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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Even though the NSDAP was illegal in Austria before the country’s annexation to Nazi Germany, cities like Linz were fertile ground for Nazi ideology. The Österreichischer Beobachter, an illegal but widely circulated Nazi paper published in the city, had called for a “Christmas boycott” of Jewish shops in 1937. The paper inflicted additional damage on Jewish businesses by publishing their names and those of their non-Jewish customers. When German troops marched into the city in March 1938 in the course of Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, thousands of locals lined the streets and enthusiastically welcomed them. As if to make up for lost time, the Nazis immediately began taking over Jewish businesses, sometimes literally in a matter of days. When 24-year-old Melitta Sand was removed from her position as an office clerk with the now “Aryanized” Camise & Stock Brandy Distilleries, she received a surprisingly cordial letter of recommendation stating, among other things, that she had earned the unqualified confidence of her employers through her diligence and competence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Zionist Federation of Germany was in a tricky position. While it supported the emigration of Jews from Nazi Germany, it struggled with the consequences of constantly losing capable staff members, especially on the leadership level. Nevertheless, Benno Cohn, member of the Federation’s executive board, generously supported yet another departing colleague with a deeply appreciative letter of recommendation. Rudolf Friedmann had been associated with the Zionist Central Office since 1933 in various capacities, serving it with the utmost diligence and dedication. Cohn praises his organizational abilities and ideas and warmly recommends Friedmann to any Zionist or other Jewish organization.
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.
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.
The first major rupture in artist Gustav Wolf’s biography had occurred during World War I. He had volunteered for frontline duty and was badly injured. His brother Willy was killed in combat. The works in which he processed his wartime experiences leave no doubt about his feelings. Instead of glorifying war, he shows its horrors. His confrontation with antisemitism during and after the war led him to an increased awareness of his own Jewishness. In 1920 he accepted a professorship at the Baden Art School in Karlsruhe, trying to realize his ideal of an equitable partnership between teacher and student. After a year, he quit this “dead activity,” referring to the school as “an academy of schemers.” In 1929, he designed the set for Fritz Lang’s silent film “Woman in the Moon,” an early science-fiction movie. Upon the Nazi rise to power in 1933, he canceled his memberships with all the artists’ associations to which he had belonged. In his letter to the Baden Secession, he explained his decision with the following words: “I must first get my bearings again. The foundations of my existence have been called into question and shaken.” After extended stays in Switzerland, Italy and Greece, he returned to Germany in 1937. In February 1938, he boarded a ship to New York. June 26, 1938 was his 49th birthday.
Section 17 of the Third Supplementary Decree on the Reich Citizenship law (Reichsbürgergesetz), issued on June 14, called for marking Jewish businesses at a date yet to be determined. The Nazis lost no time. According to this article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, days later, the word “Jew” and Nazi slogans were smeared on Jewish shop windows throughout Berlin in an organized fashion, with the same red, hard-to-remove oil paint used everywhere. There could be no doubt that the action was carried out with blessings from above. While no opposition from the non-Jewish population is recorded, the correspondent does point out that unlike in Vienna and in less affluent parts of Berlin, the crowd on Kurfürstendamm looked on quietly, without major enthusiasm. Tension among Jews was intensified by reports of plans to build labor camps where Jews apprehended in recent raids were to be put to work.
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.
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.”
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.