Europe and Palestine

Between 1933 and 1941, the geographic focal points of Jewish emigration varied. Only rarely was there any opportunity of freely choosing receiving countries, decisions were mostly influenced by the complexities of the multitude of different immigration laws.

In the early period, there were two main directions in which also the Jewish refugees leaving southern Lower Saxony moved: 1. to the neighbouring countries westwards of the German Reich, and 2. to the British Mandate of Palestine. In the aftermath of the Nazi boycott action of 01 April 1933 against Jewish business owners and as a consequence of the exclusion of Jewish civil servants from government service, the restrictions on Jewish lawyers and doctors to practise their professions and the freeze on admission of Jewish students, most of the people marginalised in this way fled to France, the Netherlands, Britain or Belgium.

As these countries' regulations of acceptance varied, and were also applied to various degrees of repressiveness, there was an "illegal" refugee movement to the German Reich's neighbouring countries from the beginning. Bans on working, in most cases justified by the consequences of the global economic crisis, made the refugees' uncertainty even greater. Some countries, among them the UK, after some time refused to take in anyone except those belonging to specific occupational groups, such as agricultural workers and domestic servants. For persecuted Jews who had completed occupational retraining in the field of agriculture or crafts, it was also easier to obtain a visa for Palestine. Accordingly, after a while, Jewish aid organisations in Germany and its neighbouring countries began to focus on providing younger candidates with occupational retraining ("hakhshara") at special facilities.

Neighbouring European Countries

It is difficult to determine any concrete, accurate figures regarding the number of refugees who left Germany after 1933. The main problem in this is that during the early stages, many Jewish persecutees emigrated privately on their own initiative. However, only those were in any way recorded who were registered with the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland (RVJD) via their Jewish communities or who received support from aid organisations. For 1933 alone, the RVJD estimated that 36,000 had immigrated to Western Europe. About 14,000 of these used the neighbouring countries for transit on the way to their ultimate destinations overseas.1 Approximately 6,000 of these refugees were provided with support from the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden. Over the course of the year, the number of people seeking refuge in the neighbouring European countries decreased again, by about two thirds.2

The Netherlands and Belgium

Many of the persecuted Jews from the Gottingen area initially fled to the Netherlands or Belgium. In many cases this was due to family connections, but also to the immigration regulations, which were relatively liberal at first. Three aspects are characteristic of the escape to the western neighbouring countries. To the majority of persecutees, they were merely stations of transit to Palestine or other overseas destinations. For almost as many who stayed, though, these countries turned into a trap, as after the German attack in May 1940, they were arrested and ultimately deported to extermination camps. However, a few survived the years of German occupation underground with the help of the local population.

Only few refugees who stayed in Belgium and the Netherlands survived

The Netherlands and Belgium were chosen as a first country of refuge by those who were being actively pursued and had to leave Germany quickly, but who had already planned and organised their further emigration to another country. This was also the case for the Katzenstein/ Schwalm family of Dransfeld. After his marriage to Alice Schwalm, daughter of the teacher Levi Schwalm, Adolf Katzenstein moved from Westphalia to the small town of Dransfeld in southern Lower Saxony, in 1925. A few years later, the merchant took over the profitable grain trading business of Jacob Isenberg, member of the local advisory council and chairman of the Jewish community. Katzenstein managed the business until 1937, after which his struggle against the anti-Jewish boycott failed. As the decision to emigrate had already been made earlier, the family consisting of Adolf and Alice Katzenstein, their children Eva and Fritz, as well as Levi and Meta Schwalm, moved to Hamburg in 1937. There, close to the US consulate, they hoped to have better chances of obtaining visas.

