North and Central America
Approximately 140,000 Jewish refugees fled from the German Reich to the United States of America. As far as the Jews escaping specifically from southern Lower Saxony are concerned, some of these also emigrated to Canada, Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
United States of America (US)
By far most of the emigrants sought shelter in the US. Also from Gottingen and the surrounding area, numerous Jews escaped to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or other US cities. In the majority of cases, their journey took them from a German or other European port via New York to the place they settled down at in the US. They either utilised their own financial reserves or received support from aid organisations.
New York, the "Promised City"
From 1937, more than 180 Jewish people originating from southern Lower Saxony found a new home in North America.1 For over 90 percent of the refugees, entry into the United States took place via New York. Only a small portion immigrated via Canadian or Californian ports. The decisive factor for immigration into the United States was the quota assigned to each country of origin. Starting in 1891, this quota was determined by a commission. Pursuant to the Immigration Act, from 1924, the proportion of immigrants compared to the total population of their countries of origin in the year 1891 was used as the basis for calculating the quota. This meant that the authorities were favouring Central European immigrants over Eastern European and Asian ones, as in 1891, the two latter groups had been smaller in proportion to the populations of their respective countries of origin.
German quota used only to one quarter until 1936
With potentially 25,957 immigrants, the annual quota for Germans was rather extensive. After the annexation of Austria, the US authorities increased the figure to 27,370 persons. Even as late as in 1937, only 11,520 German emigrants chose the US as their option, corresponding to 42.1 percent of the quota. By 1938, the German quota was used to 65.3 percent, rising to a full 100 percent in 1939.2 Such a strong increase is to be attributed to intensifying persecution of the Jewish population in the German Reich. Accordingly, by that time, the visas issued by the US immigration authority were almost completely for German-Jewish refugees.
The reason why the number of persecuted Jews permitted to enter the US as part of the quota was not higher in earlier years was that further restrictions were stipulated in the Immigration Act. All "quota immigrants" required a US citizen to stand surety for them by issuing a so-called affidavit. The government department in charge therefore preferred to issue visas to relatives of people who had already been naturalised or to immediate family members of immigrants. Until the turn of the year 1936/37, even the slightest suspicion that an applicant might become a burden to the social welfare system was sufficient to reject his or her application for a visa.
Relatives provided affidavits
Besides the visas as part of the immigration quota, the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the US Department of Labor also issued other types of visa. Thus, visitor or tourist visas were popular, as they gave prospective emigrants the opportunity to take care of obtaining affidavits themselves. There were further types of visa issued not according to the quota. Such exceptions were for the benefit of political refugees, but also of academics, whose qualifications made them desirable candidates for immigration. Transit visas were issued by the Department only after conducting intensive background checks on the applicants. The concern there - and not without reason - was that in their desperate situation, refugees would enter the US and then fail to continue the journey to their destination as indicated in the application.
Upon arrival in New York, refugees first had to undergo a health check on Ellis Island. Such examinations were also conducted by the immigration authority at other ports of arrival. Only those found to have no serious illnesses were permitted to enter the country. Of the German-Jewish immigrants to the US, the great majority settled down in New York. At times, 40 percent of the overall population of Manhattan were Jewish, and today, over 1.5 million Jews live in the metropolitan area of New York. The refugees who fled from western and central Europe during the Nazi era to a great extent moved to the boroughs of Washington Heights, West Bronx, and Forest Hills in Queens.
The intake of new arrivals was also organised by family networks
The fact that certain parts of New York were favoured as places of residence was closely linked to the fates of individual families. Children or parents who had found a place for themselves in the metropolis on the Hudson River took care of getting other family members out of Germany and into the neighbourhood. Once established, they were in a position to obtain the required affidavits locally. If their financial situation prevented them from providing support themselves, they contacted aid organisations which sought out donors. In many cases, e.g. the travel costs could only be raised by means of donations. To provide an example, from Dransfeld and Hann. Muenden, the related Schwalm, Katzenstein and Lowenstein families successively emigrated to New York. They found shelter in Washington Heights.
