Between 1933 and 1941, many Jews decided to emigrate from the Third Reich in response to the increasing Nazi persecution. By September 1939, approximately 282,000 Jews had emigrated from Germany and approximately 117,000 had emigrated from Austria (which was incorporated into Germany in 1938).
Several thousand Jews emigrated immediately after the Nazi rise to power. These were people who felt that they were at particular risk to Nazi persecution due to their previous outspoken criticisms of the party – such as Alfred Wiener and his family – or people who could not see a future for themselves under Nazi rule. By the autumn of 1933, the panic that had surrounded the Nazis’ appointment to power had somewhat abated, and Jewish emigration slowed. Jews felt that, once the initial terror had passed, they might be able to continue living in Germany.
The rate of emigration increased rapidly in September 1935 following the announcement of the Nuremberg Laws, which removed German Jews citizenship and made them stateless in their own country. This caused many Jews to feel that there was no longer a viable future for them in Germany, and, in turn, meant that they set about making preparations to leave. However, whilst many now desired to leave Germany, emigration had become more and more difficult as countries worldwide pursued restrictive immigration policies, limiting the number of immigrants that they accepted.
For example, the United States of America had a quota allowing the entry of 25,957 German immigrants per year in the pre-war period (increased to 27,370 when Germany and Austria’s quotas were merged in 1938). However, due to the considerable additional requirements, such as citizenship papers, immigrant and transit visas, just 2372 German Jews were actually admitted in 1933. Unused quota slots were not carried forward into the following year. The first year that the quota was completely filled in America was 1939.
In an attempt to make themselves more attractive to prospective countries, many Jews professionally retrained in desirable careers – in 1936 and 1937 over 10,000 individuals undertook such training. Despite this, emigration remained difficult.
In 1938, the situation for Jews became significantly worse. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, and the oppressive policies which had previously been limited to German Jews were now extended to Austrian Jews as well, approximately 180,000 people. In November 1938, a massive series of coordinated antisemitic attacks on synagogues, Jewish homes and property, and people took place across the Greater German Reich. This became known as Kristallnacht. Following the pogrom the Nazis intensified their policy of ‘Aryanisation’ and issued new economic regulations, which further prohibited Jews from conducting business.
Combined, these three measures greatly increased the amount of people attempting to leave Nazi Germany. The Evian Conference of July 1938, organised by President Roosevelt, had attempted to discuss the Jewish refugee problem, but no country was prepared to extend their quotas for immigration or contribute to a practical solution for Jewish refugees. In addition to this, the Nazis had increased the so-called Flight Tax, which taxed people emigrating from the country, making emigration even more expensive and therefore not an option for people of the working class.
Despite these extensive barriers to emigration, by September 1939, approximately 282,000 Jews had emigrated from Germany and approximately 117,000 had emigrated from Austria. This left approximately 202,000 Jews in Germany and 57,000 in Austria. In Austria especially, as in later occupied countries, there was extremely limited time to emigrate, with just a year and a half between the German invasion and the outbreak of the Second World War.
The start of the Second World War stopped emigration to most Western countries. Whilst some destinations remained open – such as Shanghai which accepted approximately 17,000 refugees – emigration became almost impossible for all but the very lucky few. In October 1941, emigration was forbidden by the Nazi government, as the policy of ghettoisation and deportation to concentration camps was instigated. At this stage, 163,000 Jews remained in Germany.