As the only member of her family, 18-year-old Ursula Meseritz left Germany in July and embarked from Le Havre to New York aboard the R.N.S. “Britannic.” Adolf Floersheim, a former neighbor and a resident of the U.S. since 1937, provided an affidavit for the young woman. Her parents, Olga and Fritz Meseritz, who had arranged for her emigration, remained in Hamburg. A travel agency, Plaut Travels, on Madison Avenue in New York, apparently run by German-Jewish immigrants, prepared the itinerary for Ursula’s next journey to the West Coast, with a leisurely detour to the capital, and sent it to her on August 8th.
Jews were hardly the only “undesirables” the US Immigration Act of 1924 aimed to keep out of the country. When the law was introduced, efforts to exclude certain nationalities, especially Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants, had been going on for half a century. In the early 1920s, a quota system was introduced that favored immigrants from Northern Europe. The quotas were not adjusted to address the severe refugee crisis created by the persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany. Even for nationals of the favored countries of origin, just doing all the paperwork to get on the waiting list for an American visa was a major headache, and the waiting could be demoralizing. As documented by this ticket issued to Helina Mayer in Mainz by the US Consulate General in Stuttgart, applicants could expect to be summoned for examination according to their number in line, provided they had submitted “satisfactory proof” that their livelihood in the US was secured.
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.
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.
In the eyes of the Nazis, the fact that both his parents had converted to Catholicism in the year of his birth, 1912, and that he was baptized as an infant, did not make Anton Felix Perl any less of a Jew. After attending a Catholic high school in Vienna, the Schottengymnasium, he went to medical school, from which he graduated in 1936. Two years into his residency at the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, he was dismissed on racial grounds. In this stressful situation, Dr. Perl contacted high-ranking Catholic clergymen in Canada. With the help of the archbishops of Winnipeg and Regina, his immigration was arranged, and after a seven-day voyage from Liverpool, he arrived in Canada and got his civil examination stamp from the immigration office in Quebec on July 29, 1938. Canada’s immigration policy was extremely restrictive, especially towards those persecuted for religious or “racial” reasons. For once, Dr. Perl’s baptism certificate proved useful.
Thanks to decades of scholarly work, notably his seminal works “The Religious Views of the Pharisees” (“Die Religionsanschauungen der Pharisäer,” 1904) and “Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History” (“Der Jüdische Gottesdienst in seiner Entwicklung,” 1913), Prof. Ismar Elbogen was well known internationally, when in 1938, he overcame years of hesitation and decided that the time had come to leave. His efforts as chairman of the education committee of the Reich Representation of German Jews had been severely hampered by the regime, and his last book published in Germany, “The History of Jews in Germany” (“Die Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland,” 1935) had been censored heavily by the propaganda ministry. In the 1920s, several institutions of higher learning in the US (he taught at Hebrew Union College and turned down an offer to teach at Columbia University) had offered him lectureships, so that he had significant contacts overseas when the time came to leave Germany. In today’s report, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency informs its readers of the noted scholar’s impending departure.
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.
After the Anschluss, the problem of refugees from Germany and Austria became even more pressing. In order to address the issue, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had called for an international conference in Évian in July, 1938. The conference was anticipated with great hopes by the German-Jewish community but, due to the refusal of the international community to adjust immigration quotas to actual needs, the impact of Évian was extremely limited. Nevertheless, the Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Rheinland und Westfalen (Jewish Community Newsletter for Rhineland and Westphalia) tried to present some positive results by pointing out the readiness of several South American countries to absorb Jewish refugees. Regardless of the palpable attempt to remain hopeful, the underlying tone of this front page article in the July 23 issue is not one of excessive optimism.
In this letter, Isidor Nassauer, based in Neuwied am Rhein, cooly describes his emigration plans to his friends, the Moser family, who are already in the US. Unsolicited, his brother-in-law has sent an affidavit, which due to a missing signature could not be used and had to be sent back. While waiting for the signed document, Mr. Nassauer is taking English lessons. Even though he has no idea how he will subsist in America, the fact that “so much bread has been baked for strangers” there gives him confidence. He is most concerned about selling the family house and seems certain that selling or liquidating the business (a brush factory) will be easy. In general, Jews were forced to sell their property far below its actual value.
As reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on this day in 1938, five days after the end of the Évian Conference (July 6-15), the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany published its first statement on the outcome of the convention in the Jüdische Rundschau, the paper of the Zionist movement. The organization voiced cautious optimism and opined that the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, which had been set up at the conference with the goal of facilitating permanent resettlement, would have a positive effect on emigration.
On July 19, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that the United States Consulate General in Berlin stopped accepting new visa applications. According to the Consulate, about 2000 people have applied for visas per month. Due to the high demand, the Consulate prioritizes clearing the files of the applications on hand for the time being. The oftentimes hard-won affidavits and other documents of new applicants will not be accepted anymore, though new applicants will be put on a waitlist. In consequence, this means that Jews who are planning to leave Germany or the annexed Austria for the USA will have to wait until next year to get a chance at obtaining a visa. It can be assumed that the 60,000 to 70,000 applications by emigrants from Germany/Austria which are waiting to be processed will already significantly surpass the annual US quota of 27,370 visas for immigrants from the Deutsches Reich.
On July 18, the commissioner of Dillkreis county in Hessen instructed the mayors of the cities Herborn, Dillenburg, and Haigern as well as police officials of the county to conduct a statistical survey of the Jewish population in their communities every three months. An official of the city of Herborn received the memorandum ordering the count and made notes showing that 51 Jews lived in the city on June 30, 1938. Three Jews had left their homes in the prior quarter. These local censuses of the Jewish population complemented other surveys that tracked the movement of Jews on a national level. To monitor and control the Jews in the country, the National Socialists used a variety of administrative tools, such requiring Jews to declare their financial assets, carry identification papers at all times, or change their names.
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.
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.
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.
Käthe Hoerlin and Regina Ullmann had at least three things in common: both had Jewish ancestors, both converted to Catholicism, and both had the trajectories of their lives impacted by the Nazi regime. Regina Ullmann, a poetess and writer, was expelled from the Association for the Protection of the Rights of German Authors (Schutzverband Deutscher Schriftsteller) and left Germany to return to her native St. Gallen, Switzerland. Käthe Hoerlin’s first husband, the music critic Willi Schmid, was executed by the regime in 1934 in a case of mistaken identity. Days after this tragedy, Käthe, who was the secretary of the ill-fated Nanga Parbat expedition, got news that nine of its participants had died trying to climb the famed Himalayan peak. In 1938, thanks to the help of a Nazi official who had assisted her with her compensation claims after Schmid’s death, she got permission to get married to the non-Jewish alpinist and physicist Hermann Hoerlin (marriages between “half-Jews,” as she was classified, and “persons of German blood” required special permits which were rarely given). Hoerlin was highly critical of the regime’s interference in scientific research. This letter, which exudes sincere empathy and interest in her friend’s well-being in her new surroundings as well as groundedness in her Catholic identity, was written by Regina Ullmann just after the Hoerlins had emigrated to the United States.
When 28-year-old Kurt Kleinmann of Vienna wrote to the Kleinmans in America, he could not have hoped for a kinder, more exuberant response than what he received from 25-year-old Helen. After finding the address of a Kleinman family in the US, Kurt had asked the total strangers in a letter dated May 25 to help him leave Austria by providing him with an affidavit. He had finished law school in Vienna and was now running his father’s wine business. Helen readily adopts the theory that the Kleinmanns and the Kleinmans might actually be related to one another, promising her “cousin” to procure an affidavit for him within the week. Affably and vivaciously, she assures him that the Kleinmans will correspond with him to make the time until departure feel shorter.
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.
