Living conditions and everyday life in exile

Récépissé: Arnold Schönberg
Récépissé for Arnold Schönberg, issued on 5 September 1933 in Paris
Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien, © Belmont Music Publishers / Lawrence Schoenberg

Living conditions and everyday life in exile

Ich bin immer noch dabei, mir eine neue Existenz aufzubauen, und da es zum vierten Male in meinem Leben ist, so faellt es nicht immer ganz leicht.

[I am still in the process of establishing myself, and since this is the fourth time in my life, it’s not always easy. (ed. trans.)]

Architect Franz Hillinger, employee of Bruno Taut in Turkey, in a letter from Canada to the governing Mayor of Berlin, Ernst Reuter, 1951

People who go into exile leave a lot behind, especially if they have to escape quickly. In their families, often the only ones who can follow are direct relatives like husbands/wives and children; possessions and social networks are left behind. In the receiving country, everyday life is characterised by immigration bureaucracy, difficulties adjusting, financial worries and language problems. This results in uncertainties and uprooting, because lifestyle habits are eliminated and the new start is uncertain.

Hundreds of thousands of people who went into exile between 1933 and 1945 had to face these everyday struggles, including an estimated 10,000 artists and scientists. They were cut off from the professional contacts that they had established over time and faced the challenge of finding adequate work. A large number of exiles were thus reliant on financial assistance from friends and acquaintances, benefactors and aid organisations. The reports from exiles repeatedly mention the inconvenience of having to ask acquaintances for money. In October 1940, author Mascha Kaléko wrote in her New York diary that she and other emigrants had no money, no friends, no connections and no hope. They didn’t have the money for public transport, or even shoes. She also wrote that she did not have medication for her son Stephen and that he faced being thrown out of school because they could not afford the fees. “Damn money. It is humiliating not to have any” she complained and added that so-called friends were already avoiding her and her family as if they were lepers. (cited according to Gisela Zoch-Westphal: Aus den sechs Leben der Mascha Kaléko [From the 6 lives of Mascha Kaléko], p. 117f.)

In some cases, the wives of emigrants took on simple work and poorly paid jobs to secure their families’ survival with their income, while their husbands tried to get their careers going in the receiving country. However, this situation also enabled many women in exile to overcome traditional gender roles and have successful careers.

More than a few emigrants complained about loneliness because social contacts and friendships were at times hard to establish in the receiving country. For many, social life consisted only of contacts to other exiles. In part, the societies in the receiving countries were suspicious of and rejected the refugees. These are problems still faced by exiles and refugees who have had to leave their home countries. Prejudices against foreigners and racism often make it harder to start over in a new culture.

In some countries, emigrants encountered favourable conditions: Many an architect managed to advance his career in the USA, Palestine or Turkey. In Mexico, communist artists found a liberal climate that was politically sympathetic to the Soviet Union for a while.

For people leaving the GDR from 1949 onwards, the Federal Republic made it easier to organise everyday life in many ways. The post-War society in the Federal Republic offered them political freedom of expression and gave them the opportunity to succeed economically, and there was no language problem in the divided Germany. Public debate about cultural identity and integration also continued in Germany as a receiving country. However, differences between cultures that are brought along and which exist in the new place cannot be overcome by political programmes; they are an existential experience for those affected by them.