A German-Jewish Newspaper as Heimat in Exile
The German-Jewish newspaper Aufbau was a vital forum for communication among German-speaking exiles not only in the United States, but worldwide. The newspaper was founded in 1934 by German-Jewish immigrants in New York. In contrast to most other exile newspapers, Aufbau’s personnel remained largely unchanged through the early, politically-turbulent decades of its existence; the same staff that carried the paper through the formative years between 1939 and 1945 continued to shape it until the mid-1950s and 1960s. Its transnational agenda and work was carried out in various ways: Aufbau played a crucial role in integrating immigrants before World War II, as well as connecting exiles during and displaced persons after the end of the war. In the beginning, the publication’s foremost goal was to aid its readers’ integration into American society by providing them—through European eyes—with an understanding of American culture. The newspaper actively helped newcomers find their footing in American society by facilitating cultural transfers through reporting on film, theater, and art. During the war, it helped the American war effort on the home front by organizing blood drives and by donating an airplane to the US Army and maps of European countries to American soldiers. In the postwar years, the paper assisted German expatriates through the reparation process and closely followed domestic politics, particularly U.S. foreign policy towards postwar Germany.
The Formative Years: Foundation and Identity
The history of this immigrant newspaper is inextricably linked with its publisher: the German Jewish Club (GJC), later known as the New World Club. The Club itself was founded in 1924 by German-Jewish immigrants, who had come to the United States a few years earlier. The paper—first published as “Nachrichtenblatt des German-Jewish Club Inc., New York, NY” on December 1, 1934 to mark the club’s tenth anniversary—was intended as the voice of German-speaking Jews in America.
In the early years before 1939, Aufbau was a free monthly newsletter for club members and provided information on—among other things—club activities, cultural programs, the wider Jewish community, and various immigration-related topics. Rudolf Brandl, chief editor from April 1937 until March 1939, began developing the newspaper’s style. After this brief period, Manfred George, a Jewish émigré and former editor at the Ullstein and Mosse publishing companies in Berlin, became the paper’s chief editor in March 1939 and remained in this position until his death in December 1965. Soon after taking the helm at the publication, George changed the paper’s format to broadsheet and Aufbau began to be published weekly.
For nearly twenty-five years, George shaped the paper like no one else, establishing an editorial team and, most importantly, accomplishing the difficult task of gathering support and free-lance contributions from established Weimar journalists, authors, intellectuals, politicians, and artists. The interests of the Jewish community and immigrants loyal to the United States were well represented in the paper and through the Club’s activities. Both espoused a liberal political stance that drew on the controversial and diverse tradition of Weimar journalism. U.S. politics were followed carefully, but discussed only cautiously and from a consistent pro-American position. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Kennedy were frequent topics, and the Democrats were generally featured in a positive light in articles from the 1930s into the postwar decades. Kennedy’s speech in West Berlin and the American commitment to Germany was received particularly favorably. The Aufbau had many prominent contributors, including émigré intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Siegfried Aufhäuser, Vera Craener, Lion Feuchtwanger, Oskar Maria Graf, Thomas Mann, Ludwig Marcuse, Hilde Marx, Kurt Pinthus, Ludwig Wronkow, and Herbert Weichmann. The paper also welcomed contributions of non-Jewish émigrés, most of whom were liberal and politically left-leaning colleagues from Weimar papers. In reading and writing the paper, they helped to keep up German cultural and literary traditions alive in exile. Many immigrant and émigré readers of Aufbaufound a voice through the publication as well by contributing comments and advertisements.
