On April 4, 1938, Arthur Sweetser, a member of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, met with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the meeting, the two discussed the situation of German and Austrian Jews urgently seeking ways to emigrate. Roosevelt brought up the idea of an international conference. His reasoning was simple: only under determined US leadership could the problem be solved and other nations be convinced to take in Jewish refugees. It remains disputed whether the idea of a joint debate on the situation of the Jews under the Nazi regime came from Roosevelt himself or rather from high-ranking State Department officials.
Situated on Morzinplatz in Vienna’s central 1st District, the Hotel Métropole had been built for the Vienna World Exhibition in 1873. The luxurious building, designed by architects Carl Schumann and Ludwig Tischler, boasted a magnificent dining room and a splendorous inner court. After the Annexation of Austria, the Gestapo confiscated the hotel from its Jewish owners, and on April 1, 1938, the secret police began operations in their new headquarters in Vienna. With a staff of 900, it was the largest of the Gestapo offices in the Reich. The first order issued from the new headquarters was to transport a group of Austrian prisoners to the Dachau concentration camp. This photograph shows a tablecloth used at Hotel Métropole in better days.
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.
The passage in July 1933 of a law allowing the government to revoke the citizenship of those naturalized after the end of WWI had given Nazi officials a tool to deprive “undesirables” of their citizenship. The law targeted the Nazis’ political adversaries as well as Jews; 16,000 Eastern European Jews had gained German citizenship between the proclamation of the republic on November 9, 1918 and the Nazi rise to power in January 1933. Among those whose names appear on the expatriation list dated March 26, 1938 are Otto Wilhelm, his wife Katharina and the couple’s three children, residents of Worms and all five of them natives of Germany.
A mere 20 years had passed since the end of World War I, during which Dr. Max Kirschner, a Frankfurt physician, had been decorated with the Iron Cross—remarkably, for extending aid to enemy infantrymen. Yet the fact that Kirschner had fought in the War as one of 100,000 German Jews, 12,000 of whom lost their lives, did not in the long run improve his standing with the authorities. In his eulogy for Hedwig Wallach, scion of an old Frankfurt family, he praised the deceased’s quiet devotion to her husband, her lively interest in her children and the quiet bravery with which she had borne her illness.
In March 1938, Anneliese Riess was living in Rome, Italy. In addition to keeping in touch with her sister, Else (see entry from February 5), she corresponded with her parents in Berlin. As in other families scattered across several countries, the letters of the Riess family deal with everyday events and practical information about emigration. With her Italian visa about to expire, Anneliese is trying to find a new safe haven. Through their network of friends, her mother has learned that there might be a position for Anneliese in Lund, Sweden. In this letter, she advises her to find out more about it.
Having barely begun his career as a teacher at the Goethe-Gymnasium in Frankfurt/Main, Hans Epstein lost his job shortly after the Nazi rise to power in 1933. After a brief intermezzo as a teacher at the famous “Philanthropin” in Frankfurt/Main, a progressive Jewish school with the motto “For Enlightenment and Humanity”, he became a co-founder of the “Anlernwerkstatt”, which prepared Jewish youngsters for emigration to the US. The mathematician Otto Toeplitz, a passionate educator who had lost his position at the University of Bonn in 1935, was now teaching children and organizing the emigration of students to the United States. In this letter, Epstein asks Toeplitz for a letter of recommendation and for contacts in the United States that might be useful for his endeavors.
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.
In light of the looming danger, a young jazz musician from Breslau, Werner Dambitsch, considered various options for emigration. Like many others, he viewed Cuba, a destination for which it was significantly easier to obtain a visa, as a “waiting room” on the way to the final destination for many, the United States. While his application for immigration to Cuba was being processed, Dambitsch, to be on the safe side, seems to also have applied for a visa at the Colombian Embassy in Berlin. The document presented here is a doctor’s notice written by the doctor of the Colombian Embassy and attesting the perfect health of the prospective emigrant, one of the indispensable preconditions for receiving a visa.
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.
Immediately after the Nazis seized power, on January 30, 1933, Berlin-based Recha Freier founded the Jüdische Jugendhilfe (“Committee for the Assistance of Jewish Youth”) soon to be known as Jugend-Alija (“Youth Aliyah”). The organization’s goal was to bring Jewish children past the age of elementary school to safety in Palestine. In the youth supplement of the Israelitisches Familienblatt of February 17, 1938, the children’s feelings are described as they depart for Palestine: Not only did they have to cope with the separation from their parents and families, but also with the uncertainty about their future.
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.
