This dark blue parochet (curtain for covering the Torah Ark in a synagogue) is part of the collection of the Israelitisches Blindeninstitut (Jewish Institute for the Blind) in Vienna. The institution was established in 1871 with the purpose of educating blind Jewish students. Professions taught ranged from manual occupations to translating and interpreting. Due to its excellent reputation, the school attracted students not only from Austria, but also from most other European countries. March 4 was one of its last days of undisturbed activity.
Not long after power was handed to the Nazis, the motto “Police – your friends and helpers,” which already during the Weimar Republic often reflected a hope rather than reality, lost any hint of meaning for opponents of the regime and for the country’s Jews. A law introduced as early as February 1933 stipulated that police officers who resorted to the use of firearms against people perceived as enemies of the regime were to go unpunished. As part of an unholy trinity, in tandem with the SA and SS, the police quickly became an instrument of Nazi terror. Therefore, obtaining a police clearance certificate was probably not the easiest of the requirements of would-be immigrants applying for US visas. On December 24th, 1938, this important document was issued to Ernst Aldor, a resident of Vienna.
One of the tools in the hands of the Nazis to terrorize Jews was arbitrary incarceration: the Enabling Act of March 24th, 1933, handed the regime the legal basis for the perfidious institution of “protective custody”: persons deemed to “endanger the security of the people” could be detained without concrete charges. Ostensibly, the policy was aimed at political adversaries. In fact, however, it was frequently used against Jews. The salesman Hans Wilk was among its first victims: in 1933, at 24 years of age, he spent over four months at the Lichtenburg concentration camp. During the November pogroms of 1938, he was among the roughly 30,000 Jewish men incarcerated in concentration camps. On December 16th, he was released from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg near Berlin. The requirement to report immediately to the State Police in his home town of Potsdam indicated that the harassment was not yet over.
Even the total defenselessness of German Jews in light of the acts of violence perpetrated during the November pogroms did not lead to an adjustment in international refugee policy that would be worth mentioning. Therefore, the Jewish Agency for Palestine had demanded from the British to permit the immediate immigration of 10,000 Jewish children to Palestine. As reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on December 14th, the British Mandatory Authorities viewed such a step as a danger to their diplomatic balancing act vis-à-vis the groups involved and rejected the request. It did, however, agree to temporarily admit them to England. Many Jewish parents were ready to make the painful decision to send their offspring abroad on their own, in order at least to spare them the constant hostility and the physical danger. Already before the attempt by the Jewish Agency, in November, the government had given the green light to the immigration of 5,000 unaccompanied children under the age of 17. The first group of children had gone to England at the beginning of December.
As double earners, the Nathorffs did quite well materially for a number of years: the pediatrician Hertha Nathorff was the director of a children’s home and baby nursery run by the Red Cross in Berlin Charlottenburg, and her husband, Erich, was an internist at the Moabit Hospital. On the side, the couple had a private practice. Shortly after the Nazis came to power, both lost their positions, but they maintained their joint practice until September 1938, when the licenses of all Jewish physicians were revoked. Erich Nathorff was among the few Jewish physicians who were allowed to tend to the needs of Jewish patients exclusively as so-called “caretakers of the sick.” However, during the November Pogroms, he was incarcerated at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. On December 4th, Hertha Nathorff confided to her diary that due to the insecure situation, she had “sent away” her son and that she was having financial problems. Due to the Nazis’ policy of blocking the accounts of Jews whose financial situation would have permitted them to leave the country, she had no access to her money.
Had Austria’s history taken a normal course, Hanna Spitzer, a private teacher, would probably have stayed in Vienna and grown old there as a respected member of society. As a daughter of the late jurist and patron of the arts, Dr. Alfred Spitzer, she was co-heir to a major art collection comprising works by such greats as Kokoschka and Slevogt. Egon Schiele was represented too – among other works, with a portrait of Alfred Spitzer, who had been his sponsor and lawyer, and later his estate trustee. But the flood of anti-Semitic measures which had been unleashed by the “Anschluss” (the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany) made it unbearable and dangerous to stay: this copy of a tax clearance certificate dated November 24, 1938 testifies to Hanna Spitzer’s efforts to gather the papers required for emigration. Already in January, she had arranged for the shipping of 11 containers of household effects and paintings to Melbourne and a delivery to the address of her sister, Edith Naumann, in Haifa.