Via Rotterdam to New York in 1939

While the family failed in their endeavour in Hamburg, they were successful in the Netherlands. The reason for the hurried move from Hamburg to Rotterdam in 1938 is unknown, but there on 13 October 1938, the US consulate issued to Adolf Katzenstein and his family the quota visas number 25,950 to 25,953 of the 27,340 annual immigration permits allocated to Germans. The Schwalms received their certificates only one year later, at the end of September 1939. In early February 1939, the four Katzensteins travelled from Rotterdam to New York on board the steamer Zaandam3, Alice Katzenstein's parents followed in October 1939 from Antwerp in Belgium. In total, between 30,000 and 35,000 Jewish refugees4 made use of the situation that in 1926, the Netherlands had abolished the visa requirement, so that for some time, entry into the country was mostly unproblematic.

In 1938, the Dutch government stopped admission for permanent settlement, and only after the pogrom in Germany in November gave permission for another 7,000 Jewish persecutees to immigrate. Thus, many of those who entered the country between those dates were only issued a permit for transit. As their stay was often prolonged for reasons of bureaucracy, they were required to pay for accommodation and provisions from the small sums they had been allowed to keep when leaving Germany. They were therefore dependent on support from relatives in the US or from aid organisations, and the Katzensteins and Schwalms were among these people. The fate of the Katzenstein/ Schwalm family will be looked at once more on the page "Receiving Country: the United States", and the Netherlands will be focused on again in the context of "Going Underground".

Hakhshara in Belgium

Already in 1933, Gerda Meyerstein fled to Belgium from the village of Bremke. The small place near Gottingen used to have a large Jewish segment among its population. However, a few months after the Nazis came to power; only parts of the extensive Meyerstein family and one other Jewish family still remained there. Gerda Meyerstein's father Hermann was a butcher, with a small shop at the village and a market stand in Gottingen. His daughter helped out at the shop. Immediately after 30 January 1933, the family was subjected to anti-Semitic bullying. Both Hermann and Gerda Meyerstein were members of the SPD (the German Social Democratic Party, hated by the Nazis and banned not long after Hitler became Chancellor) and were pestered by a member of the SA who lived in the same building. The Nazi Party exploited arguments between the neighbours in the house to publish a false account of the incident in the regional press.

In September, the Gestapo arrested Gerda Meyerstein at the demand of the SA member. She was threatened with extended arrest unless she agreed to leave the German Reich immediately.5 On 31 October 1933, the young woman fled to Belgium to organise the continuation of her journey to Palestine. As she did not have the financial means to obtain a so-called "capitalist visa" which would have allowed for immediate immigration to Palestine, she had to stay and wait in Belgium until 1936. She made use of this period to undergo retraining, and finally managed to get to Palestine as part of a halutsim transport.6 In 1938, Gerda Meyerstein married Salomon Rosenfeld, and in 1947, the couple immigrated to New York, where they settled down in Washington Heights.


In the course of the 1930s, up to 100,000 persecutees whose native language was German sought asylum in France. The largest group among them were Jewish refugees.7 The country's practice of taking in refugees was initially also quite liberal, though gradually, restrictions were introduced due to the difficult labour market situation, but purportedly also as a measure to counter rising anti-Semitism among the population. The portion of "illegal" refugees in France was therefore higher than in the Benelux countries. One of the major problems upon arrival was that as foreign nationals, the refugees could not get a work permit. Without a job, though, they were only granted temporary permission to remain, meaning that their deportation back to Germany was possible at any time. There were thus definite advantages in having contacts within the country that could provide material support or help with getting a "legal" job.

After the Wehrmacht had occupied France, refugees fled to the Free Zone

Gertrud Faibuschewitz from Gottingen and Walter Meyer from Hann. Muenden fled to France already in 1933. Gertrud Faibuschewitz had completed her secondary education at Personn-Realschule in Gottingen and then her training as a qualified textile trade saleswoman with the company of Max Jacobson. From 1931, she worked as a sales assistant at Kaufhaus Richter in Groner Straße in Gottingen. After the department store had been taken over by Rudolf Karstadt AG, she was told that due to her qualification, there was the prospect of her becoming a department manager. However, the government change on 30 January 1933 that brought in the Nazis ruined this prospect. Only a few weeks later, her employer was even forced to dismiss her after the NSBO, the Nazi labour organisation which had replaced all other trade unions had intervened.

