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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

A Letter to “Brothers in Faith”: Attempts at Jewish Emigration from Nazi Germany to Riga

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Philipp Dinkelaker and Paula Oppermann

“Due to political and economic circumstances, I would like to emigrate from Germany”,[1] wrote Louis Fischel, a timber merchant from Insterburg in East Prussia (today Chernyakhovsk, Kaliningrad Oblast) in a letter to the Jewish community of Latvia in Riga on 26 May 1933. Adolf Hitler had been in power for only four months, which was enough time for Fischel to plan his emigration. He was not alone: 60,000 people left Germany in the first year of the establishment of the dictatorship in Germany, mostly leftists, and Jews among them.[2] Various letters like Fischel’s are kept in the National Archives of Latvia. Taking Fischel’s correspondence as a point of departure, this article traces the life trajectory of a Jewish family through various archives. It aims to answer why German Jews considered Latvia as a place of refuge, showcases how little remains of a whole family in terms of archival records, and how much these isolated sources nevertheless reveal about the currents of a tremendously violent history.


Latvia as a Place of Refuge?

Fischel’s letter exemplifies the motives of those trying to escape the Nazis and how they framed themselves in relation to their potential host countries, as well as towards the local Jews. In his letter, written on his company’s letterhead, Fischel delivers personal information which was verified by other sources. Born on 13 September 1876 in Tilsit (now Sovetsk, Kaliningrad Oblast),[3] he was 56 years old at the time of writing. His wife Minna, neé Lux, was born in 1897 and was 36 years old in 1933.[4] They had a nine-year-old son called Theodor.[5] Louis Fischel’s accurate language and spelling reflect that he received a high school education, and he emphasised that he wanted his son to have the same chance.


In his mid-20s, Louis had become the owner of a timber shop with a planing mill. He ran the company for 25 years and was interrupted only by World War I, in which he fought as a corporal in the Imperial German Army. The combination of his education, mercantile background, and the pride he expressed in his participation in the war made him a typical German Jewish Reich citizen with a middle- or upper-middle-class background. Strikingly, Fischel did not give his wife’s and son’s name in his letter to Riga. A marriage certificate dated from 1922 reveals her name and also that Fischel had been widowed.[6] This might explain the age difference between him and Minna. Her name – a short version of “Wilhelmine” – indicates that her parents were patriots as well, naming her after Prussian rulers and German emperors.


Kasernenstraße, around 1909. The Fischel family lived here in 1933. The street was renamed Göringstraße in 1934. The photo is part of a collection of postcards created by Dr. Gustav Kirchhoff (Insterburg’s mayor from 1904 to 1916). Provided to the authors by Kreisgemeinschaft Insterburg Stadt & Land e.V.


Fischel’s company did well financially, but due to the inflation after World War I and the economic crisis after 1929, they “lost everything”, as he wrote, including his property. This is corroborated by additional sources, such as a 1926 address book that listed his timber shop and planing mill. The 1928 registry and Fischel’s 1933 letterhead identified him as a coal and combustibles merchant with a new private address.[7] Thus, the family had had to move and the original business had ceased to exist even before the economic crisis. The Nazi takeover in 1933 hit an already struggling business and family. Fischel knew that no country was likely to accept beggars and tried to present himself in the best possible light. In addition to noting that he had been a successful businessman for 25 years, he emphasised that “as a result of my adaptability and my organizational skills, I will also be able to manage any other job and settle in.” As a former soldier, he insinuated, he would be able to soldier through.


Fischel’s emphasis on his family being “long-established, well-respected,” having “evidently lived in East Prussia for over 300 years,” and that “we have been decent and hardworking citizens, faithful sons of our German fatherland” reveals that Fischel was both a self-confident Jew and a German patriot. At the same time, he could not have known the Riga Jewish community’s position towards Germans given the history of Baltic German dominance in the region and their role in the civil war. Likewise, Fischel could expect that at least parts of the Jewish population in Latvia were strong anti-communists. Many of the early emigrants from Germany in 1933 were political antagonists of the Nazis and Fischel obviously felt the need to subtly communicate that he was not one of them. He did not want to be equated with communists and socialists whom many German nationalists like Fischel at the time commonly denunciated as “unfaithful to the fatherland.”


According to the letter, the family’s plans to emigrate were also strongly motivated by religion. Fischel expressed eagerness to ensure that his son would get a good education and noted that “living according to religious rites” was not possible any more in East Prussia. He ended the letter with the request: “Would you please let me know if you are willing and able to take the necessary steps to obtain entry clearance from your government for me to be able to obtain citizenship in the foreseeable future.” This sheds light on both Louis Fischel living kosher and how far the antisemitic terror in Germany had already advanced by May 1933. Moreover, the emphasis on religion was certainly also a means to appeal to the Jewish community.


