Behind the Headlines a Newspaper Called Aufbau

In the turmoil of war-torn Europe, a New York newspaper titled Aufbau, German for “reconstruction, “was handed around among the inmates in Gurs, a concentration camp in the French Pyrenees. It eventually reached a young German Jew named Hans Steinitz.

Some 43 years later, the now 72-year-old Steinitz, Aufbau’s editor for the past 20 years, sat in the weekly’s Manhattan office beneath large framed photographs of Thomas Mann, Alber Einstein and President Franklin Roosevelt. Steinitz, who arrived in the United States in 1947, recalled that he and some 500 other inmates in the Gurs concentration camp found the German-language paper a “revelation,” with its news of the fates of the political and religious refugees from Nazi Germany.

Aufbau turned up wherever any of the more than half a million German-speaking refugees, primarily Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, found themsleves.

In the years following World War II, Aufbau made its way to readers in 45 countries, according to Steinitz. The locales included Tasmania, off the southern coast of Australia, which was the home until his recent death of a subscribing German Protestant missionary who was sent away by his church because, Steinitz said, he was “on the Nazi list of enemies to the country.”

CELEBRATING ITS 50TH ANNIVERSARY

Aufbau is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary of continuous publication this year with a fall exhibit made up of panels of Aufbau’s more illustrious front pages and a November banquet in the Waldorf Astoria. This past June, the tabloid-size paper kicked off its celebration with a special commemorative issue.

Though contemporary in its appearance and editorial approach, the paper is serving a vastly reduced number of readers, including the shrinking community of refugees from Nazi Europe it has served so well.

Steinitz, whose editorial contributions these days consist primarily of a weekly editorial, will not guess what Aufbau’s future will be beyond guaranteeing continued publication for the next three years. His generation is vanishing and a new generation of readers has not been forthcoming, noted several staff members of the Leo Baeck Institute, a body assembling the history of German-speaking Jewry.

Even Aufbau’s hold on some long-time readers has loosened. One son of a refugee noted that his father has stopped reading Aufbau, feeling, he said, “it no longer has anything to say.” He added that everyone his father knew from Europe has died.

Nevertheless, Aufbau faces its precarious future buoyed by a rich past, one marked by years of meeting the needs of its emigrant readership.

MEETING ITS READERSHIP’S NEEDS

The paper has enabled the central European refugees to reestablish and maintain family and community ties. After the war, it published lists of individuals in the DP camps in Germany, enabling families to find lost members.

“Aufbau keeps the older generation attached to Central Europe, the places of theie births, where they spent the formative parts of their lives,” said Dr. Michael Riff, the reference librarian at Baeck Institute. He recalled that his Czechoslovakia-born parents went out of their way to patronize Aufbau advertisers.

In 1948, Aufbau began to campaign for a fair system of reparations to be paid by the German government to refugees who had suffered personal and financial losses under the Nazis. According to Steinitz, Aufbau’s subsequent extensive coverage of West Germany’s restitution laws garnered the paper its greatest circulation, 50,000 in the early 1960′s. “Aufbau was the paper for this information,” Steinitz said.

The years since have seen Aufbau’s circulation shrink to about 12,000. Steinitz, who speaks with difficulty because of a recent cancer operation, said he expects to lose an additional 1,000 readers by year’s end.

Aufbau has, said Steinitz, always aimed to make the transition to life in American easier for the approximately 100,000 German-speaking refugees who arrived here during Hitler’s rule. It began as a ten-page monthly of the New World Club in New York, the sucessor of an organization of young German-Jewish emigrants formed in New York in the late 1920′s.

MAINTAINED A ‘LIBERAL’ POLITICAL TRADITION

The paper has maintained what Steinitz calls a “liberal” political tradition, including editorial support for Israel, while serving as a literary and political forum for the emigres. It has published some of the most notable writers and thinkers of the German emigration. “It attracted,” said Gert Niers, Aufbau’s 42-year-old managing editor, “anybody who was anti-Hitler, whether they were Jewish or not,” including Einstein and Mann.

Today, the paper still caters to the interests of its dwindling refugee readership, two-thirds of which now call American home. To do this, said Niers, the paper covers developments in German democracy, while keeping an eye on the activities of neo-Nazism and American and Israeli politics.

Sports, particularly soccer, are an integral part of Aufbau’s coverage. Additionally, the paper regularly offers book, theater, music and film reviews, a woman’s page and currency exchange rates.

The German-born Niers, along with 41-year-old Austrain-born Hermann Pichler, do most of the actual editing of Aufbau. Neither of the two are Jewish, but both said they are dedicated to preserving Aufbau’s traditional German-Jewish character.

Niers referred to the paper’s “decidedly” Jewish quality, pointing out Aufbau’s weekly publication of the interpretation of the weekly Torah portion by Rabbi Joseph Maier. “On the other hand,” said Steinitz, “we are decidely Reform-minded (towards Judaism), which makes it easier to adjust to more secular issues.”

Perhaps nothing better typifies both the service Aufbau represents to its readers and its fragile future than the Aufbau obituaries. Aufbau publishes about 10 obituaries a week, said Niers, over 500 a year.

SERVES AS A GLOBAL NETWORK

Marion Kaplan, a historian and the daughter of German-Jewish refugees, told of her parents reading Aufbau, starting from the back where the obituaries and personal notices are. “Aufbau forms a network that goes around the globe,” Kaplan related, telling of congratulatory letters her grandmother received from places as far-flung as South Africa and Argentina after a notice of her 90th birthday went in Aufbau.

Kaplan, who has written widely on German-Jewish social history, noted that many of her contemporaries do not speak and read German. This pinpoints a major reason for Aufbau’s poor following among the children of the refugees.

Twenty-three years ago, Aufbau could have been bought in New York, which Steinitz said is home to 25 percent of its readers, for 20 cents. Aufbau’s annual subscription rate of $38 per year, coupled with its removal from most newsstands in the city several years ago, now makes Aufbau a daunting purchase for many of its predominantly older readers.

TRYING TO COUNTER UNCERTAIN FUTURE

To counter the uncertainties surrounding Aufbau’s future, the paper has set up the Aufbau Heritage Foundation to solicit contributions to “foster German-Jewish heritage,” said Niers, a goal which he said includes enabling Aufbau to keep publishing.

Accomplishing the Foundation’s objective appears to be a deeply felt wish for Niers, whose father, while refusing membership in the Nazi Party, served in the Third Reich’s army. He explained his own interest in Aufbau, which has him poised as a likely successor to Steinitz at Aufbau’s helm, as a “question of responsibility.” “For me, it was important to get into contact with the Holocaust survivors, with that generation.”

Steinitz said he was forced out of a brief retirement in 1980, when his replacement turned out to be a “disaster.” Steinitz, whom Pichler said gets mail from readers “more like letters to a member of the family,” praised Niers as “remarkable” for his success in identifying with the problems and culture of the Hitler-era emigres. Whether Niers though or anyone could maintain Aufbau’s readership in the absence of Steinitz is an additional worry for the staff.

As the obituaries come steadily in, Aufbau’s staff of 15 continues to serve its dwindling readership. Steinitz, only the second editor in Aufbau’s history, said “the German-Jewish heritage would otherwise be lost in 50 years, when nobody remembered it anymore.”

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