Philip Trauring
February 27, 1995

German Jewry on the Eve of Destruction

Did the Jews of Germany do enough to prevent their wholesale massacre by the Nazis? Should they have resisted earlier and to a greater degree? Should the Jews in Western countries acted even when Jews within Germany did not? In 1933, there were several different responses to Germany's increasingly anti-Jewish tendencies. Then, on the eve of destruction, before the Nazis had fully planned for their extermination, the German Jews had a chance to affect Germany and their own lives. I have chosen a few of the German Jewish responses to examine in this essay.

After the single-day boycott of April 1, 1993, where the Magen David was posted on establishments of Jewish-race ownership, a Zionist named Robert Weltsch wrote the following lines in a Zionist newspaper article titled '"'Wear It With Pride, The Yellow Badge'"':

This is a painful reminder to all those who betrayed their Judaism...The Jew who denies his Judaism is no better a citizen than his fellow who avows it openly...The Jew is marked a Jew. He gets the Yellow Badge...This regulation is intended as a brand, a sign of contempt. We will take it up and make it a badge of honor.[1]

As a Zionist, Weltsch was critical of those Jews who had replaced their Jewish identities with solely German ones. He was happy to see the German government show those Jews that they were still Jewish, regardless of what they thought -- as far as he was concerned the German government was helping his cause by reawakening the assimilated Jews in Germany. The Magen David was being recreated as the symbol of the Zionist movement and so why shouldn't Jews be proud to wear it? What Weltsch unfortunately did not seem to comprehend was the significance of these initial acts of discrimination.

The Central Committee of German Jews for Relief and Reconstruction[*] proclaimed the following shortly after in a liberal Jewish newspaper:

There is no honor in leaving Germany in order to live untroubled on your income abroad, free of the fate of your brothers in Germany...Every prospect will be examined, every possibility exploited to help those who no longer have a prospect of earning a living in the German Fatherland to find some means of settling abroad! But don't leave Germany senselessly! Do your duty here! Don't push people off blindly to an uncertain fate...Let German Jewry prove itself capable of facing this hour.[2]

Consider what might have happened if they had chosen instead to encourage immigration. This loose association of Jewish organizations had committed itself to preserving the German Jewish community instead of preserving the German Jews.[3] By discouraging free emigration they kept the Jews within Germany at a time when they were still able to flee. Between the years 1933 and 1938, well under the maximum quota of Germans allowed into the United States actually emigrated there. When the war started in 1939, there were still some 350,000 Jews in Germany. It is interesting to consider what might have happened if they had all fled Germany and used their influence once outside Germany to hamper the economy of the Reich. It is true that there were not many countries willing to accept immigrants on such a large scale, and that even James McDonald the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees resigned in 1935 over the fact that countries(including the United States) would not heed his warnings to allow greater immigration of German Jews, but then many of the Jews in Germany did not want to move in the first place. In fact, many German Jews, such as the Berlin Jewish community in a letter to the British Chief Rabbi, demanded that their foreign brethren stop spreading bad news about Germany because they felt it would '"'create difficulties and tarnish the reputation of our homeland.'"'[4]

Lastly, Alfred Wiener, among the leadership of the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith[**], wrote the following lines:

The great majority of German Jews remains firmly rooted in the soil of its German homeland, despite everything. There may be some who have been shaken in their feeling for the German Fatherland by the weight of recent events. They will overcome this shock, and if they do not overcome it then the roots which bound them to the German mother earth were never sufficiently strong...We wish to be subject as Germans with equal rights to the new Government and not to some other creation, whether it is called League of Nations or anything else.[5]

With the emancipation of German Jews during the mid to late nineteenth century, came the desire by most Jews to assimilate into the German culture. By this time, most Jews had little if any connection to what their forefathers had considered their way of life.[6] Many Jews converted to Christianity, the intermarriage rate soared and integration of Jews into German culture became the driving force behind many Jewish organizations such as the Centralverein. Wiener states above that these assimilated Jews, which he represents of course, are still adamant in their connection to German soil and culture. Those that had been '"'shaken'"' were obviously not German enough for him. His group, that of the assimilationists, formed the majority of German Jews and they were the hardest hit when the reality of what was going on sunk in. They had felt that by being more German than the Pope was Catholic they would be accepted as equals in German society. When they were picked out as Jews, even when their parents or grandparents had converted to Christianity, they were completely taken aback.

