Of the American-Jewish self-help groups assisting Jews in leaving Europe and rebuilding their lives in the United States, the Boston Committee for Refugees was the first. Established in 1933, it consisted entirely of volunteers. Under the leadership of Walter H. Bieringer and Willy Nordwind, the Committee chiefly endeavored to obtain affidavits for would-be immigrants and see to it that they would find employment upon arrival in the U.S. Since the Great Depression, the State Department had orders to keep people “likely to become a public charge” out. It was of great importance to ensure the livelihood of the refugees. The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany and the colossal failure of the Évian Conference on Refugees reinforced the urgency of helping the desperate asylum seekers. On August 26th, 1938, the Committee’s Acting Executive Secretary sent Bieringer a list of recent arrivals in need of placement.
The existential crisis of Jewish doctors in Germany, which had passed through various stages (exclusion from public service and health insurance funds, prohibition of cooperation between Jewish and “Aryan” physicians, etc.) escalated with the employment ban in July 1938 and required a creative approach. On August 25th, Dr. Felix Pinkus, a renowned Berlin dermatologist, wrote to his friend, Dr. Sulzberger, in America, in order to win him over as a fellow campaigner in an aid project. The sociologist and national economist Franz Oppenheimer had come to the idea of establishing a kind of residential colony for former doctors from Germany. The funding for this would be covered by contributions from American-Jewish doctors. According to Oppenheimer’s calculations, roughly 1,000 physicians would use this remedy. (Dr. Pinkus estimated that it was closer to 3,000).
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.
Within the first few months after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, Dr. Joachim Weichert, a Czech-born lawyer, lost most of his clients. He had no choice but to compile the documents necessary for emigration. In June, the family was notified by the Consulate General of the United States that valid affidavits and other documents had arrived for them from America. Nevertheless, due to the fact that the Czech quota was exhausted for the time being, they were put on a waiting list and told they wouldn’t receive visas for the next eight months. By August 22nd, it had been almost two weeks since Dr. Weichert was ordered by the Devisenstelle (financial administrative office in charge of supervising monetary transactions and emigration) in Vienna to submit within one week an itemized list of his assets. In this official communication from August 22nd, he is given an ultimatum of three days, after which criminal measures will be taken.
Hugo Jellinek was proud of his daughter Gisella, who had become a glowing Zionist during Hakhsharah and just months before had immigrated to Palestine as part of a group of daring youngsters. For her 18th birthday, not only did he send his first-born daughter congratulations, he also shared his thoughts about current events with her. From his new vantage point in Brünn/Brno (Czechoslovakia), where he had fled from Vienna after a warning, German maneuvers alongside the Czechoslovakian border were worrying him. But he was convinced that, unlike in the case of Austria, the Wehrmacht would face fierce opposition. He felt very bitter about the suspicion of and lack of solidarity with needy Jewish refugees among wealthier members of the Jewish community in Brno. Moreover, he was greatly worried by the eviction notices Austrian Jews were receiving, among them his relatives. Among all the worry and complaint was a silver lining, an acquaintance with a woman.
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.
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.
This certificate, issued by the Rabbinate of the Vienna Israelite Community, was just one among a plethora of documents that Edmund Wachs had gathered in order to facilitate his emigration to the United States. Shortly after the Anschluss, Wachs was put in “protective custody,” a power handed to the Nazis by the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State,” also known as the “Reichstag Fire Decree.” The Reichstag Fire of February 27th, 1933, an act of arson involving the German Parliament building in Berlin, served as cause and justification for this law. It was passed on the following day and legalized the arbitrary arrest of anyone suspected of lack of loyalty towards the regime. The law did not stipulate the exact elements of the alleged offence and was widely used against Jews and political opponents.
As the only member of her family, 18-year-old Ursula Meseritz left Germany in July and embarked from Le Havre to New York aboard the R.N.S. “Britannic.” Adolf Floersheim, a former neighbor and a resident of the U.S. since 1937, provided an affidavit for the young woman. Her parents, Olga and Fritz Meseritz, who had arranged for her emigration, remained in Hamburg. A travel agency, Plaut Travels, on Madison Avenue in New York, apparently run by German-Jewish immigrants, prepared the itinerary for Ursula’s next journey to the West Coast, with a leisurely detour to the capital, and sent it to her on August 8th.
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.
In the eyes of the Nazis, the fact that both his parents had converted to Catholicism in the year of his birth, 1912, and that he was baptized as an infant, did not make Anton Felix Perl any less of a Jew. After attending a Catholic high school in Vienna, the Schottengymnasium, he went to medical school, from which he graduated in 1936. Two years into his residency at the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, he was dismissed on racial grounds. In this stressful situation, Dr. Perl contacted high-ranking Catholic clergymen in Canada. With the help of the archbishops of Winnipeg and Regina, his immigration was arranged, and after a seven-day voyage from Liverpool, he arrived in Canada and got his civil examination stamp from the immigration office in Quebec on July 29, 1938. Canada’s immigration policy was extremely restrictive, especially towards those persecuted for religious or “racial” reasons. For once, Dr. Perl’s baptism certificate proved useful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jews wishing to escape the chicanery and physical danger under the Nazis by emigrating had to procure a large number of documents to satisfy both the Nazi authorities and the authorities in the country of destination. In order to obtain permission to leave Germany, applicants had to prove that they did not owe any tax money to the Reich. In addition to the taxes levied on all citizens, prospective emigrants had to pay the co-called “Reich Flight Tax.” Originally introduced during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the original purpose of the tax was to prevent capital flight from further depleting the national coffers. Under the Nazis, its main purpose was to harass and expropriate Jews. The tax authorities under the Nazi regime certainly did a thorough job. When the Weichert family of Vienna, consisting of the lawyer Joachim Weichert, his wife Käthe, and the couple’s two children, Hans and Lilian, prepared to leave, a tax clearance certificate was issued even to the ten-year-old son. The document was valid for one month. Having all required documents ready and still valid by the time their quota number came up was an additional challenge faced by those wishing to emigrate.