After she had escaped to Paris in summer 1933, the young woman had no other job option than to work as a domestic help for board and lodging only, as foreigners were not permitted to work officially. In the years until spring 1940, she lived in the 19th arrondissement, in the traditionally working-class district of Belleville. As soon as the Wehrmacht had occupied Paris, she was quite aware that she needed to leave the city immediately. Just as hundreds of thousands of French people and expatriates, she fled from the approaching German troops, towards the south.8 Her destination was the Spanish border, and her main problem that she had no French passport. This meant that at any time she might be picked up by the French police and surrendered to the Gestapo. Using any public transport, e.g. the train, was thus out of the question.

From Paris to the Spanish border on foot

So Gertrud Faibuschewitz saw no alternative to going the long way on foot, asking for shelter for a night and a little food at out-of-the-way farms, hoping she would not be reported. Often enough she had to "spend the night hidden in fields, in barns, forests".9 Because of the danger of being denounced, she needed to move from place to place quickly. Frequently staying out in the open over night made her ill, and she was permanently hungry. In spite of her troubles, Gertrud Faibuschewitz succeeded in reaching southern France. For a while she managed to stay hidden in the Département of Perpignan, close to the French-Catalan border. Either when attempting to cross the border, or during one of the frequent police raids, she was discovered and arrested. Vichy regime officials, later replaced by the German occupants once Germany had also invaded the previously unoccupied Free Zone in late 1943, interned her at the camps at Rivesaltes and Bacares. She was finally liberated by Allied troops in 1944, from the labour camp at Ille-sur-Têt in the Pyrenées.

Walter Meyer managed a company in Paris

To provide another example, the fate of Walter Meyer from Hann. Muenden developed a little differently. He was the son of entrepreneur Benno Meyer, who around 1890 had established the company of Awuko Schmirgelwerke jointly with his brothers Isaak and Feodor and businessman August Wandmacher. From the end of the 1920s, Walter was supposed to take over his father's share in the business and manage the internationally active company's export department. As after 30 January 1933, it became practically impossible for a Jewish entrepreneur to do all the travelling throughout the German Reich required for such a position, he was instead placed in charge of the company's representation for Western Europe, located in Paris. Walter Meyer thus arrived in the French capital during the year 1933. Until 1937, he continued as the company's branch manager there. This was when the three Jewish owners of the company, threatened with arrest purportedly on grounds of unpaid taxes, fled from Hann. Munden to the Netherlands. For a short while, Walter Meyer was able to continue as manager of the Paris branch, as the family contested the expropriation of the company's main branch in Hann. Muenden using their international contacts. At the latest when the war started, though, Walter Meyer's situation also became difficult. Even though he had the financial means, and his parents had already escaped to safety on their own savings, Walter Meyer and his wife Else managed to get out of Europe only with the help of the Jewish aid organisations.10 Before they succeeded, though, he was interned by the French authorities directly after the beginning of the war in September 1939. As a German citizen, he had been classified as an "enemy alien". It appears that a status as "subject to persecution within the German Reich" was not recognised. This was an experience Leopold Rosenthal from Gottingen also had the misfortune of making.

Interned as "enemy aliens" after the war broke out

The grain merchant together with his family had also fled already in 1933, to the parents of his French wife in Alsace. Soon after the war had begun, he became an inmate of an internment camp in central France. After his release, Leopold Rosenthal rejoined his family only for a short while. In May 1942 he fled once more, southwards to the "Free Zone" to hide there. In the Département of Haute Loire, he was supported by many helpers organised in various church and secular groups.11 Despite a short period of arrest due to his attempt to illegally cross the border to Switzerland, this support made it possible for Leopold Rosenthal to avoid deportation to the German extermination camps in Eastern Europe. Walter Meyer, however, remained in internment, even in the "free" part of France. His situation was handled by the HIAS, which obtained transit visas for several countries and funding for passage by ship. Only in November 1941, the Meyers were successful in leaving France in the direction of Lisbon. From there, via Cuba, they immigrated to the US.12

Great Britain

After 1933, numerous Jews from southern Lower Saxony fled to the British Isles. The published statistics reveal the United Kingdom to have been one of the most popular receiving countries until the beginning of the war. Even though the British government successively tightened the immigration regulations due to the increasing influx of refugees since the Nazis had come to power, special programmes for Jewish emigrants kept being introduced until 1939. The most well-known of these are the "Kindertransporte" initiated after the November 1938 pogrom, but there were others, such as a special programme for Jewish domestic workers.

