A new museum exhibit on German Jews who fled their homeland between 1933 and 1941 examines the life-changing -- and ultimately life-saving -- experiences of those who managed to escape the Nazi threat.
New York was the dream destination of many German-Jewish emigres.
The multimedia exhibit "Homeland and Exile: Emigration of German Jews after 1933" represents the most comprehensive look ever taken at Jews who fled Germany for over a hundred countries around the world.
The exhibit touches on the larger political issues of the era, but mostly it focuses on the people who were forced to turn their back on their "Heimat" -- a German word that encompasses both the concept of homeland and the feeling of emotional attachment to it -- and their individual and collective journeys to a new life.
Why did they go, where did they find refuge, and under what conditions? How did they build new lives for themselves, and how did they feel about their "home countries" both new and old?
Young emigrants aboard the ship "Martha Washington," en route to Palestine
The exhibit tackles these questions with commentated displays that briefly describe the widespread anti-Semitism and curtailment of civil liberties that led some 280,000 of the 500,000 Jews living in Germany to emigrate, starting in 1933. (One artefact from that time on display: a children's board game called Jews Out! that involved driving out Jew-shaped playing pieces from a town full of shops with names like "Salomon's Money Lenders.")
From there, the story turns to the ways and means of leaving, with the show dividing thematically into rooms devoted to the stories of those who shipped off for destinations across Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. On on a 3-D interactive map, museum-goers can pinpoint the 100 countries that eventually allowed Jewish refugees entry.
Farming in the Dominican Republic
The curators make clear that some destinations were seen as more desirable than others. The most sought after visa, limited in number and only available to those with an affidavit of support, was for the US. Less preferred was Shanghai, which nonetheless became the last chance for escape for some 18,000 to 20,000 Jews, thanks to its policy of allowing entry without a visa up to 1941. One of the odder histories in this section involves a plan hatched by the then-dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, to imported Jewish "agricultural experts" in an effort to "whiten" his population, and give the country a needed injection of economic energy.
Most of the artefacts on display are from the permanent collections of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, where the show ran from Sept., 2006 to April, 2007, and from other historical collections, explained Cilly Kugelmann, progam director of the Berlin Jewish Museum.
"There are people who kept everything, every paper, every letter. That generation is dying out, and they know their children won't take care of their things, so they donate it to historical collections," she explained.
Civil liberties for Jews were curtailed under the Nazis
Kugelmann said her own favorite artefact is a coin purse kept by a man whose arduous journey out of Germany involved going through numerous countries; he eventually settled in Portugal, but kept change in the purse from each stop along the way.
Reconstructing lives from ephemera
Ephemera from the era (photographs, poems, diaries, ticket stubs, letters) is interspersed with objects. suitcases, clothing, coffee pots, dolls; anything either left behind, taken along, or taken up as part of a new life in a new land.
Possibly most compelling are the interactive kiosks that allow viewers to hear the emigres' personal stories. Videotaped interviews are broken down into short, accessible segments under different categories, and English subtitles are available.
Overall, Kugelmann said, the exhibit tells a story of a people who did a "remarkably successful" job of adjusting to a difficult situation -- even if some of the people faced depression, unhappiness, and even committed suicide. Their success as immigrants was one of the main reasons to create the exhibit, explained Kugelmann.
A child's view of its new world
"Many of the people who left embarked on their new lives with a certain distinctive, ironic pragmatism," she said. "We wondered, 'Why were they relatively so successful? Their children went on to be successful. How did they do it?"
A more positive view of the Nazi era?
Kugelmann also implied that, more than half a century after the fact, it may be time for Germany to start looking at the story of the Holocaust from a new angle.
"Over the past 60 years, German society has developed a relationship to the Nazi period in which the mass murder has become the sole paradigm," she said. "The survival of almost two-thirds of German Jews was simply ignored."
And Jürgen Reiche, exhibitions director at the Museum of Contemporary History, also said he hoped the exhibit will incite young people to take a new look at Germany, past and present.
"We sometimes forget that German-Jewish history is also German history," he said.
'They were robbed of a homeland"
But Hebrew University historian Moshe Zimmermann, who consulted on the exhibit, warned of the tendency to concentrate on the well-known successes among the refugees from the Nazis.
Much of the exhibition focuses on the exiled children
"The idea is often that the emigration didn’t destroy many lives. People think of Thomas Mann, Billy Wilder, Henry Kissinger. And they say, 'They left Germany, it wasn't so tragic," he said. "People say, 'They could find a home elsewhere because Jews are like that.' … But if you start thinking that way, you're starting with the wrong idea."
As the word "Heimat" in the title of the exhibit makes clear, "the émigrés were, despite everything, German," Zimmermann said. "They were Germans who were Jews. And they were robbed of their homeland."
"There is no plural for the word Heimat. You can't have more than one," Zimmermann said.