On August 13th, 1869, the synagogue on Michelsberg in Wiesbaden had been officially opened in a festive ceremony. The building was meant to serve the increased spatial needs of the congregation but also testified to its increased wealth and civic self-assurance. In the presence of representatives of other faith communities, Rabbi Süskind had referred to the liberal house of worship as a “planting ground for patriotic virtues” which was to prove its unifying power not only within the circle of one’s own co-religionists, but “also in the wider circles of humanity.” After the pogrom that took place through the night of November 9th into 10th, 1938 (later known as “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass”), all that was left of the magnificent building in Moorish-Byzantine style was the external wall. The interior was entirely gutted.
The arrival of Gertrude Münzer’s first letter from Palestine was a cause for joy, relief and hope to her family that had remained behind in Austria. The Münzers were a well-integrated family, but after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, the tide turned and they had to endure increasing hardship, starting with their eviction from their home and Moses Münzer losing his job. With parental encouragement, Gertrude was the only member of her family to go to Palestine with a Zionist youth group. Inspired by her example, her older brother, Benno, had gone on hakhsharah. In his reply to Gertrude, dated November 4th, her father pleads with the 15-year-old girl to recruit support for him at the kibbutz or elsewhere to enable him to follow with the rest of the family.
Ernst Patzer, an employee of the criminal investigation department of the Berlin police and seriously disabled in World War I, had lost his job in March 1938. The reason was the Public Service Law of 1937 which barred those married to Jews from public service – and Patzer had been married to a German-Jewish woman for 25 years. This additional move of the Nazi regime to push Jews and their relatives out of all spheres of life hit the Patzers very hard: he was the sole wage earner and, after 25 years of service, lost not only his position but also any claim to his pension. This letter of October 24, 1938, shows how step by step, Ernst Patzer was excluded from civic participation. In vain he wrote, as a former frontline soldier, to Hitler and Göring, in order to obtain continued employment with a government agency. The marriage lasted, and he finally found work as an auditor with AEG (a producer of electrical equipment). The Patzers survived National Socialism.
In Vienna, Hans Hochhauser, together with his brother, had been a successful manufacturer and exporter of leather goods. But just one day after the “Anschluss,” he had packed up his life and fled Austria with his wife, Greta, and his daughter, Ilse, on adventurous paths: turned back at the Czech border, the family traveled to Switzerland by train and from there to England on a chartered flight, from whence the family finally made it to the United States. Having arrived in New York, Hans Hochhauser had to start from scratch: his new company was called “Hochhauser Leather Co. Inc.” In this letter to the US Consulate General in Vienna dated October 14, 1938, accompanying an affidavit for his cousin, Arthur Plowitz, he pointed out that while his new company was still in its beginnings, he was able to take advantage of his old business network.
The claim of the editorial in the October issue of Aufbau was clear: reminding readers that they were now “Americans with all rights, but also with all duties.” It acknowledged the existence mainly of familial and cultural ties but at the same time emphasized the importance of facing the future rather than looking to the past. The slogan was “America First!,” which can be understood as a call to Jewish immigrants to integrate into American society. The author of the editorial also supplied arguments: Europe could no longer guarantee the fundamental values of freedom and justice. In the United States, however, with its Bill of Rights, it was worth it to stand and fight for these values. The Jewish Club, as publisher of Aufbau, positioned itself clearly within American society, and expected this attitude from its readers and members as well.
Alfred Basch, born September 27th, 1915, in Magdeburg, was henceforth stateless. With the publication of his name in the Gazette of the German Reich, he was deprived of German citizenship. The basis for this was the “Law on the Revocation of Naturalizations and the Deprivation of German Citizenship.” It had been valid for five years. Yet in recent months the number of denaturalizations had clearly risen, often affecting persons and families, who after World War I thanks to the comparably liberal naturalization policy of the Weimar Republic, had become German citizens. On the basis of this law, in September 1938 alone, 116 families became stateless from one day to the next. And that wasn’t enough. The publication of their full names and places, as well as dates of birth, set them up as targets for discrimination, making it impossible for them to go on living a normal life, even if only temporarily.
