When, in November 1938, Gertrude Fichmann gave her 12-year-old son, Harry, a diary in which to record the family’s emigration experience, she had no idea at which point they would leave and where their journey would take them. Nor could she have anticipated just how eventful a time was coming up for Austrian Jewry in general and for her family in particular. As almost every day brought new, disturbing incidents, Harry would record the latest developments regularly and articulately. Witnessing the frightening events and watching the fear of the adults in his life clearly took a toll on him: on December 11th, he describes having spent the night tortured by nightmares.
As Jews in Chemnitz were struggling to come to terms with the brutal violence they had experienced two days before – the magnificent synagogue had been set on fire and destroyed during the November Pogroms, in the night from November 9 to 10 (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”), and 170 members of the community deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp – the community’s representative, the merchant Josef Kahn, was contacted by the town’s mayor. With mind-boggling cynicism, he demanded the removal within three days of the ruins of “the synagogue […] which caught fire in the night from November 9th to 10th, 1938.” If the order wasn’t carried out within the prescribed time, the municipal building inspection department (Baupolizei) would arrange clearance at the owner’s expense.
Since 1876, the Prager Tagblatt was known as a bastion of liberal- democratic positions. Over time, it acquired a staff of first-rate writers, including greats such as Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Kurt Tucholsky, Egon Erwin Kisch and Alfred Döblin – to name but a few. The paper was valued for its excellent reporting, its outstanding feuilleton and its unique style: even the political reporting was not devoid of humor. As a liberal-democratic paper with a predominantly Jewish staff, the Tagblatt had unequivocally positioned itself against the Nazi regime. Several of the roughly 20,000 political adversaries of the Nazis who had escaped to Czechoslovakia joined the ranks of the publication’s contributors. After the entry of the German Army to the Sudetenland in early October of 1938, the situation of German-speaking democrats came to a head in Czechoslovakia, too: according to this report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, dated October 11, the editor-in-chief of the Prager Tagblatt, Rudolf Thomas, and his wife committed suicide out of despair over the situation.
Rome is the paradise of every ancient historian, a city rife with history. However, for Herbert Bloch, since 1935 a Ph.D. in Roman History, it was something more, a sanctuary from Nazi Germany. The native Berliner had come to the University of Rome as a student shortly after Hitler took over. In 1938, he was part of the team that excavated and examined much of the area of Ostia Antica, the ancient seaport of Rome. The photo shows Bloch on September 11th, 1938, in front of parts of the excavations. But 1938 was also the year in which the previously latent yet tangible anti-Semitism of fascist Italy officially became state policy. Just a few days before this photo was taken, Mussolini had passed the first of many anti-Semitic race laws. The “Measures for the Defense of the Race in the Fascist School” of September 5th, 1938 had especially hit home for Herbert Bloch. The law – among other matters – barred all Jewish teaching staff from schools and universities. Rome could no longer be Bloch’s place of refuge.
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.
“The position under discussion has been filled,” was the terse answer Johanna Rosenthal, a former postal clerk, received to her application for a job as a telephone operator. After 14 years of service with the Deutsche Reichspost, she had been dismissed at the end of 1933. As she points out in her letter, her employment in public service as a Jew has been made impossible by the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.” The provisional pension of 68 Reichsmark that she had been granted was not enough to live on, so she sought new employment.
The family of Therese Wiedmann (née Toffler) in Vienna was secular and very well integrated. While the Tofflers were keenly aware of the situation in Germany, no one among Therese’s relatives foresaw that so many Austrians would be so quick to welcome Hitler and abandon Austrian independence. After the “Anschluss” in March 1938 she immediately lost her job with Tiller AG. Her grandfather, until recently the president of the company, was no longer permitted to enter his office. Her father, Emil, the executive manager, was kept around for the time being, in order to familiarize the new, “Aryan” management with the company’s operations. Luckily, he had transferred part of his assets to England before the “Anschluss.” In better days, the company was deemed sufficiently Austrian to be appointed a purveyor to the royal-imperial court, for which it produced army uniforms. This passport, issued to Therese Wiedmann on June 11, 1938, contains a visa that includes “all countries of the earth” and “return to the German Reich.”
From its inception, the Horthy government had made no secret of its antisemitism. As a matter of fact, in 1920, Hungary was the first European country after World War I to introduce a numerus clausus to limit Jews’ access to higher education. First in reaction to territorial and demographic losses in WWI, later in the wake of the Great Depression, there was a striking proliferation of fascist and right wing extremist movements in Hungary, some calling themselves “national-socialist.” One such group was the rabidly antisemitic Arrow Cross Party, founded in 1935. In 1938 a bill was introduced to restrict the economic and cultural freedom of Jews in the country. This May 11 report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency describes Count Apponyi’s vehement critique of the bill in the Chamber of Deputies. Dr. Istvan Milotaj, deputy of a right-wing party, defended the bill, claiming that Jews could not be assimilated and that even figures such as Disraeli and Blum had “spiritually remained Jews.”
As a leading functionary in various Zionist organizations, most notably the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of North America, Rose Luria Halprin had moved to Jerusalem in 1934, where she worked as the liaison between the local Hadassah branch and the National Office in the US. Having befriended Henrietta Szold, who led the Youth Aliyah in Palestine, Halprin, too, became involved in efforts to rescue German-Jewish youth by bringing them to Palestine. The Youth Aliyah had been founded by the prescient Recha Freier, wife of a Berlin-based rabbi, on the very day the Nazis were voted into government, January 30, 1933. In the years 1935 to 1938, Halprin repeatedly visited Berlin. April 11, 1938 was her 42nd birthday.
Adolph Markus lived in Linz, Austria with his wife and two children. One month before the “Anschluss” (the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938), he started keeping a diary which offers a gripping account of the growing tension. The situation was changing from day to day, and the Jews could only guess what would happen next. One day before the annexation, Markus wrote in his diary: “The streets are strangely calm. ‘Calm before the storm.’”
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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.