Leo Abraham, his wife Elsa and their kids Bertel and Hannelore should have been in Palestine for a long time and not still stuck in Altenkirchen in the Rhineland in 1938. Leo had begun to collect the forms and documents necessary for emigration soon after the Nazis came to power. However, due to a car accident, Leo suffered injuries to such an extent that emigration seemed impossible for a long time. The visa for Palestine expired. Now the Abraham family was making a second attempt. Leo Abraham’s cousin David Landau, a U.S. citizen, obtained an affidavit for the Abrahams in September 1938. As a lawyer with his own practice in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Landau had a good income at his disposal. This was an important requirement, since Landau himself had to assume responsibility for all financial necessities of the Abraham family.
Appointed date: uncertain. The American Consulate General at Breslau didn’t even tell Carl Proskauer and his family a date in the distant future on which they could once again apply for a U.S. visa. The quota was already full. The American quota determined how many persons per country of birth (not per country of citizenship!) were allowed to immigrate to the United States annually. In the year 1938, the number of visa applications from Germany rose rapidly. For individual cases such as that of Curt Proskauer and his family, this meant yet another round of excruciating waiting periods and exhausting paperwork, since many documents, which the Breslau dentist and historian of medicine had already submitted to the American Consulate General, would expire after a certain period. Whether Curt Proskauer could apply for a visa again by then? Uncertain!
Gisela Kleinermann (top row, right) had recently turned 10 years old. With her arm around her classmate, she looks, with a slight smile, into the camera. At this time, Gisela may already have known that she will not be part of this class of the Jewish school in Dresden any longer. In late summer 1938, her mother Erna prepared her family’s emigration to the United States. Step by step, in recent years the Nazis forced segregation in public schools. In many Jewish communities—as well as in Dresden—new Jewish schools were founded as a result.
It was under adventurous circumstances that Gisella Jellinek made her way to Palestine in June 1938. As part of a group of several hundred youths, she was smuggled into the area of the Mandate. The moment she came ashore in Palestine, she had to make use of the Hebrew language skills she had acquired at the Zionist agricultural training camp in Austria, in order to avoid being identified as an illegal immigrant by the British authorities. Roughly two months after her arrival, Gisella, who now called herself Nadja, turned 18. In this belated birthday note, her sister Berta wishes her “heroism, courage, and to be a good Haverah (kibbutz member).”
An illness during a journey forced Wilhelm Graetz to extend his stay in Switzerland. In light of the escalating situation in Germany, he decided to relinquish his home in Berlin. The formerly well-off couple was in no position to help out their four children financially but benefitted from widely spread contacts. Wilhelm Graetz had been a member of the board of the Berlin Jewish Community, and as the chairman of the German “ORT,” he knew potential helpers in many places. In August, a trip took him to Hungary. On the 27th, his wife Agnes made use of her time by asking the well-known territorialist and “ORT” leader, David Lvovich, to help one of her three daughters, who urgently needed an affidavit in order to be able to emigrate to America.
Even though expressions of anti-Semitism were common in Austrian vacation resorts decades before the annexation of Austria, a phenomenon that lead to the coining of the term “Summer Resort Anti-Semitism,” they remained popular with Austrian Jews. But when Liesl Teutsch’s uncle spent his vacation in Filzmoos in the Austrian province of Salzburg in August 1938, its spectacular vistas could not distract him from the unsettling circumstances. In this postcard to his niece in Vienna, he makes it very clear that it is not just the poor weather that prevented true rest and relaxation. He seems to be apprehensive of returning to Vienna, where an uncertain future awaits him.
