This interpretation of the Jewish encounter and response to anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany will provide the reader with insight into the daily lives of Jews living within German territory between the years of 1933-1945. The Jewish encounter with anti-Semitism is multi-layered and encompasses the personal experiences of millions; various themes of displacement, violence, exclusion, isolation, etc. are present in the Nazi encountered Jewish life and insight from individual perspectives and distinguished events are necessary in order to accurately construct a more confined interpretation of an overall Jewish experience. Ultimately, the prevailing theme weaving through the broad far-reaching Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, is the interconnectedness of the Jewish community and family; through historical context and Jewish responses to anti-Semitism this idea is reinforced.
Encountering systematic anti-Semitism
First and foremost, historical context regarding the social and political conditions in which Jews were living will be provided, which will then allow us to thoroughly understand the responses that would arise within the Jewish community. The creation of the Nazi state, the ensuing seizure of power and the process of consolidating that power all fell on the backs of each and every German citizen in the third Reich -third empire in German history-, but for those who would be excluded from society, Nazi seizure of power had very different implications. Through the process of constructing a Volksgemeinschaft or “collective body of ‘valuable Aryan’” Jews among others, would be excluded from society and become targets of propaganda, racial and sexual politics, eugenics, violence and terror. (Stephenson, 99) For Jews specifically, as early as March of 1933, only months after Hitler obtains power, Jews were subjected to the first centrally organized measure by the Nazis, a one-day boycott of all Jewish enterprise, which only a week later followed with ‘The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’ that would dismiss nearly half of all Jewish civil servants -teachers, judges, government officials-; two years later, in 1935, the foundation to Nazi racial and sexual politics emerged as ‘The Nuremberg Laws’, which excluded Jews from the citizenship of the Reich and forbade marriage and sexual intercourse between Germans and Jews; By 1938, persecution rapidly intensified during ‘The November Pogrom’ -issued by Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller, Chief of the Security Service Reinhard Heydrich and further edited by Field Marshall Hermann Goering- which was a systematic campaign aimed towards the destruction of all Jewish economic life, Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes in Berlin, these Jewish properties were completely destroyed over the course of two days; these distinguished events all profoundly contributed to the construction of an avenue, which would ultimately lead to the proposal of the “final solution” at the Wannsee Conference and the systematic genocide of Jews beginning in the years of 1941-1942. (Stackelburg and Winkle, 3.9, 3.26c, 3.26d, 4.13a, 4.13b,4.13d, 6.8)
Reality of Jewish Daily life: Economically and Socially
From the moment that the Nazi party seized power, the economic and social aspects of Jewish life were constantly being reshaped and amended. The process of exclusion from German society touched every aspect of Jewish existence and overtime, it successfully isolated Jews both economically and socially. The Pre-war racial policies -discussed briefly above- were the pillars of an anti-Semitic system that created new obstacles for Jews year after year; the specific ways that Jews viewed these policies on an individual level will be examined to show how these obstacles effected the daily lives of Jews from an economic and social viewpoint. As mentioned above, the boycott of all Jewish enterprises was the first centrally organized measure taken against the Jews, this act of exclusion created waves of uncertainty about economic sustainability and even exposed anger -amongst individuals- regarding the events that were unfolding in regard to the Jewish community. Victor Klemperer, a Jewish born convert to Protestantism whom happened to be married to an “Aryan woman”, documents his personal impressions of this first act of exclusion, including thoughts about the displacement of University teachers in Munich, in a journal entry dated March 31, 1933:
“Ever more hopeless. The boycott begins tomorrow […] The Dresden student body made a declaration today: United behind . . . and the honor of German students forbids them to come into contact with Jews. They are not allowed to enter the Student House. How much Jewish money went toward this Student House only a few years ago! In Munich Jewish university teachers have already been prevented from setting foot in the university… At Gusti Wieghardt’s yesterday evening. The most depressed atmosphere. During the night at about three—Eva unable to sleep—Eva advised me to give notice on our apartment today, perhaps renting a part of it again. I gave notice today. The future is quite uncertain.”
Klemperer, being married to an Aryan woman and serving as a soldier in the first World War enjoyed certain privileges for a time being that protected him from certain persecutions, but in this excerpt, a downcast unpleasant hope for the future of Jews is undoubtedly expressed. Just as with Jewish University teachers in Munich, Jewish lawyers all over Germany were also being displaced and uprooted from their careers and economic footholds. For example, after Jewish lawyers and judges of the Wroclaw Court were assaulted by SA officers -the Nazi’s original paramilitary force- on March 11, 1933, three hundred-plus Jewish lawyers were stripped of their access to that court only three days after the attack.
Even before the national boycott or the implementation of The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (LRPCS), “political change,” according to Betty Scholem’s letter to her son on February 20, 1933 “appeared first of all as a shock to business […] Business came to a standstill after Hitler became chancellor.” Again, one month later, weeks before the boycott and LRPCS, Scholem expresses her griefs regarding the economic effects of Hitler’s ascension to power:
My dear child, [ . . . ] You wrote that you want precise information! I must refer you to the newspapers. Caution is the order of the day, and no one is allowed to pass rumors around. But this isn’t necessary, since the facts speak for themselves. Lawyers and teachers have it the worst: they can be completely barred from their professions. Jewish doctors have already been shut out of the hospitals, and the national medical insurance is probably next in line. Still, the government won’t directly interfere with their private practices. [ . . . ]
I myself am really quite calm. I’m not the only one in the world I have to think of, however, and my concern for my children and grandchildren has nothing to do with paranoia or an overactive imagination, which are not something I incline toward. It’s a real stroke of luck that you’re out of harm’s way! Now, suddenly, I want to see everyone in Palestine!! When I only think of the outcry heard among German Jews when Zionism began! Your father and Grandfather Hermann L. and the entire Central Verein beat themselves on the breast and said with absolute conviction, “We are Germans!” And now we’re being told that we are not Germans after all!