The Jewish community in Riga tried to answer the requests thoroughly. A template of the answer to Fischel’s letter is stored in the National Archive of Latvia. It was to be signed by a council chairman of the Jewish community, who informed Fischel about Latvia’s immigration policy and that immigrants could obtain citizenship after five years. He cautioned Fischel, however, that while living a religious life and providing the child with a good school was no problem, “the general economic crisis is also very noticeable here, but especially the timber trade has been paralyzed in recent years and it is therefore extremely difficult to acquire livelihoods here.”[8] Latvia was still recovering from the severe effects of the crisis and unemployment remained high. The Jewish minority was not spared and, in fact, in some respects, they were affected more by the crisis than their non-Jewish neighbours. An example of this was the timber industry which was so important for Fischel. Traditionally, Jews had held a large share in this sector and it had been one of the driving factors in the economic growth of independent Latvia in the 1920s.[9]


While the economic situation was dire, Latvia had other things to offer Jews suffering from discrimination and harassment in Germany. The Latvian constitution granted equal rights and cultural autonomy to minorities, and many Jews participated in the political and social development of the young republic. Immigration was not yet overly restricted. In fact, Latvia accepted on average more refugees from Germany than other countries between 1933 and 1940.[10] At the same time, ethnic tensions had been rising since the mid-1920s. Particularly in the urban intellectual milieu of Riga, antisemitism was widely accepted.[11] The Jewish community’s answer to Fischel, however, did not contain references to antisemitism. This suggests that economic and religious circumstances were considered more important factors to contemplate for those planning to emigrate.


The information that the timber industry had been particularly harmed by the crisis could be a possible reason for why the Fischel family refrained from emigrating to Latvia. The sources reflect that they also did not leave for another country. Fischel was still listed as a merchant in Insterburg in 1937,[12] although the Insterburg address register did not list a company under his name.[13] In the 1939 register for Insterburg, Fischel’s name disappeared altogether.[14] It is thus safe to say that the family left in 1937 or 1938. The next traceable evidence indicates that they moved to the neighbouring city of Königsberg.


Jewish Life and Death in East Prussia


In 1933, 9000 of the 2.3 million inhabitants of East Prussia were Jewish.[15] Since the thirteenth century, Jewish life was visible and even smaller towns had synagogues. In Insterburg, the first Jews settled at the beginning of the nineteenth century and soon it became the fourth largest religious community in East Prussia. In the 1920s, however, communities in rural areas were struggling due to economic and political circumstances. Religious and cultural institutions moved to Königsberg, a development that also impacted the Jews in Insterburg.[16]


As in other parts of the German Reich, antisemitism had been present in East Prussia since the nineteenth century. It was no major political force, but various parts of society held anti-Jewish resentments. These turned into physical violence particularly after 1929, when Erich Koch became regional leader of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) in East Prussia. On his initiative, local members of the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the NSDAP intensified terror against Social Democrats and Jews.[17] There were frequent beatings, vandalism, and calls for boycotts. In 1931, the first murder occurred, and in summer 1932 pogrom-like violence erupted all over the region. Historian Stefanie Schüler-Spingorum stresses that “already before 1933, antisemitism had become a life-threatening reality for Jews,”[18] particularly in the rural areas of East Prussia. Insterburg was no exception and of the 350 Jews living in Insterburg in 1933, only 90 remained in May 1939.[19] In addition to physical violence, they were facing economic hardships after lawyers, physicians, and clerks were either excluded from networks or expropriated by law.[20] Also, the tendency to avoid Jewish businesses was a factor that potentially led to the economic difficulties that Fischel wrote about.