The “Aid Society of German Jews,” founded in Berlin in 1901, mainly supported Jewish immigrants to Germany. After the Nazis came into power, the association, now forced to call itself “Aid Society of Jews in Germany,” helped to facilitate Jewish emigration from Germany. In this context, it offered help with questions concerning government agencies, passport issues, or vocational retraining and also granted financial support. An important organ for its work was the periodical Jüdische Auswanderung (“Jewish Emigration”), which informed its readers about general living and work conditions but also about specific questions regarding Jewish culture in various countries. In the July 1938 issue, the US, Cuba, and the Philippines were introduced.
In the 1920s, the Catskill Mountains began to develop into a resort area that enjoyed great popularity with Jewish immigrants often unwelcome in non-Jewish hotels. Therefore, by the 1930s, “Borscht Belt” began to catch on as a moniker for the region. After humble beginnings, with Eastern European Jewish farmers in the area renting out rooms to city dwellers in need of peace and quiet, over time, boarding houses turned into small hotels and some of the small hotels into big hotels. While Jews of Eastern European extraction constituted the majority of hosts and vacationers, the political events of the 1930s led to an increase in the number of German-speaking Jews wishing to trade the hustle and bustle of the city for the relaxed atmosphere of the Catskills. In the July issue of the Aufbau, the Park Plaza Hotel in Fleischmanns, New York (named after Ch.L. Fleischmann, a Hungarian Jew who in the 19th century invented America’s first commercially produced yeast) offered Independence Day weekend vacations with four meals a day and a special 4th of July dinner. It can be assumed that the prospect of celebrating their new country among fellow European Jews in an establishment “widely acknowledged for exquisite, copious American, Hungarian, and Viennese cuisine” was attractive to the grateful newcomers.
In his article “Ten Commandments for Assiduous Language Learners,” published in the July issue of the Aufbau, Dr. Eugene I. Stern recommends making use of the entire arsenal available to the modern student of American English: radio, gramophone, newspapers, and novels. The meticulousness with which he describes what he considers the most promising methodology for language acquisition meets every stereotype associated with German Jews. Dr. Stern does not promise any shortcuts, and his assessment of the language learner’s prospects is not the most optimistic. He opens by declaring mastery of a foreign language to be an unattainable goal. Nevertheless, younger German-Jewish immigrants in America tended to acquire proficiency in English within a few years, while their counterparts in pre-state Palestine were notoriously slow and reluctant to pick up Hebrew. German Jews in America were assisted in their endeavors by various institutions, such as the National Refugee Service, the Adult Education Council, the YMCA, the YWCA, which offered free English classes to the newcomers.
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.
After his first official attempt to immigrate had failed under adventurous circumstances, 20 year-old Heinz Ries of Berlin made another effort to get permission to live in the US permanently and legally. For months, he had struggled in the shadows as an undocumented immigrant in New York. After obtaining an affidavit of support, Ries traveled to Havana and visited the US consulate there on June 23, 1938. Finally, he was admitted legal entry into the United States. After the war he returned to Germany for some time, first in the employment of the Allies, then as a photo journalist for the New York Times. The photographs of the Berlin Blockade and the Airlift, taken during these years, made him world-famous under the name Henry Ries.
As the influx of refugees from Nazi Germany intensified, what had begun in 1934 as the anniversary brochure of the German Jewish Club in New York quickly turned into a professional publication and a lifeline for the uprooted. With its offer of a wide range of cultural and athletic activities, the monthly was an emotional anchor for the newcomers, but it also offered practical help getting settled in the new country. This issue of the Aufbau from June 1938 features a large number of rental ads, mostly for fully furnished rooms, often in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Northern Manhattan, thereby giving some extra income to the owners or main tenants while providing affordable housing to refugees who usually arrived with very little money and property.
Erika Langstein was a young English teacher living in Vienna. In June 1938, having experienced the persecution of Jews in the Austrian capital for several months already, Erika sent a letter to Donald Biever, an American citizen, imploring him to help her and her Jewish father flee Austria by issuing an affidavit for them. Nothing would be unusual about this, except for the fact that the young woman had met Biever just once, briefly, on a train ride a year earlier, and had not communicated with him since. Despite the tenuous nature of their relationship, Erika describes to Biever the hopeless of the situation in Vienna. She also attaches a photo, in case Biever does not remember their encounter.