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.
It was under adventurous circumstances that Gisella Jellinek made her way to Palestine in June 1938. As part of a group of several hundred youths, she was smuggled into the area of the Mandate. The moment she came ashore in Palestine, she had to make use of the Hebrew language skills she had acquired at the Zionist agricultural training camp in Austria, in order to avoid being identified as an illegal immigrant by the British authorities. Roughly two months after her arrival, Gisella, who now called herself Nadja, turned 18. In this belated birthday note, her sister Berta wishes her “heroism, courage, and to be a good Haverah (kibbutz member).”
An illness during a journey forced Wilhelm Graetz to extend his stay in Switzerland. In light of the escalating situation in Germany, he decided to relinquish his home in Berlin. The formerly well-off couple was in no position to help out their four children financially but benefitted from widely spread contacts. Wilhelm Graetz had been a member of the board of the Berlin Jewish Community, and as the chairman of the German “ORT,” he knew potential helpers in many places. In August, a trip took him to Hungary. On the 27th, his wife Agnes made use of her time by asking the well-known territorialist and “ORT” leader, David Lvovich, to help one of her three daughters, who urgently needed an affidavit in order to be able to emigrate to America.
Hugo Jellinek was proud of his daughter Gisella, who had become a glowing Zionist during Hakhsharah and just months before had immigrated to Palestine as part of a group of daring youngsters. For her 18th birthday, not only did he send his first-born daughter congratulations, he also shared his thoughts about current events with her. From his new vantage point in Brünn/Brno (Czechoslovakia), where he had fled from Vienna after a warning, German maneuvers alongside the Czechoslovakian border were worrying him. But he was convinced that, unlike in the case of Austria, the Wehrmacht would face fierce opposition. He felt very bitter about the suspicion of and lack of solidarity with needy Jewish refugees among wealthier members of the Jewish community in Brno. Moreover, he was greatly worried by the eviction notices Austrian Jews were receiving, among them his relatives. Among all the worry and complaint was a silver lining, an acquaintance with a woman.
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.
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.
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.
Based on his handwriting and style, it seems that Michael Seidemann was quite young when he wrote this postcard to his grandmother, Louise Seidemann, in Breslau. Interestingly, the address from which he sent it was identical to that of the synagogue of the town, Oldenburg. Even though the earliest records of Jewish presence in Oldenburg are from the 14th century, it was only in 1855 that the congregation opened its first synagogue built specifically for this purpose. As a result of Emancipation, Jews came to contribute to Oldenburg’s commerce by selling shoes, books, bicycles, and musical instruments, as cattle dealers and in agriculture, among other things. Their share of the population rarely exceeded 1%. Nevertheless, in the 1920s, antisemitic thugs began attacking Jewish businesses. In 1933, the town had 279 Jewish inhabitants, out of a total of 66,951. By the time Michael wrote this postcard, only two out of dozens of Jewish shops and businesses remained in the town.
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.
Hugo Jellinek was a man of many talents. The outbreak of WWI forced him to quit medical school in Vienna. As a soldier, he was severely wounded in Samarkand and fell in love with his nurse, who later became the mother of his three daughters. The couple settled down in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. His young wife having died in 1926, he fled the Soviet Union in 1930 and ultimately returned to Vienna, where he utilized his knowledge of 8 languages as a translator and also worked as a freelance journalist. Thanks to a warning about impending arrest by the Nazis, he was able to escape to Brünn (Czechoslovakia) in June 1938. His eldest daughter, eighteen year-old Gisella Nadja, departed for Palestine the same day. In this colorful letter, Hugo shows fatherly concern for Nadja’s well-being, but also talks at length about the hardship he himself has faced as a refugee and reports that his cousin’s son is interned at the Dachau Concentration Camp. He mentions with gratification what he calls the “League,” probably referring to the aid center of the “League for Human Rights,” which was looking after the refugees, defying Hitler’s sinister goals. Ultimately, however, the most important thing for him was the fight for a country of one’s own.
