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Of the 125,000 German-Jewish refugees that arrived in America in the 30s and 40s, about half came to New York. Refugees from Berlin and northern regions of Germany gravitated to the Upper West Side and Queens, while those from southern Germany and more rural communities preferred Washington Heights.
In the Heights, refugees saw familiar names and faces, German-speaking businesses and clubs, and Jewish institutions established by those of East-European descent who had made their way uptown in the years prior.
By the end of the 1930s, approximately 37 percent of Washington Heights was Jewish, most German-speaking.
Many of the refugees moving to Washington Heights were young, single adults–too old to go to high school, working long hours, and lacking opportunities for mingling with American peers.
In the late 1930s, social clubs helped refugees find a mate. By the early 40s, most young refugees were married and had started families, so religious institutions played an important and natural role in the community. A strong network of institutions in Washington Heights brought the generations together, strengthened bonds within the community, and created stability for the German-Jewish enclave.
The YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood ("the Y") was established in 1917 as one of the first Jewish community centers in the city. It was initially located on 159th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, and moved to Nagel Avenue in 1956. Because of the inclusive character of the Y, it was easy for German-speaking refugees to become members and partake in language classes, activities, and summer camps for children. Alongside the East-European Jews who had come to Washington Heights earlier, some refugees attended synagogue services and other offerings at the Y.
George Washington High School on West 193rd Street provided a formative experience for many teens coming of age in the Heights. Newcomers went to classes with other immigrants, refugees, and Americans, and they became accustomed to working and playing together. Schools also benefitted parents and family members at home, who might not otherwise have had reason to interact with families outside their own social circles.
The Aufbau began in 1934 as the twelve-page, monthly newsletter of the New World Club of German-Jewish immigrants living on the Upper West Side. The Aufbau's opening pages typically reported on world events, interior pages were filled with marriage announcements, obituaries, apartment listings, and ads for local businesses.
Starting in 1940, an alternative German-language paper, The Jewish Way, was issued twice per week from Washington Heights, with greater focus on "Jewish faith, Jewish honor, Jewish rights, and the Jewish future," in contrast to the more literary and Berlin-influenced Aufbau.
In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Washington Heights was home to a wide array of ethnic groups–including Irish, Armenians, Greeks, and Russians. And while all lived in close proximity to other in the Heights, in many ways they lived in separate worlds.
Broadway was a major dividing line, with Irish businesses on the east side of the street, and Jewish businesses on the west. Relations between these two groups alternated from distant to confrontational–fueled by competition for housing, socioeconomic differences, and city politics.
German-Jewish newcomers generally settled west of Broadway, between the 150s and the 180s, with a concentration along Fort Washington Avenue, sometimes referred to as "The Fourth Reich" by outsiders. Acts of prejudice, antisemitism, vandalism, bullying, and hostility between groups was part of life in the Heights.