Introduction to Rescue in Austria - Vienna


Jews established a community in Vienna as early as the Twelfth Century.

Jews were granted residential rights to live in Vienna in 1867.

Jews had lived in relative peace in the Austro-Hungarian Empire for generations.  In the 19th an 20th Centuries, they had been an important part of the Austrian economy, participating in business, the arts and education.

Vienna was the birthplace of Zionism and the residence of many modern Zionist leaders.

Vienna was the capitol of the Hapsburg Empire.

By the 20th Century, Austria was at the middle of a modern wave of antisemitism.

Most of the Jews of Austria lived in Vienna.  Jews comprised 10% of the population of Vienna.  At the time of the German Anschluss in March 1938, there were 185,000 Jews in Austria.  170,000 of them lived in Vienna.

Most Austrians welcomed the Nazi annexation (Anschluss), which occurred on March 11, 1938.

Immediately after the Germans arrived, they enforced Nuremberg-style laws against Austrian Jews.  These laws, like those in Germany, were intended to remove Jewish wealth and remove Jews from the economic, political and social spheres of Austrian life.  Whereas the Jews in Germany were subject to five years of increasing persecution, the Jews of Austria suffered the full force of the Nuremberg laws all at once.  Jews were treated as subjects in Austria and not as citizens.

On March 18, 1938, Himmler set up a Gestapo and SS headquarters in Vienna’s Metropol Hotel.  Himmler was given authority to enforce new antisemitic laws “even beyond the usual appointed legal limits.”  On that same day, 444 Jewish organizations in Vienna were closed and 181 in the Austrian provinces.  One hundred ten Jewish leaders were arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp.

From March through September 1938, 13,600 Jewish families were forced from their homes and apartments.  Soon thereafter, 9,000 of these properties were confiscated.

On May 2, 1938, the Kultusgemeinde office (IKG) was reopened.  Its principal purpose was to help the Gestapo facilitate the forced emigration of Austria’s Jews.

Jewish community leaders, including Dr. Joseph Löwenherz, head of the IKG, were forced to cooperate in the expropriation of Jewish property and the forced emigration.  Unlike German Jews, Austrian Jews had no time to adjust to the persecution.  Mass emigration began immediately.  Löwenherz saw Shanghai, China, as a major destination for Austrian Jews.

On May 24-27, 1938, 2,000 Jews were deported to Dachau.

Almost immediately, the property of Jews, including businesses, homes and commercial properties, began to be Aryanized, that is, confiscated and put in the hands of non-Jews.  By September 1939, 18,800 Jewish businesses were closed or confiscated.

By March 1939, 28,000 Jews were in need of public assistance.  By March 1940, the number was up to 43,000.

In August 1938, Adolph Eichmann set up the Zentralstelle für Judische Auswanderung (Office of Jewish Emigration) in the Jewish Kulturgemeinde building.  He confiscated the list of Jews, including names and addresses.

Eichmann bragged about the efficiency of the new Office of Jewish Emigration. 

“You put in a Jew at one end, with property, a shop, a bank account and legal rights.  He passed through the building and came out at the other end without property, without privileges, without rights, with nothing except a passport and order to leave the country within a fortnight; otherwise he would find himself inside a concentration camp.”

In October 4-6, 1940, there were attacks on the Jews of Vienna and its suburbs.  These attacks continued almost daily.

On Kristallnacht, “Night of Broken Glass,” November 10, 1938, hundreds of Jewish homes and shops had their windows broken or were looted or burned.  Forty-nine synagogues were burned.  This was a systematic and well-planned and organized action.  3,600 Austrian Jews were arrested and interned in Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen.  Jews were given an ultimatum of leaving the country or remaining in the camps.

An American newspaper correspondent observed:

“For the first few weeks, the behavior of the Vienna Nazis was worse than anything I had seen in Germany.  There was an orgy of sadism.  Day after day, large numbers of Jewish men and women could be seen scrubbing Schuschnigg signs off the sidewalk and cleaning the gutters.  While they worked on their hands and knees with jeering storm troopers standing over them, crowds gathered to taunt them.  Hundreds of Jews, men and women, were picked off the streets and put to work cleaning public latrines and the toilets of the barracks where the S.A. and S.S. were quartered.  Tens of thousands more were jailed.  Their worldly possessions were confiscated or stolen…Perhaps half of the city’s 180,000 Jews managed, by the time the war started, to purchase their freedom to emigrate by handing over what they owned to the Nazis.”

Moshe Auerbach, a community leader, reported on the chaos of leaving the country:

“Hundreds, maybe thousands of Jews have been ordered to leave the country within a short period.  The Jewish Community and the Palestine Office are packed with people.  The Jewish Community is endeavoring to send people off to various countries, but…the openings for emigration are very limited.  One has to admire the skill of the masses to find their way to various countries such as Trinidad, Haiti, San Domingo, etc.  Indeed, the situation here is such that the only solution is to leave as soon as possible; here one has nothing to live on, no where to live…Despair is so great that people are ready to live in detention centers abroad.  Leading personalities of public institutions have become reconciled to the idea that the days of the Vienna Jewish Community are numbered, at most one year or two.”