Several months after the 1938Projekt was completed, LBI learned that the letter was misdated while transcribed. Although it was written later than February 1938, LBI decided to keep it in the project under the same date because of the important content.
In this short missive from Turin, written in a casual, sisterly tone to her sister Anneliese in Rome, Elsa Riess communicates her worries about their parents, who have remained in Berlin. Elsa is concerned about her father’s employment situation and declares her intention to find out about possible ways to help their parents, from whom she hasn’t heard for a while. Anneliese had come to Italy in 1933 to study archeology, earning her PhD in 1936. Because of her own uncertain material situation, she was not in a position to help her parents financially. Unemployable as a foreigner in Italy and hoping to increase her opportunities by adding a practical skill, she had decided to take a course as a baby and child nurse in Geneva in 1937.
“May you continue for a long time to be granted the opportunity to dedicate your tried and tested skills to the welfare and benefit of the city.” With these words, Berlin mayor Heinrich Sahm congratulated Prof. Erich Seligmann, Director of Scientific Institutes at the Public Health Department and an eminent authority on issues of public health, on his 25th year of service in 1932. Barely half a year later, in March 1933, Seligmann was dismissed, despite his recognized scientific achievements and his outstanding knowledge in the field of epidemics control, which he had demonstrated inter alia as a staff surgeon in World War I. In this diary entry dated February 4, 1938, Seligmann writes about “widespread confiscation of passports from Jews” and “an atmosphere of hopelessness.” Seligmann was planning a trip to Rome, where he and his wife Elsa hoped to meet their son Rolf.
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.
Although one could imagine 1938 as a very gloomy and tense year for German Jews, some events, such as vacations, bore a semblance of normalcy. In this postcard from a trip to the “sunny South,” no political thunderclouds appear on the horizon. The writer tells the recipient in Frankfurt, Rosel Lehrberger, about an afternoon dance at the Palais de la Jetée in Nice, an elegant Moorish Revival casino from the Belle Epoque, which for decades was a tourist magnet.
When Julius Ostberg visited Palestine in January 1938, his daughter Ilse had been living in the country for four years. She was born in 1912 and spent her first 22 years in Essen. After emigrating from Germany to Palestine in 1934, she, like many other German Jewish emigrants to Palestine, continued to visit Europe in the following years. The photos shown here were taken in 1937 during a stopover in Venice on the way back to Palestine.
After the Nazis’ rise to power, the economic historian and journalist Kurt Zielenziger fled to Amsterdam with his wife and son. There he co-founded the “Jewish Central Information Office,” the goal of which was to document the persecution of Jews by the Nazis and to spread the information. In this release, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency quotes his computation of Jewish emigrants from Germany according to destination countries. According to Zielenziger, by the end of 1937, a total of 135,000 Jews had left the country.
Julius Ostberg was the owner of a uniform and coat factory in Essen. In January 1938, he visited his daughter Ilse in Palestine. Similar to other German Jews in Palestine, Ostberg did not think about giving up his outfit – associated among German Jews with correctness and good taste and often ridiculed by Jews of other nationalities. In this picture, taken on the beach, despite the casual environment, Mr. Ostberg presents himself in formal attire consisting of a suit and a tie.
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.
If advertisements in newspapers reflect the main needs of society, then the Berlin Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt (Jewish Community Paper) from January 1938 can serve as a perfect example of such needs in times of crisis. By January 1938, when the majority of German Jews were preparing for emigration or actively looking for ways to leave the country, advertisements for travel agencies and shipping companies dominated the commercial space of the newspaper. The main destinations of German-Jewish emigrants were Palestine as well as North- and South America.
In his opening speech at the inauguration ceremony for the new Jewish community center in Hamburg, Max M. Warburg, scion of a renowned family of bankers, describes the challenges the community is facing at the present moment and states the mission of the building and its leadership in troubled times. Describing theater as a source not only of “uplift and joy” but also of “moral fortitude,” Warburg declares the community center to be intended first and foremost as a home for the performances of actors and musicians of the Jewish Kulturbund.
Preparing for emigration to the United States, Alfred Rahn sold the family business, the M.S. Farrnbacher Ironmongery, in November 1937 without the consent of the Nazi authorities. Instead of leaving for the US at the end of December as planned, he therefore had to serve a 14 month prison term. From his prison cell in Fürth, Alfred Rahn expresses gratitude to his wife for gifts already received and asks for further necessities. His wife Lilly was a literary scholar and the last Jewish doctoral student to have graduated from the University of Erlangen (in 1934).
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.