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 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.
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.
After the Anschluss, the problem of refugees from Germany and Austria became even more pressing. In order to address the issue, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had called for an international conference in Évian in July, 1938. The conference was anticipated with great hopes by the German-Jewish community but, due to the refusal of the international community to adjust immigration quotas to actual needs, the impact of Évian was extremely limited. Nevertheless, the Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Rheinland und Westfalen (Jewish Community Newsletter for Rhineland and Westphalia) tried to present some positive results by pointing out the readiness of several South American countries to absorb Jewish refugees. Regardless of the palpable attempt to remain hopeful, the underlying tone of this front page article in the July 23 issue is not one of excessive optimism.
As reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on this day in 1938, five days after the end of the Évian Conference (July 6-15), the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany published its first statement on the outcome of the convention in the Jüdische Rundschau, the paper of the Zionist movement. The organization voiced cautious optimism and opined that the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, which had been set up at the conference with the goal of facilitating permanent resettlement, would have a positive effect on emigration.
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.
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.
While antisemitism was by no means a new phenomenon in Yugoslavia—as a matter of fact, especially since World War I, the entire political spectrum found reasons to attack Jews—under the impact of events in Germany, the situation deteriorated in the 1930s. Fritz Schwed from Nuremberg was under no illusions regarding his and his family’s temporary refuge. In this lengthy letter to his old friend from Nuremberg days, Fritz Dittmann, who had fled to New York, Schwed describes the dismal situation of emigrants in Yugoslavia, who are routinely expelled with just 24 hours’ notice. Even older people who have resided in the country for decades are not exempt from this cruel policy. Emigrants are forbidden to work, and when they are caught flouting the prohibition, they have to be prepared for immediate expulsion. Concluding that “There no longer is room for German Jews in Yugoslavia, and it seems to me, nowhere else in Europe, either,” Schwed explores possibilities to immigrate to Australia or South America.
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.”
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.
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.
In 1933, the distinguished philosopher of religion Martin Buber decided to relinquish his honorary professorship at Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main in protest against the Nazi rise to power. Consequently, the regime forbade him to give public lectures. In the years to follow, Buber founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education and countered the Nazis’ efforts to marginalize and destroy German Jewry by strengthening Jewish identity through education. It was not until May 1938 that he followed a call to the Hebrew University to assume the new chair for Social Philosophy and moved to Jerusalem with his wife Paula, a writer. The couple settled down in the Talbiyeh neighborhood in the Western part of the city, which at the time was inhabited by both Jews and Arabs. It borders on Rehavia, then a major stronghold of immigrants from Germany. Buber was among those envisioning peaceful coexistence in a bi-national state.
After three decades of making his fellow Austrians laugh, cabaret artist Fritz Grünbaum’s career was brought to an abrupt end by the Anschluss. His politics alone would have sufficed to make him intolerable for the new regime: Grünbaum had returned from action in World War I not only a decorated soldier but also an avowed pacifist. As for Nazism, he did not mince words. Since 1933, he had been getting more political, and when during a 1938 performance a power outage caused the stage lights to go out, he commented glibly, “I see nothing, absolutely nothing. I must have accidentally gotten myself into National Socialist culture.” His last performance at the famous cabaret “Simpl” in Vienna just two days before the Anschluss was followed by an artistic ban on Jews. Grünbaum and his wife Lilly, a niece of Theodor Herzl, tried to flee to Czechoslovakia but were turned back at the border. On May 24, he was interned at the Dachau concentration camp. Grünbaum was also known as a serious art collector, mostly of modernist Austrian works, and a librettist.
The writer of this letter was a young man from Hildesheim, Fritz Schürmann (later Frank Shurman), born in 1915. Even though he is said to have struggled with antisemitism well before the Nazis rose to power, he joined the Deutscher Vortrupp (“German Vanguard”) in 1934, a group of young, extremely nationalistic Jews whose slogan was “Ready for Germany” and who hailed National Socialism as a force preventing Germany’s downfall. Given these views, it must have been especially painful for him to confront the bitter reality of rejection by German society. In this letter, he thanks a Mr. Dilthey in Berlin for the distinction of having spent time with him and dramatically informs him of his Jewish identity. “I am a Jew! A Jew in a desperate position: a Jewish German who in spite of everything that has befallen him or perhaps because of it cannot shed his ties to Germany […].” Denied his identity as a German by the Nazi regime, the writer communicates the crippling effects of the political situation on his psyche and the absurd notion of having to leave Germany in order to be able to be German.
