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.
Under the impact of the Nazi rise to power and increasing antisemitism in Europe, the great Yiddish writer and cultural activist Melekh Ravitch had had the foresight to raise the funds for a trip from his native Poland to Australia as soon as 1933 in order to scout the inhospitable Kimberley region as a possible place for Jewish settlement. His optimistic conclusion was that the challenges of the Outback could be tackled with “mer vaser, veyniker bir”—“more water, less beer.” By 1938, the territorialist Frayland Lige also began to look into the possibility. As per the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s report on June 15, the government was willing to consider individual cases of Jews wishing to immigrate but was not willing to support Jewish mass settlement in the country.
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.”
Leaving behind an increasingly antisemitic Germany, the Frank family of Frankfurt am Main fled to the Netherlands shortly after the Nazis rose to power. They settled on Merwedeplein in Amsterdam’s River Quarter, where more and more German-speaking immigrants were finding refuge. So large was the influx of Jews that some in the Dutch Jewish community were worried it would affect their standing in society and cause antisemitism. The Franks’ older daughter, Margot, went to school on Jekerstraat. Anne attended the Sixth Montessori School, a mere 5 minutes away from the family home. Fifteen of her classmates were Jewish. She loved telling and writing stories. Anne was curious, demanding, interested and very articulate. As her good friend Hanneli Goslar’s mother would say, “God knows everything, but Anne knows better.” In 1938, Anne’s father, Otto, applied for immigration visas to the United States. June 12 was her 9th birthday.
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.
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.
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.
Before Martha Kaphan could travel to Mandatory Palestine, she had to deposit the considerable amount of 800 Reichsmark at the Dresdner Bank. The Reich Office of Foreign Exchange Control, which played a major role in the exploitation of Jewish emigrants, demanded the sum for the issuance of her tourist visa. Thousands of Jews tried to enter Palestine illegally by means of tourist visas with the intention of applying for permanent visas later. Apparently, Martha Kaphan did not emigrate for long. The British Consulate confirmed her departure on December 24, 1938. The deposit was paid on December 29, 1938 in Breslau, and the account was closed on January 10, 1939.
In an ad in the Aufbau aimed at German immigrants, the Compass Travel Bureau in New York offered “expert advice in all matters related to immigration and the handling of all the formalities of traveling.” The reference to “formalities” elides the excruciating bureaucratic hurdles facing prospective emigrants. Jews desperate to leave Germany first had to obtain quota numbers and a plethora of documents from various German authorities and to contend with the slow postal service as they sought sponsors in America.
Marseille was one of the most important ports of departure for the refugees on their way overseas. It was here that Moses Wainstein obtained the papers he still needed for his emigration to Uruguay. This certificate of vaccination was written in Spanish for submission to the authorities there. The former Berliner had already had his belongings shipped to Marseille by a German company. Wainstein was 40 years of age at this point.
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.
Thanks to a Rockefeller fellowship awarded to him in 1933, the distinguished Viennese economist Fritz Machlup had left Austria years before the “Anschluss.” In 1935, he was appointed Professor of Economics at the University of Buffalo. As was to be expected, after the Nazis established their hold in Austria, friends and colleagues pinned their hopes on him as a guarantor. In this April 5 missive to his friend Alfred Schütz, he expresses concern that his letters of support might lose credibility because he had written so many, but nevertheless includes a note in English offering to assist Schütz in establishing himself in the US.
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.
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.
Charles Manshel, a wealthy businessman and himself a native of Austria, promises his cousin in Baden near Vienna to prepare affidavits for her and her family once he has all the required personal information. The letter shows Manshel’s sincere efforts to not only pave the way to immigration for his relatives but also do something for the professional integration of his niece’s husband, Dr. Eduard Ehrlich. Manshel was no stranger to hardship himself, having provided for his family since his father’s premature death when he was 16 years old.
In the spring of 1938, the Berlin electrician Moses Wainstein was making arrangements to join the steady stream of Jewish emigrants. His destination was faraway Montevideo. He was planning to travel from Berlin to Marseille, where he intended to board a ship for South America. On March 1, he received the requisite French transit visa. Uruguay was regarded as a country with strong democratic traditions, little pressure on newcomers to adapt, and good job prospects for tradesmen. Jewish relief organizations and travel agencies advised prospective emigrants on choosing their new home, finding the best route possible, and procuring the required papers.
Despite the restrictive immigration policy of the British colonial power, twenty-year-old Paul Egon Cahn, a car mechanic from Cologne, managed to flee to Kenya with the help of this passport. Paul’s sisters, Erika and Inge, reached safety in England and Australia respectively. The siblings’ parents, Siegfried and Regina Cahn, remained behind in Germany. In many cases, refugees not only had to cope with the loss of their homes and property and the separation from their relatives but were also forced to take on the challenges posed by foreign climate zones and cultures.