Several sympathetic diplomats provided necessary papers to leave Austria, including Dr. Feng Shan Ho (China), Kauko Supanen (Finland), Radu Flondor (Romania) and the British consulate, among others.

In order to leave Austria, Jews were forced to pay an exorbitant “flight tax” to the Gestapo.  If they were planning to go to Palestine, the Gestapo also extorted high fees for these documents.

One major route of escape for Jewish refugees was the Mossad Aliyah Bet, or Illegal Immigration organization.  Vienna became a major transit point for refugees leaving Austria, Poland, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania for Palestine.  Numerous transports were organized using the Danube River as a point of exit.  Dr. William Perl and Moshe Krivoshen-Gallili, with the Maccabi Zionist Movement, organized a major rescue effort called Af-Al-Pi, Hebrew for “Despite Everything.”  He established an escape route that eventually helped nearly 40,000 Jews leave Central Europe.

Dr. William Perl writes about obtaining visas in Vienna and Prague: 

“Our offices in Vienna and in Prague, therefore, undertook to provide these destination visas, or end visas as we called them.  In Vienna, Heinrich Haller, Paul Haller’s brother, Fritz Herrenfeld, and Paul Elbogen started negotiating with the consuls of various Latin American nations as well as with the consul of Liberia.  In Prague, similar negotiations were undertaken by my cousin Robert Mandler and by two Betar leaders, Eliyahu Gleser and Emil Faltyn.  We also put our feelers out with the Berlin diplomatic representatives of Latin American countries and of Chiang Kai-shek’s China.  Several of these representatives of faraway countries agreed to “grant” invalid visas in exchange for, in their eyes, an “appropriate” consideration.  End visas were a must.  They permitted the countries of transit to claim that according to the documents our people were not headed “illegally” for Palestine, as the British maintained, but were traveling to San Salvador, China, or some other out of the way country.  By promising these countries of transit that we would relieve them of some of their refugees and by making it clear that without our activities all these people might come flooding across the borders anyway, we thus succeeded in obtaining transit visas for up to another 1,500 who were to go on the second trip of the Gepo and on the S.S. Katina (p. 143).

Word quickly spread that Af-Al-Pi was obtaining visas from sympathetic consuls throughout Europe.  The British tried to stop the flow of immigrants to Palestine.  Dr. Perl writes: “The scope of the diplomatic offensive the British were undertaking on all ‘fronts’ may be seen in a five-page directive issued by the British secretary of state, Viscount Halifax, on July 21, 1939.  In this directive, Halifax demands that the ambassadors of the following countries stationed in London ‘be summoned’ to the Foreign Office and ‘be spoken to on the subject.’  Although the net Britain spread all over Europe to achieve ‘cessation’ of our rescue action was widespread enough, the ministers of Brazil, China, Iran, Liberia, Mexico, Panama, and Santo Domingo were to be summoned.  But even this thrust did not appear to be enough for the British secretary of foreign affairs.  The ‘countries of origin’ from which Jews started out in their flight from extermination by the Nazis also needed a reprimand.  They should be enjoined not to permit such escapes.  Mr. A. W. G. Randall, Viscount Halifax’s right-hand man in the war against our rescue action, writes: ‘…countries which…may be regarded as countries of origin.  These are Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania and Bulgaria.  In many cases one of these countries is the actual country of origin of the illegal immigrant.  In all cases one or more of these countries must be crossed in transit before embarkation for Palestine.  I am to enclose drafts of dispatches to His Majesty’s representatives at Bucharest, Budapest, and Warsaw.  Instructions have already been sent to His Majesty’s Ministers at Belgrade and Sofia in telegrams of which copies are enclosed for convenience of reference.’” (Perl, pp. 179-180)

Other rescue groups that worked in Austria included the Maccabi ha Tsa’ir, led by Dr. Daniel Adolf “Dolfi” Brunner, and Agudat Israel, under Moritz Pappenheim and Julius Steinfeld.

The many relief agencies collected and distributed legitimate and bogus visas to distribute to Jewish emigrants.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had an office in Vienna and provided relief and administrative help for Jews leaving the country.  The Council for German Jewry, headquartered in London, also supplied help.

By September 1939, 126,445 Jews had emigrated from Austria.  Fifty-eight thousand remained.  In October 1939, 1,048 Jewish refugees living in Vienna were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp.  In February 1941, 5,000 Jews were deported to Poland.

After October 1941, the Nazis permanently stopped legal emigration. 

By 1941, mass deportations had begun.  By January 1942, there were only 7,000 Jews left in Austria.

In November 1942, the Kulturgemeinde was closed.

One hundred thirty-five thousand Austrian Jews successfully left Austria and survived the war.  This was 73% of the total Jewish population.


Updated October 29, 2017