Emigration as Rescue and Trauma: The Historical Context of the Kindertransport

By Benz, Wolfgang | Shofar, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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Emigration as Rescue and Trauma: The Historical Context of the Kindertransport


Benz, Wolfgang, Shofar


Why did the majority of German Jews not escape the impending catastrophe caused by Hitler and the National Socialists by fleeing from Hitler's sphere of influence? Those who ask this naive question neither think about the economical and administrative difficulties which stand in the way of emigration nor do they consider the political hurdles put in the way of German, and later other European, Jews by potential receiving countries. Loss of status, almost always incurred by emigration, and a lack of professional qualifications for the country of immigration proved further difficulties. Assimilated German Jews' identification with Germany was a significant, maybe even the most significant reason, which stood psychologically in the way of emigration.(1)

Very few German Jews reacted to the new German government with thoughts of emigration. The realization that the basis for Jewish life in Germany was lost was not widespread among Jews in the spring of 1933. The difficulties of emigration (these ranged from the "Reichsfluchtsteuer" emigration tax and progressive economic harassment to pillage and plunder before emigration) were one hurdle; the problems posed by the immigration authorities (proof of available means, professional qualifications, affidavits and guarantors) were the other.(2)

At the time of Hitler's rise to power 550,000 Jews lived in Germany. Only 38,000 left in 1933. In 1934 the number of emigrants came to 23,000, whereas in 1935 20,000 German Jews emigrated. The Nuremberg Laws, which classified the Jews of Germany as second-class citizens without political rights, caused a small increase (25,000). During the year of the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936, emigration declined again. The biggest exodus, amounting to 40,000 emigrants, took place in 1938 and was caused by antisemitic harassment following the Anschluss of Austria, which had a Jewish population of 190,000, and following the November pogrom in Germany. In 1939, 75,000 to 80,000 Jews left the National Socialist sphere of influence. By 1939 it was clear that anti-Jewish policies were being stepped up; this became apparent in the violent expulsion of 17,000 Polish Jews, in the pogroms of "Kristallnacht," and in numerous laws and policies including required registration of Jewish possessions and the compulsory addition of Sara and Israel as additional forenames for Jews.

To start with, France was the most favored country of exile; Austria (until 1938), Czechoslovakia, and the Saarland, which was under a mandate by the League of Nations, were the first stages. Up to the autumn of 1938, 11,000 Jews fled to Great Britain, but after the November pogrom another 40,000 found refuge there. Palestine and the U.S. were the most popular destinations for exile. Because of the restrictive quota system introduced by Britain in Palestine, which it held under a League of Nations mandate, only a small number of the Jews wishing to immigrate there were allowed to do so. The British tried to prevent illegal immigration by all possible means. A quota system also regulated entry to the U.S.A., and this was coupled with the requirement to provide an affidavit from a U.S. citizen guaranteeing that the immigrant would not become a burden to the welfare system. Less than 50,000 German Jews found refuge in Palestine, whereas 130,000 made a new home in the U.S.A. All in all, only half of the German Jewish population succeeded in escaping National Socialist persecution by emigrating.(3)

Until 1939 the National Socialist government both encouraged and hindered emigration simultaneously. Forcing Jews out of the economy increased their desire to emigrate, but the plundering of Jewish capital and high taxes hindered them from doing so. The insidious nature of the regime revealed itself in its hope of exporting antisemitism. This could be achieved, it was calculated, if the expelled impoverished Jews became a social problem in their country of exile. After the Anschluss of Austria and annexation of the Sudeten German regions, the flight of Jews from the National Socialist sphere of influence became the main focus of attention in the neighboring states.

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