In August 1938, Irma Umlauf’s life had begun to unravel: she had been notified that the Jewish-owned company in Breslau for which she worked was going to be liquidated, leaving her jobless. And her landlord had terminated her lease. While there was no law in October 1938 stipulating that non-Jews could not have Jewish tenants, some landlords were eager to get rid of them. In Irma Umlauf’s case, the problem was that her Jewish co-tenants could no longer afford the place and had moved out. The non-Jewish landlord, according to Irma, was afraid to accept other Jewish tenants, and since Jews and non-Jews weren’t allowed to share living space, she had no choice but to leave. Among the other topics broached by Irma in this letter to her friend Hilde Liepelt in Berlin, is her job situation. Luckily, the Landesverband in Berlin gave her permission to do language lessons in the Jewish communities of Münsterberg and Fraustadt, both near Breslau, providing her both with means to live as well as allowing her to continue caring for her mother. A little extra income was generated by singing engagements.
During the night of September 30th going into October 1st, the synagogue of Mellrichstadt in Lower Franconia was completely devastated. In fact, the mob had it in for the congregants: Sudeten German refugees had incited the public to ambush worshippers on their way to the synagogue. However, the Jewish congregation had been warned with sufficient time and services canceled. Now the angry mob of Sudeten Germans and residents of Mellrichstadt stood before the door of the synagogue. Stones were thrown, the door was broken open and the interior destroyed. The mob did not spare the Torah scrolls and other ritual items. After that night, the synagogue could no longer be used.
The passport of Martha Braun, a Viennese housewife, was issued on September 16, during the brief time window between the passing of the Executive Order on the Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names (August 17, 1938) and its entry into force (January 1939). According to this executive order, Jews were to add the middle name “Sara” or “Israel” to their given names. With the date of issue falling in September, Mrs. Braun received a passport without the stigmatizing addition – for the time being.
A classical anti-semitic trope of the 19th century was the notion that Jews are weak, unathletic and effeminate. In order to counter this stereotype, the Zionist physician, writer and politician Max Nordau created the antithetical concept of the “muscular Jew” at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel (1898). Drawing on paragons of Jewish fighting spirit like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, he called for the regeneration of the Jewish people through physical exercise. Barely two months later, the Jewish sports club Bar Kochba was founded in Berlin. More and more Jewish sports clubs came into being, many of which were affiliated with the Zionist movement. The Frankfurt/Main chapter of the Bar Kochba Club was established in 1904. One of its teams can be seen here posing for the camera.
In May 1938, Betty Blum had contacted her nephew Stanley Frankfurt in New York. Her son Bruno had lost his position in Vienna, and it was unlikely that he would find other employment. She did not elaborate on the situation of Austria’s Jews in general since the country’s annexation by Nazi Germany but wondered whether Stanley could do something for Bruno. When Bruno received Stanley’s July 16 letter, he must have been both relieved and taken aback. While assuring him that he had been active on his behalf doing the paperwork necessary to prepare for his immigration to the US, his cousin in New York also saw fit to point out to him that if his intention was coming to America for the purpose of “living a life of ease,” he was on the wrong track. Was Stanley really so uninformed about the plight of Austrian Jewry under the new authorities? It can be assumed that his sincere efforts on his Austrian cousin’s behalf made up for the bafflement that must have been caused by his inappropriate insinuation.
Erika Langstein was a young English teacher living in Vienna. In June 1938, having experienced the persecution of Jews in the Austrian capital for several months already, Erika sent a letter to Donald Biever, an American citizen, imploring him to help her and her Jewish father flee Austria by issuing an affidavit for them. Nothing would be unusual about this, except for the fact that the young woman had met Biever just once, briefly, on a train ride a year earlier, and had not communicated with him since. Despite the tenuous nature of their relationship, Erika describes to Biever the hopeless of the situation in Vienna. She also attaches a photo, in case Biever does not remember their encounter.
Ruth Wertheimer was born in Halberstadt (Saxony Anhalt) in 1915. Thanks to the revenue from a successful corset and lingerie shop with several branches, the family was living comfortably. However, in 1929, several years before the Nazis’ ascent to power, the family business had already suffered economic damage due to a libelous, antisemitically motivated claim against one of its proprietors, Ruth’s aunt Johanna. In 1932, while attending a business school in Berlin, where the family had moved in Ruth’s childhood, she was subjected to such intense antisemitism from teachers and classmates that she decided to quit before graduating. The passport displayed here was issued on May 16 in Paris and also lists Paris as Ruth’s place of residence. Her mother and stepfather had moved there in 1935. In Paris, Ruth resumed her studies.
In 1938, the first day of Passover fell on April 16. As they did every year, the inhabitants of the Jewish Residential Home for Youth and Apprentices in Berlin gathered around a festively set dinner table for the second Seder. Under the dedicated management of Paul and Friedel Joseph, the home provided its charges with opportunities that went well beyond practical needs like housing and vocational training. They also strove to provide them with cultural and intellectual stimulation that would expand their horizons. The boys and young men, ranging in age from 14 to 21, had been removed from their homes due to behavioral problems. According to Friedel Joseph, life in the home was still going on “relatively unimpeded” at this point, but the political situation cannot have been lost on its inhabitants. The Passover message of liberation from bondage under a tyrannical ruler must have resonated very strongly at this year’s celebration.
Having barely begun his career as a teacher at the Goethe-Gymnasium in Frankfurt/Main, Hans Epstein lost his job shortly after the Nazi rise to power in 1933. After a brief intermezzo as a teacher at the famous “Philanthropin” in Frankfurt/Main, a progressive Jewish school with the motto “For Enlightenment and Humanity”, he became a co-founder of the “Anlernwerkstatt”, which prepared Jewish youngsters for emigration to the US. The mathematician Otto Toeplitz, a passionate educator who had lost his position at the University of Bonn in 1935, was now teaching children and organizing the emigration of students to the United States. In this letter, Epstein asks Toeplitz for a letter of recommendation and for contacts in the United States that might be useful for his endeavors.
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.
The “Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden” (Reich Representation of German Jews) was established in Berlin in September 1933 as an advocacy group. After the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, it had to change its name to “Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland” (Reich Representation of Jews in Germany). Its president was Rabbi Leo Baeck. As a result of the increasing pauperization of the Jewish population, whose possibilities to earn a living were systematically taken away, the Reichsvertretung appealed to the government in January 1938 to desist from additional limitations depriving Jewish professionals of their jobs. The Reichsvertretung argued that not only was the increasing unemployment a burden on the welfare system, but it also made emigration impossible.