Emigration of Elderly Jews from Vienna to the United States, 1938–41

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:50 AM
Berkeley Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Melissa Jane Taylor , Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State
The decision to emigrate is always a difficult one, and all the more so for elderly individuals.  With most, or all, of their working years behind them, elderly émigrés faced tough questions from immigration officials about their ability to support themselves.  Hitler’s expansion into Austria forced elderly Jews to consider what might previously have been unthinkable: emigration.  The elderly formed a significant minority of immigrants from Europe to the United States; up to twenty percent from 1933 to 1944.  Despite the size of this group, little has been written about their thought process or motivation.  Through the use of memoirs, oral histories, and letter collections—including materials translated into English for the first time—this paper will examine the experience of this understudied group.

The U.S. immigration laws of the late 1930s specifically stated that individuals who were “likely to become a public charge” should not be issued an immigration visa, thus making elderly émigrés more vulnerable to exclusion.  Despite this stricture, the immigration of elderly Europeans had been on the rise since 1925. 

This paper will examine what the refugee experience was like for elderly Jews trying to leave Vienna after Austria’s annexation to Greater Germany.  Multiple case studies will illuminate the many challenges that made immigration more complex for the elderly than for their younger coreligionists.  Although a significant minority of elderly Jews left Vienna, most did not, meaning that the composition of the Viennese Jewish community became more “elderly” as well.  This paper will also examine the factors that kept elderly Jews in Vienna and the role that family dynamics played in allowing for successful immigration.  Finally, this paper will demonstrate the importance of the elderly immigration experience in understanding the complexities of 1930s and 1940s U.S. immigration policy.