Introduction to Rescue in Germany


Jews had lived in Germany for more than a thousand years.  When Hitler came to power in April 1933, 503,000 Jews lived in Germany out of a population of 65 million.  (This constituted 0.8% of the total population.)  Approximately 20 percent of Jews living in Germany, 99,000 Jews, were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. 

German Jews had been emancipated in 1871 and were integrated into Germany’s political, social and economic life.  Jews had entered many of the middle and upper class professions.

In April 1933, Hitler began to institute laws squeezing Jews out of the economic, social, political and cultural life of Germany. 

In 1935, the infamous Nuremberg Laws were passed.  These laws were designed to force German and foreign Jews to leave the country.  Jewish businesses were confiscated, bank accounts were frozen, and Jews were excluded from many of the professions. 

Between April 1933 and May 1939, 304,000 German Jews left.  They went to the following countries: United States (63,000); Palestine (55,000); Great Britain (40,000); France (30,000); and Argentina (25,000).

In February 1938, Joachim von Ribbentrop was appointed Foreign Minister of Germany.  Ribbentrop observed: “We all want to get rid of our Jews.  The difficulty is that no country wishes to receive them.”

Between 1936 and 1938, the Reich Office of Migration in the German Ministry of the Interior, was in charge of emigration.  Initially, it was led by a group of sympathetic, non-Nazi administrators.  They worked closely with Jewish relief organizations in helping refugees leave Germany.  These individuals worked to see that when Jewish refugees left Germany, they still had some of their money, their assets, and a little dignity.  Before these officials were removed from their positions, they stated that if Jews were to be forced out of the country, the process should be carried out “in a manner befitting a civilized nation.” 

These Interior Ministry officers advocated for resettlement options for Jews in England, France, Italy, Central and South America and the USA.

After 1938, the Office of Migration was taken over by members of the Nazi party and rabid anti-Semites.

Hitler stated, in a speech to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, “It is a shameful example to observe today how the entire democratic world dissolves in tears of pity but then, in spite of its obvious duty to help, closes its heart to the poor, tortured people.”

A number of important organizations helped Jews emigrate from Nazi Germany.  Among them was the Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden (RV), which became the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland (RVE) in 1939.  The Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden, which was originally established in 1901, became part of the RVE, helping Jews emigrate to places other than Palestine.  The Jewish Agency for Palestine (JA) maintained the Palästina-Amt, which helped Jews immigrate to Palestine before 1941.

The American Jewish Joint appropriated millions of dollars to help the Jews of Germany emigrate.  HIAS-HICEM helped arrange for Jews to get documentation, including passports and visas from foreign consulates.  HIAS-HICEM also helped in chartering ships.

On November 9, 1938, the Kristallnacht pogrom, the “Night of Broken Glass,” was perpetrated against the Jewish community.  Dozens of Jews were killed.  Thousands of Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or looted.  Dozens of synagogues were burned.  Thousands of German and Austrian Jews were arrested and interned in concentration camps.  The Nazi government even imposed a tax on Jews to cover the insurance costs incurred by the destruction. 

In 1939, Eichmann set up an Office of Forced Emigration in Germany.  Jews were arrested and placed in concentration camps under the threat of death if they did not leave Germany. 

In late 1939, 215,000 Jews remained in Germany.  Emigration from Germany was increasingly difficult due to restrictive immigration quotas in the countries of the free world.

During this period, the need for visas and other documents grew steadily more critical.  Their availability was also more scarce.  Various governments were tightening their visa regulations to their embassies and consulates in Nazi occupied capitals.  Traffic in illegal and counterfeit visas was rampant.  Unscrupulous travel agents and ships companies would obtain visas and sell them to the desperate refugees at exorbitant rates.  Oftentimes, even at these high rates, the papers were worth the price; it would mean the difference between life and death.

After October 1941, the Nazi government made emigration illegal for Jews.

330,000 German Jews were able to emigrate and survive the war.  Between 424,500 and 431,500 German Jews survived the war.  This was approximately 75% of German Jews.

The history of emigration from Germany is divided into several distinct periods.  Between 1933 and 1937, the bureaucracy for forcing Jews out was fairly liberal.  Jews were forced to pay a flight tax and turn in their property, but there was fairly little obstruction to the process.  Everything was well organized.  Jews could obtain their emigration papers, settle their accounts, and even transfer money to the country of their destination.

From 1936 to 1938, the Gestapo became more and more powerful.  It inserted itself into the complex bureaucracy for Jews leaving Germany.  Arthur Prinz, a Jew who was working for the Hilfsverein, wrote:

“In 1936 and 1937 the officials of the Reichswanderungsamt still felt themselves safe within their own sphere of activity.  They fearlessly declared that, in their view, if emigration had to be forced on the Jews at all, it should be carried out ‘in a manner befitting a civilized nation.’  This produced an extremely benevolent attitude in all questions of transfer of Jewish property.  The Reichswanderungsamt  by no means wanted to chase the Jews penniless across the frontier.

“These circumstances made it possible to pursue a productive and efficiently directed Jewish emigration policy in the period between the adoption of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, and the so-called ‘Juniaktion’ (June Operation) of June 1938.  It is mainly due to this policy that a great part of the Jewish emigrants reached countries in which they were able to take root, build a new life and often find a new homeland.