Aufbau, despite being founded by immigrants and not by exiles, is primarily viewed as an exile newspaper because it was so deeply influenced and led by the latter group. It was a networking tool that distributed information and established a public forum for discussion among the exiles. The publication was one of almost thirty exile newspapers active in the United States at the time, two-thirds of which were based in New York. As the paper with the widest circulation during the years of exile, Aufbau also reported from abroad and was distributed internationally. The publication’s vast network included correspondents in Czechoslovakia, occupied France, South America, and later from Israel. The GJC and staff of Aufbau financed the paper through donations, charity events, advertisements (most submitted by Club members), and the return on sales. In 1939, the GJC co-founded the American Federation of Jews from Central Europe. An umbrella association for German-Jewish organizations in the United States, it dealt primarily with German-Jewish concerns, later including restitution and compensation. The GJC was also a member of the Immigrants’ Conference, another cooperative organization that brought together immigrant initiatives and helped foster collaboration between immigrant and local community groups on issues of shared interest.
The identity of the newspaper was profoundly shaped by two factors: On one hand, the Jewish community and topics like religion and the persecution of Jews in Europe, on the other hand the fact thatAufbau’s publishers and readers, though primarily German-speaking immigrants and exiles, came from very different backgrounds. Beginning in December 1939, and for many years after, the newspaper was published weekly with its new subtitle “Serving the Interests and Americanization of the Immigrants.” Thus, even before the United States joined the war, the message of this New York-based publication was clearly defined: Aufbau represented a strongly pro-American and anti-National Socialism voice among German-speaking New Yorkers.
World War II and the U.S. Entry into the War
After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, German-speaking immigrants were frequently seen as “enemy aliens.” In a time when the immigration quota for Germans and Austrians was— despite the high number of refugees—restricted to a meager 25,957, Aufbau editors still did everything they could to show their gratitude for and solidarity with their new homeland. “Reconstruction” and “an American future” were keywords and used in articles that generally opposed the idea of European exiles ever returning to Europe and particularly to Germany. Nonetheless, few exiles held it against remigrants if they chose to leave their “new homeland” after the war, understanding that the reasons for remigration were complex; some struggled to adjust to a new way of life and a foreign language, while others had family and friends still living in Europe. Aufbau’s general position, however, encouraged immigrants to accept and build their new lives in the United States.
On the home front, the Aufbau community organized blood donor days, raised money, bought an airplane called “Loyalty” for the U.S. Army, and collected maps of Germany and other European countries to help soldiers fighting against the Third Reich. Stories about the Jewish community, integration, immigration, and the battle against Hitler, as well as the first reports on concentration camps in U.S. print media appeared in German and English on Aufbau’s pages alongside cooking and shopping tips, translation training, practical advice, and a number of articles on cultural life in the United States. A particular emphasis lay on reports and articles about the contributions of émigrés and immigrants to American culture, and directors like Erich von Stroheim, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch; film stars like Hildegarde Neff (aka Hildegard Knef); and authors like Bertolt Brecht were often featured as positive examples of individuals who had established themselves amidst a foreign culture. In addition, the Aufbausupplement “Die Westküste” (The West Coast) brought news directly from Los Angeles and Hollywood to East Coast readers.
The publication thus served as a mediator between exiles and their host country. The GJC even published a full-length book on immigration issues in 1941 entitled The Immigrant’s Handbook. Perceptions of Europe among German immigrants and exiles during those years were varied and often conflicting; on one hand, Germany—their native country—had a high emotional and moral relevance, but on the other hand, those now leading the country denied them their Germanness and forced many to emigrate. In the United States those same exiles were nevertheless seen as Germans. This led to identity crises for many, and Aufbau played a big part in assisting immigrants as they negotiated their way among clashing identifications and, in some cases, helped to shepherd them towards an “American consciousness.”
