Of letters and their readers

As my transcription project progresses, I thought I would write on a ‘document of the month’ to keep readers updated on what happens in my engagement with archive of Dorrith Sim.

The past month has been dedicated to the transcription of correspondence of the 1930s. Dorrith’s uncle, Ernst Oppenheim, had the foresight to set up an independent existence in Canada by extending his stay in 1936 to found a wood import business. As his business thrived and showed promise to add exports from Canada to Europe, he gained permission to remain and by 1938 was settled in Toronto. In November 1938, following the pogroms of 9 and 10 November across Germany, he applied for his parents, Julius and Alma Oppenheim, to join him permanently as his dependents. The Canadian authorities granted this, providing that no other members of his family sought to come to Canada as well. While sorting the Canadian side of the immigration process for his parents, Ernst applied for his brother Hans and his family (wife Trude, and daughter Dorrith), and his sister Alice, to immigrate to the United States. To do so, Ernst travelled across the American East Coast to secure affidavits, putting his savings for a business trip to Europe into the quest to save his family.

In November and December of 1938 a flurry of correspondence flies across the Atlantic, by letter and telegram, explaining, pleading, making plans, exploring options. It appears that the family in Kassel  – that is Ernst’s parents and siblings – made a concrete decision to emigrate following the November pogroms. While they may have talked about the possibility beforehand, actual steps towards emigration were taken only from mid-November 1938, including Hans’ application to the American Consul General in Stuttgart for a visa to the United States for himself, his wife and daughter. Accordingly, the place on the waiting list for their case to be heard was low, their number projected to be called only in summer 1940. Ernst is able to conclude all Canadian processes for immigration of his parents by the end of December 1938. Then it was up to his parents and siblings to complete the necessary steps towards emigration from Germany.

What strikes me about the correspondence of 1938, which I am about to conclude transcribing, is the difference in perception of the situation on both sides of the Atlantic. Ernst is coming across as very energetic, driven by his understanding of the urgency of enabling his parents to flee and helping his siblings to exit Germany. He has acculturated to North America, a point he repeatedly makes, and is accordingly ‘pushy’ and direct in dealing with authorities, recommending that Hans just goes and sees the Consul General, or at least gets a phone appointment with him, or otherwise directly, and in no uncertain terms, makes his needs known. The worst that can happen is that you get a ‘no’, is Ernst’s advice. Ernst’s letters to Hans and Julius, in particular, show a sense of disbelief at what he perceives to be his brother’s and father’s laid back attitude. He suggests that he feels they are too ‘cosy’ in Kassel, and that they lack a sense of urgency. Julius writes that his medical practice is now very busy, much more so than it was throughout the majority of his career, seeing that now the Jewish community is giving him the honour of frequenting his surgery. The antisemitic laws were of momentary benefit in Julius’ eyes, giving him a sense of value within the Jewish community he had apparently not experienced before. Ernst, on the other hand, chides his father via his brother, saying that the increased workload as a GP is simply delaying his flight and that his father needs to go now. The letter sounds at least like raised voices. Ernst sees Hans not being energetic enough in seeking temporary alternative destinations, relying on the United States only. He suggests that Hans needs to talk his way to the Consul General, not write, as that is the ‘American way’, and that personal representation is better than very polite and reticent correspondence. Ernst interprets Hans’ insistence on German etiquette and the need to see a visa document in his hands before taking practical steps to leave as foolish given the imminent danger he sees his sibling exposed to. He goes as far as advising Hans and Trude simply to leave for a third country in which to wait for admission to the United States; throwing all financial caution to the wind Ernst encourages Hans not to worry about money, but to get out and everything else will sort itself out. Here Ernst is explicitly relying on the expectation that in early 1939 the United States would decide to admit all at once the quotas allocated to refugees from Germany for the following three years, and that therefore, Hans’ number would be pulled long before mid-1940.

In the letter exchanges the tension Ernst experiences is palpable, while Hans’ and Julius’ voices are a lot more restrained. We read much about the documentation of the affidavits and small mistakes therein as to birthdays and the spelling of names (all of which Ernst dismisses as trivial and of no consequence), but nothing of the worsening social situation for Jews in Germany. On 24 December 1938 Ernst writes a strongly worded letter to Hans, saying that he has done all he can do from Canada, has pulled out all the stops and now it is up to Hans and Julius to take action and make their move, at least Hans has to get Julius and Alma to leave as soon as possible, now that all necessary Canadian documentation is in place. If they don’t, Ernst writes, he can do no more.

Reading these letters eighty years after they were written is not only a painful process because of the knowledge that Hans and Trude were, in the end, not able to get out of Germany and were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is also a profound insight into the various interpretations of a situation of intense persecution and its consequences as events unfolded. We see perceptions in Toronto and Kassel conditioned by the location of the writer, news sources available and relied on, personal disposition and character, letter-writing conventions, relationships and dependencies, all of which came together to influence the decision-making process of Julius and Alma, and Hans and Trude Oppenheim in Kassel, and Ernst’s efforts on the other side of the Atlantic. And at the same time, the politicians in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom took decisions that closed a number of possible avenues for emigration of German Jews.