Hitler’s plans for Czechoslovakia could not have been clearer: on May 30th, 1938, he declared to the Wehrmacht (German army) that it was his “immutable resolve” to shatter the country “in the foreseeable future.” Already months before, he had incited the leader of the Sudeten German Party, which was partly bankrolled by Nazi Germany, to conjure up a confrontation by making unreasonable demands on behalf of the German minority in the country. Under the influence of events in Germany, anti-Semitism had increased. But, so far, it had only led to boycotts and physical violence in the border areas of Northern and Western Bohemia, which were predominantly inhabited by Germans. While this crisis was brewing in the background, the psychiatrist and writer Josef Weiner, his wife, Hanka, and their two young daughters were on vacation in the central Bohemian town of Nespeky. Hanka’s letter (in Czech) to her father, the renowned Prague lawyer Oskar Taussig, smacks of a perfectly idyllic holiday atmosphere and spares its reconvalescent recipient anything unpleasant.
Ruth and Wilhelm Hesse, residents of Hamburg, had two little girls, Helen (b. 1933) and Eva (b. 1936). Wilhelm kept diaries for both girls. Between the May 3 and August 2 entries, there is a long gap (a very brief notice regarding Helen’s birthday on June 30 seems to have been added later). As Wilhelm writes, the seriousness of the times made it hard to write, so much so that 5-year-old Helen, who had been in a children’s home in Wohldorf-Duvenstedt since the middle of May, complained that she was not receiving any letters from her parents. While Wilhelm is generally pleased with his daughter’s development, he mentions that Helen and three of her little friends had taken a beating for picking 20 unripe peaches from a tree and biting into them. Perhaps the children’s blissful lack of awareness of what was brewing around them and their innocent transgression provided the young father with a minimal sense of normalcy.
Was Hans Petzold, a 36 year-old native of Berlin, hoping to save himself by ending his affiliation with Judaism? Under a regime obsessed with racial purity, such measures made little difference. According to the “resignation card file” of the Berlin Jewish Community, Petzold filed to leave the Jewish religion (Judentum) on April 7, 1938. Curiously, an additional note indicates that he left the Jewish community the following month, on May 30. These files now held by the Centrum Judaicum Foundation at the Neue Synagogue in Berlin record the departures some 20,000 Berlin Jews from the faith or the community for many reasons going back to the 19th century. Some converted, some joined the orthodox secession community Adass Jisroel, and others simply moved away. After 1933, some may have hoped to escape persecution by the Nazi authorities.
For four years, Aufbau, the newsletter of the German-Jewish Club in New York, had served immigrants as a cultural and emotional anchor and as a source of useful information. The December issue brings a gushing report on the Club’s newly established weekly radio program. Among the prominent speakers who were asked to contribute speeches to inaugurate the program was Dr. Joachim Prinz, a former Berlin rabbi and outspoken opponent of the Nazis. Forging a bridge from the days of the exodus from Egypt via a history of emigrations to the present predicament, he made no attempt to minimize the emigrants’ plight. At the same time, likening the situation of his community to that of Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, he saw the potential in the challenges of emigrant life in America. The new program, he felt, was “an important instrument of education as Jews and as people of freedom.” The call of the moment was clear: “We must embrace Tomorrow and bury Yesterday. We must try to be happy again.”
One of the first official acts of the new Nazi rulers in 1933 had been the elimination of the independent press. Already in February, the freedom of the press was abolished, and from October, only such individuals who were deemed politically reliable and could prove their “Aryan” descent were admitted to journalistic professions. Ernst Feder (b. 1881), a jurist and erstwhile editor for domestic affairs at the “Berliner Tageblatt,” fulfilled neither of these requirements. In his Parisian exile, he resumed his activities as a journalist as one of the founders of the German-language Pariser Tageblatt (1933-36) and as a freelance writer. On the pages of his diary, he covers a plethora of topics, ranging from the personal to the philosophical and political. Among his friends and fellow exiles was the gynecologist and endocrinologist, Dr. Selmar Aschheim (b. 1878). As Feder notes in his diary on December 30th, the eminent physician and scientist was looking for an alternative source of income, should he be denied the possibility to practice in France. Especially older emigrants often had to overcome major obstacles in order to gain a foothold abroad. Language barriers and admission examinations, for which decades of professional experience were not seen as a substitute, additionally exacerbated the situation.