As a deaf-mute Jew, Ursula Meseritz was doubly inferior in the eyes of the Nazis. Since July 14, 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring had been in effect, which legalized the forced sterilization of the deaf, the blind, the cognitively disabled, epileptics, and others. Ursula had attended the only Jewish institution for the deaf-mute in Germany, the “Israelitische Taubstummenanstalt” in Berlin Weißensee. Under the Nazi regime, the use of sign language was forbidden in public schools, and in 1936, Jewish students were excluded from institutions catering to the needs of the deaf-mute. According to a “Questionnaire for Emigrants,” which she had submitted in April 1938, Ursula had been trained as a lab worker for clinical diagnostics and was hoping to work in this field in the United States. The captions on these photographs (dated July 17, 1938) show that in spite of the difficult times, the 19-year-old had not lost her sense of humor. They appear to show Ursula and her sister with their parents celebrating one last time before Ursula departed for the US.
Jews wishing to escape the chicanery and physical danger under the Nazis by emigrating had to procure a large number of documents to satisfy both the Nazi authorities and the authorities in the country of destination. In order to obtain permission to leave Germany, applicants had to prove that they did not owe any tax money to the Reich. In addition to the taxes levied on all citizens, prospective emigrants had to pay the co-called “Reich Flight Tax.” Originally introduced during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the original purpose of the tax was to prevent capital flight from further depleting the national coffers. Under the Nazis, its main purpose was to harass and expropriate Jews. The tax authorities under the Nazi regime certainly did a thorough job. When the Weichert family of Vienna, consisting of the lawyer Joachim Weichert, his wife Käthe, and the couple’s two children, Hans and Lilian, prepared to leave, a tax clearance certificate was issued even to the ten-year-old son. The document was valid for one month. Having all required documents ready and still valid by the time their quota number came up was an additional challenge faced by those wishing to emigrate.
Mrs. Pollak in Teplitz (Teplice), Czechoslovakia, was vacillating between relief that her daughter was safely out-of-reach from the Nazis reach and worry about 17-year-old Marianne’s physical and emotional wellbeing. After changing her initial plans to go to Palestine on Youth Aliyah, the young girl was now in England all by herself. The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany had heightened fears of a similar fate in Czechoslovakia. Refugees were kept out of the country, and local Jews had double the reason to worry – both as Czechs, and as Jews. With news from Vienna and Palestine bleak and Czechoslovakia’s future uncertain, Mrs Pollak made a loving effort to reassure Marianne that things would get easier for her in the new country over time.
This letter from a father to his children is dominated almost entirely by concerns about transferring people and goods out of Germany. According to the writer, regulations were changing so rapidly that it was hard to keep track. Lately it had been decreed that both for articles to be shipped and for personal baggage, itemized lists had to be submitted which were subject to authorization. This could be rather time-consuming. The writer of the letter points out that the speed with which answers are given is not keeping up with the speed of the changes necessitating inquiries.
Wilhelm Hesse was a loving and profoundly involved father. Since the births of his daughters, Helen (1933) and Eva (1936), he had meticulously documented the girls’ development in diaries which he kept for them. In addition to little texts and poems he composed, he included numerous photographs as well as material referring to Jewish holidays. Occasionally, the frequently humorous, sometimes even childlike tone is interrupted by material documenting the political situation, such as a call by Rabbi Leo Baeck for Jewish unity and solidarity in the name of the Reich Representation of German Jews. But Helen and her sister Eva were lucky enough to be too young to grasp what was looming around them. June 30 was Helen’s 5th birthday.
Since discussing the possibility of emigration with his relatives in Vienna on April 20, Adolph Markus of Linz had taken up English lessons at the synagogue twice to three times a week. On April 29, his brother-in-law had been picked up by the Gestapo, and the Markuses’ tension and nervousness was beginning to rub off on the children. Two weeks later, Mrs. Markus was questioned by the Gestapo about the value of a house she owned and all her other property. Finally, on June 18, two Gestapo officers appeared at the family’s home: While going over the contents of some boxes, one of them tried to frame Adolph Markus by sneaking in a communist leaflet. Markus mustered the calm and self-assurance to point out to the officers that he had never been politically active in any way. His allusion to his frontline service in World War I, combined with the remark that if they were to arrest him, they would have to take along his two little boys, since their mother was in the hospital, made them change their mind. They left – threatening to return after six weeks if he wasn’t going to leave the country on his own accord.
Leaving behind an increasingly antisemitic Germany, the Frank family of Frankfurt am Main fled to the Netherlands shortly after the Nazis rose to power. They settled on Merwedeplein in Amsterdam’s River Quarter, where more and more German-speaking immigrants were finding refuge. So large was the influx of Jews that some in the Dutch Jewish community were worried it would affect their standing in society and cause antisemitism. The Franks’ older daughter, Margot, went to school on Jekerstraat. Anne attended the Sixth Montessori School, a mere 5 minutes away from the family home. Fifteen of her classmates were Jewish. She loved telling and writing stories. Anne was curious, demanding, interested and very articulate. As her good friend Hanneli Goslar’s mother would say, “God knows everything, but Anne knows better.” In 1938, Anne’s father, Otto, applied for immigration visas to the United States. June 12 was her 9th birthday.
