Book Review | The World of Aufbau

By | May 24, 2019

The World of Aufbau: Hitler’s Refugees in America
by Peter Schrag
University of Wisconsin Press
2019, 266 pp, $39.95

Newspapers, especially those that cater to a particular community of readers, tend to be the sources rather than the artifacts of history. They report the news; they don’t often make it. Aufbau, the “hometown paper” of German Jewish refugees in the United States, was something else entirely—more of a lifeline than a chronicle. Over a period of 70 years between 1934 and 2004, but particularly in the mid-20th century, this German-language publication served a distinctive population at a remarkable historical moment: the successive waves of German-speaking refugees from Hitler’s Europe who arrived in New York before, during and after World War II, and whose array of homesick intellectuals, displaced merchants and traumatized survivors indelibly shaped its urban culture and that of the nation.

Peter Schrag’s study of Aufbau uses the paper as a prism through which to tell the story of this immigrant group, whose influence, he argues, has not been fully appreciated. Though the story of German Jewish refugees and their impact on American culture may seem familiar to some, the paper itself is less well-known—perhaps, the author muses, because as its readers successfully Americanized and learned English, they stopped needing it, and the next generation, brought to America as young children or born here, never read it at all. At first a monthly newsletter of the German-Jewish Club, Aufbau quickly matured as its unfortunate readership poured onto American shores. By 1940, it was a weekly under the editorship of a colorful Berlin-born émigré named Manfred George. Though immigration overall had been sharply restricted by legislation in 1924, between 1933 and 1945 some 130,000 German and Austrian refugees made it to the U.S., most of them Jewish, along with 150,000 from elsewhere in Europe. In the eight years after the war’s end, they were joined by 140,000 Holocaust survivors (known at the time as displaced persons).

The paper informed, reassured, comforted and sustained its readers, many of whom arrived not just scarred by events but deeply homesick for German culture. Aufbau enabled German Jews of the 1930s and the DPs of the postwar era to find their footing and rebuild their lives in the United States—a process, noted one of their number as early as 1951, that “took place with a speed and thoroughness unparalleled in the history of immigration.” Like many other ethnic newspapers of its time, the paper was an agent of Americanization, its commitment to that process of transformation made explicit on its very first page, where a banner head declared—in English—“Serving the Interests and the Americanization of Immigrants.”

Historians like to speak of “push and pull” factors, a combination of negative and positive factors prompting a person from one country to pick up stakes and relocate to another. These immigrants were different: They came to America not out of any affection or admiration for its institutions, which they disdained as brash and common, but because they had been driven from their homeland.

Many, Schrag writes, “were torn between a powerful commitment to Americanize themselves as rapidly as possible and Sehnsucht, the intense longing for the old culture and ways.” For those suffering what one called “the searing wound of exile,” one scholar noted later, “New York City was more important as a place of remembering than as a site of new experience.” The paper bore the burden of preserving the readers’ lost culture even as it encouraged them to leave it behind. “In these barbaric days, the German language and German culture must find their home outside Germany,” regular contributor Wilfred Hulse wrote in 1940, reviewing a German-language production of a popular Austrian play by Arthur Schnitzler and Anton Wildgans.

The emigrés’ reluctant rather than celebratory relationship to their new home, and their attachment to the language of the enemy, made Americanization even more of a challenge. Aufbau was determined to make clear that its readers were “refugees, not a fifth column.” In feature articles and editorials, it encouraged German-speaking Jews to speak English, to dress like Americans and to familiarize themselves with Aufbau’s very own “ten commandments for new immigrants,” among them to desist from speaking German on the street, especially on the Upper West Side and in Washington Heights, two Manhattan neighborhoods where significant numbers of German Jews resided. Over time they would endow those neighborhoods with a distinct European flavor, traces of which can still be found today.

Unlike, say, the Jewish Daily Forward, the newspaper of record among East European, Yiddish-speaking Jews, which sought to mediate and soften the distance between the Old World and the New, Aufbau found itself in the unenviable and unprecedented position of having to document Europe’s destruction. While most American newspapers underplayed or, worse still, ignored the plight of the Jews under the Nazis, Aufbau actively covered the ravages of Nazism and its incessant escalation. Loss as well as longing suffused its pages: loss of status, language, cultural moorings, family, home. Its pages were flooded with news, first of the indignities that awaited Jewish customers back home in Germany and Austria whose barbers refused to cut their hair and whose cobblers refused to fix their shoes, and then, as matters escalated, of impoverishment, deportation, ghettoization and the Final Solution.

Tonal shifts between the humdrum and the horrific characterized Aufbau’s pages, much as in the lives of its readers. Advertisements for Wiener Kaffeehaus Éclair, a distinctively Viennese Upper West Side café whose “sweet cakes,” it was said, “can also conjure up sweet memories,” appeared alongside instructions on how to send food packages to the DP camps. Classified notices for jobs as varied as accountants and furriers reared up alongside those for family members gone missing, an assemblage of which were a regular feature under the poignant title “Looking For.” Discussions of Jewish ritual celebrations figured on one page; detailed instructions on how to go about obtaining Wiedergutmachung, or reparations, on another. Obituaries reflecting on lives well lived gave way to excruciating lists of the vanished.

The accumulation of detail, which Schrag has painstakingly culled from the paper’s back issues, is stunning. Far more than the narrative that contains them, these particulars underscore the difficulties wartime and postwar Jewish refugees faced in reconciling the dual elements of their identity, or what editor Manfred George called “double vision”: “How German, how Jewish?”

Schrag, whose parents arrived in the United States in 1941, has scant interest in analyzing the back story, the goings-on at 2121 Broadway on the Upper West Side, where Aufbau maintained its offices, or the personalities of the many émigré writers who kept the publication afloat (Hannah Arendt, Stefan Zweig and even Thomas Mann appeared in its pages). Rather, he seeks to bring to life and plant the experiences of his parents’ cohort and neighbors squarely within the larger narrative of U.S. immigration history.

True, many members of that community went on to become household names: Arendt, Henry Kissinger, Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Max Frankel of The New York Times come readily to mind. What’s more, the refugees’ children, as Commentary magazine noted as early as 1951, “showed an unusual degree of adaptability” by quickly excelling in school (many at George Washington High School in Washington Heights) and subsequently leaving a profound mark on academic and public life. And yet, in Schrag’s estimation, the narrative sweep of this success story has not sufficiently taken hold of the American Jewish imagination. His book seeks to remedy that omission.

Fair enough. But relying exclusively on Aufbau to get at that larger story results at times in an airless, if solid, account. Now and again, one yearns for the kind of outside voices and contextual perspectives that enlivened two vivid, absorbing books about great newspapers: Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power (about The New York Times) and Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures (about The Washington Post). Then again, perhaps Schrag believed there was sufficient drama in Aufbau’s headlines and feature stories and the tumultuous history they chronicled without having to resort to tales of office intrigue.

A paean to a culture that is no more, The World of Aufbau leaves us with a heightened understanding of and appreciation for how a modest newspaper gallantly assumed the outsized burden of restoring hope and dignity to its deracinated readership, welding its members into what one of their number called a “community of fate” and another aptly characterized as the “right formula for acting as a link among German Jews everywhere.” That’s a lot to ask of any publication, but Aufbau more than lived up to its name. Translated into English, the word means “reconstruction.”

Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic studies and professor of history at The George Washington University. 

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