SIGMUND AND ROSA – MARCH 1941 – Escape From Nazi Vienna

In my last post, I shared a chapter from my new book project about my family’s quest to obtain Holocaust reparations. Today, I’d like to share what I learned about the emigration of my maternal great-grandparents, Sigmund and Rosa Lichtenthal. I’ve learned quite a bit more since I orginally posted about their trip a couple months ago. This is a work in progress. I welcome any feedback you may have.

1939 Passport for Rosa Lichtenthal. “Sara” has been added to her name.

On August 17, 1938 a decree had been enacted, to take effect by the begin­ning of 1939, requiring Jews to add middle names that would identify them as Jews. Jewish men were required to add Israel as a middle name and women, Sara.[1]Evidence of this can be seen on Sigmund and Rosa’s emigration documents.

Since the goal of the Nazis at this time was still to simply rid the country of Jews, the plan was focused on getting them all to leave and emigrate elsewhere. It was likely that the immigrants would not be able to pursue their current occupations in their new country. Therefore, programs were developed to “retrain” the Jews. Rosa Lichtenthal, previously an accomplished milliner and business owner was trained in the art of flower-arranging, completing her “program” on January 29, 1939.

After their son Paul left Vienna in March 1939, Sigmund and Rosa were left on their own to navigate life in Nazi Vienna. They had already suffered the theft of their business, the loss of their livelihood and personal possessions. They witnessed the horrors of Kristallnacht and the destruction of the Jewish community in Vienna. At 64 years of age they were forced to find a new place to live. They were forced to eke out an existence in a Vienna that was nothing like the place they had called home for 40 years. Sigmund was expending great effort at this time attempting to obtain some restitution for the loss of his business. Perhaps that explains the delay in their plans to leave their homeland. In May 1939, it became clear, even to the stubborn Sigmund, that it was time to leave. The process would take nearly two years.

Sigmund completed the 1939 Asset Declaration, required by law as part of the emigration process, on May 15. On that document one can see the middle name “Israel” added to Sigmund’s name. The document is also clearly stamped by the “Gildemeester Auswanderungs-Hilfsaktion” organization. Francis van Gheel Gildemeester founded the agency which initially negotiated deals between rich Jewish families and the German authorities in Austria. The “deals” required wealthy Jews to donate a share of their wealth to a ‘Gildemeester fund’, in order to assist poorer Jews with their emigration from Austria.

The left column indicated wealth in April, 1938. At that time, Sigmund owned a home worth about 50,000 RM. He also also had approximately 66,700 RM in cash. A year later, in May 1939, he had “keines” – nothing.

In addition to support from the Gildemeester organization, the Lichtenthals were assisted by the IKG (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde) and the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee). The JDC established the Transmigration Bureau to help refugees emigrate from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, primarily to the U.S. Its primary role was to accept deposits from friends or family overseas to help pay the travel costs of Jews emigrating from Europe. I did locate the Transmigration cards for Sigmund and Rosa online (Ancestry.com) but there were no “deposits” from others listed. There were notations of payments, but I am not clear as to who made the payments – the JDC or the Lichtenthals themselves. No matter who paid the passage, it is clear that Sigmund and Rosa would not have been able to escape Nazi Europe without the assistance of these organizations. Still, their emigration process was fraught with more difficulty than they could have imagined. Despite being issued passports on October 24, 1939, it would be almost a year-and-a-half before they were able to leave the country.

Rosa’s original passport expired on October 24, 1940. On February 11, 1941, she was granted an extension through August 24, 1941. We don’t have Sigmund’s actual passport, but it can be assumed he experienced a similar process. Two days later, Rosa finally received her Immigration Visa (#4665), allowing her to leave for the United States,

Original itinerary
Final itinerary

On February 18, 1941, Rosa’s passport was stamped in Vienna in preparation for the trip to the United States. She and Sigmund were scheduled to travel from Vienna to what is now Taurage, Lithuania. From there they would travel to Malkinia Gorna, Poland before heading to Moscow. From Russia they would make their way to Japan, then finally to the United States. Presumably the 65-year-old couple, already in failing health, would then make their way 3,000 miles across the United States before being reunited with their family in New York. This trip, about 13,475 miles, would have been a little more than half of the 24,901 miles it would take to circumvent the Earth! Thankfully, the Lichtenthals never had to experience that harrowing itinerary.

A week later, on February 26, Sigmund and Rosa were given a new itinerary. With the assistance of agencies such as the IKG and the JDC the Lichtenthals were able to secure a berth on the Serpa Pinto, departing from Lisbon. Portugal in March. From Vienna they would travel to Hargarten-Falck in France, on to Spain and finally depart from Lisbon, Portugal for the USA.  This would be a less arduous journey of only 5,581 miles and only one transfer to a ship.