The Zionist Federation of Germany was in a tricky position. While it supported the emigration of Jews from Nazi Germany, it struggled with the consequences of constantly losing capable staff members, especially on the leadership level. Nevertheless, Benno Cohn, member of the Federation’s executive board, generously supported yet another departing colleague with a deeply appreciative letter of recommendation. Rudolf Friedmann had been associated with the Zionist Central Office since 1933 in various capacities, serving it with the utmost diligence and dedication. Cohn praises his organizational abilities and ideas and warmly recommends Friedmann to any Zionist or other Jewish organization.
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.
The German lawyer Paul Schrag was employed at the Institut d’Economie Européenne in Brussels. He was planning to embark on the journey to the United States from Le Havre on July 15 with his Jewish wife, Suzanne, and their infant child. In his letter of July 2 to Prof. Max Gutzwiller in Fribourg, Switzerland, Schrag asks for a letter of reference for use in the United States. Gutzwiller, a fierce critic of the Nazis and also married to a Jewish woman, had left his chair for German Private Law and Roman Law at the University of Heidelberg in 1936. Schrag obviously enjoyed the esteem of his employers. The management of the institute had agreed to reserve the position of director general for him until the end of the year and even entrusted him with a “research mission” in order to enable him to look into his professional prospects in America without major pressure.
The observance of Shabbat, holidays, and kashrut was so deeply ingrained in the life of the Lamm family in Munich that even the Catholic cook, Babett, saw to it that the traditional customs were adhered to. While traditional in their understanding of Judaism, the Lamms were open to worldly matters. After high school, Hans briefly studied law, but, understanding that in the new political climate, there was no way a Jew could advance in the field, he embarked on a career in journalism instead. The career paths of Jewish jounalists at the time were also stymied by the fact that non-Jewish papers would not hire them and Jewish ones were forced to close down one by one. In 1937, Lamm relocated to Berlin, where he studied with Leo Baeck and Ismar Elbogen at the Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, in order to deepen his understanding of Judaism. Deeply rooted in German culture as he was, it was difficult for him to decide to emigrate. Yet eventually, his older brother convinced him that there was no future for Jews in Germany. In this letter, the 25 year-old Lamm cordially and politely, yet without palpable emotion, bids farewell to the editors of the Jewish monthly, Der Morgen, a high-level publication to which he had been contributing, expressing his gratitude for their support.
While antisemitism was by no means a new phenomenon in Yugoslavia—as a matter of fact, especially since World War I, the entire political spectrum found reasons to attack Jews—under the impact of events in Germany, the situation deteriorated in the 1930s. Fritz Schwed from Nuremberg was under no illusions regarding his and his family’s temporary refuge. In this lengthy letter to his old friend from Nuremberg days, Fritz Dittmann, who had fled to New York, Schwed describes the dismal situation of emigrants in Yugoslavia, who are routinely expelled with just 24 hours’ notice. Even older people who have resided in the country for decades are not exempt from this cruel policy. Emigrants are forbidden to work, and when they are caught flouting the prohibition, they have to be prepared for immediate expulsion. Concluding that “There no longer is room for German Jews in Yugoslavia, and it seems to me, nowhere else in Europe, either,” Schwed explores possibilities to immigrate to Australia or South America.
The first major rupture in artist Gustav Wolf’s biography had occurred during World War I. He had volunteered for frontline duty and was badly injured. His brother Willy was killed in combat. The works in which he processed his wartime experiences leave no doubt about his feelings. Instead of glorifying war, he shows its horrors. His confrontation with antisemitism during and after the war led him to an increased awareness of his own Jewishness. In 1920 he accepted a professorship at the Baden Art School in Karlsruhe, trying to realize his ideal of an equitable partnership between teacher and student. After a year, he quit this “dead activity,” referring to the school as “an academy of schemers.” In 1929, he designed the set for Fritz Lang’s silent film “Woman in the Moon,” an early science-fiction movie. Upon the Nazi rise to power in 1933, he canceled his memberships with all the artists’ associations to which he had belonged. In his letter to the Baden Secession, he explained his decision with the following words: “I must first get my bearings again. The foundations of my existence have been called into question and shaken.” After extended stays in Switzerland, Italy and Greece, he returned to Germany in 1937. In February 1938, he boarded a ship to New York. June 26, 1938 was his 49th birthday.