The borough in the north-western corner of Manhattan became home to the Jewish community with the most dynamic development in all of New York in the 1930s. Its north-western part, called Hudson Heights, at that time had the highest proportion of Jewish people among the population of all Manhattan districts. Due to the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany, after WWII the district became informally known as "Frankfurt on the Hudson".
In January 1937, Adolf Katzenstein left Dransfeld with his wife Alice and her parents, Levi and Meta Schwalm. As a grain and animal feed merchant, Katzenstein had depended on mobility and good contacts to the rural population, and was thus particularly severely affected by the boycott measures against Jewish business owners. By 1936, it was no longer possible to make a living from the business, so the Katzensteins decided to sell out and move away.
To the US via the Netherlands
Just as many other emigrant families, the Katzensteins along with the in-laws initially moved to Hamburg, assuming that close proximity to the US consulate there would improve the prospects of getting visas. However, anti-Semitism was rampant even in the supposed anonymity of the big city, so Meta and Levi Schwalm soon moved on to Amsterdam, while Adolf and Alice Katzenstein with their children Eva and Fritz remained in Hamburg at first. After the November 1938 pogrom, Alice Katzenstein's sister Margarete Lowenstein, her husband Ludwig, son Heinz and mother-in-law Fanny also moved away, from Gottingen to Hamburg.3 The Lowensteins already had an affidavit, as well as a booking for passage in early December 1938. However, as the US consulate was closed down after the pogrom, and the officials there failed to stamp the visas into their passports in time, the tickets to New York could not be used. The visas required for passage were still obtained by the Lowensteins, and from the Netherlands, Levi Schwalm organised new tickets for the crossing. Also in the Netherlands, the Katzenstein family secured visas for their entry to the US already in October 1938, and in early February 1939 departed from Rotterdam on board the Zaandam, to arrive in New York two weeks later. The Lowensteins followed a good month later, also via Rotterdam and on board the Veendam, which was Zaandam's sister ship. The Katzenstein and Lowenstein families found temporary accommodation in West 171st Street in Washington Heights.
Those already in New York arranged for further family members to join them
In October 1939, Levi and Meta Schwalm finally also emigrated to North America, departing from Antwerp. Levi Schwalm had booked all tickets from the same shipping company. Once the Schwalms had found accommodation, also in Washington Heights, in Fort Washington Avenue, the former teacher at the Jewish schools in Bovenden and Dransfeld immediately began to organise for his brothers Hermann und Moritz and their families, who were all still in Germany, to follow to the United States. The first of the brothers to make it to the US was Hermann Schwalm from Kassel, who along with his family had stayed with brother Moritz in Hann. Muenden for some time in 1939.
Only in summer 1941, Moritz Schwalm with his wife Sara and son Henry escaped to the US via the Lisbon route. Although the families had managed to take along some of their funds to the US, presumably routed via the Netherlands, financial support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was required to get the Schwalm family, who by then were completely destitute, out of Hann. Muenden. The amounts transferred to the US earlier were spent on getting accommodation for a total of four families and the Schwalm couple, who all found a place in Washington Heights. There were hardly any reserves left, so to feed all of the 17 family members, those who were fit to work had to take any available job.
Emigration to the US was concentrated on only a few locations
Besides New York, there were only a few others US cities Jewish people from the Gottingen region emigrated to. Among them were Los Angeles (e.g. the Graupe family from Hann. Muenden and the Faibuschewitz family from Gottingen), Chicago (e.g. the Lowenthal family from Hann. Muenden) and Baltimore (the Rosenbaum family from Rosdorf). Numerous pensioners moved to Florida in their old age, in particular many of those who had lived in New York after their escape from Germany.