I have not yet been able to determine the reason for the change of itinerary. By this time, war had broken out across Europe, making travel for Jews quite dangerous. Perhaps the change in itinerary was to provide a safer route. Portugal was a neutral country, one of the few remaining ports available for emigration to the USA. The change may have been due to the work of the IKG on behalf of elderly Jews still remaining in Vienna. On February 9 and 17, Dr. Benjamin Murmelstein, director of the emigration department of the IKG, sent letters to the American consulate in Vienna imploring the consulate to expedite the visa process for those people who already had reserved ship tickets on the ships Serpa Pinto and Magallanes. [3] In the first six months of 1941 only 1,194 Jews managed to leave Vienna.[2] They were very lucky to make it out at this late date.

The Serpa Pinto. Image courtesy of archives.jdc.org

The voyage of the Serpa Pinto was noteworthy in itself. The Portuguese ship line, Companhia Colonial De Navegacao, received many complaints about the ship’s first voyage in January of that year. Passengers complained of “intense discomfort,” asserting the crew of 165 was not sufficient to man the liner and its 628 passengers. My research turned more information about that January trip.[4] The Monday before docking in New York, someone posted a fake bulletin on the ship’s news board. The post reported that Berlin had been bombed, Hitler and Goering had been killed and the Reich was planning to sue for peace. People reacted by slapping each other on the backs, banging utensils on the dining room tables, and collapsing in shock. The crew, supposedly pro-British, also rejoiced upon hearing the news. Some passengers even suggested they turn the ship around since the “thing” they were trying to get away from was gone. The purser discovered the notice and tore it down. When they were informed of the hoax, many passengers were quite angry, wanting to get justice from the perpetrator, whose identity was not discovered. 

Rosa and Sigmund began their voyage on March 15, 1941. Five men had been added to the crew since the January trip. However, the passenger manifest for this voyage listed 640 passengers, 12 more than the previous trip. Problems with this voyage began in Lisbon, when the shipping line attempted to take on an additional 170 passengers. Those plans were abandoned when authorities objected. A New York Times article revealed reports of passengers paying extra fees to make sure they would be able to board. The quarters of most of the “third-class” passengers consisted of double tiers of cots, constructed from iron pipes in three compartments between decks.  A plaque in one of the compartments read “Certified for 132 fourth-class passengers when not occupied by cattle, cargo or other encumbrance.”[5]In an attempt to counteract the negative publicity, Captain Americo Santos reported 200 passengers on the March voyage had signed a document stating they had been satisfied with their accommodations.

Rosa and Sigmund Lichtenthal in the USA. Colorized by myheritage.com

As if the conditions on the ship weren’t difficult enough, the voyage was interrupted when British authorities, suspicious that German nationals were aboard, ordered the ship to “put in” to the port of Bermuda. The ship remained there for three days while passengers were questioned and their belongings were examined. No one was found so the ship was allowed to proceed with its passengers, 500 sacks of mail and cargo of cork intact.[6] On March 30, six days later than scheduled, the Serpa Pinto arrived in New York.

The Serpa Pinto was able to repair its negative image. Over the course of World War II, the SS Serpa Pinto bore more refugees across the Atlantic than any other Portuguese ship.[7] 

Finally, all of our immediate family members were physically safe within the borders of the United States. They had arrived in time to avoid one of the last indignities put upon the Jews remaining in Europe. After September 1, 1941, all Jews over the age of six had to wear a yellow Jewish star. In November Adolf Eichmann put a stop to emigration. With the decision made to murder the Jews of Europe, the remaining tasks were to determine how many Jews were left and the procedures to be used to eliminate the entire population.[8] We are the “lucky ones.” Our family survived physically but the emotional toll changed the course of our family’s history.


[1] Weiss, Thomas Fischer, I Owe It To … . Weiss Books. Needham, MA. 2018. p. 468.

[2] Offenberger, Ilana. The Jews of Nazi Vienna, 1938-1945 – Rescue and Destruction.Palgrave Macmillan. 2018. p. 195.

[3] Ibid. p. 218.

[4] Milwaukee Journal, January 10, 1941, pg. 1; The Times-Picayune, January 10, 1941, p. 1

[5] New York Times. March 31, 1941, p. 32.

[6] The Times-Picayune, March 31, 1941, p 13.

[7] archives.jdc.org

[8] Weiss, Thomas Fischer p.558

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