Sent to take stock after the November Pogroms in Germany, the American Joint Distribution Committee’s emissary to Germany, George Rooby, traveled to several cities to collect first-hand impressions. His findings were deeply disturbing: Berlin, Nuremberg, Fürth, Frankfurt-on-Main, no matter where he went, he saw synagogues burnt down, Jewish shops demolished and ransacked, Torah scrolls desecrated, and was met by terror-stricken Jews whose leadership had been forbidden to operate or taken to concentration camps. Non-Jews extending a helping hand exposed themselves to the danger of Nazi reprisals. The almost complete absence of small children and babies was explained to Rooby as a result of the fact that nativity among Jews had receded considerably since the Nazis’ accession to power. Leaders of Jewish communities had assured him that there was enough money to cover immediate welfare needs. Those organizations, however, whose goal was to advance emigration, were facing a serious lack of funds. Generally, hope prevailed that the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany would soon be allowed to operate again and play its part in accelerating emigration. Its success, of course, depended on the willingness of other countries to receive German Jews. Rooby’s conclusion was unambiguous: the only hope to escape the violence was emigration.
With a documented presence reaching back as far as the 12th century and as the second largest community after Berlin, Jews in Frankfurt were a profoundly established part of society. But under the Nazis, Frankfurt Jews, like all of German Jewry, were made to feel like unwelcome strangers in their own city and country, and large numbers of them were leaving Germany. The November issue of the “Jüdische Gemeindeblatt für Frankfurt” shows the omnipresence of the topic of emigration. Numerous ads were offering services and equipment specifically for emigrants. The “Aid Association of Jews in Germany” offered the latest news regarding immigration requirements to various countries but also a warning not to fall into the trap of fraudsters charging would-be emigrants hefty fees for useless advice. However, one contribution sticks out; in a letter from Houston, Texas, a former resident of Frankfurt shares her first impressions. The heat was challenging, potatoes didn’t feature prevalently enough on the menu, mosquito nets (“more mosquitoes than in Palestine”) and plastic flowers required some getting used to, not to mention giant spiders and flying cockroaches. On the other hand, there were built-in cupboards and large beds, as well as, best of all, the “almost unbelievable hospitality” of the locals.
A classical anti-semitic trope of the 19th century was the notion that Jews are weak, unathletic and effeminate. In order to counter this stereotype, the Zionist physician, writer and politician Max Nordau created the antithetical concept of the “muscular Jew” at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel (1898). Drawing on paragons of Jewish fighting spirit like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, he called for the regeneration of the Jewish people through physical exercise. Barely two months later, the Jewish sports club Bar Kochba was founded in Berlin. More and more Jewish sports clubs came into being, many of which were affiliated with the Zionist movement. The Frankfurt/Main chapter of the Bar Kochba Club was established in 1904. One of its teams can be seen here posing for the camera.
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.
Based on his handwriting and style, it seems that Michael Seidemann was quite young when he wrote this postcard to his grandmother, Louise Seidemann, in Breslau. Interestingly, the address from which he sent it was identical to that of the synagogue of the town, Oldenburg. Even though the earliest records of Jewish presence in Oldenburg are from the 14th century, it was only in 1855 that the congregation opened its first synagogue built specifically for this purpose. As a result of Emancipation, Jews came to contribute to Oldenburg’s commerce by selling shoes, books, bicycles, and musical instruments, as cattle dealers and in agriculture, among other things. Their share of the population rarely exceeded 1%. Nevertheless, in the 1920s, antisemitic thugs began attacking Jewish businesses. In 1933, the town had 279 Jewish inhabitants, out of a total of 66,951. By the time Michael wrote this postcard, only two out of dozens of Jewish shops and businesses remained in the town.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.