Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.
September 26, 1938: 'We're Emigrating.' Page marking Rosh Hashana in scrapbook prepared by Wilhelm Hesse for his daughters Helen and Eva. Eva would go on to become one of the leading female American artists of the 20th century. (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
November 11, 1938: 'Arson.' As Jews in Chemnitz were struggling to come to terms with the brutal violence they had experienced two days before – the magnificent synagogue had been set on fire and destroyed during the November Pogroms, in the night from November 9 to 10 (later known as 'Kristallnacht' or 'Night of Broken Glass'), and 170 members of the community deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp – the community’s representative, the merchant Josef Kahn, was contacted by the town’s mayor. With mind-boggling cynicism, he demanded the removal within three days of the ruins of 'the synagogue […] which caught fire in the night from November 9th to 10th, 1938.' If the order wasn’t carried out within the prescribed time, the municipal building inspection department would arrange clearance at the owner’s expense. (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
September 4, 1938: 'A Last Class Photo.' Ten-year-old Gisela Kleinermann (top row, right) would soon say goodbye to her classmates at the Dresden Jewish school (which Jewish children were forced to attend after they were no longer permitted in German public schools), as she would soon be emigrating to the US. (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
November 15, 1938: 'A Sensitive Eccentric.' Detail of a water color portrait of a young girl by Expressionist and Dadaist artist John Hoexter. A leftist activist and idealist, he committed suicide soon after experiencing the violence of Kristallnacht, (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
November 1, 1938: 'Protest By Ballot.' Editorial in Aufbau (a Jewish newspaper in New York) exhorted the newcomers to acquire knowledge about the workings of American politics in order to be able to prevent developments similar to those that had brought the present government to power in Germany. (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
December 2, 1938: 'Kindertransport.' Following Kristallnacht, faith-based organizations in the UK lobbied for the entry of Jewish children refugees. The British government gave permission to issue visas and facilitate 10,000 children’s entry into the country. Within the shortest time, host families were recruited, donations solicited, tickets booked, transit visas organized (the children traveled via Hoek van Holland). The first group arrived on December 2. (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
Earlier this year, teacher Adam Steinmetz’s students at Fremont Middle School in Fremont, Ohio, published a class newspaper. But instead of containing local, national, and international stories from today, the tabloid was filled with “news” from Germany in 1938.
Steinmetz used the writing exercise as a way of immersing his 7th graders in that decisive year for Jews in Nazi Germany, a method of trying to help them understand the Jews’ growing desperation as persecution by the Nazi regime increased, while at the same time options for emigration decreased.
To show his students how rapidly things were deteriorating on a daily basis for German and Austrian Jews in 1938, Steinmetz used selections from 365 primary documents. He found them at “1938 Projekt: Posts from the Past,” an online initiative in both English and German of the Leo Baeck Institute (LBI).
The Leo Baeck Institute is the most significant repository of primary source material and scholarship on the Jewish communities of Central Europe over the past five centuries. LBI is based in New York and Berlin, and 30% of its budget is funded by the German government.
May 3, 1938: ‘Segregation in Kindergarten.’ Wilhelm Hesse, father of Eva Hesse — who would go on to be one of the most famous female American artists of the 20th century — kept a diary for his daughters. ‘The times have become very serious. We are depressed and despondent, and therefore there is little leisure and inclination to write and take photographs as elaborately as before,’ he wrote. (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
Every day in 2018, the project uploaded a document, photo or other personal artifact relevant to or created on the exact same date 80 years earlier, in 1938. The documents were culled from the millions of digitized pages in the LBI archive, and from partner organizations’ archives. The posts were widely shared on various social media platforms, aimed in large part at the younger audience that LBI wishes to now reach (teacher Steinmetz, 36, said he learned of the project through Twitter). There was also an associated exhibition at the Center for Jewish History in New York, and a traveling exhibition in Germany.
The project ran in 2018 to coincide with the 80th annual commemoration of the events of 1938, the year that many consider the beginning of the end for German Jewry. The year began with the Austrian Anschluss, ended with Kristallnacht, and also saw the Evian Conference that severely hampered the ability for Jewish refugees to find safe haven.