Kurt Kleinmann of Vienna and Helen Kleinman in America had never met in person. After Kurt came up with the creative idea to contact a family with a similar name in New York, hoping that his American namesakes might be willing to help him procure an affidavit, an increasingly intense correspondence developed between the young man and the Kleinmans’ daughter. With determination, Helen took the matter into her hands. Three months after Kurt first contacted the Kleinmans, when Helen wrote this letter, not only was Kurt’s emigration underway, but Helen had also enlisted the help of an aunt to submit an affidavit for a cousin of his, with whom he had in the meantime managed to flee to Switzerland. What’s more she had enlisted yet another aunt to do the same for Kurt’s sister and brother-in-law, who were still stranded in Vienna.
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.
After six years in Palestine, Alfred Hirsch’s verdict was unequivocal: given the country’s political, climatic and economic structure, even people of the highest intelligence and stamina could not achieve much. He did not mince words in trying to dissuade his nephew, Ulli, from coming. Living in the very secular Haifa, Alfred Hirsch was convinced that for a young, Orthodox Jew like Ulli, life in Palestine would be a big disappointment at that point in history. Between the atmosphere generated by the collective misery of a large number of uprooted, depressed people and the political unrest, which led to major economic problems, the timing just didn’t feel right to Uncle Alfred. (The political unrest mentioned is the 1936-39 Arab Revolt in reaction to the massive influx of European Jews and the prospect of the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, as stipulated by the Balfour Declaration in 1917.)
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.
A classical anti-semitic trope of the 19th century was the notion that Jews are weak, unathletic and effeminate. In order to counter this stereotype, the Zionist physician, writer and politician Max Nordau created the antithetical concept of the “muscular Jew” at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel (1898). Drawing on paragons of Jewish fighting spirit like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, he called for the regeneration of the Jewish people through physical exercise. Barely two months later, the Jewish sports club Bar Kochba was founded in Berlin. More and more Jewish sports clubs came into being, many of which were affiliated with the Zionist movement. The Frankfurt/Main chapter of the Bar Kochba Club was established in 1904. One of its teams can be seen here posing for the camera.
Hitler’s plans for Czechoslovakia could not have been clearer: on May 30th, 1938, he declared to the Wehrmacht (German army) that it was his “immutable resolve” to shatter the country “in the foreseeable future.” Already months before, he had incited the leader of the Sudeten German Party, which was partly bankrolled by Nazi Germany, to conjure up a confrontation by making unreasonable demands on behalf of the German minority in the country. Under the influence of events in Germany, anti-Semitism had increased. But, so far, it had only led to boycotts and physical violence in the border areas of Northern and Western Bohemia, which were predominantly inhabited by Germans. While this crisis was brewing in the background, the psychiatrist and writer Josef Weiner, his wife, Hanka, and their two young daughters were on vacation in the central Bohemian town of Nespeky. Hanka’s letter (in Czech) to her father, the renowned Prague lawyer Oskar Taussig, smacks of a perfectly idyllic holiday atmosphere and spares its reconvalescent recipient anything unpleasant.
Gusty Bendheim, a Berliner, had never met the American branch of her family. As a 42-year-old divorcee, she had no other choice but to turn to her overseas relatives. She asked these quasi-strangers for help facilitating emigration for herself and her children, Ralph (13) and Margot (17). Gusty was an enterprising sort: by the time she got married to Arthur Bendheim, a businessman from Frankfurt/Main, around 1920, she had established three button stores. After the wedding, Arthur took over management and Gusty became a housewife. In spite of the increasingly alarming anti-Jewish measures taken by the Nazi government, Arthur was not willing to leave. After the couple’s divorce in 1937, Gusty took matters into her own hands. In this August 14th, 1938 letter to her unknown relatives, in addition to her request for help, she states that her former husband is ready to pay the costs of travel for her and their children to the United States.
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.