Programmes for admittance of refugees

To date, there is evidence of approx. 50 Jewish persecutees from the region around Gottingen who sought refuge in England, Scotland and Wales. Just as France, to most refugees, Britain served as a transit country on their way to immigrate to the US, South America or South Africa. After the war had started, though, many of them could not continue on their journey for reasons of safety. Among them was Alfred Feist, who had lived in Hann. Muenden for some time. He had to wait until the end of the war.

Those who arrived in the UK at an early stage had the chance of finding a job and getting integrated into British society. Apart from domestic workers, also agricultural workers were in demand, so for young people having completed their (re-)training at one of the facilities in Germany, this was a prospect other than the settlement programmes in Palestine and South America. One of these was Hermann Meyerstein of Bremke, a nephew of and bearing the same name as the Bremke butcher Hermann Meyerstein.13 As during the Nazi era, it was impossible for him as a Jew to realise his wish to become a construction technician, his decision to emigrate was made quite early. However, in the mid-1930s, the conditions for emigration were unfavourable. The British government had introduced a strict certificate regulation for Palestine, the US quota was subject to progressively tighter conditions, and the young man was not considering South America or South Africa in his plans for emigration.

Interned in the UK in 1940

To improve his prospects of getting an immigration certificate, Meyerstein decided to do a course of agricultural training at Obergut Appenrode, a farming estate close to Bremke. By the time he had completed his training, in the spring of 1938, living conditions for Jews within the Reich had deteriorated considerably. Jobs were very difficult to come by, and those available often involved discrimination. Up until the November 1938 pogrom, Hermann Meyerstein worked for a Gottingen construction company, helping build the Autobahnen. At the time of the pogrom he was suffering from hernia, but was still taken into custody at the Gottingen court prison that night. Just after his release, the immigration certificate for the UK he had applied for arrived. On 25 June 1939, Hermann Meyerstein left Germany by ship, heading for Britain.

His first job as an agricultural worker brought him to Hall Farm near Harrington in North Yorkshire. The family who owned the farm did not have long to enjoy their hard-working new labourer, though. In 1940, Britain joined those countries that interned nearly all refugees from the German Reich as enemy aliens. Hermann Meyerstein was released again in December 1941 and continued to work in agriculture. In the end, he settled down in Leicestershire, got married and founded a family.14 Others, such as Edith Feist from Hann. Muenden, found jobs in manufacturing, even established businesses, such as Alfred Meyer, also from Hann. Muenden, or joined the British Army, like Moritz S. from Dransfeld, who had come to England at the age of 13 on a "Kindertransport" in 1940. After the beginning of World War II in early September 1939, immigration to the British Isles practically ceased.

Internees were released only after a year

Once the German Wehrmacht had invaded Germany's neighbouring countries to the west in 1940, the British government, concerned about espionage and sabotage, saw no alternative but to intern the refugees from the Reich in the UK. Immediately after the start of the war in autumn 1939, nearly all German Jews in the country had been exempted from internment. Less than a year later, they were required to move to camps located all over the UK and in various Commonwealth countries overseas. Alfred Dannenberg from Dransfeld was ordered to report to Kitchener Camp in the county of Kent, an internment camp for refugees who already held an entry visa for a third country. The Dannenbergs had entry certificates for the US, but the war on the Atlantic had prevented them from quickly continuing on their journey. After his release from the camp, Alfred Dannenberg failed to find a job at first.

