“Thou Shalt Not Be a Bystander”
Historian Emanuel Ringelblum wrote in 1942, “Even in the most barbaric times, a human spark glowed in the rudest heart, and children were spared. But the Hitlerian beast is quite different. It would devour the dearest of us, those who arouse the greatest compassion—our innocent children.”
While interning at the American Jewish Historical Society New England Archives, I have been working on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) records. Recently, I came across the file of Dr. S. I. Konig and his family who were trying to immigrate out of Germany during the 1930s. When this became impossible, Dr. Konig eventually made the painful decision to separate from his children and tried through organizations like HIAS and the German-Jewish Childrens’ Aid to secure their safety during this tumultuous time in history.
The years leading up to World War II were tumultuous for people all around the globe. Nationalism was sweeping across Germany and in March of 1933 the first Concentration camp, Dachau, was opened. Most of the inmates of early Dachau were political prisoners. Soon Germans would be instructed not to buy from Jewish businesses, Jewish passports would be stamped with a large red “J”, and by 1940 Jews in German occupied countries were being persecuted, sent to concentration camps and murdered. 1.6 million children were living in the areas that were or would soon be occupied by German armies, their very existence was threatened.
Historian and scholar of the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer, stated in 1998, “thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” There were several organizations that refused to be spectators of these atrocities; one organization was specifically aimed toward German-Jewish children looking to flee Germany for the United States. This organization, the German-Jewish Children’s Aid, acted as a financial sponsor for the children and attempted to secure housing for them.
The German-Jewish Children’s Aid served as a source of hope for Jewish parents in 1930s Germany, an example of this is the HIAS case file of Dr. S. I. Konig. At first Dr. Konig tried to secure immigration for his whole family. Several letters exist that were written to various people in attempts to obtain affidavits or sponsorship for the Konig family.
After many attempts at immigration Dr. Konig replied to a letter dated July 19, 1939, in a state of desperation, he asked for his three children to be separated from him and placed “in a religious family anywhere in America.”
The HIAS file of Dr. Konig ends with a letter dated June 7, 1940, from the German Jewish Children’s Aid referring Dr. Konig back to the original Jewish agency abroad because “it is so much easier for them to explain to parents the conditions under which children as well as adults can enter this country.” The letter also states that by this time all departures from Germany and Austria are “practically impossible, expect via Russia and Japan.”
This story of the Konig family is an all too typical story of Jewish families trying to escape Europe during the late 1930s and 1940s as Nazi persecution intensified it became progressively more difficult for Jews to leave Germany and few countries were willing to aid them. The German-Jewish Children’s Aid was established by a number of New York based organizations in 1934 and would endeavor to relocate children to homes in the US. There were only two general principles which were followed, the children would not be legally adopted and not placed in any institutions. In 1941 the organization was absorbed by the National Refugee Service and renamed the European-Jewish Children’s Aid.
Dr. Konig seems to have done everything possible to relocate himself and his family but like so many other stories of this time, the conclusion remains unclear. However, it is clear that the immense difficulty to relocate loved ones, and the immense effort put forth to do so by both families and some organizations like HIAS and the German-Jewish Children’s Aid, is unmistakable. These organizations defied the status quo and refused to be complacent, in addition, families were willing to separate and trust these organizations with their children during this desperate and turbulent time.
Rebecca Simon is an archival intern and student of International Affairs at Northeastern University.
Letter from Lotte Marcuse of the German-Jewish Children’s Aid, Inc. to Helen Alpert of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, referring to Dr. Konig’s attempt to place his children with the agency. Dated June 7, 1940.
Translation of a letter sent from Dr. Konig to Mrs. Schwabauer, attempting to receive an affidavit so he and his family could immigrate to the United States. As a physician, he also tried to find a position at a hospital.