In Anni Buff’s personal recipe book, dated June 25, 1938, traditional Bavarian dishes, like liver dumplings, Christmas stollen, and cottage cheese doughnuts, certainly outweighed traditional Jewish ones, such as matzo balls. The Jewish community in her native Krumbach was well integrated. Since its peak in the early 19th century, when it constituted about 46% of the population, its ranks had declined considerably, and by 1933, only 1,5% of Krumbachers were Jewish. In spite of this negligible presence of Jews, National Socialism with its rabidly antisemitic message took hold fast, and even before it became national policy, Jews in the little town were harassed by SA men. By 1938, the abuse had become so unbearable that Anni’s father Julius, who dealt in upholstery material, began to explore possibilities to find a new home on safer shores, such as the US, the Dominican Republic, or Shanghai. Not even the fact that he had lost a brother in WWI and had himself served in the 16. Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment—along with a young Austrian named Adolf Hitler—did anything to improve his standing with Nazi authorities.
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.
After his first official attempt to immigrate had failed under adventurous circumstances, 20 year-old Heinz Ries of Berlin made another effort to get permission to live in the US permanently and legally. For months, he had struggled in the shadows as an undocumented immigrant in New York. After obtaining an affidavit of support, Ries traveled to Havana and visited the US consulate there on June 23, 1938. Finally, he was admitted legal entry into the United States. After the war he returned to Germany for some time, first in the employment of the Allies, then as a photo journalist for the New York Times. The photographs of the Berlin Blockade and the Airlift, taken during these years, made him world-famous under the name Henry Ries.
Samuel (later “Billy”) Wilder had a mind of his own: born in 1906 into an Austrian-Jewish family in the Galician town of Sucha Beskidzka, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was expected to join his father’s business, which consisted mainly of a chain of railroad restaurants. But after the Realgymnasium and a brief stint at law school in Vienna (he dropped out after three months), he decided to follow his true leanings. At the paper Die Stunde, a tabloid of questionable repute, he got his first shot at practicing his writing skills. In 1926, an opportunity arose for him to move to Berlin, where he freelanced for various tabloids and took up screenwriting. After the Nazis’ ascent to power, Wilder first moved to Paris and was given the opportunity to direct his first movie, Mauvaise graine. In 1934 he entered the US on a visitors visa. From 1936, he was under contract at Paramount Pictures. June 22, 1938 was his 32nd birthday – the sixth he celebrated in exile.
As the influx of refugees from Nazi Germany intensified, what had begun in 1934 as the anniversary brochure of the German Jewish Club in New York quickly turned into a professional publication and a lifeline for the uprooted. With its offer of a wide range of cultural and athletic activities, the monthly was an emotional anchor for the newcomers, but it also offered practical help getting settled in the new country. This issue of the Aufbau from June 1938 features a large number of rental ads, mostly for fully furnished rooms, often in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Northern Manhattan, thereby giving some extra income to the owners or main tenants while providing affordable housing to refugees who usually arrived with very little money and property.
At a time when more and more German Jews became anxious to leave the country, this letter from a German-Jewish emigrant in Shanghai, addressed to the “gentlemen of the Hilfsverein [Aid Society of Jews in Germany]” and published in the “Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Berlin,” must have infused prospective emigrants with new hope: the writer exuberantly thanks the Hilfsverein for counseling him and gushes over the multitude of professional options available to immigrants at his new location, “provided, of course, that you have a skill and are able to work intensely.” According to him, musicians, physicians, and merchants are greatly in demand, and the situation is especially promising for secretaries and shorthand typists – on condition that they have perfect command of the English language, which could by no means be taken for granted among German Jews. The newcomers were not the only Jews in the country; a Sephardic community had been present in Shanghai since the middle of the 19th century, and settlement by Ashkenazi Jews had begun in the early 20th century and intensified in the wake of the Russian Revolution.