Königsberg was a first shelter for many rural Jews. While in villages and small towns everybody knew each other and discrimination had a more direct impact, big cities promised anonymity, new avenues of employment, and support networks.[21] According to contemporary sources, parts of the majority population in Königsberg continued to buy products in Jewish shops and the city’s Jewish organisations strove to offer Jews a continuation of their religious, cultural, and social life.[22] This did not mean, however, that life was easy in Königsberg. Newcomers and locals competed for work andJewish children suffered from discrimination from classmates and teachers, an experience that Louis Fischel’s son Theodor potentially experienced, too.[23]


As in other parts of Germany, terror spiked in East Prussia with the November pogrom in 1938. Local Nazis burned the Insterburg synagogue, valuable books, and Torah scrolls with it.[24] In Königsberg, local SS troops vandalised synagogues and shops, raided Jewish homes, and harassed and arrested the inhabitants. Men were taken to the local prison and tortured. In January 1939 the remaining Jewish families were forced to move to so-called “Jew houses”, seven overcrowded buildings located at the former Synagogenstraße, which had been re-named Seilerstraße. There were no fences, but the houses were known as the “small ghetto” long before the official ghettoization of Polish Jews during the war, demonstrating how the terror against the German Jews was the regime’s experimenting ground for its later actions.[25] Also, in January 1939, the authorities added a page to Fischel’s marriage record,[26] which cynically stated that he adopted the name “Israel” even though this was a consequence of a Nazi law forcing male Jews to carry this name, while women had to add the name “Sara”.


This photo was published in the magazine Insterburger Brief in 1978 with the caption: “From Israel, our compatriot Zwi Josselowitz […] sent to us this image of the Insterburg Synagogue which was gutted during Kristallnacht.” The original image has not been preserved, the printed copy was provided to the authors by Kreisgemeinschaft Insterburg Stadt & Land e.V.


Seilerstraße is the last given address for Louis Fischel and his son. For Theodor, a so-called Zählkarte has survived. These cards were issued by the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland (RV), a forced representative body which the Nazis established after eradicating all Jewish institutions in Germany in the aftermath of the pogrom. The RV had to closely observe the communities all over the Reich. Therefore, when Theodor “died in imprisonment” on 16 January 1943, the local branch in East Prussia informed the central institution in Berlin about this.[27] The sources neither reveal the cause of arrest nor death, but the Königsberg Gestapo is a likely suspect.

The Zählkarte is stored in the archive of the International Tracing Service (ITS), an institution that emerged from aid organisations for displaced persons after World War II. The archive holds thousands of documents about the persecution and murder of the European Jews and contains a name card index with information about more than 17 million people’s fates. Louis’ card is among them, as well as a hand-written note recording that he also died in Seilerstraße in November 1942.[28] Based on the timeline we know that father and son were still alive when Jews in Königsberg were recruited for forced labour and had to wear a yellow star on their clothing. We also know that the two were not deported to the ghettos and death camps further east.


Deportations started in June 1942 when Jews from Königsberg and those still in the surrounding area, altogether more than 2,000 people, were deported to Minsk. From May to October 1942 an unknown number was deported to Riga, where police units shot most of them immediately upon arrival. One transport of more than 700 people was directed to Theresienstadt, from where an unknown number was transferred to and killed in Auschwitz. Some Königsberg Jews were deported in spring 1943 when the Nazis finally deported Jewish forced laborers from the Reich, which had so far been exempted. After the wave of mass deportations from the Reich ended, deportations to both Auschwitz and Theresienstadt became smaller and infrequent in 1943. Conducted from Berlin, dozens of Jews from East Prussia were added to these transports between 1943 and 1945.


After spring 1943, 45 Jewish families remained in Königsberg. Mostly, these were inter-marriage families in which one of the spouses was (or had been) Christian and counted as “aryan”. The children were treated as “mixed-race.” “Mixed” families were persecuted as well but the regime refrained from deporting them until 1945. In Königsberg, intermarried Jews remained as forced laborers at the local soap factory and lived under horrendous conditions in the “small ghetto”. Most of them died during the 1944 bombing raids. The exact number of those liberated by the Red Army in 1945 is unknown because many survivors died of the aftereffects of persecution.[29]


Why were neither Louis nor Theodor among the deported? As a World War I veteran, Louis was eligible to deportation to Theresienstadt, which was understood as a privileged camp but served as a gateway to Auschwitz. He died of unknown circumstances while mass deportations were still ongoing from the Reich in general, but when most Königsberg Jews had already been deported. Aged 66, he possibly died of old age aggravated by the circumstances of persecution, such as heavy physical labour and malnutrition. Suicides were a common reaction when faced with deportation and such cases are documented for Königsberg.[30] Thus, Louis might have made this choice when his name finally came up, but there is no proof for this.


Why was Theodor not deported? Was it because at aged 19 in January 1943, he was one of the Jewish workers still “useful” and deported only a little later? The sources do not contain any information. We know even less about Minna. Her name could neither be located on the List of Jewish Residents compiled by the German National Archive, nor in accessible digital archives like the ITS. While the Fischel’s marriage file in the civil registry contained Louis’ forced name change, there is no such entry documenting Minna having to add the forced name Sara. Possibly, Minna was not counted as a “full Jew” by the Nazi authorities. This would have meant that the couple was living in a “mixed-marriage”. There is no proof for this, but it would explain why the family was not included in the main deportation actions in 1942.