What are the similarities between these three quotations? What does each assume? Even the quotes of Weltsch the Zionist and Wiener the assimilationist make the same assumption -- that what was happening in Germany was temporary and that conditions would get better with time. This somewhat naive assumption led to great hardship later on. Even among the 53,000 Jews who did flee Germany in 1933(about 10 percent of the population), some 16,000 returned to Germany due to other hardships abroad.[7] These Jews did not perceive the ultimate threat that Hitler posed to their lives. Most of the wealthy German Jews stayed in Germany, assuming that they would be around long after Hitler's government was knocked out of power.

Along with their assumption that conditions would improve, the writers of the above statements also all believed that emigration was unnecessary and even harmful. The last two quotes are clear on this point. The statement by Weltsch is similar, as it is advocating staying in Germany and wearing the Magen David with pride -- as opposed to a mass exodus to the then Mandatory Palestine. It is Weltsch's statement which is the most surprising of course, because as a Zionist one would think he would want Jews to move to Palestine. However, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which was in charge of issuing visas to Mandatory Palestine saw the impoverished Polish Jews as a more important source of immigrants and thus did not issue a large number of visas to the German Jews.

It is interesting to note that at around the same time the leaders of the orthodox Jewish community wrote a letter to Hitler stating that:

The position of German Jewry today, as it has been shaped by the German People, is wholly intolerable, both as regards their legal position and economic existence, and also as regards their public standing and their freedom of religious action...
Orthodox Jewry is unwilling to abandon the conviction that it is not the aim of the German Government to destroy the German Jews...[8]

But if we should be mistaken, if you, Mr. Reich Chancellor, and the National Government which you head, if the responsible members of the National Administration of the NSDAP have indeed set themselves the ultimate aim of the elimination of German Jewry from the German People, then we do not wish the cling to illusions any longer, and would prefer to know the bitter truth.

Although this statement also assumed that things would get better and that the harsh conditions were only temporary, it did at least put forth the question to Hitler as to what he did have in mind for the Jews of the German Reich. They were not afraid to ask the question, even if they did fear the answer. It is perhaps due to the fact that the orthodox community was the least-assimilated, least-Germanized group of Jews that they were able to see what was happening around them. Being the least-integrated group gave them greater freedom and a wider set of options regarding their future. Although this may have helped the orthodox community in Germany, it did not help the orthodox community as a whole, because by the time Poland was conquered and the millions of Jews which lived there came under Nazi rule, they were helpless to stop the onslaught and unable to move from its path.

Should the Jews in Germany have revolted in 1933? It seems clear that the Nazis feared a backlash of world Jewish power and did not feel comfortable that it was a myth until approximately the time of the Evian conference in 1938[9] -- if they had revolted in 1933 and called on the support of their Western coreligionists and the Western powers, it is very possible they could have short-circuited the Nazi plans for the elimination of the Jews of Germany and later the destruction of European Jewry.


[1] Jüdische Rundschau, No. 27, April 4, 1933 (cited in Documents on the Holocaust p. 46).

[*] Zentralausschuss der deutschen Juden für Hilfe und Aufbau

[2]C.V.-Zeitung, No. 17, April 27, 1933 (cited in Documents on the Holocaust p. 49-50).

[3] Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. p. 91.

[4] Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982. p. 120.

[**] Centralverein deutscher Straatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens

[5] C.V.-Zeitung, No. 22, June 1, 1933 (cited in Documents on the Holocaust p. 50-51).

[6] Holborn, Halo. A History of Modern Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. p. 277-280.

[7] Bauer, p. 123.

[8] Bauer, p. 117-118.

[9] Yahil, p. 95.

To return to the reference in the text, click on the number.

Works Cited

ed. Arad, Yitzhak, Yisrael Gutman and Abraham Margaliot. Documents on the Holocaust. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981.

Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

Holborn, Halo. A History of Modern Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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