At the end of February 1938, there still seemed to be at least a few rays of hope for Austrian Jewry. In a sermon at the Vienna Central Synagogue, Chief Rabbi Israel Taglicht expressed the confidence of Austrian Jewry in Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. A few days earlier, the Chancellor had asserted that Austria would hold fast to the principles of the Constitution of May 1934, which granted Jews equality before the law and religious freedom. About the same time, the pro-Nazi mayor of Graz had been dismissed for raising a swastika flag over City Hall. To prevent Nazi demonstrations, the University of Graz and the Technical College had been temporarily closed.
Few among the immigrant New York audience expected to attend a trilingual event of the Theodor Herzl Society had ever encountered native speakers of modern Hebrew: Hence, it is no wonder the Aufbau assumed that the Hebrew part would constitute the greatest attraction. The featured artist of the evening, actor Albert Klar (Sklarz), born and raised in Tel Aviv, had begun his career in Berlin under renowned directors such as Reinhardt and Piscator. He had made his way to New York thanks to an invitation from the great Yiddish actor and director, Morris Schwartz, who hired him for his Yiddish Art Theater. The venue was Ansche Chesed, a synagogue on the Upper West Side founded by German immigrants.
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 the traveling exhibition “Degenerate Art,” initiated in Munich in 1937, the Nazis used 650 works of art confiscated from 32 museums in order to force their idea of art upon the populace: newer trends like expressionism, surrealism, or fauvism, to name just a few, were regarded as “Jewish-Bolshevist” and roundly disparaged. The front page of the exhibition catalog shows a piece titled “Large Head” from the workshop of the German-Jewish artist Otto Freundlich, one of the first exponents of abstract art. It was created in 1912 to symbolize hope for a new beginning. Even apart from Freundlich’s Jewish background and his artistic leanings, being a communist made him politically unacceptable in the eyes of the regime.
This view of Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv shows some of the typical buildings in the background to which it owes its unofficial name, “The White City.” Since 1933 and especially after the “Reichsbürgergesetz” came into effect in 1935, Bauhaus-trained architects had left Germany and were now putting their mark on Tel Aviv, either through their own creations or through their influence on others. The photo is dominated by the Migdalor building, which was built in 1935 and housed the city’s first air-conditioned movie theater. On the external wall there is a huge advertisement for Jean Renoir’s 1937 movie “Grand Illusion,” which due to its pacifist message was banned in Nazi Germany.
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.”
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.
The Austrian Adolph Markus had started a diary on January 12, the day Hitler forced the “Berchtesgaden Treaty” on the Austrian chancellor, Schuschnigg. The treaty stipulated the release of National-Socialist prisoners, gave free rein to Nazi political organizing, and granted a greater measure of participation in government activities to their political representatives. Markus personally witnessed the thuggish behaviour of the released prisoners and their reception by sympathizers in the streets of Linz. In his diary entry on February 20, he records the events of the preceding day and reveals his worries for his country.
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.
The orthodox Jüdische Presse quotes the state-run Austrian wire service Amtliche Nachrichtenstelle with a reassuring assessment of the situation of Jews in Italy: While there was an antisemitic movement “like everywhere else,” it was very moderate, and rather than targeting Italian Jewry, it opposed “World Jewry” due to the latter’s notoriously anti-fascist stance. Interestingly, the moderate nature of the antisemitic movement in Italy is seen as a result of the absence of a “Jewish movement” in the country. Indeed, Zionism had attracted very few followers in Italy, and between 1926 and 1938, only 151 Italian Jews had emigrated to Palestine.
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 mid-February 1938, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, for years an attentive observer of the situation of German Jews, reports once again on the precarious position of Jews in Germany and the struggle of the Jewish Winter Relief to do justice to the acute needs of the community’s poorest. While the new, obligatory contribution addressed ongoing needs and made it easier to survive the winter, the numerous laws imposed by the Nazis since 1933 that banned Jews from various professions lead to an irreversible deterioration of their material situation.
Bertha Pappenheim (1859–1936), born and raised in Vienna, was a leading German-Jewish feminist. Better known as the patient Anna O. in Sigmund Freud’s “Studies on Hysteria,” she later moved to Frankfurt a.M., where she gradually shifted the emphasis of her activism from charitable work to women’s empowerment. In 1907, she established a home in Neu-Isenburg for young Jewish women in need of protection, a feat she considered her most important achievement. Under the Nazis, the home had to register all inhabitants with the police. In the letter displayed here, the secretary of the home asks Rabbi Dr. Merzbach at the District Rabbinate in Darmstadt to immediately send the papers of a resident of the home, Esther Kleinmann, who would otherwise face deportation.
