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.
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.
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.
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.
When 28-year-old Kurt Kleinmann of Vienna wrote to the Kleinmans in America, he could not have hoped for a kinder, more exuberant response than what he received from 25-year-old Helen. After finding the address of a Kleinman family in the US, Kurt had asked the total strangers in a letter dated May 25 to help him leave Austria by providing him with an affidavit. He had finished law school in Vienna and was now running his father’s wine business. Helen readily adopts the theory that the Kleinmanns and the Kleinmans might actually be related to one another, promising her “cousin” to procure an affidavit for him within the week. Affably and vivaciously, she assures him that the Kleinmans will correspond with him to make the time until departure feel shorter.
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.
The observance of Shabbat, holidays, and kashrut was so deeply ingrained in the life of the Lamm family in Munich that even the Catholic cook, Babett, saw to it that the traditional customs were adhered to. While traditional in their understanding of Judaism, the Lamms were open to worldly matters. After high school, Hans briefly studied law, but, understanding that in the new political climate, there was no way a Jew could advance in the field, he embarked on a career in journalism instead. The career paths of Jewish jounalists at the time were also stymied by the fact that non-Jewish papers would not hire them and Jewish ones were forced to close down one by one. In 1937, Lamm relocated to Berlin, where he studied with Leo Baeck and Ismar Elbogen at the Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, in order to deepen his understanding of Judaism. Deeply rooted in German culture as he was, it was difficult for him to decide to emigrate. Yet eventually, his older brother convinced him that there was no future for Jews in Germany. In this letter, the 25 year-old Lamm cordially and politely, yet without palpable emotion, bids farewell to the editors of the Jewish monthly, Der Morgen, a high-level publication to which he had been contributing, expressing his gratitude for their support.
Since discussing the possibility of emigration with his relatives in Vienna on April 20, Adolph Markus of Linz had taken up English lessons at the synagogue twice to three times a week. On April 29, his brother-in-law had been picked up by the Gestapo, and the Markuses’ tension and nervousness was beginning to rub off on the children. Two weeks later, Mrs. Markus was questioned by the Gestapo about the value of a house she owned and all her other property. Finally, on June 18, two Gestapo officers appeared at the family’s home: While going over the contents of some boxes, one of them tried to frame Adolph Markus by sneaking in a communist leaflet. Markus mustered the calm and self-assurance to point out to the officers that he had never been politically active in any way. His allusion to his frontline service in World War I, combined with the remark that if they were to arrest him, they would have to take along his two little boys, since their mother was in the hospital, made them change their mind. They left – threatening to return after six weeks if he wasn’t going to leave the country on his own accord.
The Jewish community of Eisenstadt in the Burgenland region of Austria had never been a large one, but as the oldest Jewish community in the area, it dated back to the 14th century and had a rich cultural life. The moment Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938, Jews were vulnerable. Under the deeply racist Gauleiter Tobias Portschy, the Burgenland was the first part of Austria to expel its Jewish population. In June 1938, Hilde Schlesinger Schiff was in Eisenstadt helping her parents get ready to relocate. In a birthday letter to her daughter Elisabeth, Hilde calls Elisabeth “a true Jewish child, not settled, always ready to be on the move,” in contrast with her own emotional connectedness to Eisenstadt, from which she is now forced to uproot herself. Mrs. Schlesinger Schiff writes that she hopes her parents will soon be allowed to immigrate to Czechoslovakia, but bureaucratic hurdles remain. Meanwhile, she is clearly taken aback by the eagerness of non-Jews to snatch up the family’s property at a low price, calling it “grave robbery.”
In 1935, the Nazi party press had orchestrated a campaign to exclude Jews from public swimming pools, citing “unpleasant incidents” or warning the public of the “danger” allegedly posed by Jews. Suddenly, signs inscribed with texts like “Jews are not permitted access to this facility” were put up almost everywhere. Stölpchensee, one of the lakes just outside Berlin, was the last public bathing spot to which Berlin Jews had access. Fritz and Friedel F. were married and lived in Berlin, where Fritz owned a lamp store. In June of 1938, their weekend cottage at Stölpchensee was still a family escape from the city and harassment.
Hans Joseph Pinkus was a direct descendant of Samuel Fränkel, founder of a textile factory in Neustadt (Upper Silesia), which for a while was the primary employer in the entire region and one of the world’s foremost producers of linens. His grandfather, Max, had been a personal friend and patron of the Nobel Prize-winning author Gerhart Hauptmann. His great-uncle, the scientist Paul Ehrlich, had been a Nobel laureate, too. Lili, Hans Joseph’s stepmother, was hardly intimidated by this pedigree. In this letter, written on June 8, 1938, she gives him a major dressing down for having neglected his correspondence with his parents and sternly inquires whether he flunked his exam in the Czech language. At this point, 16 year-old “Pipo,” as the family called him, was staying with his step-grandmother in Brünn (Brno, Czechoslovakia) and attending school there. His parents and half-sisters lived in Neustadt: the directorship of the the S. Fränkel company had been handed down to male members of the Pinkus family for several generations and was now held by his father, Hans Hubert.