In July 1938, 17-year-old Marianne Pollak traveled all by herself from Teplitz/Teplice (Czechoslovakia) to England. Not accustomed to the climate there, the young girl developed rheumatism and was in generally miserable condition. Every few days, her mother wrote her caring, supportive letters. While clearly vexed by Marianne’s unhappiness, Mrs. Pollak and her husband made sure to communicate to her the importance of her staying in England. Apparently, Marianne was in an individual hakhsharah program, meaning that she was acquiring skills preparing her for pioneer life in Palestine. In Eastern Europe, the Zionist Pioneer organization “HeChalutz” (“The Pioneer”) had been offering agricultural and other training courses for prospective settlers in pre-state Palestine since the late 19th century. A German branch was established in 1923, but the concept gained traction in western Europe only during the Great Depression and had its broadest reach during the years of persecution by the Nazis. Instead of being prepared collectively on farms, youngsters could also get their training individually, as seems to have been the case with Marianne.
Barely one month after the collapse of the Weimar Republic, a “democracy without a user’s manual,” as he called it in “The German Masked Ball,” and one day after the Reichstag fire, the writer and Social Democrat Alfred Döblin left Germany. After a brief interlude in Switzerland, he moved to Paris with his wife and three sons in September 1933. Occasional publications with the German-language “publisher-in-exile” (Exilverlag) Querido (Amsterdam) yielded minimal income, and Döblin’s lack of French language skills were a major stumbling block to his gaining a foothold professionally. From 1936 on, the Döblins were French citizens. The 10th of August was the author’s 60th birthday.
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.
Based on his handwriting and style, it seems that Michael Seidemann was quite young when he wrote this postcard to his grandmother, Louise Seidemann, in Breslau. Interestingly, the address from which he sent it was identical to that of the synagogue of the town, Oldenburg. Even though the earliest records of Jewish presence in Oldenburg are from the 14th century, it was only in 1855 that the congregation opened its first synagogue built specifically for this purpose. As a result of Emancipation, Jews came to contribute to Oldenburg’s commerce by selling shoes, books, bicycles, and musical instruments, as cattle dealers and in agriculture, among other things. Their share of the population rarely exceeded 1%. Nevertheless, in the 1920s, antisemitic thugs began attacking Jewish businesses. In 1933, the town had 279 Jewish inhabitants, out of a total of 66,951. By the time Michael wrote this postcard, only two out of dozens of Jewish shops and businesses remained in the town.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a deaf-mute Jew, Ursula Meseritz was doubly inferior in the eyes of the Nazis. Since July 14, 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring had been in effect, which legalized the forced sterilization of the deaf, the blind, the cognitively disabled, epileptics, and others. Ursula had attended the only Jewish institution for the deaf-mute in Germany, the “Israelitische Taubstummenanstalt” in Berlin Weißensee. Under the Nazi regime, the use of sign language was forbidden in public schools, and in 1936, Jewish students were excluded from institutions catering to the needs of the deaf-mute. According to a “Questionnaire for Emigrants,” which she had submitted in April 1938, Ursula had been trained as a lab worker for clinical diagnostics and was hoping to work in this field in the United States. The captions on these photographs (dated July 17, 1938) show that in spite of the difficult times, the 19-year-old had not lost her sense of humor. They appear to show Ursula and her sister with their parents celebrating one last time before Ursula departed for the US.
In May 1938, Betty Blum had contacted her nephew Stanley Frankfurt in New York. Her son Bruno had lost his position in Vienna, and it was unlikely that he would find other employment. She did not elaborate on the situation of Austria’s Jews in general since the country’s annexation by Nazi Germany but wondered whether Stanley could do something for Bruno. When Bruno received Stanley’s July 16 letter, he must have been both relieved and taken aback. While assuring him that he had been active on his behalf doing the paperwork necessary to prepare for his immigration to the US, his cousin in New York also saw fit to point out to him that if his intention was coming to America for the purpose of “living a life of ease,” he was on the wrong track. Was Stanley really so uninformed about the plight of Austrian Jewry under the new authorities? It can be assumed that his sincere efforts on his Austrian cousin’s behalf made up for the bafflement that must have been caused by his inappropriate insinuation.
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.
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.
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.