The family was maintained by daughter Hildegard, who worked as a domestic servant, and by son-in-law Leopold Katz, who was married to another of Alfred Dannenberg's daughters. The couple had managed to get to New York and supported their family members in Britain via an aid organisation. Only after the end of WWII did the Dannenbergs succeed in leaving Britain to immigrate to the US. They shared this fate with numerous Jewish refugees in the UK, among them the Feists, husband and wife. Hildegard Dannenberg decided to stay in Britain and get married; she would subsequently return to Dransfeld, her town of origin, on visits several times after WWII.

Further Receiving Countries in Europe

Besides to the western European countries mentioned above, Jewish refugees from southern Lower Saxony also fled to Eastern Europe. Some of them still had Polish citizenship; others had been stripped of German citizenship due to their "Eastern Jew" status. The attempt of the Sommerfeld-Boehm family from Hann. Muenden to seek refuge in Czechia was futile, the only one of them to escape the German destruction machinery was daughter Alice, who managed to get to Palestine. Hildegard Meininger from Gottingen had married the Bulgarian dentist Dr. Robert Garti, who had studied at Gottingen. In late 1935, the couple moved to Bulgaria and were interned there during World War II. Yet just as nearly all Jewish internees there, they were spared from deportation to the German concentration camps by the efforts of Bulgarian politicians and church representatives.15 After the war, the Garti family immigrated to Israel.

Lecturers and students could hope for support from networks

By contrast, in Denmark, a network seems to have been active which mostly evacuated students and lecturers of mathematics and physics into the country they no longer had any career prospects in Germany due to the anti-Semitic academic regulations in force since April 1933. The brothers Harald and Niels Bohr (of whom Niels would later receive the Nobel Prize for physics) organised travel documents for entry as well as jobs at Copenhagen University for the refugees. Especially mathematics professor Harald Bohr made use of his connections to the Mathematics Institute at Gottingen to get Jewish scholars to safety. One of these was mathematics lecturer Werner Fenchel. In 1943, he and his wife, mathematician Kaethe Sperling, were extracted by the Danish resistance and brought to Sweden. After the end of WWII, the couple returned to Denmark in 1945.


All Jewish associations, both in Germany and in Palestine, agreed that immigration to the "promised land" should progress in moderate numbers. No more than 10,000 to 15,000 Jewish immigrants per year were thus supposed to settle in Palestine. Such a premise required planned and directed emigration from the German Reich.

Until 1935, over 30,000 Jews fled to Palestine from Germany. The British mandate was therefore the primary receiving country for Jewish refugees in those years.16 Apart from the pressure of persecution in the German Reich, and the work of the Zionist youth movement and the organisations aiding Jews in their escape (whose activities are described in greater detail on the page "Escape Route: The Danube"), two measures taken by the British mandate's administration were crucial to this development: the programme of certification according to quotas, and the Haavara Agreement with the Jewish Agency.

Faced with the refugee movement emerging immediately after the Nazis had assumed power in Germany the British government was well aware of the consequences for their mandate in Palestine. The attempt was made to regulate the development by introducing a certificate system. Two types of these certificates were of significance to the great majority of Jewish persecutees: on the one hand the so-called "Capitalist Certificate“ and the one for immigration of children and adolescents involved in Zionist organisations, the so-called halutsim. In the former case of visa certificates for the wealthy, a positive effect on economic growth in the region was expected. The applicants had to have credit of at least 1,000 GB£, which at the time corresponded to several times the official amount in Reichsmark.

The Haavara Agreement was intended to save part of the refugees' assets

At this early stage, many persecuted Jewish were still in a position to put up the required funds. The main problem was that the Nazi administration was extremely unwilling to have any foreign currency leave the country. Right from its beginning, Hitler's government suffered from a serious lack of foreign exchange, which was partly an after-effect of the global economic crisis, but also due to the scepticism of international financial markets towards the new German system. Therefore, ways and means needed to be found to circumvent the problematic situation. The Haavara Agreement was established via contacts of the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland (RVJD) to the Jewish Agency, the unofficial Jewish government in Palestine. There was a lack of almost everything in the new Jewish settlements, so besides professional skills and expertise, any kind of farming equipment was in great demand. In this context, the Haavara Agreement intended for the emigrants to pay their bank credit in Germany into special blocked accounts. They would then be permitted to buy equipment produced in Germany from these funds and export such goods to Palestine. Once they had arrived, it was up to the refugees whether they would use the materials themselves or sell them. At the German end, the deal was handled by the Palaestina-Amt, an office within the RVJD. In Palestine, the Jewish Agency took charge of its implementation.