Not a long letter, only a brief postcard was sent to Ludwig Guckenheimer from his old friend Kurt. Yet these few lines give a vivid impression of the situation in which his friend found himself. Kurt had sent the postcard from Genoa on the 14th of September. He’d been trying to prepare his emigration from there for some time. Kurt knew “that it’s time to rush.” Until now he’d failed for lack of money, but most of all from lack of sponsors. Many countries had massively heightened financial and bureaucratic hurdles to immigration in recent years. The United States for example expected, alongside numerous official certificates, at least two affidavits from close relatives. But Kurt wasn’t discouraged. Hope lay in efforts by his brother-in-law in Dallas.
Gisela Kleinermann (top row, right) had recently turned 10 years old. With her arm around her classmate, she looks, with a slight smile, into the camera. At this time, Gisela may already have known that she will not be part of this class of the Jewish school in Dresden any longer. In late summer 1938, her mother Erna prepared her family’s emigration to the United States. Step by step, in recent years the Nazis forced segregation in public schools. In many Jewish communities—as well as in Dresden—new Jewish schools were founded as a result.
Even though expressions of anti-Semitism were common in Austrian vacation resorts decades before the annexation of Austria, a phenomenon that lead to the coining of the term “Summer Resort Anti-Semitism,” they remained popular with Austrian Jews. But when Liesl Teutsch’s uncle spent his vacation in Filzmoos in the Austrian province of Salzburg in August 1938, its spectacular vistas could not distract him from the unsettling circumstances. In this postcard to his niece in Vienna, he makes it very clear that it is not just the poor weather that prevented true rest and relaxation. He seems to be apprehensive of returning to Vienna, where an uncertain future awaits him.
The negligible number of Jews (50 out of a total of 31,576 in 1933) in the town of Merseburg, in Saxony, did not dissuade local Nazis from terrorizing them. As early as 1934, Bernhard Taitza, a local merchant, reported on Jewish residents’ anguish at Nazis marching past their homes while singing anti-Semitic songs. The atmosphere became so unbearable that in 1938 he made his way out of Germany to Prague. Days later, on August 18th, he submitted this questionnaire to HICEM, founded in 1927 as a coalition of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish Colonization Association and Emigdirect, another Jewish migration organization. With two children already residing in America, Taitza was fortunate enough to have an affidavit and didn’t have to worry too much as to whether he would regain possession of the money confiscated from him by the Nazis.
Gusty Bendheim, a Berliner, had never met the American branch of her family. As a 42-year-old divorcee, she had no other choice but to turn to her overseas relatives. She asked these quasi-strangers for help facilitating emigration for herself and her children, Ralph (13) and Margot (17). Gusty was an enterprising sort: by the time she got married to Arthur Bendheim, a businessman from Frankfurt/Main, around 1920, she had established three button stores. After the wedding, Arthur took over management and Gusty became a housewife. In spite of the increasingly alarming anti-Jewish measures taken by the Nazi government, Arthur was not willing to leave. After the couple’s divorce in 1937, Gusty took matters into her own hands. In this August 14th, 1938 letter to her unknown relatives, in addition to her request for help, she states that her former husband is ready to pay the costs of travel for her and their children to the United States.
Until 1938, about 60,000 Jews lived in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna, a fact that earned it the moniker “Isle of Matzos.” Between the end of World War I and the rise of “Austrofascism” in 1934, the Social-Democratic municipal government began to create public housing. By the time of the Anschluss in March 1938, there was a massive housing shortage in the city. The Nazis began to evict Jewish tenants from public housing. In light of the tendency of the police to ignore encroachment on Jewish property, it was easy for antisemitic private landlords to follow this example. Being a Jew was enough of a reason for eviction. When house owner Ludwig Munz filled in the eviction order form for his tenants Georg and Hermine Topra, he came up with as many as three reasons: his own purported need for the place, back rent, and consideration for the neighbors, who could not be expected to put up with having to live side-by-side with Jews.
