The Anschluss, Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany in March 1938, precipitated a wave of anti-Jewish violence. Emboldened by their new status and by the utter defenselessness of the Jewish population, Nazis and their sympathizers entered Jewish homes and seized whatever property they liked. Jewish-run businesses were ransacked or destroyed, and Jews of all ages were forced to carry out the demeaning task of scrubbing streets to remove political slogans under the eyes of jeering onlookers. With no protection to be expected from police, a feeling of utter abandonment and hopelessness drove many Jews to take their own lives. In the first two months after the Anschluss, 218 Jews escaped the state-sanctioned cruelty by taking their own lives. The JTA’s June 7 dispatch lists the most recent suicides—including that of a family of four—and deaths at the Dachau concentration camp.
Nobody saw fit to inform the worried wives of thousands of Jewish men arrested by the Nazis about their spouses’ whereabouts and the expected period of imprisonment. Many of them decided to go to the Rossauer Lände detention facility and the central police station in order to get information on the whereabouts of their loved ones. According to this June 3 report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the detainees had been taken away in overcrowded railroad cars, many of them forced to remain in uncomfortable positions for up to five hours before departure. While there were intimations that those sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany would be exploited as construction workers in order to enlarge the camp and subsequently be released, many had no idea where their husbands were. The author of the report sees the “extraordinary callousness with which police have withheld information” as “one of the most terrifying aspects of the situation.”
Time and again, unsettling news about sectarian violence in Palestine reached Jewish readers in the diaspora. On May 25, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a prime source of information on the situation of the Jews under the Nazis and of developments in the Yishuv, reports under the headline “6 Deaths Added to Terror Toll in Palestine.” It writes about the latest victims in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tiberias—both Jews and Arabs—and the circumstances of their deaths.
Nothing in this May 19 Jewish Telegraphic Agency report from its Jerusalem correspondent could provide German or Austrian Jews eager to leave for safer shores with the hope that life in Palestine would grant them peace and quiet. Between Arab attacks on Jewish workers or Jewish-built infrastructure and labor unrest among unemployed Jews, the only reassuring aspect of Palestine was its distance from the epicenter of Nazi activity. Since the beginning of the Great Revolt, Arabs, British, and Jews in Palestine had been embroiled in an often violent conflict—scarcely an attraction for weary Central-European Jews eager for peace.
The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938 had brought an abrupt end to 1,000 years of Jewish life in the Burgenland region, Austria’s easternmost state. The expulsion of the small Jewish population, carried out by the SS, local Nazi officials, and civilian collaborators, commenced immediately. This article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on the League of Nations’ intervention on behalf of 56 expellees who had ended up in “no man’s land” in the border area between Austria and Yugoslavia. The League’s High Commissioner for German Refugees requested the temporary accommodation of the displaced persons by Yugoslavia, to be followed by permanent resettlement elsewhere.
A month and a half after the “Anschluss,” Paul Steiner is still incredulous. Everything seems so unbelievable, he writes in his diary, that “even ones own words are becoming astonishing and dubious.” He wonders what the outside world is doing for the Jews in light of German barbarity, especially for the Burgenland Jews, who were brutally expelled right after the “Anschluss” and ended up stranded in totally inadequate shelters while their belongings were appropriated by their former neighbors. Steiner also imagines the “revenge” that Jews will exact, shaming the world with their achievements once they are given the right to self-determination.
This advertising brochure shows the Prater, a large public garden and popular amusement park in Vienna’s central 2nd district, in the 1930s. Here, on Saturday, April 23, hundreds of Viennese Jews were rounded up and subjected to beatings and maltreatment in front of jeering onlookers. Some were forced to eat grass. Jews of both sexes, regardless of age and health, were made to run in circles until they collapsed. Many of those thus humiliated suffered heart attacks, some died.
In the wake of Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, the Polish parliament (“Sejm”), fearing the return of up to 20,000 Polish citizens from Austria, passed a bill according to which Poles who had lived abroad for more than five years were to lose their citizenship. The situation of the Jews had improved somewhat under the Piłsudski government (1926–1935), but after the marshal’s death, especially in the atmosphere created by the “Camp of National Unity” (from 1937 onward), antisemitism was resurgent. Universities applied quotas to Jewish students and introduced “ghetto benches” for them, Jews were held responsible for the Great Depression, Jewish business were boycotted and looted, and hundreds of Jews were physically harmed, some killed.
After their triumphant entry into Austria, the Nazis lost no time in intimidating the country’s Jews and forcing them out of positions of influence and out of society at large. Prominent bankers and businessmen were arrested, other Jews—especially those employed in fields that were considered “Jewish,” such as the theater and the press—removed from office and replaced by “Aryans.” At the same time that the atmosphere in Austria became unbearably hostile towards Jews, organizations aiming to facilitate Jewish emigration to Palestine were raided and it was announced that the passports of “certain people” would be voided. It bears mentioning that the number of Jews in Austria in March 1938 was about 206,000—no more than 3% of the total population.
Already under the short-lived Goga-Cuza government, half of the Jews living in Romania had been condemned to statelessness by having their citizenship revoked. The city of Iași, where in 1855 Romania’s first Yiddish newspaper had been printed and in which Yiddish theater saw its beginnings with the opening of Goldfaden’s theater in 1876, had an especially high percentage of Jewish inhabitants. In February 1938, George Gedye, a reporter dispatched by the New York Times, reports on excesses against Jewish citizens by “a brutal and unscrupulous minority.”
As the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany deteriorated from day to day, the anti-Semitic atmosphere in other countries became increasingly tense. In neighboring Poland, anti-Semitic voices became louder and louder. As the C.V.-Zeitung, the organ of the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, reported, the Lower House of the Polish Parliament expressed its anti-Jewish sentiments in the form of a plan to remove Jews from the country: it called for the emigration of at least 100,000 Jews annually. Besides Palestine, Madagascar was discussed as a possible destination. The case of Polish Prime Minister Sławoj Składkowski shows how widely antisemitism was accepted: commenting on the “unpleasant events” (presumably, the numerous cases of physical violence against Jews), he claimed that Jews themselves were to blame, due to their lack of understanding of Polish peasantry, which, just as the Jews themselves, was striving for a higher standard of living.
When German Jews considered the various emigration options in January 1938, Palestine might have seemed a dangerous destination. As the Jüdische Rundschau reported, in the same month, attacks against Jewish inhabitants and clashes between Jews and Arabs occurred in numerous places in Palestine. Apart from local resistance, the paper mentioned Syrian terrorists, the smuggling of weapons from Libya, and the refusal of the Egyptian government to conduct direct Arab-Jewish negotiations. In light of these facts, emigrating to Palestine could appear to the prospective emigrants like jumping from the frying pan into the fire rather than finding a safe refuge.