Three prominently placed ads on the front page of the “Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Baden” make amply clear what is on people’s minds in April 1938: emigration looms large. Three businesses in Karlsruhe are offering related goods and services, such as passage to South America, Africa, and Asia, furniture for emigrants, and home sales. In the April 27 issue, the topic comes up from various perspectives: the shrinkage of congregations as a result of members going abroad, English classes for prospective emigrants, the departure of esteemed leaders, practical advice on how to get support from Jewish aid organizations during the emigration process, and more. Other parts of life seem to be taking their normal course. Lehrhaus activities, student concerts, Kulturbund events, personal ads and other topics counter-balance the abnormality of the situation.
According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report, on April 21, the Propaganda Ministry of Nazi Germany authorized the creation of a Jewish Cinema Institute. The name was misleading. It was not intended to serve the cultural enrichment of the Jewish community. The main purpose of the Institute was supposed to be the production of movies showing life in Palestine and urging German Jews to emigrate. In other words, the plan was just another part of the Nazi scheme to rid Germany of its Jews. At the same time, Der Stürmer, one of the most viciously antisemitic newspapers in Nazi Germany, declared that Jews should not be allowed inside cinemas and theaters.
Little more than a month after the Nazi takeover of Austria, a cascade of new regulations and actions taken by the new regime leaves little room for optimism. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports for April 14 from Vienna that Jews within 50 kilometers of the Czechoslovak border are to be expelled. Nazi commissars will be put in charge of Austrian businesses at the latter’s expense. According to the JTA, in the case of hundreds of Jewish-owned businesses, this provision has already been enforced. Finally, a law has been introduced establishing new procedures for determining the racial status of illegitimate children. The one positive item in this substantial dispatch is the prospect that all Jews currently interned at the Dachau concentration camp will not only be released but will also receive permits to enter Palestine.
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.
In Austria’s new reality, opinions could change very quickly. In a news item from April 8, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that Catholic clergyman, Pastor Breckle of Trinity Church in Vienna, wrote an article in “Catholic Action,” that referred to the Jews as “uninvited guests” in Europe. Breckle accused the Jews of “pushing themselves to the forefront” and praised Hitler’s approach as “free and humane.” Breckle had until recently been considered friendly toward the Jewish community.
According to this JTA notice, April 3, 1938, marked an additional milestone in the curtailment of the professional freedom of Austrian Jews. From this day on, the Ministry of Justice could revoke at will the licenses of Jewish lawyers, with the exception of those who had been admitted to the bar before 1914 or were war veterans or the direct descendents of war veterans. Between 800 and 900 lawyers were estimated to be affected by the new provision. Another professional group that was impacted by the effects of Nazi policy was market vendors. Jews operating mobile as well as permanent stands were no longer entitled to make a living this way. Moreover, in the short period since the Nazi takeover, the first “Aryanizations” of Jewish-owned factories had already taken place.
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.
More than two weeks had passed since the Nazi takeover in Austria. The initial shock and disbelief among Jews had given way to despair and panic. Many reacted by seeking information about visa requirements for countries like the United States, Great Britain and Australia, which promised a safe haven and sufficient distance from the dramatic new situation in Austria. Between March 24 and 28, the Australian consulate alone received 6,000 applications for immigration—a number which considerably exceeded the country’s official immigration quota.
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.
Soma Morgenstern held a doctorate in law, but he preferred making a living as a writer, authoring feuilletons on music and theater. Born in Eastern Galicia and fluent in several languages, including Ukrainian and Yiddish, he chose German for his journalistic and literary endeavors. After his dismissal in 1933 from the Frankurter Zeitung, whose culture correspondent he had been while based in Vienna, he barely managed to stay afloat with occasional journalistic work. The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany made his situation entirely untenable. He was forced into emigration, leaving behind his wife, a child, and many manuscripts. By March 23 he had made his way to safety in Paris, where he stayed at the Hôtel de la Poste with another famous Galician exile, his old friend, the author Joseph Roth.
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.