Article 1 of §15 of the Nazi Conscription Law (introduced on May 21, 1935) stipulated that “Aryan descent is a prerequisite for active military service.” In the 1936 amendment, the language was even clearer: “A Jew cannot perform active military service.” In order to get permission to leave the country, prospective male emigrants had to present a document to the local military authorities confirming their Jewish descent and thus proving that they were not simply seeking to shirk their duties by emigrating. On August 4, 1938, the registry of the Vienna Jewish Religious Community, based on the documentation available to them, attested to Bruno Blum’s Jewish ancestry on both sides as part of the paperwork he had to submit in order to get permission to emigrate.
With the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) of March 24, 1933, the newly installed government of Adolf Hitler left little doubt about how it viewed the rule of law. The act allowed the government to suspend the constitution whenever it saw fit, to formulate laws and decrees without the involvement of parliament, and even to create treaties between Germany and other countries without parliamentary consent or compliance with the constitution. The arbitrariness and randomness of the legal system this created were intensified by the frequent evocation of the Gesundes Volksempfinden (“healthy popular sentiment”), a term that implied that the people’s putatively uncorrupted, natural instincts should be the basis of Germany’s jurisprudence. One such case was the “Law on the Creation of Testaments and Contracts of Inheritance” (§48) of July 31. Invoking “the needs of the Volksgemeinschaft“—code for racially conceived German national community—the law invalidated contracts through which a deceased person’s property was bequeathed to a Jew.
Even though the NSDAP was illegal in Austria before the country’s annexation to Nazi Germany, cities like Linz were fertile ground for Nazi ideology. The Österreichischer Beobachter, an illegal but widely circulated Nazi paper published in the city, had called for a “Christmas boycott” of Jewish shops in 1937. The paper inflicted additional damage on Jewish businesses by publishing their names and those of their non-Jewish customers. When German troops marched into the city in March 1938 in the course of Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, thousands of locals lined the streets and enthusiastically welcomed them. As if to make up for lost time, the Nazis immediately began taking over Jewish businesses, sometimes literally in a matter of days. When 24-year-old Melitta Sand was removed from her position as an office clerk with the now “Aryanized” Camise & Stock Brandy Distilleries, she received a surprisingly cordial letter of recommendation stating, among other things, that she had earned the unqualified confidence of her employers through her diligence and competence.
Ludwig Schönmann, born in Neu-Isenburg in Germany in 1865, had come to Austria early in life and was thus spared the first five years of the Hitler regime. But from the day the German army entered Austria to annex the neighboring country in March 1938, the 73-year-old witnessed all the same persecution that had befallen Jews in Germany – only at an accelerated pace. Jewish businesses were ransacked and their owners expropriated. Jews were publicly humiliated and expelled from the Burgenland region, where they had first settled in the 13th century. Jewish students and teachers were pushed out of the universities, and the infamous Nuremberg Laws were extended to Austria, leading to the removal of Jews from public service. The first page of a memorial album in honor of Ludwig Schönmann lists July 24 as the day of his death.
For a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat like the journalist, translator and writer Maurus (Moritz) Mezei, the changes that quickly took hold in Austria after the country’s unimpeded annexation by Nazi Germany must have been doubly troubling. During the period known as “Red Vienna,” the first-ever period of democratic rule in the city from 1918 to 1934, the Mezei family had moved to the “Karl-Marx-Hof,” a public housing project. Starting in 1938, “non-Aryan” families, including the Mezeis, were threatened with expulsion from the compound. Tenant protections initially remained in place for Jews, but they no longer applied to public housing. On June 10, Mezei had applied for immigration to Switzerland, but the reply, written on July 14, was negative. Only if he was to procure an immigration visa from a country overseas would Swiss immigration authorities reconsider his case and possibly grant temporary asylum.
