Alfred Rosenthal: Emigration from Germany

Alfred Rosenthal describes his departure from Germany to Palestine in 1933 not as an escape but as emigration. Before emigrating from Israel to the USA in 1956, he returned to Germany with his family for just under a year to clarify the whereabouts of his wife’s parents. They had been murdered during the Shoa. A stroke of fate in the family and professional reasons led him and his wife from the United States back to Germany in the 1970s.

My father died for Germany in 1914, of course I have no memory of him. In 1915 my mother moved with me and my sister from my birthplace Hamburg to Frankfurt/Main. My mother’s family came from Schotten and Frankfurt, my father’s from Bad Nauheim. My great-great-great-grandfather, Mos. Samuel Rosenthal, was the first Jew to be granted residence rights in Nauheim in 1793.

From 1920-1929 I attended the Samson-Raphael-Hirsch-School. Afterwards I started an apprenticeship with Heinrich Wertheimer, Spitzen etc., Bahnhofsplatz 12 in Frankfurt.

My mother received only a very low war widow’s pension for herself and the two children. So we had nothing to give up, and it was therefore an easy decision for us to emigrate in 1933, despite or rather because of the patriotism we had shown up to that point, after we were no longer equal citizens. My sister, whose job in the largest (Jewish) department store in Frankfurt, Hermann Wronker, was more endangered than mine, left Germany as early as May 1933, illegally, as a tourist to what was then very primitive Palestine. I had trained with Heinrich Wertheimer; my job was therefore less at risk.

I had a colleague, Walter Zinnecker, who had completed his apprenticeship with me under Heinrich Wertheimer. In early 1933, on his way to the bank, he was greeted by SS men with a Hitler salute. He then explained to me that he too was in the SS and showed me his badge, which had been hidden until then! Furthermore he said: “Rosenthal, if you should ever get into trouble, appeal to me, and nothing will happen to you!”

In 1933, on my 20th birthday, I went with my mother on a ship to Palestine – I was also illegal, as a tourist with a three-month residence permit. My mother received an immigration certificate because of her war widow’s pension.

The country was extremely primitive – my mother said, “if only there was at least a tree that would provide some shade…” There were mosquitoes, cockroaches, etc. everywhere. I was plagued by flea bites.

My sister and I kept the illegal status until 1948, when we automatically became citizens of the newly founded state of Israel.

At first I worked in my sister’s laundry and at Technolloyd. Then I started as an errand boy at SIEMENS in Tel Aviv, where I finally worked my way up to deputy chief.

In 1936, during my first vacation in Israel (I was at Siemens at the time), I was also in Jerusalem and there I met my future wife, who had come to Palestine with the Youth Aliyah in 1935. We got married in September 1940, almost 60 years ago.

The German Siemens boss was very okay until 1938. During his vacation in Germany I was assigned to represent him. He came back at the beginning of 1939, as a staunch Nazi. He will have undergone retraining in Germany! The independent Siemens agency was closed and given to the Wagner brothers (Templars), who took me on as department head for Siemens. I did not receive any severance pay from Siemens!

On April 20, 1939 (Hitler’s birthday) the company was closed and I had a day off!

When war broke out, the internment of the Germans in Sarona began. After the invasion of German troops in Holland and Belgium in May 1940, they were deported to Australia. This gave me additional tasks at Gebr. Wagner, e.g. taking over various departments (Bosch, purchasing).

When Italy entered the war, the Germans were convinced of the imminent “final victory” and one of them wrote me (in Yiddish!!): “Oif Wiedersehen in a Choidesh” (Goodbye in a month)!

During the war the “Custodian of Enemy Property” handed over the Wagner company to the Awad Eng. Co, an Arab company in Jerusalem, which took over all my responsibilities.

After the death of the fine, educated and highly decent Stilo Awad, his brother and brother-in-law took over the management of the company. His brother was a failure; his brother-in-law Michel El Issa was a former officer of the Transjordan Frontier Force and a hypernationalist who once told me: “There will never be a Jewish State.”

After the Arab boycott of all Jewish stores and goods etc. was officially declared and I, as head of the purchasing department, received the order to stick to this boycott, I naturally quit and resigned. I then took over various trade representations.

There was indescribably great joy at the independence of the State of Israel in 1948. The next day the attack of all the Arab armies began. I also became an active infantryman for about a year. I then learned that my former chief, Michel El Issa, was the last commander of Jaffa and fled on a boat when Jaffa was captured.