The Caribbean islands were not among the favourite destinations for Jewish refugees from the Gottingen area. To date, only the example of Werner and Hermann Meyerstein from Bremke is known, who both escaped to the Dominican Republic. Descendants of the Meyersteins were still living there at the turn of the 21st century. Walter and Else Meyer4 from Hann. Muenden were stranded in Havana, Cuba, between 1940 after their escape from France and the end of WWII, and only later emigrated to the US.
Escaping to Paradise? Sosúa in the Dominican Republic
Hermann Meyerstein was a butcher, with his own shop in his home town, Bremke, and a stand at Gottingen's weekly market. He also supplied the Gottingen trade union centre "Volksheim", various inns and agricultural estates. Shortly after the Nazis assumed power, though, Meyerstein became a target of the new rulers. This was not only due to his being Jewish, but also his involvement in the socialist Reichsbanner organisation5 during the years of the Weimar Republic played a significant part.
Several anti-Semitic press articles against the Meyerstein family
An anti-Semitic smear campaign in the local Nazi press, the economic boycott against Jewish business owners - among other bullying, Hermann Meyerstein was forced to give up his market stand and refused service at the Gottingen abattoir -, as well as an unjustified denouncement by a teacher from Bremke accusing him of cruelty against animals, led to a continuing decline in sales, and by 1935, the business practically no longer yielded any profit.
The decline of his father's business also had an effect on Werner Meyerstein's plans for his own future.6 As the butcher's eldest son, he was supposed to take over at a later stage. After completing his basic secondary education at the Bremke Volksschule, Werner Meyerstein thus began an apprenticeship at his father's shop. In spite of the boycott against and general persecution of Jews, it would still have been possible for him to go through with his training within three years. Due to the severe loss of business, though, completion of the apprenticeship could no longer be guaranteed. Werner Meyerstein therefore ended his training in mid-1935. As non-Jewish butchers would or could not take on a Jewish apprentice, he began to make plans for emigration. To this end, Werner Meyerstein joined the retraining facility Landwerk Neuendorf at Fuerstenwalde for more than a year, acquiring agricultural skills. This placement had been organised by the Hannover branch of the Hilfsverein der Juden in Deutschland.
Hardly any opportunities for emigration even with agricultural training
While after completing his retraining at Gut Neuendorf, Werner Meyerstein was provided with a placement at a different facility, then found a job at a Gottingen construction company, and returned to the Fuerstenwalde facility for some time before his emigration, his father had to give up the butchery business at Bremke completely in 1937. After staying in Gottingen for a short while, Hermann Meyerstein moved to Kassel. The events of the pogrom night of 09 November 1938 convinced Werner Meyerstein that he should intensify his efforts to emigrate. In 1939, he managed to obtain a visa for the UK on the merits of his agricultural training. He left Germany in February 1939, heading for England.
Already in 1938, Werner Meyerstein almost succeeded in escaping from persecution, having been allocated a place in a Jewish settlement in Argentina. At the time, the Jewish Colonisation Association (ICA) was buying farming land there, to be allotted to Jewish settlers. As a candidate with agricultural training, his prospects of being accepted into the programme were good. However, after the negotiations at Évian in summer 1938 had failed, the Argentinean government stopped admitting Jewish refugees into the country.
Internment in England
The refugees were not warmly welcomed by everyone in the UK, either. After WWII had begun, they were officially no longer considered Jewish persecutees, but Germans, and thus enemies. At first, Werner Meyerstein found a job at a farm where, according to his own account, he earned just enough to survive. In June 1940 he was interned. Just as many other men, he kept getting relocated from camp to camp.
Initially he was placed near Dover, then transferred to the well-known Hutchinson Camp in the Isle of Man. Then, after periods in camps at Manchester and again in the Isle of Man, he was moved to the Springfield discharge camp near London. His internment lasted from June to October 1940.
