The Warburg family from Hamburg and the children’s and youth aliyah
The end of the escape route and the fate of the children
As early as the spring of 1933, emissaries from German-Jewish aid organizations sought contact with the Jewish congregations in Sweden in order to inquire about possible offers of help and to coordinate effective refugee work in Sweden. At the same time, aid committees were founded in the Jewish congregations there. Within a few months, communication channels were established, which were quickly taken over on the German side by the Central Committee for Aid and Reconstruction Zentralausschuß für Hilfe und Aufbau in Berlin and in Sweden by the Aid Committee in the Jewish congregation in Stockholm [Mosaiska församlingen i Stockholm]. The leading representatives of Sweden’s largest Jewish congregation assumed the role of spokespersons for the Swedish Jews, as they had done in previous decades and with government support.
Neither they nor the German Jewish aid organizations saw Sweden as a future country of exile for a large number of Jewish refugees. Sweden had been a country of emigration until the twentieth century, and the Jewish community was relatively young and small. In agreement with and at the request of the Central Committee and later the Reich Association of the Jews in Germany Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden, the Relief Committee in Stockholm concentrated on using the aid funds of the Jewish congregations in Sweden to provide assistance for Zionist emigration to Palestine. German and Swedish Jewish functionaries agreed that Sweden with its small Jewish community, a sparsely populated and still largely agricultural country, could not serve as a destination for a mass exodus. They feared that the arrival of a large group of refugees would threaten the integration and security of the Swedish Jewish minority. Such fears were fueled by an anti-refugee press and politicians in Sweden. Swedish authorities insisted that no refugee should burden the Swedish welfare system.
Thus, Swedish Jewish donors sponsored the children’s and youth aliyah, which was used to pay for travel expenses, the guarantee money demanded by the British Mandate power, and the accommodation costs at the Ben Schemen kibbutz. In addition, there was a growing program for training positions on Swedish farms as part of the hakhshara. Participants were expected to emigrate to Palestine after their training. Increasingly, a portion of the collected aid money was given to German and later Austrian Jews to help them cover the travel costs on their transit through Swedish ports to overseas destinations and for so-called landing fees and visa fees in the final countries of refuge. The Swedish Jewish community continued to regard the legal possibilities and its own financial capacities as very limited, since the cost of living in Sweden had to be guaranteed for every person entering the country and the Swedish authorities had tightened the Aliens Act. However, the November pogrom of 1938 had shocked the Swedish public. As a result, the aid committee could count on the government's support for a regulated quota system for the temporary stay of Jewish refugees, especially children.
The Jewish congregation in Stockholm [Mosaiska församlingen i Stockholm] had invited Eva Warburg to come to Sweden in September 1938. The aid committee appreciated her activities in child and youth work and Zionist refugee aid and hoped that Warburg would continue her work for the congregation in Sweden. Eva Warburg had Swedish language skills through her Swedish-born mother, the well-known pedagogue Anna Warburg. Her work in the children’s and youth aliyah in Sweden was to have a lasting legacy.
Her father, Fritz Warburg, was a partner in the Hamburg banking house M.M. Warburg and brother of the director of the Max Warburg Benefit Society Hilfsverein Max Warburg. He managed to leave for Sweden in 1939 after he had been temporarily imprisoned. He and his Swedish-born wife settled in Stockholm. From there he continued to look after the needs of the Jewish Hospital in Hamburg and helped many people to escape from Germany using his private funds.
It is said that Fritz Warburg took countless children with him when he fled Germany and that Eva Warburg saved the children of her day care center by sending them to Sweden. Such interpretations are not complete, however. A check of the names bearing the note “Sweden” from the available document in the file of the children’s department of the Jewish congregation in Stockholm [Mosaiska församlingen i Stockholm] does not reveal any evidence of a larger individual action. One child was “recommended” by Eva Warburg according to the accompanying index card, two by the “Jüd. Rel. Verband Hamburg” [Jewish Religious Association of Hamburg]. The arrival dates of the children mentioned in this source, and indeed of almost all the children in the card index of the Children’s Department, differ and the children were placed with families in different places in Sweden, only one child went immediately to a youth aliyah home run by Eva Warburg.
All children mentioned in the document were included in the general children’s quota of the municipality. No other source discovered so far lists a larger number of children noted in a single rescue operation. Given the total number of the congregation’s quota, ten children – and certainly the 100 Fritz Warburg was reported to have saved – would be sufficient to be mentioned in the sources as a special group. At this point, therefore, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Eva Warburg may have brought some of her protégés to Sweden by recommending them to the congregation. However, it also follows that just as many other children were not included in the quota list. For every child that Eva Warburg brought to Sweden, another one was left behind according to the logic of the quotas of that time.