From its inception, the Horthy government had made no secret of its antisemitism. As a matter of fact, in 1920, Hungary was the first European country after World War I to introduce a numerus clausus to limit Jews’ access to higher education. First in reaction to territorial and demographic losses in WWI, later in the wake of the Great Depression, there was a striking proliferation of fascist and right wing extremist movements in Hungary, some calling themselves “national-socialist.” One such group was the rabidly antisemitic Arrow Cross Party, founded in 1935. In 1938 a bill was introduced to restrict the economic and cultural freedom of Jews in the country. This May 11 report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency describes Count Apponyi’s vehement critique of the bill in the Chamber of Deputies. Dr. Istvan Milotaj, deputy of a right-wing party, defended the bill, claiming that Jews could not be assimilated and that even figures such as Disraeli and Blum had “spiritually remained Jews.”
After Polish-born Shulamit Gutgeld’s return to Palestine from several years of study in Berlin with the greats of German theater, Erwin Piscator and Max Reinhardt, she changed her name to Bat Dori – “daughter of my generation” or “contemporary.” And that she certainly was in a very conscious way: her plays were highly political and attuned to the events of the day—so much so that the British mandatory authorities forbade the performance of her 1936 play, “The Trial,” which called for peace between Jews and Arabs and was critical of the British. The Berlin branch of the Jüdischer Kulturbund, however, decided to produce the play. The document shown here is an invitation to the May 8 performance at the Kulturbund-Theater on Kommandantenstraße under the direction of Fritz Wisten.
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.
After studies at the Academy of Art in Vienna, the printmaker Michel Fingesten had traveled extensively and ultimately settled in Germany. Neither the Austrian national’s Jewish descent nor his penchant for the erotic endeared him to the Nazis. The increasingly unbearable racial politics of the regime made him decide to stay in Italy after a family visit to Trieste in 1935. Fingesten is known mainly as an illustrator and as a prolific, imaginative designer of book plates. April 18, 1938 was his 54th birthday.
The entry of German troops into Austria on March 12 had preempted Chancellor Schuschnigg’s planned plebiscite on unification with Germany on March 13. The Nazis rescheduled the referendum for April 10 in conjunction with the first all-German Reichstag elections. Catholic bishops, under the leadership of Archbishop Theodor Innitzer, had issued a “solemn declaration” in which they called upon Catholic voters to cast their ballots in favor of the “Anschluss.” According to official figures, close to 100% of voters affirmed what was already an established fact. The document presented here is a voter ID to be used only by the addressee named on the front page. It explicitly excludes Jews from participating.
Usually the Jewish National Workers Alliance, as the Labor Zionist fraternal order was known, occupied itself with serious matters. Among other things, it strove to strengthen the working class and offered help in cases of economic hardship, illness, or death of its members. In 1911, it had established the first modern insurance system for Jewish workers. On April 9, 1938 it strayed from its core mission and held a Passover Ball in the German-Jewish stronghold of Washington Heights in New York. Among other items, the program featured “Cologne humorists.” German immigrants would have understood that this referred to Cologne carnival jesting, a tradition associated with the Catholic carnival season that dates back to the Middle Ages. The venue was the ballroom of the Paramount Mansion, which also housed several institutions that promoted the interests of German Jewish immigrants.
On April 4, 1938, Arthur Sweetser, a member of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, met with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the meeting, the two discussed the situation of German and Austrian Jews urgently seeking ways to emigrate. Roosevelt brought up the idea of an international conference. His reasoning was simple: only under determined US leadership could the problem be solved and other nations be convinced to take in Jewish refugees. It remains disputed whether the idea of a joint debate on the situation of the Jews under the Nazi regime came from Roosevelt himself or rather from high-ranking State Department officials.
In the wake of Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, the Polish parliament (“Sejm”), fearing the return of up to 20,000 Polish citizens from Austria, passed a bill according to which Poles who had lived abroad for more than five years were to lose their citizenship. The situation of the Jews had improved somewhat under the Piłsudski government (1926–1935), but after the marshal’s death, especially in the atmosphere created by the “Camp of National Unity” (from 1937 onward), antisemitism was resurgent. Universities applied quotas to Jewish students and introduced “ghetto benches” for them, Jews were held responsible for the Great Depression, Jewish business were boycotted and looted, and hundreds of Jews were physically harmed, some killed.