America was struggling with economic difficulties, and an unfavorable attitude towards “aliens” prevailed in Congress. Among much of the populace, the idea of admitting large numbers of Jewish immigrants was not popular, and President Roosevelt was not inclined to relax America’s immigration restrictions. Thus, when Alice Rice of Virginia Beach tried to facilitate the immigration of her Czech relatives, she received the standard answer from the acting chief of the Foreign Office’s visa division, Eliot B. Coulter. He emphasized the importance of proving that the applicants were not likely to become “public charges” and pointed to the provisions of the 1917 Immigration Act, which, in addition to economic prerequisites, made immigration dependent on a host of conditions grounded in considerations of a political, racial, moral and health-related nature, as well as stating that a person 16 or more years of age was eligible for immigration only if literate. Despite the valiant efforts of Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, whose department was in charge of immigration and naturalization issues at the time, US policy was not revised to accommodate the needs created by the wave of refugees coming out of Nazi Germany. Interestingly, one of the justifications for this was that the German quota was actually never filled – without mentioning, of course, that this was a result of the “public charge” provision, which made it impossible for many German Jews, who had been systematically driven into poverty by the Nazis, to successfully apply for visas.
Until 1938, dozens of Jewish periodicals managed to withstand the mounting pressure of the regime. However, even since 1935, they were no longer publicly for sale, and since 1937, their freedom of reporting had been severely curtailed. After the Pogrom Night of November 9th to 10th (later known as “Kristallnacht”), a comprehensive prohibition brought the over-130-year history of the Jewish press in Germany to an abrupt halt. In order to be able nevertheless to spread official communiques through a paper aimed specifically at Jews, a Jewish newsletter, the “Jüdische Nachrichtenblatt” was established, the first issue of which was published on November 23rd in Berlin. Albeit edited by Jews, it was under total control of the Reich Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. On December 13th, the Vienna edition appeared for the first time.
Reacting to the November Pogroms, thus far the most massive outburst of anti-Jewish violence in Germany, the December editorial of the Aufbau does not make do with expressions of pain and mourning but forcefully calls to counter Nazi brutality with positive action. “The answer to barbarism has always been enlightenment,” it quoted US Commissioner of Education J.W. Studebaker, a staunch believer in democracy and the central role of public discussion and civic education in making it function. The editorial reassured Jewish brethren in Germany that all of America was united in working on “putting an end to barbarism in Central Europe.” It wholeheartedly endorsed the government’s position, propagating education and enlightenment as means to fight back “this gravest of assaults on human culture.”
Many Jews in Germany reacted to the November pogroms with despair, existential fear, and even suicide. But the situation was also highly vexing for those who had managed to flee abroad. From afar they had to watch how their synagogues went up in flames, how Jews were arrested by the thousand and locked up in concentration camps, how Jewish property was stolen or destroyed. The worst, however, was the uncertainty about the well-being of beloved relatives and the torture of not being able to help them quickly enough or at all. One of the many emigrants expressing such feelings was Erich Lipmann. In this letter from Ohio to his mother and grandmother in Lower Saxony, he describes his helplessness but also mentions efforts to get support from official places.
Could Willy Nordwind of the Boston Committee for Refugees—an organization not dealing specifically with unaccompanied child immigrants—be entrusted with the well-being of a 16-year-old girl? The Relief Organization of Jews in Germany was not ready to take chances: rather than just sending Frieda Diamont on her way, the organization turned to the National Council of Jewish Women in New York to ascertain Mr. Norwind’s integrity. The Council’s Merle Henoch passed on the case to Jewish Family Welfare in Boston, Mass., where Nordwind, too, was based. For her there was no doubt: as generous a helper as Willy Norwind must be a trustworthy ally.