“But even in this period a constant shift of the political centre of gravity in Germany was noticeable, a shift which also affected Jewish efforts at emigration in an ever-increasing degree.  It has been stated above that in 1936-1937 the officials of the Reichswanderungsamt as well as a large part of the older officials of other ministries still considered themselves masters in their own homes who dared to take decisions.  But this situation radically changed in the course of 1938.  When in December 1938 officers of the Hilfsverein and of the Reichsvertretung called at the Reichswanderungsamt in order to secure alleviation of the terms for the release of 30,000 Jews who had been detained in concentration camps—namely emigration within a few weeks—the situation was as follows:  the entire pogrom and the mass arrest of nearly 30,000 Jews had been staged absolutely without the knowledge of the Reichswanderungsamt whose officials openly showed their consternation at the news we reported.  I personally remember a discussion with the Director of the Auswandererberatungsstelle (Advisory Office for Emigrants) in Linkstresse, in which that official expressed his fears and his sympathy for us.  The officials fully realized that the Gestapo’s conditions for the release of the Jews detained in the concentration camps, namely emigration within a few weeks, could not be met or would at best lead within the shortest time to chaos and the eventual total collapse of Jewish emigration...

“The Gestapo was not in the least interested in an orderly emigration.  On the contrary, already in 1938, long before the pogrom, an increasingly unbearable pressure was brought to bear which pretty soon set all our planning at naught….

“The Gestapo’s policy to force Jewish emigration by pressure, showed itself for the first time in its full extent in the so-called ‘Juniaktion’ (June Operation) of 1938…”  The June Operation was the forced emigration of Jews who had police records.

“The detainees of the June Operation were released only if and when arrangements had been made for their emigration directly from the concentration camps.  After the June Operation the Jewish emigration authorities no longer had any choice but to create legal or illegal emigration possibilities for these persons, whose lives were in danger as long as they were held in the concentration camps.

“It can be said that the June Operation of 1938 marked the beginning of the end of Jewish emigration policy.  Jewish emigration policy had been fertile and effective in the period between the Nuremberg Laws and the June Operation.  Between the June Operation and the November Operation, Jewish emigration policy had to contend with growing difficulties and was more or less forced to dig its own grave.  After the November Operation, Jewish emigration policy was being ground between two millstones until eventually nothing was left of it.  These two millstones were the pressure brought to bear by the Gestapo as a helper of Jewish emigration, and the counter-pressure which the Gestapo or the authorities working with it such as the Ministry of Propaganda and the Overseas Organization of Herr Bohle exerted for the prevention of Jewish emigration into other countries.  These two aspects of National Socialist conduct are more closely described in the following.

“The Gestapo and the newspaper closest to it ‘Das Schwarze Korps’ (The Black Corps)—organ of the S.S.—openly declared that Germany must be made ‘judenrein’ (free of Jews) within the shortest possible time and that the Jewish emigration organizations were working far too slowly. The trustees of the Reichsvertretung and of the Hilfsverein, especially Dr. Eppstein, were summoned ever more frequently to report and explain why the number of Jewish emigrants was not greater.  It is significant of the attitude of the Gestapo that in the beginning it was definitely possible on such occasions to present requests such as, for instance, for the facilitation of property transfers, which the prevailing situation and the steady decline of the Sperrmark (blocked Mark) made a vital point for emigration, because most overseas countries required the possession of certain sums of money or similar conditions before they issued their visas.  Later on, the attitude of the Nazis in all these matters became ever more negative and their tendency to operate by coercion and threats seemed to increase from month to month.”


Berlin, Germany

Berlin was the capital of Germany.  Jews had lived in Berlin since the Middle Ages.

When the Nazis came to power, there were 172,000 Jews residing in Berlin. 

In June 1938, there was a mass arrest of Berlin Jews.  They were sent to and imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. 

In the Kristallnacht action of November 9-10, 1938, 10,000 Jews, mostly community leaders, were arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen.  After that time, Jews were prohibited from traveling the main streets or thoroughfares, gathering in public areas or near government offices.

Soon, thousands of Jews were thrown out of their houses and apartments.  All but one of the Jewish newspapers were closed.  The remaining Jewish newspaper was forced to publish Nazi proclamations and announcements.  At that time, all but three Jewish synagogues were closed.

In January 1939, the Central Bureau of Jewish Emigration was established by Adolf Eichmann and the Gestapo.  This was based on a similar office set up in Vienna.  Jewish community leaders were forced to expedite the emigration of German Jews.

During this period, numerous international diplomats sent detailed reports regarding the treatment and persecution of Jews in Germany.  Many of these diplomats abhorred the ruthless actions against Jews, and their reports reflected this.  Some of these diplomats even recommended public protests against the actions. 

In April 1933, there were 160,564 Jews in Berlin.  By 1939, the number was reduced to 82,788, most having emigrated.  In October 1941, the possibility of emigration was suspended.  By January 1942, there were approximately 65,000 Jews remaining in Berlin.  The majority of Berlin Jews survived the war.


Updated October 29, 2017