The entire front page of Bratislava’s German-language religious-Zionist “Allgemeine Jüdische Zeitung” is dedicated to the Anschluss. Jews are called upon to stand by their Austrian coreligionists. An anonymous source notes the impoverished state of many Jews in Austrian lands and the resulting need to restructure social services as well as address the increasingly urgent issues of occupational retraining and emigration. The reader is reminded that Austria is still a member of the League of Nations and that Austrian law stipulates equal rights for religious and national minorities. Among other sources quoted is the British Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Butler, who reports having received assurances that the German government would “endeavor to achieve a moderation” of its policy towards minorities. The paper also reports that the President of the World Jewish Congress, Rabbi Wise, has appealed to the League of Nations to help Austrian Jewry. The rest of the picture is bleak: newspapers suspended, prominent Jews arrested, a Jewish theater closed, Jewish physicians dismissed, and other chicanery. The paper calls upon Jews everywhere to come to the aid of their Austrian brethren.
In spite of numerous signals that Austria was changing its political course, the Anschluss on March 12 caught many Austrian Jewish citizens by surprise. One of them was 25-year-old law graduate Paul Steiner. As is often the case with witnesses of cataclysmic historical events, he did not understand the magnitude of the change until it was a fact. On the day of the Anschluss, he expressed feelings of disbelief in his diary. Within just a few hours of the historical change, Steiner’s love and commitment to Austria changed into a feeling of indifference and alienation. Not seeing any hope in the new Austrian political reality, he made the quick but rational decision to leave his native land as soon as possible.
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Adolph Markus lived in Linz, Austria with his wife and two children. One month before the “Anschluss” (the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938), he started keeping a diary which offers a gripping account of the growing tension. The situation was changing from day to day, and the Jews could only guess what would happen next. One day before the annexation, Markus wrote in his diary: “The streets are strangely calm. ‘Calm before the storm.’”
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The newspaper Die Stimme was considered the official mouthpiece of the National Zionist Committee in Austria. In its March 9 issue, it quotes a JTA report on the conference of the World Zionist Executive in London. Although tensions in Austria were running high, the conference had other pressing matters on its agenda, such as immigration to Palestine and changes in the British attitude towards it. Among the proposals discussed were lowering the price of the shekel in a number of Eastern European countries and establishing coordinating councils for Zionist activities.
The soccer team Hakoah Wien’s match against SV Straßenbahn Wien, the sports club of the Vienna tramway company, ended in a 2:2 tie on March 7, 1938. Hakoah was part of the famous Viennese Jewish sports club, Sportverein Hakoah Wien. The club had been established in 1909 as a result of the changing attitude towards the body and health in the liberal Jewish community. This membership card belonged to one of the club’s foremost coaches, the swim coach Zsigo Wertheimer. Wertheimer had coached Ruth Langer, who famously refused to join the Austrian Olympic team in 1936, when she was just 15 years old.
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.
At the end of February 1938, there still seemed to be at least a few rays of hope for Austrian Jewry. In a sermon at the Vienna Central Synagogue, Chief Rabbi Israel Taglicht expressed the confidence of Austrian Jewry in Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. A few days earlier, the Chancellor had asserted that Austria would hold fast to the principles of the Constitution of May 1934, which granted Jews equality before the law and religious freedom. About the same time, the pro-Nazi mayor of Graz had been dismissed for raising a swastika flag over City Hall. To prevent Nazi demonstrations, the University of Graz and the Technical College had been temporarily closed.
Already in 1936, the League of Nations had appointed Sir Neill Malcolm as “High Commissioner for German Refugees.” In light of the increasing stream of refugees from Nazi Germany, an inter-governmental conference was convened in February 1938 in Geneva under the aegis of the League of Nations. The orthodox paper Der Israelit reports on the first day of the gathering, which was attended by delegates from 14 states. Through the Nuremberg Laws, Jews had been downgraded from “citizens of the Reich” to mere “subjects.” As soon as they left Germany, they could be stripped off their citizenship entirely. Two members of the liaison committee, N. Bentwich from London and M. Seroussi from Paris, therefore demanded the extension of refugee status to stateless migrants as well.