Conclusions

Riga was one of Louis Fischel’s first choices as a potential new home when living conditions under the Nazis became unbearable. It remains unknown whether he made attempts to emigrate to other places, but options were limited. A move overseas would have required the family to spend a large amount of money and learn a new language. For a German patriot like Fischel and thousands of other Jews, Britain or France still had an air of enemy territory, since it was only 25 years after World War I. Eastern Europe, with its poor, orthodox Jews who had been tormented by pogroms for decades, let alone Russia, the heartland of a bloody revolution, were not attractive either. The emerging Baltic states, and Latvia with its capital Riga, on the other hand, had much to offer. Having one of the most modern constitutions in Europe at the time, it provided its minorities with cultural autonomy and it was a democracy – even if it was an imperfect one. Here, liberal Judaism met orthodoxy, Zionists, Bundists, and conservatives, and they were organised in parties and clubs. Russian, Yiddish, and, more importantly, German, were common languages, not only within the Jewish community. It was thus natural for Louis Fischel to write to Riga in German. On top of that, for the Fischel family living in the periphery of the Reich, the Latvian capital was less than a day’s journey from home.


The Fischels did not move to Riga and they never managed to get out of Königsberg. They found themselves in the same situation as thousands of German Jews. The government forced high taxes on emigrants at a time when many Jews had not yet recovered from the world economic crisis. Soon, potential countries of destination began to limit immigration. For the less wealthy and those who did not have family or friends abroad, leaving everything behind to start a new life was not an inviting option, and when they realised it was their only way to survive, it was often too late.

The vast majority of Europe’s Jews shared their fate with that of the Fischel family. Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Many left no or few traces, photographs, letters, or diaries which today would enable research, but also commemoration. And yet, telling their story provides a glimpse into the nature of the events we call the Holocaust. Because as Primo Levi wrote, during the Holocaust, death was the norm and survival the exception. The story of the “drowned” is more difficult to tell – and to hear – than that that of the “saved.” [31] And it is a story that is by far not complete.


Paula Oppermann is a postdoctoral researcher at the Chair of Contemporary History at the University of Munich. She studied history, Baltic Studies and Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Greifswald and Uppsala. She received her doctorate from the University of Glasgow with a thesis on fascism and antisemitism in interwar Latvia and the role of Latvian fascists during WWII and after 1945. She has also worked in historical education, e.g. in the Wiener Holocaust Library (London) and the Topography of Terror Documentation Centre (Berlin).


Philipp Dinkelaker is a historian who graduated from the Technical University Berlin. He is currently holding a position as postdoc researcher at Europa-Universität Viadrina where he works on project of Holocaust era assets and the law. His doctoral thesis addresses how Jewish and non-Jewish Germans dealt with alleged Jewish collaborators in postwar Germany. The dissertation shows the "Jewish perpetrator" became more evil than the actual Nazi perpetrator in German discourse, impacting post Holocaust denial of guilt antisemitism as well as the process of coming to terms with the past of both collectives - the victims and the perpetrators. He published a book on the so far underresearched Berlin Gestapo assembly camp in the Levetzowstraße synagogue during the mass deportations from Berlin 1941/42.