This sense of conflicted identification was mirrored in the articles published in Aufbau after World War II. Questions of guilt and collective guilt, the fate of European Jewish communities, and of obligation and reparation were raised and discussed extensively. As a means of practical assistance, Aufbau published a supplement every fortnight about the German government’s reparations to Holocaust survivors, Die Wiedergutmachung. The paper and its readers’ relationship to Germany became, once again, a central topic of discussion. War crimes trials like the Nuremberg trial and the Auschwitz trial as well as domestic politics and foreign affairs were reported on in detail. In the wake of the Eichmann trial, Aufbau served as a forum for heated debate over Hannah Arendt’s controversial commentary on the trial, eventually giving Arendt an opportunity to respond to her critics as well.In general, German postwar society was viewed skeptically, but as most of the editorial staff and free-lance writers came from Germany, the Allied occupation and the Adenauer era were also seen as a new chance. Nevertheless, opinions were divided, with Aufbau often acting as a mediator between the exiles and their native homeland in Europe.
As reporting on political and social current events increased, reports on the activities of the German Jewish Club became less common. In addition to publishing articles on the Holocaust, lists of survivors, and assistance in searching for relatives and friends, the paper also praised the founding of Israel in 1948. In much the same way that Aufbau had raised money to donate an airplane to the U.S. Army, they now donated an ambulance to Israel. One of the most significant issues addressed in the paper, however, remained the present and future of its readers in America. After the war, for example, help was needed for newly-immigrated former forced laborers and concentration camp inmates. The paper, building on its writers’ and readers’ own experiences during the war, founded a “Neueinwanderer Beratungsstelle,” an information and advice center for new immigrants.
After Manfred George died in December 1965, Hans Steinitz took over the editorial board and sought to continue in the spirit of George’s leadership. Four years later, the Berlin senate took up Steinitz’ suggestion for the organization of a visitor program for former Berliners. By 2010, nearly 35,000 former Berlin residents, now naturalized Americans, were able to visit their native country through this program.
As more and more exiles passed away, subsequent generations were less concerned with issues relating to Jewish immigration and integration; those tasks had, in large part, already been accomplished. Readership slowly dropped and economic problems arose. The major role that Aufbau played for so many years in the lives of many German-Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, was much diminished. In 2002, as one of the final attempts to reinvigorate the publication, a Berlin office was set up and the number of articles written in English was increased. This latest effort, which aimed to support cultural dialogue and create transatlantic demand, failed. Three years later, the New York office was closed and the last chief editor became a correspondent for the new central office in Zürich.
The foundation of and the topics addressed in Aufbau show that the paper’s writers and readers understood themselves to be an independent community. Their self-identification was built upon solidarity among exiles who made it their main goal to Americanize themselves. Acculturation into American society was thus supported and accomplished through the work of Aufbau.
In this respect, Aufbau provided an opportunity for all sorts of activists, writers, politicians, and film critics to publish and address a very specific German-speaking readership. Varied perceptions of a different, European reflection on American culture were shared by immigrants with immigrants through in the exile newspaper. In this respect, Aufbau was the one of the most important minority press publications, offering an alternative voice to the English-speaking mass media in the United States. Over seven decades, Aufbau acted as a mediator and a transatlantic bridge for newcomers to the United States—connecting them both to American culture and to the Europe they left behind, the new and the old “heimat”—even as George deemphasized the paper’s role in transatlantic bridge-building in an Aufbau article on May 19, 1944: “Aufbau has never had a doubt: for its readers, it is the bridge to America, not to Europe. But the fact remains that the paper has an interest in Europe and its future, as befits the importance of the continent.” Aufbau’s work to help immigrants build a life in the United States was a practical and active one, whereas the look back towards Germany was a psychological one, a lieu de mémoire.
Marc-Christoph Wagner, “Transatlantischer Verständigungsversuch,” Neue Züricher Zeitung (Zürich, Switzerland), February 15, 2002.
Translated from German: “Der Aufbau hat darüber nie einen Zweifel aufkommen lassen: er ist für seine Leser die Brücke nach Amerika, nicht nach Europa. Das ändert nichts daran, dass er sich für Europa und seine Zukunft genau so interessiert, wie es der Bedeutung dieses Erdteils entspricht.” From “Klare Scheidung.” Aufbau (New York, NY), March 19, 1943: p. 4.