The Anschluss, Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany in March 1938, precipitated a wave of anti-Jewish violence. Emboldened by their new status and by the utter defenselessness of the Jewish population, Nazis and their sympathizers entered Jewish homes and seized whatever property they liked. Jewish-run businesses were ransacked or destroyed, and Jews of all ages were forced to carry out the demeaning task of scrubbing streets to remove political slogans under the eyes of jeering onlookers. With no protection to be expected from police, a feeling of utter abandonment and hopelessness drove many Jews to take their own lives. In the first two months after the Anschluss, 218 Jews escaped the state-sanctioned cruelty by taking their own lives. The JTA’s June 7 dispatch lists the most recent suicides—including that of a family of four—and deaths at the Dachau concentration camp.
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.
Nobody saw fit to inform the worried wives of thousands of Jewish men arrested by the Nazis about their spouses’ whereabouts and the expected period of imprisonment. Many of them decided to go to the Rossauer Lände detention facility and the central police station in order to get information on the whereabouts of their loved ones. According to this June 3 report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the detainees had been taken away in overcrowded railroad cars, many of them forced to remain in uncomfortable positions for up to five hours before departure. While there were intimations that those sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany would be exploited as construction workers in order to enlarge the camp and subsequently be released, many had no idea where their husbands were. The author of the report sees the “extraordinary callousness with which police have withheld information” as “one of the most terrifying aspects of the situation.”
The Central Office for Jewish Foster Homes and Adoption took its mandate for protecting mothers and children very seriously. When Frances and Bernard Rosenbaum of New York decided to adopt a German child, the agency offered Mrs. Rosenbaum accommodations in a private home while picking up the boy in Germany, so that the relationship would not have to begin in a hotel. The Central Office for Jewish Foster Homes and Adoption was part of the League of Jewish Women, founded in 1904 by Bertha Pappenheim in order to foster charitable activity while affirming Jewish identity. An outgrowth of this initiative was the development of professional social work.
Herbert Mansbach, a German dentistry student temporarily based in Switzerland, was lucky. A friend of his worked for the “Sick Fund” (Kupat Holim) of the General Workers’ Association in Israel (Histadrut) and was able to share valuable information with him pertaining to acceptance as a kibbutz member and employment in Palestine. The main prerequisites for kibbutz membership were affiliation with the HeHalutz pioneer youth movement and some knowledge of Hebrew. However, in order to be hired as a dentist in Tel Aviv, total mastery of Hebrew was a must. Herbert’s friend painted a sobering picture of the mental state of the new immigrants. The majority, he writes, come without enthusiasm—determination to succeed is more important.
On May 27, 15 year-old Heinz Alfred (later Henry) Kissinger celebrated his birthday in his native Fürth one last time. Heinz had attended the Jewish elementary school and a Gymnasium in his home town. From 1933, Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend public schools, so that only the Israelitische Realschule was open to him and his younger brother, Walter. Elsewhere, too, the new times made themselves felt in the children’s lives. Suddenly, they were no longer allowed to join the other kids and swim in the river Altmühl when they were visiting with their grandparents in Leutershausen. Heinz was an avid fan of the local soccer team and a player himself, but under the Nazis, Jews were prohibited from attending their games. Even though his father, Louis, had been put on permanent furlough from his job as a teacher at a girls school when the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service came into effect in 1933, he was inclined to stick it out in Germany. It was thanks to his resolute mother, Paula (née Stern), that in April 1938, Louis Kissinger applied for passports. By May, the family’s preparations for emigration were in full gear. Relatives of hers had emigrated to the US already before 1933 and were now helping with the bureaucratic groundwork.
Since 1937, Lina and Siegmund Günzburger of Lörrach in southwest Germany and their son, Herbert, had been preparing their paperwork for emigration. The requirements amounted to nothing short of a nightmare. Prospective emigrants had to procure numerous personal documents, letters of recommendation, and affidavits. They were also required to prepare an inventory of all their belongings and to document that they had paid all their taxes. Apparently, the required documents also included this copy of the marriage certificate for Siegmund’s grandparents. Especially perfidious was the so-called “Reich Flight Tax.” Originally introduced in the waning days of the Weimar Republic to prevent capital flight in reaction to the government’s austerity policy, under the Nazis, it became a tool to cynically punish the Jews for leaving a country that was doing everything it could to make it unbearable for them to stay.
It is hard to imagine that the guiding hand of an adult was not involved in writing the toast that Heinz Neumann made at his bar mitzvah celebration on May 21 in Berlin: the way in which the boy expresses his gratitude for having been granted a carefree life by his parents despite the difficult times scarcely comes across as the style of a 13 year-old. Heinz promises to “keep in mind the ethical commandments of Judaism” and wishes everyone health, contentment and happier times. Luckily, in order to brighten things up a bit, one of his grandmothers and an aunt had composed a song with light-hearted lyrics based on the melody of a familiar German oompah tune in honor of the bar mitzvah. It can be assumed that the festive meal, crowned by a “Fürst Pückler Icecream Cake,” also raised the celebrants’ spirits.