With the representations of Israeli technical products, I was only able to meagerly feed my wife, our two children and my mother, who in the meantime of course no longer received her German pension.

We had an extremely gifted son, and our relatives in the United States therefore advised us to immigrate to the United States, where we would have better economic opportunities for ourselves but above all better educational opportunities for our son.

So in 1956 we left Israel to immigrate to the USA. However, we first went to Germany for a few months to try to find out more about the fate of my parents-in-law. They had lived in Remscheid and had come from Poland to Germany as teenagers before the First World War. The Nazis had expatriated them and deported them to Zboncin 11Zbąszyń in the so-called no man’s land during the “Poland Action” in October 1938. They had then fled to a place where they still had relatives and which lay in the part later occupied by the Soviets. The place was then immediately overrun by the Germans when they invaded the USSR. Until then, that is, until June 1941, we had received news from our parents-in-law through the Red Cross – but then nothing more – to this day.

During these approximately 10 months, which we spent in Germany in 1956/57, we both found work with USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe).

In 1957 we immigrated to the USA. I worked as a traveling salesman in the entire northwest of the USA. At home I was very little, as I had tours of up to 3 weeks each. Therefore, at the urging of relatives, I went into the pearl business in Chicago, which was a flop! After moving to New York, I continued to work as a pearl salesman but hated the job. In 1965 I took over a concession for an ice cream salon with its own local production. This was a very good but also very exhausting business.

Meanwhile, both our children were very good students; our son Hanan received many scholarships and awards, studied physics at the California Institute of Technology, received his PhD at Columbia University and finally became an Instructor Nuclear Physics at Yale University.

Our daughter Naomi studied biology and got a good job in Berkeley, California. After a year she decided to travel and see the world. Eventually she became a development worker in Africa. We worried a lot because she is diabetic. Hanan was sent by Yale in the summer of 1971 to attend a physics congress in Holland and took the opportunity to visit Israel with my mother and sister and my wife’s brother. There he decided to visit his sister in Kenya as well, as he had the opportunity to take a cheap flight Tel-Aviv-Nairobi.

We were very happy to receive a joint, satisfying letter from our two children, but…

The next day, we received the terrible news by phone from the State Department in Washington that our son had been killed in an accident in Kenya!

He was very nature-loving and had rented a car to drive to one of the national parks with his sister, who fortunately could not take time off from her work as a teacher. He had an accident on the way there.

To this day, i.e. since 1972, there are annual memorial events for Hanan at Yale University (Physics Department).

My wife and I were no longer able to do our very strenuous work after this accident. We decided to sell our business at a great loss and to accept the longstanding offer, which we had rejected time and again, to go to Germany for the Ice Cream company. Since 1972 we are here again.

The company that did not succeed here closed its doors in 1976. At the beginning it was very difficult for us to settle back in Germany, especially for my wife, whose parents died during the Shoah. In the meantime, however, we have made many Jewish and non-Jewish friends, and I try to contribute to the understanding between people of different religions, cultures, etc. I am on the board of the Society for Christian-Jewish Dialogue, the Leo Baeck Institute and the Franz Oppenheimer Society, among others.


  • 1Zbąszyń

Alfred Rosenthal describes his assimilated Jewish family as German-patriotic. The decision to leave Germany was therefore immensely difficult, but being second-class citizens was understandably not something the Rosenthals could bear for long. Already in 1933, shortly after the National Socialist seizure of power, Alfred fled with his mother to the British Mandate in Palestine. His sister had made the escape a few months earlier. Only Alfred’s mother received an immigrant certificate because of her war widow’s pension – her husband had died as a German soldier in World War I. Alfred and his sister traveled to Palestine on tourist visas and remained there undocumented and “illegal” until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, when they were automatically granted citizenship.

After several years in Israel, Alfred Rosenthal decided to move on to the United States with his wife, son and daughter because of the much-praised economic and excellent educational opportunities for their children. Especially for Rosenthal’s children, the United States turned out a success story until a car accident ended his son’s life much too early. Out of grief, the Rosenthals re-emigrated back to their homeland, Germany – a homeland that had changed forever due to the Holocaust and the insurmountable traumas for Jewish Germans.

This eyewitness report is used by the We Refugees Archive with kind permission of the Living Museum Online (LeMO) of the German Historical Museum.

It was written by Alfred Rosenthal (1913-2008) from Frankfurt/M. on January 17, 2000.