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Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germanyby Marion A. Kaplan
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Between Dignity and Despair draws on the extraordinary memoirs, diaries, interviews, and letters of Jewish women and men to give us the first intimate portrait of Jewish life in Nazi Germany. Kaplan tells the story of Jews in Germany not from the hindsight of the Holocaust, nor by focusing on the persecutors, but from the bewildered and ambiguous perspective of Jews trying to navigate their daily lives in a world that was becoming more and more insane. Answering the charge that Jews should have left earlier, Kaplan shows that far from seeming inevitable, the Holocaust was impossible to foresee precisely because Nazi repression occurred in irregular and unpredictable steps until the massive violence of Novemer 1938. Then the flow of emigration turned into a torrent, only to be stopped by the war. By that time Jews had been evicted from their homes, robbed of their possessions and their livelihoods, shunned by their former friends, persecuted by their neighbors, and driven into forced labor. For those trapped in Germany, mere survival became a nightmare of increasingly desperate options. Many took their own lives to retain at least some dignity in death; others went underground and endured the fears of nightly bombings and the even greater terror of being discovered by the Nazis. Most were murdered. All were pressed to the limit of human endurance and human loneliness. Focusing on the fate of families and particularly women's experience, Between Dignity and Despair takes us into the neighborhoods, into the kitchens, shops, and schools, to give us the shape and texture, the very feel of what it was like to be a Jew in Nazi Germany.
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In Public: Jews Are Turned into Pariahs, 1933-1938
The problem ... after all, was not what our enemies did, but what our friends did. --HANNAH ARENDT
From the outset, the Nazi government used legislation, administrative decrees, and propaganda to defame and ostracize Jews and to lower their social, economic, and legal standing. The April boycott of 1933 attempted to expose German Jews to public opprobrium and to destroy Jewish businesses, and the laws of that month limited Jewish participation in the economy. In September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws formally deprived Jews of their rights as citizens and established racial segregation. It took less than two years to destroy the foundations upon which Jewish life had existed in Germany since the country's unification in 1871.
Jewish women shared the predicament of Jewish men: economic decline, social ostracism, and the loss of trust in their children's economic and social futures. Jewish women also shared the reactions of Jewish men: disbelief, outrage, and fear. Still, their experiences were gendered. In their public tirades and actions, the Nazis focused on Jewish males. Moreover, at first they spared Jewish women physical abuse. Therefore, women took on new roles--interceding for their men with the police, the tax offices, and the landlord--while continuing older patterns of mediating for their families in the neighborhood, at the grocery, or in the schools. They took their cues and considered their alternatives from their vantage point as Jews and as women.
POLITICAL LAWLESSNESS AND ECONOMIC OPPRESSION
The Nazis celebrated January 30, 1933, with torchlight parades and what they called the "restoration of law and order"--instantaneous and cruel assaults on their political opponents. Hitler's SA broke up socialist and communist headquarters--arresting, imprisoning, torturing, and murdering members of these parties and labor unionists. The violence worsened after February 28 when Hitler, using the Reichstag fire as a pretext, abolished basic civil liberties, raised penalties for many crimes from imprisonment to death, and increased the powers of the central government over those of the states. Almost 10,000 communists were arrested and incarcerated in rapidly built concentration camps. The infamous "Enabling Act," officially labeled the "Law for the Relief of the Distress of Nation and State," sanctioned Hitler's assumption of dictatorial power. By March 23, legality had given way to "national will" as represented by Hitler and the Nazi Party.
The Nazis did not immediately single out Jews for attack, busy as they were coordinating the states with the central regime, abolishing all other political parties, and destroying the trade unions. Still, Jews could not always escape violence. And, when a communist, socialist, or pacifist happened also to be Jewish, he or she had far more to fear than a non-Jewish political colleague. Jews were treated even more ruthlessly. Because of their double risk, some Jews fled Germany immediately. The Nazis often "taught a lesson" to those who remained. For example, right after the election of 1933, a Jewish father and daughter were arrested as suspected leftists. The young woman had taken photos of socialist and Nazi demonstrations and of working-class children at play. Officials confiscated her camera and jailed her. She recounted: "The women were put in the same room as female criminals. They were not beaten, they could read books and write letters, but they heard the screams of men being tortured." After three weeks both she and her father were freed. The father had been tortured to such an extent that the cleaners asked if the man whose suit they were cleaning had been hit by a car.
Politically affiliated or even politically interested Jews realized immediately the severity of the Nazi threat. They feared house searches and the possibility that the Gestapo (the Secret State Police) would find--or plant--evidence that would incriminate them. While the Nazis burned books in public, many Jews burned portions of their libraries and their papers in private. In Berlin, the Jewish wife of a non-Jewish political prisoner arrested for "anti-Nazi" behavior was terrified of every move she made. She had been active in the cooperative movement, in tenants' leagues, and, since 1932, in anti-Nazi activities. Although she "looked Aryan" and therefore met few antisemitic threats on the street, she adjusted to using only public phone booths, fearing that her own phone was tapped, and burned her "compromising documents." Journalist Inge Deutschkron also described how her mother insisted on burning the leftist material in their library: "Every time my mother consigned another pamphlet to the scrap heap, Father would protest mildly. `Are you sure?' he'd ask, and Mother, who'd always been the more practical of the two and had developed a nose for danger, would respond almost gruffly."
