The (im)possibilities of escaping. Jewish emigration 1933 – 1942

When Hitler came to power, many Jews wanted to flee Germany for fear of persecution. Read here why emigration was difficult and about the role foreign countries played.

Gertjan Broek

The appointment of Adolf Hitler as the German Chancellor on 30 January 1933 resulted in a climax following a lengthy period of political unrest in Germany. The influence of Hitler’s party, the NSDAP, and its extremist ideology increased significantly.

There was no room for anyone with different ideas; from the very beginning, opponents of the regime were intimidated, persecuted and imprisoned in concentration camps. Many political and cultural dissidents therefore quickly left the country, whether they were Jewish or not; this first wave of emigrants or refugees included many writers, journalists and artists. There is a difference between emigrating and fleeing, but it is difficult to define the dividing line exactly.

Jews are fleeing from Germany

The NSDAP was antisemitic: Germany wanted to get rid of the Jews. By 1 April 1933 the party had already organized a boycott of Jewish businessmen and the liberal professions. In addition, antisemitic laws were passed. Many Jewish citizens left Germany in response to this. In the first days of April 1933 alone, hundreds left for Amsterdam.

In September 1935, the NSDAP issued extensive laws in the field of nationality and citizenship. These infamous “Nuremberg Race Laws” excluded Jews from German citizenship. Only Germans of “Germanic origin” could henceforth be German citizens. The inferior label “German subject” was reserved for Jews.

The High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations, James G. Macdonald, reported on the economic decline of a large number of the German Jews as a result of these measures and anticipated a new exodus.

In search of a new home

Between 1933 and 1937, a total of about 130,000 Jews left the national socialist Germany. Many left for South Africa, Palestine and Latin America. Many also went to Eastern Europe, particularly families who had moved to Germany from there previously. However, thousands remained in Northern and Western Europe. In a letter to an acquaintance in Buenos Aires (Argentina), Edith Frank complained at the end of 1937: “I think that all the German Jews are searching the world today and there is no room for them anymore.”

Peaks in the emigration

There were some clear peaks in the emigration from Nazi Germany. These were the direct consequence of specific developments, such as the above-mentioned boycotts of 1933. New events in 1938 also resulted in a greater number of refugees. In March of that year Germany annexed Austria; it was presented to the world as an “Anschluss”, a sort of merger of the two countries. This expansion of national socialism resulted in both Jewish and non-Jewish Austrians leaving the country. In the same year, Germany annexed a significant part of the former Czechoslovakia, again resulting in a large number of refugees.

The next peak in emigration followed the “Kristallnacht”, or November pogrom, which raged through the whole of Germany during the night of 10 November 1938. During this wave of violence organized by the state against the Jews, more than 100 Jews were murdered and 30,000 Jewish men were imprisoned in concentration camps. Thousands of synagogues, Jewish shops, schools, cemeteries and hospitals were destroyed or set on fire. The murders, abuse, plundering and fires caused many Jews to leave Germany immediately.

These large-scale waves of emigration and the accompanying bureaucracy resulted in an overwhelming amount of paperwork. An emigrant applying for admission to another country had to present all sorts of documents and pieces of evidence. For many people this was an insurmountable obstacle.

The international response

At the end of 1935, the High Commissioner Macdonald resigned because of the lack of support from the international community. In 1938 the deteriorating situation in Germany and the enormous increase in the number of people who had been made homeless led the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt to organize a conference on the problem of refugees. The international community discussed the humanitarian needs in the French town of Évian-les-Bains.

Only one nation proved prepared to make its rules for the admission of refugees more flexible. The United States decided to increase the German quota – the number of Germans that they were prepared to admit in view of the percentage of Americans of German origins – with that of Austria, which had been annexed. However, this did not lead to a lasting improvement in the prospects of the German Jewish refugees.

Emigration becomes increasingly difficult

As the number of Jewish refugees increased, it became increasingly difficult for them to reach a safe country. South Africa and Palestine limited the number that were admitted. Great Britain admitted only a small number of refugees, as did Canada.

It was mainly the initiative to offer a safe haven for children that was still successful to some extent. With the so-called Kindertransports almost 10,000 children left for Great Britain. The Netherlands had a very strict policy on admission and provided accommodation for 2,000 children.

Despite the enormous difficulties, 120,000 Jews still managed to leave Germany in 1938 and 1939. Of the approximately 185,000 Jews still remaining, about 18,000 to 20,000 still managed to leave the country when the Second World War broke out.

Refugees 1933 -1939

Jewish refugees in the Netherlands

The applicable Aliens Act meant that Germans, including Jewish Germans, were initially able to settle in the neutral neighbouring country of the Netherlands without too many problems, at least if they had valid papers and enough money to live on.

In addition, the Netherlands gradually admitted small numbers of German refugees and the Committee for Jewish Refugees was founded in Amsterdam in 1933. The Dutch authorities strongly insisted that Jewish refugees should seek the help of this committee to emigrate to a third country. During the 1930s government policy remained focused on sending refugees on to other countries as far as possible.

Emigration to the United States

For many people the aim was to go to the perfect country for immigration, the United States. From 1924 emigrants had to arrange to be admitted at an American consulate in the country of origin before they left. Despite the growing number of applications, the American policy continued to focus on a gradual and limited wave of emigration, rather than solving a refugee crisis. It was by no means a simple matter to convince a consul who had to assess the financial, political and moral reliability of the applicant.

Getting hold of the right papers was also complicated. One of the first requirements was a valid passport. However, from 25 November 1941, Germany collectively stripped all German Jews living outside the territory of their nationality, insofar as they had not yet been individually “ausgebürgert”. Although there were diplomats in Europe who could provide stateless people with emergency passports, this measure seriously complicated the emigration process.

Moreover, in June 1941 all the diplomatic embassies and consulates of the United States in Germany and occupied Europe closed. From then on it was only possible to emigrate to America for people who could reach an American consul in Spain, Portugal, or the unoccupied part of France.

The attack by the Japanese air force on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor in December 1941 initially meant that transatlantic shipping came to a standstill. Later a small number of passenger ships managed to leave Europe, but in and after 1942 only a very limited number of people were able to get to America.

Consequences of fleeing or staying

The emigration and exodus of German Jews and those with a different political orientation had enormous consequences in the political, cultural, scientific and economic fields, but was above all a humanitarian drama. Many of the people who managed to leave Europe wanted to go to the United States. However, in practice they spread throughout the world.

In the end the situation for those who remained behind was even more dramatic: because of all the formalities, the lack of international cooperation, and ultimately the war itself, many German Jews were not able to reach a safe place. A large majority were forced to remain in Europe, with everything that that entailed.

About the author

Gertjan Broek works as a historical researcher at the Anne Frank House. He has carried out research into the life stories of Anne Frank and the other people in hiding with her, the helpers, the Secret Annex and the history of the diary.

  • Stiftung Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Heimat und Exil: Emigration der deutschen Juden nach 1933 (Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer Verlag im Suhrkamp Verlag, 2006).
  • "James MacDonald’s aanklacht tegen Duitsland". In: De Telegraaf, 30 December 1935.
  • Schönfelder, Heinrich, "Deutsche Reichsgesetze". In: Reichgesetzblatt 1941, p. 722.

Sources consulted online