As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency would have it, the English were united in their dismay about the anti-Jewish violence in Germany. Expressing their “indignation and disgust” and referring to the recent anti-Jewish violence in Germany as a “slide back to barbarism” and “inhuman fury,” they condemned the pogroms orchestrated by the Nazis. Some, like the Sunday Times and Sir Archibald Sinclair, leader of the Liberal Party, used the events as an opportunity to reinforce the need for a national home for the Jews.
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.
Mr. Wachsmann, an industrialist in Königshütte, Upper Silesia, tried to talk his gifted son, Franz, out of embarking on an unprofitable career as a musician. He imagined a more solid career for the youngest of his seven children. But Franz would not be dissuaded. While briefly working as a bank teller, he used his salary to pay for his real interests: piano; music theory; and composition lessons. After two years in this disagreeable position, he went to Dresden, later to Berlin to study music. Recognizing the young man’s talent, the composer Friedrich Hollaender asked him to orchestrate his score for the legendary 1930 movie, “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich. When in 1934, Franz was beaten up by Nazi hoodlums, he needed no further persuasion to leave the country and boarded a train to Paris the same evening. In 1935, he moved on to the United States, where, under the name “Waxman,” he quickly became a sought-after composer of film music. On November 3, 1938, Richard Wallace’s movie “The Young in Heart” was launched, with a soundtrack by Franz Waxman.
At the end of October, Adolph Markus looked back on an eventful month. Preceded by the Munich Conference, at which representatives of Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy decided that Czechoslovakia was to cede its borderlands (“Sudetenland”) to Germany in exchange for peace, German troops had occupied these areas, which had a sizeable German population totaling about 3 million. As Markus points out, with the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia had lost its line of defense. According to his diary entry, both in Britain and in France, people’s relief that war had been averted was soon followed by deep suspicion regarding Hitler’s true intentions. On a more personal note, the author mentions a hair-styling course and English classes which he has been taking in Vienna, clearly in preparation for emigration. Meanwhile, due to the expectation that soon all Jews would be expelled from his home town, Linz, half of the contents of his apartment had been sold.
Thanks to the intervention of William E. Dodd, U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937, Erich M. Lipmann managed to immigrate to the U.S. in 1936. By the time the 26-year-old made this impassioned plea to Dodd to help his mother, Martha Lipmann, leave Germany and join him in Cleveland, he had already spent two years in the US. The letter displayed here is but one in a long series of increasingly frantic attempts by Lippmann to save his mother. Over the course of several years, he tirelessly approached anyone who might be of help.
In a year marred by numerous alarming anti-Jewish measures, the wedding of Frieda Ascher and Bernhard Rosenberg on October 23rd in Berlin must have provided a much needed reprieve for their families and friends. The officiant at the ceremony was Dr. Moritz Freier, an orthodox rabbi. Many young Jews, unable to find work as a result of the intensification of antisemitism in Germany, approached Rabbi Freier since his wife Recha had already come up with the idea of helping Jewish youth to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine and settle in Kibbutzim, a project known as “Youth Aliyah,” in January 1933.
Since the “Anschluss,” Czechoslovakia had enormously tightened its policy towards refugees from Austria, specifically Jewish ones. The official border crossings were closed to Austrian Jews – many had no choice but to enter Czechoslovakia via the dangerous paths of what was known as the “Green Border,” stretches of land not secured by checkpoints along the course of the border. Even international diplomatic interventions, such as those of the International League of Human Rights (as reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on October 13th, 1938), couldn’t sway Czechoslovakia from its restrictive course. Sir Neill Malcolm, the Commissioner of Refugees for the League of Nations, had called on the Czechoslovakian prime minister to reconsider the practice of deporting Austrian refugees. Without success.
A central goal of “National Peace Action Week,” planned by the Canadian League of Nations Society, was to raise awareness among the Canadian public of the suffering of persecuted Jews. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on October 3rd, 1938 on the plan to establish a national committee of Jewish and other Canadian leaders for the purpose of sensitizing the public to the Jewish refugee crisis and requesting that appropriate measures be taken by the government. Because Canada had enforced restrictive isolationist policy against immigrants since at least the Great Depression, the country had no refugee policy. This already made it difficult for Jewish refugees to immigrate to Canada. An additional problem was widespread anti-Semitism among the public.
