933, the Nazis began to extend their control over every aspect of cultural life in Germany. As a popular medium capable of reaching large numbers of people—and one perceived as being dominated by Jews—film was of central importance to the new regime. Before the production of a new movie could begin, the script had to pass pre-censorship. The final product was scrutinized by the censorship authority for film (Film-Prüfstelle) of the Reich Propaganda Ministry. Under the Nazi regime, the state’s relationship with the film industry changed. While prior to 1933, authorities had primarily sought to censor or suppress material deemed harmful, the Nazi regime actively instrumentalized the film industry to promote National Socialist ideology. The anti-Semitic film “Juden ohne Maske” (“Jews unmasked”), whose authorization card from the censors is shown here, is such a case. It received the rating “valuable to national policy”, but it was also restricted to screenings for adult audiences in the context of NSDAP events.
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.
On July 18, the commissioner of Dillkreis county in Hessen instructed the mayors of the cities Herborn, Dillenburg, and Haigern as well as police officials of the county to conduct a statistical survey of the Jewish population in their communities every three months. An official of the city of Herborn received the memorandum ordering the count and made notes showing that 51 Jews lived in the city on June 30, 1938. Three Jews had left their homes in the prior quarter. These local censuses of the Jewish population complemented other surveys that tracked the movement of Jews on a national level. To monitor and control the Jews in the country, the National Socialists used a variety of administrative tools, such requiring Jews to declare their financial assets, carry identification papers at all times, or change their names.
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.
The “Aid Society of German Jews,” founded in Berlin in 1901, mainly supported Jewish immigrants to Germany. After the Nazis came into power, the association, now forced to call itself “Aid Society of Jews in Germany,” helped to facilitate Jewish emigration from Germany. In this context, it offered help with questions concerning government agencies, passport issues, or vocational retraining and also granted financial support. An important organ for its work was the periodical Jüdische Auswanderung (“Jewish Emigration”), which informed its readers about general living and work conditions but also about specific questions regarding Jewish culture in various countries. In the July 1938 issue, the US, Cuba, and the Philippines were introduced.
Wilhelm Hesse was a loving and profoundly involved father. Since the births of his daughters, Helen (1933) and Eva (1936), he had meticulously documented the girls’ development in diaries which he kept for them. In addition to little texts and poems he composed, he included numerous photographs as well as material referring to Jewish holidays. Occasionally, the frequently humorous, sometimes even childlike tone is interrupted by material documenting the political situation, such as a call by Rabbi Leo Baeck for Jewish unity and solidarity in the name of the Reich Representation of German Jews. But Helen and her sister Eva were lucky enough to be too young to grasp what was looming around them. June 30 was Helen’s 5th birthday.
The Gestapo warrant for protective custody dated June 29, 1939 confirmed the hitherto merely formal arrest of the Jewish and communist painter Lina (Lea) Grundig (also see June 1). After her conviction of high treason, she was held at the Dresden Court Jail.
In Anni Buff’s personal recipe book, dated June 25, 1938, traditional Bavarian dishes, like liver dumplings, Christmas stollen, and cottage cheese doughnuts, certainly outweighed traditional Jewish ones, such as matzo balls. The Jewish community in her native Krumbach was well integrated. Since its peak in the early 19th century, when it constituted about 46% of the population, its ranks had declined considerably, and by 1933, only 1,5% of Krumbachers were Jewish. In spite of this negligible presence of Jews, National Socialism with its rabidly antisemitic message took hold fast, and even before it became national policy, Jews in the little town were harassed by SA men. By 1938, the abuse had become so unbearable that Anni’s father Julius, who dealt in upholstery material, began to explore possibilities to find a new home on safer shores, such as the US, the Dominican Republic, or Shanghai. Not even the fact that he had lost a brother in WWI and had himself served in the 16. Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment—along with a young Austrian named Adolf Hitler—did anything to improve his standing with Nazi authorities.
After his first official attempt to immigrate had failed under adventurous circumstances, 20 year-old Heinz Ries of Berlin made another effort to get permission to live in the US permanently and legally. For months, he had struggled in the shadows as an undocumented immigrant in New York. After obtaining an affidavit of support, Ries traveled to Havana and visited the US consulate there on June 23, 1938. Finally, he was admitted legal entry into the United States. After the war he returned to Germany for some time, first in the employment of the Allies, then as a photo journalist for the New York Times. The photographs of the Berlin Blockade and the Airlift, taken during these years, made him world-famous under the name Henry Ries.
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 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.”
For many Jewish children, going to public school turned into hell under the Nazis. Just getting there could mean running a gauntlet of anti-Jewish slights. At school, exclusion by fellow students and teachers was the rule. In order to spare their children this ordeal, parents who could afford it sent their children to Jewish schools. Before 1933, most assimilated German Jews attended public schools. However, in the hostile climate of the Nazi regime attendance at Jewish schools grew. Dr. Elieser L. Ehrmann, a pedagogue and employee of the school department of the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany had developed curricula for teachers at Jewish schools which aimed to deepen the knowledge of Jewish holidays and the customs accompanying them and thus instill a positive Jewish identity. The excerpt shown here is from Ehrmann’s “Curriculum for the Omer and Shavuot [Feast of Weeks],” published in 1938 by the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany. That year, the first day of Shavuot fell on June 5.
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.