Monday, October 12, 2009

1939 in Moorhead, Minnesota

It is snowing here in Minnesota, two to three inches are coating our trees which have not yet lost their leaves. Good weather for hibernating. Sunday it will be 59 degrees and we will savor the few days of fall we are allotted, appreciating the reprieve as we’ve been reminded of the long winter that awaits us.

In addition to painting, I’ve been doing some genealogy consulting for others. One of the projects on which I am working is for a client who has family in Moorhead, Minnesota. I’m searching in the Moorhead Daily News in 1939 and I find myself subtracting time from my billing as I often get side tracked by the headlines which interest me. This was a time when there were frequent reports of Hitler threatening and ultimately taking control of a succession of countries, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France one by one fall to the Nazis. The US had not yet entered the war, but as the year progresses and Britain comes under attack the headlines are filled with war news. It is strange to read it in real time, through the eyes of readers who didn’t know the subsequent events. I find myself wondering what was known at that time. I read with interest articles about what was happening to the Jews in Europe.

In January I read of the former chief rabbi of Lower Austria who wept as he arrived in NY with his wife and children. He said he could scarcely believe he was in the US where he could speak freely with no fear of reprisal. Just a hint that life was constrained in Europe.

In January Felix Frankfurter was appointed to the Supreme Court. Hitler expressed his disapproval of a Jewish justice. An article (1/9/39) reports on Frankfurter’s 80 year old uncle Dr. Salmon Franfurter learning of the news from a radio broadcast. It goes on to relate that Dr Franfurter was once an honored Austrian government official and director of the Vienna University library. Now he was a Nazi prisoner.

In June (6/6/39) an article was headlined Cuba Bars Jews. A ship of refugees was seeking shelter from the impending doom in Europe, but could not find a place that would accept them. I later learned that after two months at sea they found a haven in Belgium. It didn’t serve as a haven for long unfortunately as Hitler expanded his reach.

August 1939 was an active month. First I read of a refugee mother from Czechoslovakia who leaped to her death with her two small sons. Her husband had been a prosperous textile manufacturer who sold his business and had only a small amount of funds left. They had been admitted to the US on a six month visitor permit which was soon to expire and were seeking admittance to Canada or Bolivia. The woman despaired over her losses and grieved for her relatives who couldn’t get away. They authorities attributed it to “temporary insanity due to persecution”.

Later in August I read of the “Gildmeester Action” where they were trying to prepare a settlement for Jewish emigrants in Ethiopia in cooperation with Italian authorities. There were 15,000 German Jews residing in Italy who would soon be placed in “homestead camps” in Italy to prepare them for colonization in Africa. Did this occur or was it a scam? I can find no further information.

In the same month I read about Jews completing paying 20% of their fortunes towards a $400MM fine for the murder in Paris of the embassy secretary by Polish Jews. Mind you that was in 1939 dollars. If that money earned just 5% it would have been worth $12 Billion in today’s dollars.

Later that month I read that Danzig Jews were following the European situation with grave apprehension. They believed if war broke out many would be sent to concentration camps, but this was at a time when this was thought to mean work camps.

In October the German Bund reported that the KKK and other anti-Semitic organizations were working with the Nazi organization.

Also this month Franklin Roosevelt called for a plan to find homes for the 10 to 20 million who may become war refugees. At the same time FDR received a petition with 238,199 signatures of congressmen, governors, mayors and others urging “prime consideration” of Palestine as a sanctuary for these individuals.

“The American Jewish Congress …appealed to the international executive committee on refugees to consider the plight of 5 million Jews in eastern and central Europe, including those made homeless in the German-Soviet partition of Poland.” The AJC also asked that the term “refugee” be redefined to include the thousands who were imprisoned by central European countries. They contended that they were “equally real refugees from oppression”.

As the year progressed, these articles became overshadowed by headlines of bombings of Britain, war on the French border and a US ship being taken. The war was very present in the newspapers of the Upper Midwest, but there was little mention of what occurred within the countries which were taken.

As I read this I am struck with the theme of refugees with nowhere to go. And the clock ran out. The existence of Israel assures that this will never occur again.


  1. What you wrote is beyond interesting. I got goose bumps! Some years ago, when I turned 40, I got the chance to do an Ulpan on a kibbutz in Israel (tho not Jewish, but inclined in that direction but not searching for religion, just an opportunity to experience a kibbutz). Anyway, I worked in a factory, along with Yosi, whose family had escaped Germany (near Polish border) just in the nick of time. Yosi and I had sooo many interesting conversations (I'm filled with questions) My husband and I still have friends in Israel. During one hostile event near Haifa, I called to see how they were doing. The next day the phone company called and grilled me as to why I was calling Israel. I took this as a personal insult and didn't let up until the Big Dog Manager gave me an apology. Anyway, this is getting too long -- I blog about my family, not nearly as interesting as what you write, and want to Follow your blog -- if you don't see me pop up (Kittie Howard) -- I need your URL address -- could you drop by and leave it?? ( Thanks, Kittie

  2. Looks like you showed up as a follower. I don't believe it notifies you when I post a new blog entry. For that you can go to my Facebook page and sign up as a fan at and you will be notified of new entries. I'm posting more sporadically now that I'm back from my travels.