It must have taken quite an effort for Eva Metzger-Hohenberg to write an imploring letter to her distant relative in Manhattan, Leo Klauber, a complete stranger to her. Her situation was precarious. There was no place for Jews in Germany anymore. Maria Metzger-Hohenberg appealed to Leo Klauber’s “humanity” and his “sense of a blood bond” and begged him to issue affidavits to her and her family. This letter from Vienna shows not only the desperate measures to which Jewish families had to resort, in order to make their emigration possible, but also drew a vivid picture of the situation in which many Jews found themselves in the Fall of 1938. Maria’s parents and her brother had to give up their butcher shop. Her husband’s wholesale business, which employed more than 140 staff members, was “aryanized.” In actuality, that meant it had to be sold for much less than its value. The fate of the Metzger-Hohenbergs was also that of countless other Jewish families during this time.
Speak English fluently! This may have been among the resolutions of Jewish immigrants in the United States for the upcoming Jewish new year. The September edition of “Aufbau” featured a whole array of offers for learning English. Sundry advertisements wooed immigrants with, for example, “a low fee” and “original” methods in order to improve one’s English within a few weeks. These advertisements hit on a market. Because, to those who’d come to the United States, the English language posed an initial and legitimate, yet essential hurdle. Whoever wanted to work in the American environment and build a new life had to be able to be understood.
Only one day after the “Anschluss” Fritz Löhner was arrested in Vienna and shortly thereafter deported to the concentration camp at Dachau. Löhner was born in Bohemia in 1883. As a young child, he moved with his parents to Vienna. By the 1920s, Beda, as Fritz Löhner sometimes called himself, had become one of the most renowned opera librettists in Vienna. On top of that, he wrote numerous lyrics (some still known today), not to mention satires and pieces for cabaret, always with a clear attitude: his time as an officer in World War I had turned him against the military. On the 23rd of September 1938, the Nazis transferred him from Dachau to the concentration camp at Buchenwald.
“He offered a steed, you bought a hack, the Jews are a deceitful pack” is what is written on this postcard, postmarked on September 21, 1938. Mocking, anti-Semitic postcards were common already during the German Empire and the Weimar Republic and, as an easily replicable means, gained influence on the way people thought. One of the oldest stereotypes may be that of the greedy Jew. In whatever part of the economy Jews were active, anti-Semites would impute usury and fraud. The use of anti-Semitic postcards to impart private messages gave anti-Jewish stereotypes far-reaching societal acceptance and thus created the breeding ground for the solution of the “Jewish question,” which was soon to become a terrible reality.
Arnold Schoenberg was a pioneer of modern compositional techniques. However, his music also polarized listeners. Some freneticially celebrated it, other rejected it as noise. On September 13th, the Vienna native celebrated his 62nd birthday. At this time the musician had been living in the United States for almost five years. Schoenberg, a son of Jewish parents, lost his position at the Prussian Academy of Art soon after the Nazis took power. Thereafter he fled first to Paris, then emigrated to the United States. In Los Angeles, he was able to resume his teaching at the University of California.
“Free-of-charge”: it may seem like a generous “offer,” but behind this “free-of-charge” offer was ice-cold calculation. The Nazis’ evil intent was that all Jews still remaining in Burgenland, Austria, should leave the region. In Nazi jargon, this was called cleansing. After the “Anschluss,” Burgenland was the first Austrian region in which they had begun to systematically dispossess and expel the Jewish population. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on September 12th that out of the 3,800 Jews, who had previously lived in Burgenland, 1,900 had already been expelled, 1,600 people had fled temporarily to Vienna, and another 300 were interned in ghettos in Burgenland. According to JTA, the “offer” of the emigrant-smuggling group was financed by the Gestapo with 100,000 marks from the assets of the recently dispossessed Jews of the region.