In Sweden, the Warburgs continued their work of rescuing people from Germany and caring for the refugees. One of their most important achievements was the establishment of a youth aliyah center in Hälsinggården just outside the northern Swedish town of Falun in June 1939, where German and Austrian youths aged 15 to 17 were to receive agricultural training, general education, craft skills and a Zionist attitude. As with other projects, the two motivations of educating children in the Zionist spirit and getting them out of Germany at the same time were equally important. It was planned that they would later emigrate to Palestine together.
The actress and author Ruth Parnass, who later became known under the first name Peggy, is one of the children listed on Eva Warburg’s notepad with the reference “Sweden.” According to the index card kept by the children’s department of the Jewish congregation in Stockholm [Mosaiska församlingen i Stockholm], the 11-year-old lived with ten different host parents in the following years. It is possible that the selection of host parents by the children's department in this situation was not carried out carefully enough or that the traumatized Ruth had difficulties adapting. She was also separated from her four-year-old brother Gert, who was placed in a children’s home. On Gert Parnass’ index card in the children’s department of the Stockholm Jewish congregation [Mosaiska församlingen i Stockholm], it is noted that he was “recommended” by “Fräulein Warburg.”
In October 1941, the possibility of legal escape from National Socialist Germany ended. Until then, an unknown number of German and Austrian Jews had fled via Sweden to exile in safe countries. However, since the beginning of the war, the possibilities for continuing their journey from Sweden had been considerably limited. Only a few Jewish refugees arrived in Great Britain on ships. The vast majority of the refugees, the pioneers of the hakhshara and the children were stranded in Sweden. The latter remained wards of the aid committee and, like many of the refugees, were dependent on aid from the congregations for a long time. Between 1938 and 1941, the congregation [Mosaiska församlingen i Stockholm] made it possible for about 1,350 people to escape to or transit through Sweden using the quotas. Among them were at least 500 children. Not counted were the probably thousands of people whom the aid committee helped in transit and those whom the Swedish Jews (and some non-Jews as well) individually helped financially.
Even after Jews were prohibited from leaving the German Reich, Eva Warburg continued her efforts to maintain the youth aliyah and to bring to Sweden children whose parents had already been deported or had fled. She also continued to support the children in Sweden. With the help of the Yishuv and British and American aid organizations, she attempted to bring a group of more than 100 youth aliyah members to Palestine by land. But all efforts failed due to the bureaucratic hurdles set up by the transit countries. In the spring of 1941, she succeeded in bringing two smaller groups into British Mandate territory. The other children in the Children’s Section remained in Sweden for the duration of the war, and only a few of them could be reunited with relatives in Great Britain, Palestine or the United States, and with the greatest of difficulty. Ruth Parnass and her brother eventually joined their uncle in Great Britain in March 1945.
After liberation, only a few surviving parents or relatives could be located. Some of the children joined the Jewish survivors from the various rescue operations in Sweden in the last months of the war and emigrated to the newly founded state of Israel. The majority settled in Sweden and became Swedish citizens. Peggy Parnass later often described her time in Sweden as traumatic and did not mention the Jewish congregation [Mosaiska församlingen i Stockholm] of which she was a ward. This was true for several children. The loss of all relatives and in some cases inadequate treatment in overburdened foster families left deep psychological wounds.
This inconspicuous note from the estate of Eva Warburg is representative of the specific history of the rescue of Jewish children from the German Reich by means of the so-called Kindertransport [child evacuation]. These rescue operations were the result of transnational relief work by Jewish organizations and yet also always dependent on the tremendous personal commitment of individual actors. Their goal was to save human lives, and yet the Kindertransporte [child evacuations] are associated with a tremendous tragedy. Hardly any of the children ever saw their parents again, the trauma of the separation shaped the survivors throughout their lives, and the decision which child was rescued was often not the result of objective criteria but of existing networks or coincidence.
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Clemens Maier-Wolthausen, Dr. phil., is a historian, he worked at the Institute for the History of the German Jews (IGdJ). His research interests are: history and remambrance of National Socialism, Scandinavic contemporary history as well as the history of "Naturkunde" and Zoological Gardens in Germany.
Clemens Maier-Wolthausen, Kindertransport and Jewish International Aid Networks (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, January 13, 2021. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-263.en.v1> [June 09, 2023].