On September 29, 1938, the signatories of the Munich Treaty had decreed that Czechoslovakia was to cede to Germany its northern and western border areas, the Sudetenland, which was inhabited predominantly by Germans. Immediately after the incursion of German troops, there were eruptions of violence against Jews. Of the 25,000 to 28,000 Jews living in the area, thousands were driven to flee. On October 25, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on the catastrophic material effects of the mass flight: the losses were estimated at 7 billion crowns at least in wages and property left behind. To make things worse, since Munich, open expressions of antisemitism had also proliferated on the Czech side—both by the populace and those representing the government.
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.
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.
Jewish refugee organizations had wide networks. This was due to individuals such as Kurt Grossmann, who steadily made more connections with contacts and developed cooperation on an international level. Kurt Grossmann, a journalist and General Secretary of the German League of Human Rights from 1926 until 1933, had escaped from Berlin just before an arrest. He fled to Prague, where he established and developed Democratic Relief for Refugees. Grossmann knew how to use his network for the increasing number of Jewish refugees, who had reached Prague. Even in Paris, where he had lived since 1938, he campaigned for support from the local refugee aid organizations. For example, in a letter from Grossmann on September 19th, 1938, he urges M. Gaston Kahn of the Parisian Comité d’Assistance aux Réfugiés juifs to help Erna Winter and her child.
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.
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.
Lilly Popper (later Lilian Singer) was born in 1898 into a German-speaking family in Brünn (Brno). After graduation from the Gymnasium (high school), she began medical school in Vienna, later transferring to Berlin. There, in 1923, she got her driver’s license, which was just beginning to become socially acceptable for women. After a longer interruption, during which she worked for her father’s business and for a company in Amsterdam, she went back to school and in 1933 graduated from the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, which had been accepting women as guest auditors since 1892 (and as full-time students since 1908), an opportunity initially seized by a disproportionately large number of Jewish women. With the “Law against the Overcrowding of German Universities” of April 1933, the Nazis limited the access of both Jews and women to higher education, but these regulations did not apply to foreigners. After graduation, Lilian returned to Czechoslovakia. In 1938, she was a resident in surgery at a teaching hospital in Prague. The suitcase shown in the photograph accompanied her on her many journeys.
There are many ways to describe Leo Perutz: novelist, mathematician, native of Prague, chess lover—to name but a few. He was admired by his colleagues and millions of readers. His success as a writer was so great that he decided in 1923 to give up his bread-and-butter job as an actuary. The Great Depression hit him hard, since the crisis not only negatively impacted the bookselling trade but also rendered the family company, in which he had a share, less profitable. To make matters worse, after the Nazis’ rise to power, his Jewish publisher, Paul Szolnay, lost his largest market in Germany. This is one of the last photographs taken before Perutz’s emigration from Vienna to Tel Aviv, Palestine in 1938.