Hans Joseph Pinkus was a direct descendant of Samuel Fränkel, founder of a textile factory in Neustadt (Upper Silesia), which for a while was the primary employer in the entire region and one of the world’s foremost producers of linens. His grandfather, Max, had been a personal friend and patron of the Nobel Prize-winning author Gerhart Hauptmann. His great-uncle, the scientist Paul Ehrlich, had been a Nobel laureate, too. Lili, Hans Joseph’s stepmother, was hardly intimidated by this pedigree. In this letter, written on June 8, 1938, she gives him a major dressing down for having neglected his correspondence with his parents and sternly inquires whether he flunked his exam in the Czech language. At this point, 16 year-old “Pipo,” as the family called him, was staying with his step-grandmother in Brünn (Brno, Czechoslovakia) and attending school there. His parents and half-sisters lived in Neustadt: the directorship of the the S. Fränkel company had been handed down to male members of the Pinkus family for several generations and was now held by his father, Hans Hubert.
For many Jewish children, going to public school turned into hell under the Nazis. Just getting there could mean running a gauntlet of anti-Jewish slights. At school, exclusion by fellow students and teachers was the rule. In order to spare their children this ordeal, parents who could afford it sent their children to Jewish schools. Before 1933, most assimilated German Jews attended public schools. However, in the hostile climate of the Nazi regime attendance at Jewish schools grew. Dr. Elieser L. Ehrmann, a pedagogue and employee of the school department of the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany had developed curricula for teachers at Jewish schools which aimed to deepen the knowledge of Jewish holidays and the customs accompanying them and thus instill a positive Jewish identity. The excerpt shown here is from Ehrmann’s “Curriculum for the Omer and Shavuot [Feast of Weeks],” published in 1938 by the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany. That year, the first day of Shavuot fell on June 5.
The Central Office for Jewish Foster Homes and Adoption took its mandate for protecting mothers and children very seriously. When Frances and Bernard Rosenbaum of New York decided to adopt a German child, the agency offered Mrs. Rosenbaum accommodations in a private home while picking up the boy in Germany, so that the relationship would not have to begin in a hotel. The Central Office for Jewish Foster Homes and Adoption was part of the League of Jewish Women, founded in 1904 by Bertha Pappenheim in order to foster charitable activity while affirming Jewish identity. An outgrowth of this initiative was the development of professional social work.
On May 27, 15 year-old Heinz Alfred (later Henry) Kissinger celebrated his birthday in his native Fürth one last time. Heinz had attended the Jewish elementary school and a Gymnasium in his home town. From 1933, Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend public schools, so that only the Israelitische Realschule was open to him and his younger brother, Walter. Elsewhere, too, the new times made themselves felt in the children’s lives. Suddenly, they were no longer allowed to join the other kids and swim in the river Altmühl when they were visiting with their grandparents in Leutershausen. Heinz was an avid fan of the local soccer team and a player himself, but under the Nazis, Jews were prohibited from attending their games. Even though his father, Louis, had been put on permanent furlough from his job as a teacher at a girls school when the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service came into effect in 1933, he was inclined to stick it out in Germany. It was thanks to his resolute mother, Paula (née Stern), that in April 1938, Louis Kissinger applied for passports. By May, the family’s preparations for emigration were in full gear. Relatives of hers had emigrated to the US already before 1933 and were now helping with the bureaucratic groundwork.
It is hard to imagine that the guiding hand of an adult was not involved in writing the toast that Heinz Neumann made at his bar mitzvah celebration on May 21 in Berlin: the way in which the boy expresses his gratitude for having been granted a carefree life by his parents despite the difficult times scarcely comes across as the style of a 13 year-old. Heinz promises to “keep in mind the ethical commandments of Judaism” and wishes everyone health, contentment and happier times. Luckily, in order to brighten things up a bit, one of his grandmothers and an aunt had composed a song with light-hearted lyrics based on the melody of a familiar German oompah tune in honor of the bar mitzvah. It can be assumed that the festive meal, crowned by a “Fürst Pückler Icecream Cake,” also raised the celebrants’ spirits.