Immediately after the Nazi takeover of Austria, Jewish shops and businesses had been put in the hands of “Aryan” provisional managers. In the course of this “Aryanization”—really the expropriation and theft of Jewish property—30-year-old Bruno Blum, a resident of Vienna, lost his job at the “Wiener Margarin-Compagnie” after little more than four years. Understanding that her eldest son’s chances to find a new job under Nazi rule were scant, Betty Blum approached her cousin Moses Mandl in New York for help with an affidavit. When she did not hear back from him, she wrote this letter to her nephew, Stanley Frankfurter, asking him to coax Moses Mandl into helping or turn to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for assistance.
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.
Even though he professes to be in low spirits due to the serious situation and therefore hardly inclined to write and take photographs as regularly as before, Wilhelm Hesse, a lawyer in Hamburg, describes the development of his daughter Helen in some detail in his diary. He reports on her capacity to think logically and a desire to learn so strong that the parents feel they have to make her slow down a bit. Hesse also writes with satisfaction about Helen’s progress in a Jewish kindergarten, but he does not fail to mention that she must learn to get along better with her little sister, Evchen. Since the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935—Helen was two years old at the time—Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend non-Jewish kindergartens, and Jewish kindergarten teachers were prohibited from taking care of non-Jewish children. The Hesse family was religiously observant and might have opted for a Jewish institution even under normal circumstances.
During the years of the authoritarian regime installed in Austria in 1934 (“Austrofascism”), the police prison at Rossauer Lände in Vienna (nicknamed “Liesl” by the locals) had already been used as a lockup not only for criminals but also for political dissidents. After the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938 (“Anschluss”), the first 150 Austrians were taken to the Dachau concentration camp from this notorious prison. Some, like Edmund Wachs, were held there in “protective custody,” a convenient tool used by the nazis to rid themselves of Jews and political opponents, since it could be imposed arbitrarily and left the prisoners little or no recourse to legal support. In this postcard, Edmund’s brother, the attorney Dr. Karl Wachs, reassures Edmund that he is doing everything he can to press his case and asks him for patience.
The diary of Dr. Hertha Nathorff (née Einstein) paints a vivid and at times nightmarish picture of the Jewish physician’s experiences in Nazi Germany. On April 24, she describes a visit with her parents in her native Laupheim in Swabia. Many Jewish shops had been sold, and their owners had emigrated. The Nazis’ efforts to malign and isolate the Jews had been so successful that passers-by were afraid to greet her. Her father had informed her that he was not going to sell the company which had been in the family’s possession for four generations and that he would prefer that it perish along with their name. The degree of isolation experienced by German Jews at the time is also evident in another episode mentioned in the diary: Dr. Nathorff is amazed at the fact that her former professor had the courage to send her regards through a patient.
Residents of Linz, Adolph Markus, his wife, and their two children were among the relatively few of Austria’s roughly 200,000 Jews not living in Vienna. On April 20, 1938 Markus went to visit his family in the capital in order to discuss the difficult situation and explore options for emigration. While his brother Rudi was prepared to lose his job any day, he opined that Adolph, as WWI combat veteran, had nothing to worry about. Indeed, combat veterans were exempt from certain anti-Jewish measures, as were Jews who had lost their father or a son in combat for Germany or its allies.
For Arthur Wolf, a fervent Austrian patriot and veteran of WWI, the Nazi takeover of Austria in March meant the collapse of his world, the loss of his homeland and equal rights. Wolf was the manager of a textile factory in Tannwald (then Czechoslovakia). His Russian-born wife, Maria, had stayed behind in Austria with the couple’s son, Erich (b. 1923). Given recent events, the tone of Maria’s April 19 letter to Arthur is remarkably playful. She marvels about 15 year-old Erich’s poetry, speaks warmly about their mother-son relationship and expresses longing for Arthur, avoiding any obvious references to current events.
A WWI veteran, Alfred Schütz had studied law, sociology, and philosophy at the University of Vienna. Since the late 1920s, he had worked for the international banking house Reitler & Co. During the German invasion of Austria, he happened to be on a business trip to France. He opted to stay abroad, leaving behind his wife and child. A friend who had visited Vienna from London writes about his conversation with Schütz’s wife, Ilse. In his letter, he dissuades Alfred from returning to Austria due to the new regime’s attitude of suspicion towards the international banking industry. In light of the impending danger, a temporary separation from his family seemed like a better option to Schütz than coming back to Vienna.
Wilhelm Hesse was the son of an orthodox business man. He resided in Hamburg with his wife Ruth and his two little daughters, Helen and Eva, whose early years he recorded in diaries that he kept for the children. The entries are interspersed with references to Jewish holidays and photographs of the children. In this entry, he documents proudly and in detail the progress of his daughter Helen, who is not yet five years old at this time. A lawyer with a doctorate, Hesse had been laid off already in April 1933.