Walter A. Singer was married in Vienna on July 31, 1938, the last day that Jews were allowed to marry in Austria, which had been taken over by Hitler four months earlier. Shortly after their wedding, realizing that the Jews of Austria were in great danger, he and his wife Edith journeyed to the Baltic port (now Szczecin) from where they had booked passage to Latvia. According to Singer, Austrian Jews were aware of their danger long before German Jews. They sailed on a small, crowded fishing boat that carried 72 refugees.
Latvia, however, refused to admit so many Jews at one time, so although the boat was anchored in the port of Riga for three days while the Jews of the city pleaded with officials, they ended up having to sail back to Szczecin. With hindsight, Singer now feels they were fortunate, because Latvian Jews were to fare very badly later.
Knowing the Jews were returning, the Gestapo greeted the boat in Szczecin in late October and quartered the passengers in local Jewish homes.
Early in November, the stranded Jews were preparing to put on a play to raise money to return to their homes. On November 9, Singer went to the house of a 62-year-old man to get some phonograph records. That night, the Nazis unleashed their organized pogrom of Kristallnacht and the Gestapo arrived to arrest the older man but, perhaps out of kindness since he would not survive long, Singer speculates, they took the 22-year-old Singer instead.
He was transported to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, a concentration camp about 30 miles north of Berlin. Upon arrival, he was kept standing at attention outside with the other new arrivals for 48 hours while they listened to the screams of a recaptured escapee who was being tortured to death nearby. He was put to work building an airfield. The inmates were beaten with bullwhips and rifle butts as they worked.
Edith, learning of his arrest, immediately went to the Gestapo to beg for her husband's release. Even though she was continually thrown out and eventually threatened with arrest herself, she continued to dare to badger the Gestapo. They eventually said they would release him if she could present two steamer ship tickets out of Europe. She returned with two tickets for passage to the United States (not a small feat to be sure) and secured his release.
They went back to Vienna where they received American visas on January 6. They arrived in New York City on March 4, 1939. Of his wife, Walter said: "First of all, I loved her. Second of all, I owed her my life … so I try to fight twice as hard."
"The importance of the [Cohen] Center is that we should never forget. It not only happened in the 1930s and 1940s, but it's happened several times since then in other parts of the world … it's not just that one time."
– From an interview in The Monadnock Observer, July 21, 1984.
Documents in the Collection
The following documents were donated to Dr. Charles Hildebrandt, founder of the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies, by the Singer family.
Page 1: Note the "J" marked into the passport in 1938.
Pages 2 and 3: Contrast this September 1938 photo with his photo upon release from Sachsenhausen in January 1939.
- Edith's certificate for passing a course in hat making.
- June 30, 1938: Walter Singer's dismissal letter from GEBR. WEINSTOCK & CO.
- Jan. 16, 1939: State pawnshop official appraisal of necklace, bracelet, rings, 50 Reichsmarks which Edith took with her.
- Jan. 20, 1939. Police document.
- Jan. 23, 1939: Document declaring that the Singers did not owe taxes.
- 1939: Receipt for featherbeds being cleaned. They wished to take them with them.
- German Emigration Requirements and U.S. Immigration Requirements
These two documents illustrate some of the difficulties that were faced by would-be emigrants/immigrants. It is often asked: "Why didn't Jews just leave?"
This is a simplistic question with very complicated answers. The question is, of course, misdirected. Why do we ask the question? Is it that we assume that these people could somehow have done more to avert their victimization? By asking the question ,we miss the fundamental point that these were citizens of a modern nation-state.
Why should they leave their homes? How could they prophesize the future when even the most ardent Nazi could not foresee the "Final Solution" in 1938? If they decided to leave, how would they go? Where would they go? What was required of them if they did decide to uproot themselves?
The following attachments will testify to the extreme difficulty faced by would-be Jewish emigrants from the Reich and potential immigrants to the United States. When looking at what was required, it is important to remember that 1938 was a time before Xerox machines and e-mail.