• escaping Nazism – a refugee in 1930s Europe

    'Some people had the illusion that anybody who had fought in the First World War would have privileges, but it was all the same to Hitler and his gang whether they were Jewish, half-Jewish, or Communists. They were condemned to death if they didn't leave.'

    Herbert Sulzbach had found himself unwanted in his own country. Notices on the lamp posts announced that Jews were not welcome. Creeping legislation had led to his business being compulsorily purchased and him being made stateless. He used the money from the sale of his business to fund the considerable emigration tax.

    Sulzbach emigrated to England in 1936, returning in 1938 to take his wife and her sister to London with him. Over that time, many months were spent collecting the necessary documents and trying to ensure that they fulfilled all the requirements for exit from Germany and entry to England. Sulzbach relied on his remaining wealth to ease the process, and on his friends within the system to help with documentation.

    Being a reputable businessman helped. The British government, throughout the 1930s, pursued a highly restrictive immigration policy. A Cabinet decision in April 1932 approved the entry of refugees who were 'prominent Jews', 'who had achieved distinction'. The policy was not entirely altruistic -

    'This would not only obtain for this country the advantage of their knowledge and experience, but would also create a very favourable impression in the world, particularly if our hospitality were offered with some warmth.'

    Refugees like Sulzbach brought useful business and trading contacts to Britain, but the reality for the refugees themselves was a severely reduced lifestyle, with family members taking lowly jobs, and the need to share cramped living space with lodgers and fellow refugees. However, misery and poverty were preferable to likely death in Germany.

    During the 1930s, many in Germany did not believe that the 'madness' of the Nazi regime would last, and periods of relative calm between the periods of violence gave them hope. But, as Harold Nicolson observed,

    'Hitlerism is a doctrine of despair, a catastrophe for this country.'

    By 1938, the visa systems that were set up in countries of possible refuge limited Jews' chances of immigration, and there began a frantic scramble for documentation and acceptance. Those who had been successful remained with feelings of 'a great sadness', loneliness, rootlessness, homesickness - and guilt at leaving their parents behind.

    (Photo: Herbert Sulzbach, last day in Germany, May 1938, © Yvonne Klemperer. Text: © Ainslie Hepburn)


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