The German Reich profited most from the deal

As it was impossible to foresee how much of these goods could be sold, such a transfer was a risky matter for the refugees, while the business was rather profitable for the German state. Proceeds from exports could be raised; calls for international boycott of the Nazi system provoked by German anti-Semitic policies could be dodged - by doing business with Palestine of all places! - and desperately needed foreign currency was thus acquired. As in 1933, emigrants were still permitted to take a certain amount of money abroad with them - RM 10,000 at first, soon after reduced to RM 5,000 - many of those escaping to Palestine agreed to these transfer conditions. They were hoping to save at least part of their assets this way. Using several examples, we have already described how after 30 January 1933, Zionist organisations and youth associations worked towards the emigration of Jewish adolescents to Palestine. At the latest from 1935, the so-called Jugendalijah ("Youth Aliyah"; aliyah: ascension to the "Promised Land") was also supported by the RVJD as well as by international aid organisations. In this, the aid organisations had the problem of needing to avoid conflict with the British authorities, so that British support for other emigration programmes would not be jeopardised. As the power pulling the strings in the Mandate of Palestine, the UK certainly had no interest in unregulated immigration of young Jewish people to the region.


  1. Die Auswanderung der Juden aus Deutschland. Eine Untersuchung des Wanderungsausschusses der Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden of 21/07/1936, published in: Otto Dov Kulka (Ed.): Deutsches Judentum unter dem Nationalsozialismus, Vol. 1, Dokumente zur Geschichte der Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden 1933-1939 (in collaboration with Anne Birkenhauer and Esriel Hildesheimer), Tuebingen 1997, p. 291 f.
  2. Cf. S. Adler-Rudel: Juedische Selbsthilfe unter dem Naziregime 1933-1939. Im Spiegel der Berichte der Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland, Tuebingen 1974, p. 89.
  3. The Zaandam, a passenger steamer of the Holland-Amerika-Linie, was sunk in a torpedo attack by a German U-boat off the Brazilian coast in 1942. More than 150 people died as a result of the attack.
  4. Cf. Heimat und Exil. Emigration der deutschen Juden nach 1933 (published by the Stiftung Juedisches Museum Berlin and the Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland), Frankfurt am Main 2006, p. 51.
  5. Details provided on Gerda Rosenfeld, née Meyerstein, on the basis of the documents in the restitution file, NLA-HStAH, Nds. 110 W Acc. 14/99 No. 131693.
  6. Derived from He-haluts (hebr.): pioneer
  7. Cf. Heimat und Exil, as in Note 4, here: p. 44.
  8. Details provided on the escape of Gertrud Durand, née Faibuschewitz, on the basis of the documents in the restitution file, NLA-HStAH, Nds. 110 W Acc. 14/99 No. 112463.
  9. In German: "auf Feldern, in Scheunen, Waeldern versteckt uebernachten"; from the sworn statement of Gertrud Durand of 21/07/1958, as in Note 7, here: pp. 77/78.
  10. On the work of the aid organisations, also cf. the respective subpage.
  11. Walter and Else Meyer were stuck in Cuba until 1945, as the US denied them entry. They only succeeded in continuing on their journey to New York after the end of the war.
  12. Also see the subpage "Escape Routes - Iberian Peninsula".
  13. Also see the subpage "Receiving Countries - North and Central America".
  14. Details provided on Hermann Meyerstein on the basis of the documents in the restitution file, NLA-HStAH, Nds. 110 W Acc. 14/99 No. 129042.
  15. Due to lack of space, a more detailed account of how the Bulgarian Jewish population was saved will be provided in the forthcoming publication.
    ii As in Note 1, here: p. 292.