In the 1920s, the Catskill Mountains began to develop into a resort area that enjoyed great popularity with Jewish immigrants often unwelcome in non-Jewish hotels. Therefore, by the 1930s, “Borscht Belt” began to catch on as a moniker for the region. After humble beginnings, with Eastern European Jewish farmers in the area renting out rooms to city dwellers in need of peace and quiet, over time, boarding houses turned into small hotels and some of the small hotels into big hotels. While Jews of Eastern European extraction constituted the majority of hosts and vacationers, the political events of the 1930s led to an increase in the number of German-speaking Jews wishing to trade the hustle and bustle of the city for the relaxed atmosphere of the Catskills. In the July issue of the Aufbau, the Park Plaza Hotel in Fleischmanns, New York (named after Ch.L. Fleischmann, a Hungarian Jew who in the 19th century invented America’s first commercially produced yeast) offered Independence Day weekend vacations with four meals a day and a special 4th of July dinner. It can be assumed that the prospect of celebrating their new country among fellow European Jews in an establishment “widely acknowledged for exquisite, copious American, Hungarian, and Viennese cuisine” was attractive to the grateful newcomers.
When the Halutz (Pioneer) Movement first began to establish itself in Germany in the 1920s, it had a hard time gaining traction among the country’s mostly assimilated Jews, who saw themselves as “German citizens of Jewish faith.” The Movement, which aimed to prepare young Jews for life in Palestine by teaching the Hebrew language as well as agricultural and artisanal skills, got its first boost during the Great Depression (from 1929), which made emigration more attractive as an opportunity for economic improvement. But even more significant growth took place after the Nazis’ rise to power: so-called “Hachscharot” sprung up all over Germany, instilling young Jews with a meaningful Jewish identity and imparting valuable skills. The photo presented here shows graduates of the Jewish Professional School for Seamstresses on Heimhuderstraße.
Despite the patriotism often espoused by German Jews and their manifold contributions to society, the Reichsbürgergesetz (“Reich Citizen Law”) of 1935 officially assigned an inferior status to Jews, declaring them to be mere “nationals” and further segregating them from the rest of the population. Over time, supplementary decrees were issued that provided the exact Nazi definition of what made a person a Jew and forced Jewish public servants into retirement. On June 14, 1938, the third such supplementary decree stipulated that Jewish-owned businesses were to be marked as such.
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.”
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.
After three decades of making his fellow Austrians laugh, cabaret artist Fritz Grünbaum’s career was brought to an abrupt end by the Anschluss. His politics alone would have sufficed to make him intolerable for the new regime: Grünbaum had returned from action in World War I not only a decorated soldier but also an avowed pacifist. As for Nazism, he did not mince words. Since 1933, he had been getting more political, and when during a 1938 performance a power outage caused the stage lights to go out, he commented glibly, “I see nothing, absolutely nothing. I must have accidentally gotten myself into National Socialist culture.” His last performance at the famous cabaret “Simpl” in Vienna just two days before the Anschluss was followed by an artistic ban on Jews. Grünbaum and his wife Lilly, a niece of Theodor Herzl, tried to flee to Czechoslovakia but were turned back at the border. On May 24, he was interned at the Dachau concentration camp. Grünbaum was also known as a serious art collector, mostly of modernist Austrian works, and a librettist.
On May 14, 1938, American moviegoers lined up to see Errol Flynn in his latest swashbuckling adventure produced by Warner Brothers. Flynn’s turn as Robin Hood was especially thrilling thanks to the lush film score by an Austrian Jew whose music was no longer welcome at home. Although a citizen and resident of Austria, composer and conductor Erich Wolfgang Korngold felt the effects of Nazi cultural policy soon after 1933, since he had often worked in Germany. In this climate, he did not have to think twice about Max Reinhardt’s invitation in 1934 to compose the score for his Hollywood production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Korngold’s symphonic film scores broke new ground and established the typical “Hollywood sound.” In 1937, while on an extensive visit to Vienna to complete the orchestration of his opera “Die Kathrin,” he received an invitation from Warner Brothers to compose the score for “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” This assignment spared him the turmoil of the Anschluss. He returned to the US well before March 12, 1938. This photograph shows what appears to be a recording session for the Robin Hood score. The actor in the photograph is Basil Rathbone, who played Robin Hood’s nemesis, Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Korngold won an Academy Award for his compelling score—his second after “Anthony Adverse” (1937).
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.