[1] Fischel, Louis, letter to the Jewish Community of Latvia, 26 May 1933, Latvijas Valsts vēstures arhīvs (LVVA) f. 5237, a.1, l. 51, lp. 62. Quotes hereafter are based on this letter. [2] “Jewish emigration from Germany” according to BA R 8150/31, obtained from https://www.statistik-des-holocaust.de/stat_ger_emi.html, accessed 22 February 2023. [3] Louis Fischel, 1.2.4.1/12653313/ ITS Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives. [4] Nr. 140/Aufgebotsverzeichnis Nr. 132, In: Heiratsregister Insterburg 1922, Personenstandsregister 1876-1945, Sammlung Östliche preußische Provinzen, Polen, Landesarchiv Berlin, via Ancestry.com, https://www.ancestry.de/discoveryui-content/view/902006467:60749, accessed 6 March 2023. [5] Zählkarte Theodor Israel Fischel, 16 January 1943, 1.2.4.1./ 12653321/ ITS Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives. [6] Nr. 140/Aufgebotsverzeichnis Nr. 132, in: Heiratsregister Insterburg 1922. [7] Einwohnerbuch für Insterburg mit Abbauten 1928, S.380. [8] Rabinowitsch, A. letter to Louis F. Riga 18 June 1933, LVVA f. 5237, ap.1, l. 51, lp. 82. The accessible archival records and literature did not provide more information about Rabinowitsch. [9] Benjamin Sieff, ‘Jews in the Economic Life of Latvia’, in The Jews in Latvia, ed. Mendel Bobe, Yizkor Books (Tel Aviv: Association of Latvian and Esthonian Jews in Israel, 1971), 130. [10] The vast majority entered Latvia after 1938. They were usually granted temporary permission to stay and most continued their journey to other destinations. Two thirds were able to come to Latvia, not through the immigration quota, but based on official invitations from individual (mostly Jewish) Latvians acting a guarantors. Heinrihs Strods, ‘Die Flucht von Juden Nach Lettland 1938-1940’, in Österreichische Juden in Lettland: Flucht, Asyl, Internierung, ed. Stefan Karner, Philipp Lesiak, and Heinrihs Strods, Veröffentlichungen Des Ludwig Boltzmann-Instituts Für Kriegsfolgen-Forschung, Graz-Wien-Klagenfurt, Bd. 16 (Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2010), 21–48. [11] Paula Oppermann, ‘Everyday Antisemitism in Interwar Latvia’, S: I. M. O. N. Shoah: Intervention. Methods. Documentation. 8, no. 3 (December 2021): 48–64. [12] Einwohnerbuch für Insterburg mit Abbauten 1937, Part I, p.46. [13] Ibid. Part II, p.8. [14] Einwohnerbuch für Insterburg mit Abbauten 1939, Part II, p.50. [15] Stiftung Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas, Nordost-Institut, and Ostpreussisches Landesmuseum (Lüneburg, Germany), eds., Alles brannte! jüdisches Leben und seine Zerstörung in den preussischen Provinzen Hannover und Ostpreussen = Vsë pylalo!: zhiznʹ evreev i ee razrushenie v prusskikh provint︠s︡ii︠a︡kh Gannover i Vostochnai︠a︡ Prussii︠a︡ (Berlin, Germany: Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas, 2014), 25. [16] Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, Die Jüdische Minderheit in Königsberg/Preussen, 1871-1945, Schriftenreihe Der Historischen Kommission Bei Der Bayerischen Akademie Der Wissenschaften, Bd. 56 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996), 251. [17] Stiftung Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas, Nordost-Institut, and Ostpreussisches Landesmuseum (Lüneburg, Germany), Alles brannte! jüdisches Leben und seine Zerstörung in den preussischen Provinzen Hannover und Ostpreussen = Vsë pylalo!, 75. [18] Schüler-Springorum, Die Jüdische Minderheit, 228. [19] Shmuel Spector and Geoffrey Wigoder, eds., The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life before and during the Holocaust (Jerusalem : New York: Yad Vashem ; New York University Press, 2001), 549–50. [20] Schüler-Springorum, Die Jüdische Minderheit, 301–5. [21] Susanne Heim, ‘I.1. International Refugee Policy and Jewish Immigration under the Shadow of National Socialism’, in Refugees From Nazi Germany and the Liberal European States, ed. Frank Caestecker and Bob Moore (Berghahn Books, 2022), 28, https://doi.org/10.1515/9781845457990-006. [22] Otto Dov Kulka and Eberhard Jäkel, eds., ‘Dok. 182: Stapostelle Regierungsbezirk Königsberg Bericht Für November 1935’, in Die Juden in Den Geheimen NS-Stimmungsberichten 1933-1945, Schriften Des Bundesarchivs 62 (Bundesarchiv, 2004), 174. [23] Schüler-Springorum, Die Jüdische Minderheit, 303–4. [24] Josef Israel Wilkowksi, ‘Zum Abschied, 24 April 1941’, Insterburger 31, no. 03/04 (1979): 66–67. [25] Schüler-Springorum, Die Jüdische Minderheit, 354. [26] Nr. 140/Aufgebotsverzeichnis Nr. 132, in: Heiratsregister Insterburg 1922. [27] Zählkarte Theodor Israel Fischel, 16 January 1943, 1.2.4.1./ 12653321/ ITS Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives. [28] Louis Fischel, 1.2.4.1/12653313/ ITS Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives. [29] Schüler-Springorum, Die Jüdische Minderheit, 354, 357–60. [30] Ibid., 355. [31]Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, [2.] repr (London: Abacus, 2013).


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