But the project’s relevance goes well beyond the 80th anniversary of the Night of the Broken Glass.
Leo Baeck Institute executive director Dr. William Weitzer (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
LBI executive director Dr. William H. Weitzer told The Times of Israel he believes “1938 Projekt” has what it takes to make events of eight decades ago come alive for younger generations.
“We’re trying to grab people with personal stories. Numbers don’t tug at the heart like a letter from an 11-year-old girl or pages from a family scrapbook. These are invitations to learn more,” Weitzer said.
Małgorzata Bakalarz-Duverger, the Center for Jewish History‘s director of academic programs, developed pedagogical materials for “1938 Projekt” and is running workshops to introduce it to educators working with students from middle school and up. She is a staunch advocate for the micro-historical approach of “1938 Projekt,” whereby learners are initially introduced to a subject by way of personal stories.
“We use the personal to get to the universal, and the historical to help make connections to the present day,” Bakalarz-Duverger said.
Still relevant dire personal situations
Those behind “1938 Projekt” intend it not only for the study of the Holocaust, but also to highlight more general lessons about authoritarian threats to democracy, refugee crises, and other connections to today’s world.
Steinmetz said he hoped his students, who are closely following news about migrants and asylum seekers on the southern border of the United States, would relate the historical plight of Jewish German refugees to current events.
June 16, 1938: ‘Clutching at Straws.’ Young Viennese teacher Erika Langstein, having experienced the persecution of Jews in the Austrian capital for several months already, sent a letter to Donald Biever, an American citizen, imploring him to help her and her Jewish father flee Austria by issuing an affidavit for them. Langstein had met Biever just once, briefly, on a train ride a year earlier. (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York)
A four-page letter written by Erika Langstein, a 19-year-old English teacher in Vienna, on June 16, 1938, to an American named Donald Biever is an easy “1938 Projekt” document for even younger students to understand and identify with. Langstein asked Biever for help in getting her and her Jewish father out of Austria. In perfect English, Langstein (whose late mother was a non-Jew) explained to Biever that following the Anschluss by Nazi Germany three months earlier, her retired banker father’s assets had been seized by the Nazis and their situation was dire. She asked Biever to secure affidavits in support of their application to immigrate to the United States.
Many German and Austrian Jews suffering from increased Nazi persecution sent such pleas to relatives and friends in the US. The desperate Langstein, however, barely knew Biever. She had met him only once — in March 1937 on a train, and had not been in touch with him since. Langstein enclosed a photo of herself to help jog Biever’s memory.
“It is very difficult to write to you because I am quite sure you have no idea who I am… I don’t know what is going to happen, but I know that we have to get out… Please try to help us,” Langstein wrote.
July 12, 1938: ‘Namesakes.’ Kurt Kleinmann from Vienna and Helen Kleinman from New York had never met in person. After Kurt came up with the creative idea to cold contact a family with a similar name in New York, hoping that his American namesakes might be willing to help him procure an affidavit, an increasingly intense correspondence developed between the young man and the Kleinmans’ daughter. (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
In a not dissimilar case, 28-year-old law school graduate Kurt Kleinmann of Vienna found the address of a Kleinman family in New York. Although he had no relation to the American strangers, he wrote asking them to supply him with an affidavit. Fortunately, the Americans responded and referred to him in future correspondence as their “cousin.”
As a tool for education
According to Dr. Patricia Heberer Rice, a senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the project succeeds in conveying the growing uncertainty and anxiety German and Austrian Jews felt as they tried to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth to escape the country while simultaneously being attacked and marginalized.
In April 1938, Jews were forced to register their assets, and their businesses were Aryanized. There were waves of violence and riots against Jews in Austria. By that year, one-quarter of German Jews had already left. Emigration peaked at the end of 1938, after the November 9-10 Kristallnacht pogroms, which signified a shift in the Nazis’ means of persecution of the Jews from laws and decrees to the extra-legal.