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 early 1938, a variety of assumptions regarding the future of the Jews circulated. The official SS organ Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), for example, surmises that after the exclusion of Jews from “the spiritual and political life of the nation,” the physical separation from the majority of Jews within about twenty years will be no chimera. According to this notice disseminated by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Das Schwarze Korps, claims that the Jews are not willing to leave Germany and that the “small number” of Jewish emigrants should not be ascribed to “foreign exchange and other problems” but rather to the unwillingness of Jews in other countries to “lift a finger to give the emigrants or would-be emigrants a home.” In fact, by 1937, as many as 130,000 (out of a total of 600,000) Jews had left the country.
One month before Anschluss, the Austrian-Jewish weekly Die Wahrheit, exhorts Austrian Jews to learn from the development of antisemitism in Poland. The Vienna-based paper, which, since the twenties had increasingly advocated integration and distanced itself from Zionism, perceived Zionism as a dangerous breach with Polish-Jewish history: in the past, says the author of this article, Jews in Poland stood out with their patriotism and commitment to matters of national concern. He opines that their turning towards Palestine creates the impression of a lack of loyalty, thus giving ammunition to Jew-haters. Moreover, the article accuses Zionists of exerting undue pressure upon dissenters.
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.
Already in 1936, the League of Nations had appointed Sir Neill Malcolm as “High Commissioner for German Refugees.” In light of the increasing stream of refugees from Nazi Germany, an inter-governmental conference was convened in February 1938 in Geneva under the aegis of the League of Nations. The orthodox paper Der Israelit reports on the first day of the gathering, which was attended by delegates from 14 states. Through the Nuremberg Laws, Jews had been downgraded from “citizens of the Reich” to mere “subjects.” As soon as they left Germany, they could be stripped off their citizenship entirely. Two members of the liaison committee, N. Bentwich from London and M. Seroussi from Paris, therefore demanded the extension of refugee status to stateless migrants as well.
The figures computed by the registry office of the Vienna Jewish Community and published here in the Jewish paper Die Stimme paint a bleak picture: between 1923 and 1937, the number of Jews in Vienna had decreased from 201,208 to around 167,000. The notice specifically mentions emigration between 1935 and 1936. Moreover, probably as a result both of the general insecurity and the changed age structure of the community, the number of births among Austrian Jews had gone down from 2,733 in 1923 to a mere 720 in 1937. Among the 2,824 deaths in 1937, 105 are entered as suicides.
The philosopher of religion Martin Buber was born on February 8, 1878, in Vienna. Best known for his 1923 work I and Thou, he also, in collaboration with Franz Rosenzweig, created a new translation of the Hebrew Bible into German. Buber was so popular with German-Jewish youth that the term “Bubertät” (“Buberty”) was coined to describe the phenomenon. Buber was among the proponents of a bi-national state in Palestine and in 1925, together with Gershom Scholem, Robert Weltsch, Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Simon and others, he founded “Brit Shalom,” an organisation that promoted Arab-Jewish coexistence on the basis of justice and equality. On February 8, he celebrated his 50th birthday.
Already under the short-lived Goga-Cuza government, half of the Jews living in Romania had been condemned to statelessness by having their citizenship revoked. The city of Iași, where in 1855 Romania’s first Yiddish newspaper had been printed and in which Yiddish theater saw its beginnings with the opening of Goldfaden’s theater in 1876, had an especially high percentage of Jewish inhabitants. In February 1938, George Gedye, a reporter dispatched by the New York Times, reports on excesses against Jewish citizens by “a brutal and unscrupulous minority.”
Among the many kinds of physical activity offered to the readers of the Aufbau by the German-Jewish Club, such as ping-pong, skiing, swimming and even a Katerbummel (a morning stroll after a night of heavy drinking), there was also an invitation to go ice-skating in Tibbetts Brook Park in Yonkers, New York. A familiar activity among sympathetic fellow German-speakers at a venue featuring a Tudor revival bathhouse may have awakened memories of better days in Europe. Despite their traumatic experiences under Nazism and their forced departure, many German Jews continued to feel a profound cultural connection to the country they had called their home.
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.
This photograph shows a picturesque bird’s-eye view of Vienna’s 1st municipal district. At the beginning of 1938, the Austrian capital was still home to almost 170,000 Jews and 80,000 members of mixed (Christian-Jewish) marriages. Jews made up about 10 percent of Vienna’s population. The majority of local Jews were well integrated into Austrian society: not only was German their native tongue, they also shaped the cultural and social landscape of the city. Among them were the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, the Albanologist Norbert Jokl, the author Friedrich Torberg, and the composer Arnold Schoenberg.
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.