By 1938, the Hirsch family from Hamburg had emigrated to Italy. In light of the volatile situation in Europe, members of the family began to look into options for emigration to the United States or South America. Julius Hirsch had met Elisabeth Schiff on a visit to Belgium in 1935 and fallen in love with her. The Schiff family had no plans to leave Europe, and when visas for El Salvador were procured for Julius and other members of his family, he must have been pained at the prospect of being so distant from his beloved. This letter from a friend in Hamburg reassures him that a temporary separation is not such a bad thing. Forced to remain in Italy because the US denied him the necessary transit visa, Julius ultimately reunited with Elisabeth in England.
Between the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 and the year 1938, about 16.000 Jews had immigrated to the United States. Many German Jews had made their home in New York, especially in the neighborhood of Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, gaining it the nickname “Frankfurt on the Hudson.” The event schedule of the German-Jewish Club lists a “Family evening with Kaffee-Klatsch” which offers “artistic and musical interludes.” The event is geared towards the needs of the older members of the community, as “a substitute for lodge, singing club, social club and other associations,” promising participants an opportunity to discuss what they had on their minds. In addition to cultural activities in German, the massive influx of German-speaking Jews to Washington Heights led to the establishment of numerous new synagogues, beginning with “Tikvoh Chadoshoh”—“New Hope.”
Not wishing to leave behind the family business and hoping that the Jews’ situation would improve over time, Alfred Rahn had initially been reluctant to consider emigration. However, in 1937 the family obtained US visas and sold the business to a non-Jew. Since they had not officially approved the sale, the Nazis accused Rahn of trying to hide funds. As a result, he had to serve a 14-month prison term. From prison, Rahn writes to his wife Lilli in a matter-of-fact way about his hope to be transferred to a different section of the prison, the work imposed on him, and the books he reads. He manages to create the impression that nothing much is amiss.
Kibbutz Giv’at Brenner was established in 1928 by young immigrants from Poland and Lithuania who were soon joined by a group from Germany. As in many other kibbutzim, conditions at Giv’at Brenner were initially harsh, causing some members to leave. In the 1930s, due to the absorption of new immigrants, the kibbutz grew. Over time, a thriving agriculture and various industrial enterprises, including a cannery and a factory for irrigation equipment developed. The picture presented here shows the carpentry shop of the kibbutz in 1938. A unique feature was Beit Yesha, a vegetarian convalescent home established in the mid thirties—the first of its kind in a kibbutz.
In February 1938, two brothers living in two different continents, Joszi Josefsberg in Europe (Chelles, France) and Arthur Josefsberg (New York) discuss in their correspondence how best to proceed to obtain affidavits to rescue their parents, who are still in Germany. But not only the fact that their parents’ emigration has not yet been secured worries Joszi—he is also concerned about their material survival. Such concerns were common among Jews who had left behind parents, siblings, and often spouses. Nazi efforts to force Jews out of numerous professions had made it harder and harder for those remaining in Germany to earn a living.
Months after leaving Germany, 12-year old Herbert Friedmann (later Freeman) was still in Zurich waiting to reunite with his family already in the USA. Because of the previous, apparently intentional, misdiagnosis at the US consulate in Stuttgart stating that the boy was a “carrier of tuberculosis,” he had not been able to immigrate with his mother and brother. Finally, on February 2, 1938 a local physician attested to the boy’s “significantly above average” state of health, ascribing the previous diagnosis to an error. Ironically, the physician who issued this critical medical certificate was Dr. Ernst Hanhart, a geneticist and eugenicist who during the Nazi period published extensively on “racial hygiene” and wrote articles in support of the forced sterilization of deaf-mutes.
This painting by the artist Hermann Struck, a resident of Haifa and one of the relatively small number of German Jews who emigrated to Palestine already before 1933, shows one of the iconic landscapes of the Holy Land, the Dead Sea. It does not, however, reflect the difficult social situation in Palestine in the late 1930s. Due to the growing influx of Jewish immigrants in general and, after 1933, German Jews in particular, tensions between Jews and Arabs as well as between Arabs and the British mandatory administration were increasing. In 1936, an Arab uprising began which was still in full swing in February 1938.
Herbert Freeman was born Herbert Friedmann on December 13, 1925 in Frankfurt/Main, Germany. His father, Leo Friedmann, immigrated to the United States first. Herbert, his mother, and his brother applied for a US visa in Stuttgart. During the obligatory health check-up, the perfectly healthy Herbert was diagnosed as a “tuberculosis carrier” and was unable to join his mother and brother on their journey to the United States in 1936. After repeated unsuccessful attempts, in order to circumvent the Stuttgart US Consulate, 12-year-old Herbert was sent to Zurich (permission to file an application outside Germany was obtained in no small part thanks to the intervention of Albert Einstein). The letter was written during Herbert’s stay in Switzerland. He mentions his upcoming visit to the US Consulate and reapplying for the visa, and describes his days while separated from his relatives.
This letter was written by Otto Neubauer, who had recently arrived in America from Mannheim, to his father Maximilian and his brother Ernst back home. Since the rest of the family was unable to emigrate despite years of trying, Otto wrote them regularly. The rich exchange of letters between the members of the Neubauer family reflects, as in the case of many other German Jewish emigrants in the 1930s, deep longing and attempts to describe every aspect of the new life in America.