The early period of Nazi rule could be perceived in relatively feasible light, if being compared to what was to come even in 1935 with the Nuremberg Laws, but in reality, the first couple of years under Nazi rule called for drastic changes in the economic sector of the Jewish community. Progressively, Jews were stripped of their economic means and forced into poverty. “Economic discrimination advanced on many fronts at once. More and more Jews were driven out of their jobs, special taxes were introduced and discrimination before industrial tribunals and civil courts intensified too, affecting everything from job disputes to tenancy agreements.” (Wachsmann, 138)
Regarding the social effects of these early racial policies, Jews quickly became the face of social exclusivity. Being that there were initially only 500,000 thousand Jews living in Germany before the war and that anti-Semitism had earlier roots prior to Nazi emergence, this idea makes sense. Not only from above, but also on the local level, immense harassment and opposition was directed towards Jews typically in the form of violence or propaganda. Mainly, Jewish businesses and relationships with “Aryans” were attacked. The emergence of The Nuremburg Laws only reinforced social ideals about Jews, they were now legally second-class citizens. Specifically, The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor, which prohibited marriage between Jews and citizens of the Reich, as well as intercourse between the two and even prohibited Jews from hoisting the Reich flag, this law specifically, created immense separation between Jews and non-Jews. “German judges soon applied the law as widely as they could, punishing even kisses between Jews and non-Jews.” (Wachsmann, 138) Jews soon would be excluded from public services and even the public sphere in some cases.
Responses to anti-Semitism
Jewish responses to the economic, social and deadly onslaught faced in Nazi Germany vary; responses in this interpretation will be narrowed down into categories of resistance and conformity. It is important to note that the Jewish response to anti-Semitism is not singular, but rather, it is dependent upon various factors, where one lived, their social class, gender, age, etc. (Kaplan 67). While this is true, one cannot ignore the common thread of community, family or comradery that is commonly tied to Jewish response to anti-Semitism; an understanding of Jewish exclusion from German society only solidifies this notion. Regarding the idea of resistance, two examples must be highlighted. On October 28th, 1938, 17,000 Polish-Jews were arrested in Germany and taken to the German-Polish border and dumped at the border unable to enter Poland nor go back to Germany. Of these 17,000 Jews involved was the family of Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year-old Polish-Jew living in France. To bring international attention to the situation Polish-Jews were facing, Grynszpan, on November 7th, 1938, entered the German embassy in Paris and murdered German secretary Ernst Eduard; Grynszpan would later be put to death. Unfortunately, this act of resistance by Grynszpan would actually go on to heavily influence the emergence of the November Pogrom. The second act of resistance to be highlighted, occurred In April of 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprisingemerged and for the first time, SS officers were confronted with Jewish armed resistance by ghetto inhabitants. The Warsaw uprising marks one of the few armed Jewish resistance campaigns to Nazi efforts; it is estimated that nearly 12,000 Jews were killed during the uprising and 50,000 would be deported to death camps after. During Nazi rule in Germany, few acts of armed resistance by Jews occurred, these two examples were chosen to highlight this idea and theme of comradery amongst fellow Jews and its importance in relation to Jewish response. As stated above, the exclusion of Jews from German society left Jews with only one clear component of life to invest in and that is one’s family or fellow Jew. Regarding the idea of conformity to Nazi ideology, two examples that highlight an investment in Jewish community, while at the same time exposes compliance, will be provided. The pre-war racial polices enforced by the Nazis always had the intention of forcing Jews to leave Germany, Jews conformed to this idea and attempted to do so.
Jewish communities and organizations responded to racial polices by offering several resources to help prepare Jews for emigration, as well as new economic avenues to sustain while living in Germany, as many were uprooted from their professions. This 1935 photograph shows members of Berlin’s Jewish community participating in a shoemaker’s apprenticeship program. German Jews also pursued other avenues in agriculture and the foreign job markets. The next photo was taken in 1935, it highlights a Spanish class for Jews who wanted to emigrate to South America. Through context regarding Nazi racial policy, an examination of the Jewish encounter with those policies and the subsequent effects on the daily life, combined lastly with examples of resistance and conformity; it can be concluded, the overall Jewish experience and response to the harsh realities of Nazi Germany was not one of singular explanation, yet it is one that maps out a common hope that could exist amongst Jews: hope in his his fellow Jew.
For further reading:
- Caplan, Jane. Short Oxford History of Germany: Nazi Germany. Oxford University Press, 2008
- German History Documents & Images (GHDI)
- Kaplan, Marion A. “When the Ordinary Became Extraordinary: German Jews Reacting to Nazi Persecution, 1933-1939.” In Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany, edited by Robert Gellately and Nathan Soltzfus, 66-98. Princeton, NJ/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Stackelberg, Roderick and Sally A. Winkle. The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts.(New York: Routledge, 2002)
Preston Joiner, History Major, LMU class of 2021