December 1, 1938: ‘Last Resort: Emigration.’ Excerpt from report by American Joint Distribution Committee’s emissary to Germany, George Rooby, who traveled to several cities to collect first-hand impressions. Rooby’s conclusion was unambiguous: the only hope to escape the violence was emigration. (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
Bakalarz-Duverger said the primary sources provided by “1938 Projekt” are instrumental to grasping these major historical events.
“These sources weave a complex and dramatic history of the time that are not conceivable by just looking at turning points in the larger history,” she said.
“Original records can make history come alive, jump off the page to show real people with real lives. They can convey emotions, struggles, celebrations that give us a narrative beyond names and dates,” agreed Cynthia Peterman, an education fellow at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and a museum teacher fellow at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
December 23, 1938: ‘Bureaucracy Without Empathy.’ Standard answer from the acting chief of the State Department’s visa division Eliot B. Coulter to Alice Rice of Virginia Beach tried to facilitate the immigration of her Czech relatives. The 1917 Immigration Act included many prerequisites for immigration, including economic ones that German Jews could not meet because the Nazi regime had systematically impoverished them. (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
Peterman said she was impressed by the variety of documents selected for “Projekt 1938.” They run the gamut from personal and communal documents that belonged to or were written by Jews, to Nazi documents, to official US government documents related to its restrictive immigration policy.
“The US documents are very important in helping to answer the oft-asked question of why it was it so hard for the Jewish refugees to come to America,” Peterman said.
Małgorzata Bakalarz-Duverger (Facebook)
Educators need to give students the tools to work with primary sources, and unless students are in the upper high school years or college, it will likely be necessary to provide context for the documents. However, according to Bakalarz-Duverger, it is sometimes worth having the students delve into the primary sources without much introduction.
“Paradoxically, the students are more open, go deeper, and create unexpected meanings, connections and deep analyses. Because they have no preconceived notions, they notice things that others who have the context don’t,” she said.
“1938 Projekt” includes a key word search function, as well as an “On This Day” full chronology of National Socialist persecution of Jews and consolidation of power, along with global important events that affected the ability of Jews to emigrate. Each original document on the site is given a title and a relatively short explanation.
Missing, however, is any mention of the ultimate fate of the individuals related to the documents. For instance, we don’t find out what happened to Langstein and her father, or whether Biever even responded to the desperate young woman’s letter.
December 20, 1938: ‘Emigration As a Condition for Release.’ Viennese electrical engineer Ernst Aldor was arrested and imprisoned at Buchenwald on November 10. He would only be freed if his wife Renee could prove that they had received permission to immigrate to another country.(Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
The project is devoid of the hindsight we have about 1938. Today we know the extent of the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry, but those facing and trying to flee Nazi persecution in 1938 couldn’t fully know what was to come.
“Trying to leave took time, effort and expense. You couldn’t take your profession with you. You had to leave your assets, culture and language behind. In some cases people couldn’t leave because of sick or disabled relatives,” Rice said, in explaining why some Jews may have seen the writing on the wall too late — or not at all.
“We never showed the future. The idea was for people to follow the story of what was happening in 1938 in real time, to feel what it was like day-to-day for the people living in this pivotal year for the fate of German Jewry,” Weitzer said.
December 5, 1938: ‘Ungrateful Fatherland.’ Injured World War I veteran Otto Anker thought his Iron Cross and non-Jewish wife would keep him safe. He did not heed his sons’ requests to join them in exile. His business ended up being Aryanized and his identity papers stamped with a ‘J.’ (Courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin)
Dr. Jeffrey Ellison, who teaches Holocaust studies at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago, envisions using these primary documents from “average Jewish citizens caught up in the maelstrom of events occurring that year… [who] are unaware of the unspeakable fate that awaits them.”
“In a sense, the project provides a daily diary of 1938, not from a single writer such as Anne Frank, but from multiple sources. Thus the diary is layered and complex… I do not know of any [other] Holocaust projects which have approached the topic in this way,” Ellison said.
Lesson plans by Małgorzata Bakalarz-Duverger, Adam Steinmetz and other educators are available on the “1938 Projekt” website. LBI is seeking additional submissions.