The negative experiences Werner Meyerstein had made in exile in Britain discouraged his younger brother Wolfgang from also escaping to the UK as he had planned. At the time Werner was detained, Wolfgang Meyerstein was at the Landwerk Neuendorf training facility. He had also completed a course of agricultural training and was searching for a way to leave Germany. As most routes across the borders were blocked once the war had begun, he failed to get out in time. Via Berlin, he was deported to the extermination camp at Auschwitz in 1943. Wolfgang Meyerstein survived the camp, but only a few years after the liberation, he died as a result of the conditions during his detention. His brother Werner took immediate action after his experience of internment in the UK. Directly after his release, he left England in October 1940 and emigrated to the Dominican Republic.
Werner Meyerstein also got his father out to Sosúa
The Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA) had been searching in several European countries for suitable candidates for the new settlement in the northern part of the Dominican Republic. Thus, a committee, whose members included the former head of the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden, was also active in Britain looking specifically for skilled agricultural workers. Through this connection, Werner Meyerstein and Olga Schlesinger found their way to the Caribbean. Soon after he had arrived and settled in, Werner Meyerstein applied himself to getting his father out of Germany. His mother Selma had died in 1935 and his sister Gerda had escaped to Palestine. In late 1940, Hermann Meyerstein was in Kassel. The war was escalating, so time was of the essence. In the end, it was possible to get him to Sosúa via the Portugal route. He was not officially registered as a settler by the DORSA, though.
Emigration to the US despite business success
Together with two partners, Hermann Meyerstein launched a sausage factory on the premises of a settlers' cooperative. However, although the business was quite successful from the start and after only a few years, two more settlers and several natives had to be hired to be able to meet the demand, the butcher from Bremke considered the Caribbean a mere stopover. When in 1947 his daughter Gerda emigrated to the US from Palestine, Hermann Meyerstein was determined to also move to North America. He settled down in Chicago, though frequently travelled to the Caribbean to see his grandchildren. After their marriage in 1940, Werner and Olga Meyerstein had two daughters. In the 1990s, the younger daughter was still living at the former Jewish settlement which had turned into a tourist resort, successfully running a boutique. Most refugees, though, considered the Caribbean island a place to wait for emigration to the US or Israel. Werner Meyerstein stayed in Sosúa for good. He died on 05 June 2001 and was buried at the local cemetery.
- The memorial book for Jewish citizens in the Gottingen district lists 134 refugees who escaped to the US, cf. Schaefer-Richter / Klein: Die juedischen Buerger, p. 308.
- Cf. Brita Eckert (unter Mitarbeit von Werner Berthold und Mechthild Hahner): Die juedische Emigration aus Deutschland 1933-1941. Die Geschichte einer Austreibung (Eine Ausstellung der Deutschen Bibliothek Frankfurt am Main unter Mitwirkung des Leo Baeck Instituts, New York), Frankfurt am Main 1985, p. 189. The figures quoted acc. to Herbert A. Strauss: Jewish Emigration from Germany, Vol. II, p. 359.
- Detailed accounts of the persecution of the Lowenstein family in: Bruns-Wuestefeld, Lohnende Geschaefte, p. 145.
- Regarding the escape of the entrepreneurial family Meyer of Hann. Muenden, plase refer to the forthcoming publication on persecution and escape of the Jewish population from the Gottingen area.
- Translator's Note:
The Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold was a political as well as paramilitary organisation originally founded by several established political parties in 1924 to "defend the democratic state" against the growing militancy of extreme right-wing and left-wing parties' paramilitary formations (specifically those of the Nazis, the monarchists and the Communists). In the later years of the Weimar Republic, the Reichsbanner was almost exclusively associated with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and most of its members were also SPD members. Its paramilitary arm frequently clashed with the paramilitary formations of the Nazis (SA) and the Communists (Rotfrontkaempferbund) in violent street fights. The organisation was banned by the Nazis in 1933, and many of its members persecuted and/or imprisoned, some even executed.
- The details on Hermann and Werner Meyerstein's escape are based on the information in the restitution file for Werner Meyerstein, NLA-HStAH, Nds. 110 W Acc. 31/99 No. 218569.