On May 9, the Ärztegruppe of the German-Jewish Club (an informal association of physicians within the city’s main German émigré organization) in New York offered a lecture on the topic of abortion. During the Weimar Republic, repeated efforts had been made to abolish or at least reform the anti-abortion paragraph (§218). Its opponents pointed out that it put the working class at a disadvantage, since poverty was the chief motivation for abortion. In 1926, a member of the Reichstag representing a coalition of three right-wing parties, including the NSDAP, proposed legalizing abortion for Jews only. Under the Nazi regime, which promoted the production of “racially valuable” offspring, abortion was illegal unless it prevented the birth of children considered “undesirable.” In the US, the depression had led to an increased demand for abortion, and by the beginning of the 1930s hundreds of birth control clinics had sprung up. Poverty and the lack of access to qualified practitioners often led to the injury or death of pregnant women through self-induced miscarriage. The lecturer, Dr. Walter M. Fürst, was a recent arrival from Hamburg.
Even though he professes to be in low spirits due to the serious situation and therefore hardly inclined to write and take photographs as regularly as before, Wilhelm Hesse, a lawyer in Hamburg, describes the development of his daughter Helen in some detail in his diary. He reports on her capacity to think logically and a desire to learn so strong that the parents feel they have to make her slow down a bit. Hesse also writes with satisfaction about Helen’s progress in a Jewish kindergarten, but he does not fail to mention that she must learn to get along better with her little sister, Evchen. Since the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935—Helen was two years old at the time—Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend non-Jewish kindergartens, and Jewish kindergarten teachers were prohibited from taking care of non-Jewish children. The Hesse family was religiously observant and might have opted for a Jewish institution even under normal circumstances.
Residents of Linz, Adolph Markus, his wife, and their two children were among the relatively few of Austria’s roughly 200,000 Jews not living in Vienna. On April 20, 1938 Markus went to visit his family in the capital in order to discuss the difficult situation and explore options for emigration. While his brother Rudi was prepared to lose his job any day, he opined that Adolph, as WWI combat veteran, had nothing to worry about. Indeed, combat veterans were exempt from certain anti-Jewish measures, as were Jews who had lost their father or a son in combat for Germany or its allies.
For Arthur Wolf, a fervent Austrian patriot and veteran of WWI, the Nazi takeover of Austria in March meant the collapse of his world, the loss of his homeland and equal rights. Wolf was the manager of a textile factory in Tannwald (then Czechoslovakia). His Russian-born wife, Maria, had stayed behind in Austria with the couple’s son, Erich (b. 1923). Given recent events, the tone of Maria’s April 19 letter to Arthur is remarkably playful. She marvels about 15 year-old Erich’s poetry, speaks warmly about their mother-son relationship and expresses longing for Arthur, avoiding any obvious references to current events.
Little more than a month after the Nazi takeover of Austria, a cascade of new regulations and actions taken by the new regime leaves little room for optimism. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports for April 14 from Vienna that Jews within 50 kilometers of the Czechoslovak border are to be expelled. Nazi commissars will be put in charge of Austrian businesses at the latter’s expense. According to the JTA, in the case of hundreds of Jewish-owned businesses, this provision has already been enforced. Finally, a law has been introduced establishing new procedures for determining the racial status of illegitimate children. The one positive item in this substantial dispatch is the prospect that all Jews currently interned at the Dachau concentration camp will not only be released but will also receive permits to enter Palestine.
Heinrich Stahl, chairman of the Berlin Jewish Community since 1934, was heavily involved in the work of the various Jewish relief organizations, for which there was growing need as Nazism took hold. On April 13, 1938, his 70th birthday, he received a gift from the Ahawah Children’s Home, a photo album which showed the wide range of activities pursued by the charges of this exceptional institution (see March 17). The album included several photographs from the Ahawah’s new branch, which had been opened in Palestine in 1934. A heartfelt warmth and gratitude shine through this rhymed dedication thanking Stahl for his service to the community.
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.
Wilhelm Hesse was the son of an orthodox business man. He resided in Hamburg with his wife Ruth and his two little daughters, Helen and Eva, whose early years he recorded in diaries that he kept for the children. The entries are interspersed with references to Jewish holidays and photographs of the children. In this entry, he documents proudly and in detail the progress of his daughter Helen, who is not yet five years old at this time. A lawyer with a doctorate, Hesse had been laid off already in April 1933.