After the tribulations of their forced emigration, often accompanied by a loss of status, property, and basic faith in humanity, German Jews might not have been expected to feel particularly nostalgic for their former home. This ad from the Aufbau, the New York-based German-Jewish paper published by the German-Jewish Club, shows that nevertheless, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany were not necessarily in a hurry to give up their eating habits.
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.
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.
Few among the immigrant New York audience expected to attend a trilingual event of the Theodor Herzl Society had ever encountered native speakers of modern Hebrew: Hence, it is no wonder the Aufbau assumed that the Hebrew part would constitute the greatest attraction. The featured artist of the evening, actor Albert Klar (Sklarz), born and raised in Tel Aviv, had begun his career in Berlin under renowned directors such as Reinhardt and Piscator. He had made his way to New York thanks to an invitation from the great Yiddish actor and director, Morris Schwartz, who hired him for his Yiddish Art Theater. The venue was Ansche Chesed, a synagogue on the Upper West Side founded by German immigrants.
The orthodox Jüdische Presse quotes the state-run Austrian wire service Amtliche Nachrichtenstelle with a reassuring assessment of the situation of Jews in Italy: While there was an antisemitic movement “like everywhere else,” it was very moderate, and rather than targeting Italian Jewry, it opposed “World Jewry” due to the latter’s notoriously anti-fascist stance. Interestingly, the moderate nature of the antisemitic movement in Italy is seen as a result of the absence of a “Jewish movement” in the country. Indeed, Zionism had attracted very few followers in Italy, and between 1926 and 1938, only 151 Italian Jews had emigrated to Palestine.
In mid-February 1938, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, for years an attentive observer of the situation of German Jews, reports once again on the precarious position of Jews in Germany and the struggle of the Jewish Winter Relief to do justice to the acute needs of the community’s poorest. While the new, obligatory contribution addressed ongoing needs and made it easier to survive the winter, the numerous laws imposed by the Nazis since 1933 that banned Jews from various professions lead to an irreversible deterioration of their material situation.
In early 1938, a variety of assumptions regarding the future of the Jews circulated. The official SS organ Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), for example, surmises that after the exclusion of Jews from “the spiritual and political life of the nation,” the physical separation from the majority of Jews within about twenty years will be no chimera. According to this notice disseminated by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Das Schwarze Korps, claims that the Jews are not willing to leave Germany and that the “small number” of Jewish emigrants should not be ascribed to “foreign exchange and other problems” but rather to the unwillingness of Jews in other countries to “lift a finger to give the emigrants or would-be emigrants a home.” In fact, by 1937, as many as 130,000 (out of a total of 600,000) Jews had left the country.
One month before Anschluss, the Austrian-Jewish weekly Die Wahrheit, exhorts Austrian Jews to learn from the development of antisemitism in Poland. The Vienna-based paper, which, since the twenties had increasingly advocated integration and distanced itself from Zionism, perceived Zionism as a dangerous breach with Polish-Jewish history: in the past, says the author of this article, Jews in Poland stood out with their patriotism and commitment to matters of national concern. He opines that their turning towards Palestine creates the impression of a lack of loyalty, thus giving ammunition to Jew-haters. Moreover, the article accuses Zionists of exerting undue pressure upon dissenters.
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.
The figures computed by the registry office of the Vienna Jewish Community and published here in the Jewish paper Die Stimme paint a bleak picture: between 1923 and 1937, the number of Jews in Vienna had decreased from 201,208 to around 167,000. The notice specifically mentions emigration between 1935 and 1936. Moreover, probably as a result both of the general insecurity and the changed age structure of the community, the number of births among Austrian Jews had gone down from 2,733 in 1923 to a mere 720 in 1937. Among the 2,824 deaths in 1937, 105 are entered as suicides.
Already under the short-lived Goga-Cuza government, half of the Jews living in Romania had been condemned to statelessness by having their citizenship revoked. The city of Iași, where in 1855 Romania’s first Yiddish newspaper had been printed and in which Yiddish theater saw its beginnings with the opening of Goldfaden’s theater in 1876, had an especially high percentage of Jewish inhabitants. In February 1938, George Gedye, a reporter dispatched by the New York Times, reports on excesses against Jewish citizens by “a brutal and unscrupulous minority.”