At first glance it may seem abstruse. A certificate of good conduct from the police confirms to an employee of an insurance company, Franz Resler of Vienna, that he has not made himself suspicious, especially “not by panhandling.” At second glance, however, it is exactly the emphasis on panhandling that points to all the existential crises in which many Austrian Jews increasingly found themselves in 1938. With the “Anschluss” the Nazis had massively increased the economic pressure on Jews living in Austria. “Aryanisation” of companies and occupational bans deprived numerous people of their livelihood. As a result, Franz Resler and his wife Anna planned their emigration to Argentina, where Franz Resler’s sister Fanny had been living since the 1920s.
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.
The reason was short and simple: “Illegal entry” appears in the police document declaring a one-year ban on entry into Switzerland and Liechtenstein for Kurt Kelman. The 19-year-old student from Vienna would face imprisonment up to six months and a heavy fine if he violated this ban. Kurt Kelman had entered Switzerland from Austria not long ago and was imprisoned by the Zurich police afterward. Soon after the annexation of Austria, Switzerland passed visa obligations on Austrians. And recently it had tightened its already restrictive immigration policy. Border control and increased rejections at the border became commonplace. This was particularly hard on Austrian Jews such as the student Kurt Kelman. Since the annexation of Austria, the Nazis had heightened the pressure on Jews to emigrate enormously.
Ludwig Gottschalk of Bonn did not mince words in this August 31st letter to his friends, Betty and Morris Moser, in New York. By now, Jews in Germany were living in such a state of demoralization and constant fear that the wish to leave was omnipresent, regardless of what was to be expected “outside.” According to his information, the U.S. Consulate General in Stuttgart was so overburdened by all the applications for immigration that new affidavits were currently not even being processed. The Gottschalks already had a waiting number and expected to be able to emigrate relatively soon. Meanwhile, they were learning English. Ludwig alluded to the changes that had occurred in Germany since his friends had left by calling them “Israel” and “Sara.” On August 17th, a decree had been issued forcing Jews to add one of these names to their given names in order to make their Jewish identity obvious.
The increased influx of European Jews seeking safety from the Nazis to Palestine led to resistance on the side of Palestinian Arabs. In 1936, an armed revolt erupted. During this period, Jewish settlers made use of a law from the times of the Ottoman Empire, according to which an unauthorized structure could not be demolished once it had a roof. By cover of night and with prefabricated pieces, they erected a fence surrounded by a stockade, so that, in the event of discovery by officials from the British Mandate, nothing could be done about it. At the same time, a structure of this kind was immediately defensible against attacks by local Arabs. One of these settlements was Ma’ayan (later known as Ma’ayan Tsvi), situated west of Zikhron Ya’acov on the northern coastal plain. Its 70 founding members, as members of the Maccabi Movement in Germany (and, since 1935, in Palestine itself), were prepared for pioneer life in the land.
Kurt Kleinmann of Vienna and Helen Kleinman in America had never met in person. After Kurt came up with the creative idea to contact a family with a similar name in New York, hoping that his American namesakes might be willing to help him procure an affidavit, an increasingly intense correspondence developed between the young man and the Kleinmans’ daughter. With determination, Helen took the matter into her hands. Three months after Kurt first contacted the Kleinmans, when Helen wrote this letter, not only was Kurt’s emigration underway, but Helen had also enlisted the help of an aunt to submit an affidavit for a cousin of his, with whom he had in the meantime managed to flee to Switzerland. What’s more she had enlisted yet another aunt to do the same for Kurt’s sister and brother-in-law, who were still stranded in Vienna.
Ellis Levy, a Jewish attorney who lived in New York, decided to take up the cause of the immigrants fleeing Nazi persecution. In a letter to Mayor LaGuardia, an excerpt of which was published in the August issue of Aufbau, he pointed out that many of the newcomers were arriving in the country penniless, often after having been forced to abandon their studies or professional training. At the time of Mr. Ellis’s intervention, a bill regarding the possibility of opening city colleges to non-citizens was about to be brought before the Board of Higher Education. The attorney asked Mayor LaGuardia to exercise his influence on the Board to bring about a positive decision. This, he argued, would serve both the needs of the immigrants and the interests of U.S. democracy. And, indeed, it was decided, effective September 1 of that year, to admit to city colleges persons with adequate prior education who were in the process of naturalization.