The C.V.-Zeitung, Paper for German and Jewish Culture was the organ of the “Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith.” The Central Association’s political bent was liberal-conservative and it strove to represent the interests of all Jews, regardless of religious affiliation. The newspaper aimed to raise the self-confidence of German Jews as well as to deepen their love of “both German and Jewish culture.” (Jüdisches Lexikon 1927). January 30, 1938 was the last day of ordinary operations for the C.V.-Zeitung. On the 31st, the Nazis ordered its temporary suspension until February 24 with no reason given.
As the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany deteriorated from day to day, the anti-Semitic atmosphere in other countries became increasingly tense. In neighboring Poland, anti-Semitic voices became louder and louder. As the C.V.-Zeitung, the organ of the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, reported, the Lower House of the Polish Parliament expressed its anti-Jewish sentiments in the form of a plan to remove Jews from the country: it called for the emigration of at least 100,000 Jews annually. Besides Palestine, Madagascar was discussed as a possible destination. The case of Polish Prime Minister Sławoj Składkowski shows how widely antisemitism was accepted: commenting on the “unpleasant events” (presumably, the numerous cases of physical violence against Jews), he claimed that Jews themselves were to blame, due to their lack of understanding of Polish peasantry, which, just as the Jews themselves, was striving for a higher standard of living.
In the 78th and last year of its existence, the orthodox weekly Der Israelit reports on measures of the anti-semitic, pro-German Goga-Cuza government in Romania: The country’s Jews were subjected to various chicaneries and occupational bans similar to those in Germany. As a result of gains in territory and population in WWI, about 30% of Romanians belonged to minority groups, who were seen as a “Fifth Column.” Jews especially were the object of fears and suspicions which easily turned into violent hatred.
After the Nazis’ rise to power, the economic historian and journalist Kurt Zielenziger fled to Amsterdam with his wife and son. There he co-founded the “Jewish Central Information Office,” the goal of which was to document the persecution of Jews by the Nazis and to spread the information. In this release, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency quotes his computation of Jewish emigrants from Germany according to destination countries. According to Zielenziger, by the end of 1937, a total of 135,000 Jews had left the country.
When German Jews considered the various emigration options in January 1938, Palestine might have seemed a dangerous destination. As the Jüdische Rundschau reported, in the same month, attacks against Jewish inhabitants and clashes between Jews and Arabs occurred in numerous places in Palestine. Apart from local resistance, the paper mentioned Syrian terrorists, the smuggling of weapons from Libya, and the refusal of the Egyptian government to conduct direct Arab-Jewish negotiations. In light of these facts, emigrating to Palestine could appear to the prospective emigrants like jumping from the frying pan into the fire rather than finding a safe refuge.
The “Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden” (Reich Representation of German Jews) was established in Berlin in September 1933 as an advocacy group. After the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, it had to change its name to “Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland” (Reich Representation of Jews in Germany). Its president was Rabbi Leo Baeck. As a result of the increasing pauperization of the Jewish population, whose possibilities to earn a living were systematically taken away, the Reichsvertretung appealed to the government in January 1938 to desist from additional limitations depriving Jewish professionals of their jobs. The Reichsvertretung argued that not only was the increasing unemployment a burden on the welfare system, but it also made emigration impossible.
The January issue of the Berlin Kulturbund magazine conveys a sense of normalcy—local businesses advertise merchandise and services like cosmetics, women’s apparel and car repairs, while the Kulturbund schedule offers Eugene Scribe’s “The Ladies’ Battle.” The comedy must have provided a welcome respite from the worrisome situation.
As German Jews were getting arrested or being forced to leave the country, the performances put on by the local branches of the Jewish Kulturbund (Culture Association) were among the few places of refuge where Jews could enjoy culture as in earlier days. Among other things, in the winter season of 1937/1938 the Jüdischer Kulturbund Berlin performed Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (Director: Dr. Kurt Singer) and Scribe’s The Ladies’ Battle (Director: Fritz Wisten). Since 1935, the Kulturbund’s venue had been the theater at 57 Kommandantenstrasse, the former Herrnfeld Theater, where popular Jewish plays had once been staged.