Fear of house searches caused one couple to spend many evenings looking through books and letters to rid themselves of:
everything which could be interpreted as doubtful.... I ... fed to the flames many papers which might have been of interest to children and grandchildren; for example, excerpts of various newspapers and periodicals, ... papers of the "World Peace Association of Women and Mothers." ... The Minister of Culture for Bavaria had stated: "Every pacifist deserves to be whipped out of the country."
The Nazis were brutal toward politically affiliated women, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and a number of female Reichstag deputies and female state parliamentarians suffered beatings and death at their hands. Of the five most prominent Jewish women in politics--all members of socialist parties--everyone escaped. Four left the country immediately, presuming that their politics would bring the wrath of the Nazis down on them. The fifth left in 1938 after her mother had died.
Jews jailed as communists--whether the charge was true or false--had the most to dread. They were accused of "preparing for high treason." Recha Rothschild, a member of the Communist Party, quickly destroyed her files in February 1933. She fled her apartment, returning to it (at the end of March) after the SA had stormed in, stolen her belongings, and shredded all of her books and papers. She hid but was caught and charged with being a courier for the Communist Party, even though there was no hard evidence against her. The Reich court declared the evidence too flimsy, but the Prussian court, under Nazi control, sentenced Rothschild to two years in prison. There, among political prisoners, criminals, and prostitutes, her health deteriorated dangerously. Spitting up blood, she still refused "to drop dead for the Nazis." The Nazis treated Jewish women caught in the act of resistance even more brutally. Kathe Baronowitz was an active communist who led a cell of ten people. Her landlord, who was in the SA, spied on her, and in 1936 she and eighty-three other communists were arrested. First, she was tortured: "The cruelties and perversities of the interrogation can hardly be described. [She] had to undress completely. A howling pack goaded on by alcohol surrounded her. They stuck pens in her vagina and paper flags which they burned so that they could gloat over the tortured woman's screams of pain." They called her "Jew whore" as they tormented her. Ultimately, she was sentenced to twelve years of hard labor.
As was the case for non-Jews, the Nazis frequently took Jewish wives hostage in order to force politically active husbands who had fled or hidden--often at the urging of their wives--to give themselves up. Also, the police or Gestapo interrogated wives or mothers about the whereabouts of men. Sometimes these women suffered punishment for their sons' or husbands' escapes. After Isaak Plaut fled the small town of Rauschenberg in 1935, the police arrested his wife, Therese. Luckily she and the mayor had been classmates. She called him from jail and asked, "Aren't you ashamed to leave me sitting here?" He freed her, and she left Germany in early 1936. Early Nazi terror was capricious. Although Therese Plaut managed to turn to an old friend, most women hostages had no such recourse. At the end of 1935, 75 percent of all women in the Hohenstein jail, one of six women's penal institutions, were hostages for their male relatives. Hostages' memoirs give a sense of the extraordinary violence that started even in the very first weeks of the regime. When the Jewish wife of a Leipzig Jewish communist was arrested as a hostage after he had fled for his life, their five-year-old son--atypically--was also imprisoned with his mother. Fearful, he refused to separate from her, hugging her tightly when the guard came to take her for interrogation. The guard tore him away from his mother, throwing him backward brutally. He died when his head hit the metal edge of a prison bed.
More frequently than official arrest, Jewish families confronted sudden lawlessness: "Naked brutality, breach of law, the most dreadful hypocrisy, unmitigated barbarism pose[d] as law." The law also became a source of persecution. As bourgeois champions of the Rechtsstaat, or rule of law, which had bolstered Jewish claims to equal citizenship in the nineteenth century, German Jews found the perversion of law difficult to bear. And individual Germans took advantage of the legal defenselessness of Jews. A Jewish woman, living in Nuremberg, reported: "The most frightening fact at this moment was being deprived of the protection of the law. Anybody could accuse you of anything--and you were lost." The worst was reserved for Jewish men. One woman described how her husband had been badly beaten by one of his tenants. When he asked the police for support (something some Jews still tried to do in 1933), they refused. Another man was arrested because a neighbor complained of his behavior toward her dog. Leaving a note explaining that he "could no longer stand the unjust and defenseless life of a Jew in Germany," he killed himself in prison.
In general, Jews navigated increasingly menacing public spaces. Even a trip to the post office could have dire consequences. After Hilde Sichel muttered about the unreliability of the post, a postal clerk threatened to denounce her: "Every evening I thought about the day that just passed and asked myself if I had done or said anything that could endanger my husband or myself." Jews even feared being the recipients of occasional grumbling by non-Jews. Lily Krug described her reaction when an "Aryan" neighbor complained to her about the price of butter in front of others: "I did not answer and hurried away without buying anything. I was frightened. Fear, fear, fear--morning, noon and night. Fear followed us into our dreams, racking on nerves. How imprudent, how inconsiderate of the woman to speak like that in public."
For Jews, daily fear was accompanied by economic strangulation. Long before forced "Aryanization"--the complete takeover of Jewish assets--occurred, families began to lose their businesses, could no longer pay for their properties, and were often subjected to extortion. Although some larger Jewish business and manufacturing establishments maintained their economic position somewhat longer, as did Jews in certain sectors of the economy (such as the fur trade), small "mom-and-pop shops" ("Tante Emma" Laden) declined precipitously. Many individuals of "Aryan" ancestry benefited from the demise of Jewish businesses, purchasing them at greatly reduced prices.
Governments, courts, and storm troopers urged customers and clients of Jews to do business elsewhere. Almost immediately the SA began a series of economic boycotts against Jewish shops and professionals. Boycotts created a climate of fear that affected Jews and non-Jews, intimidating the latter and frightening and hurting the former. On April 1, 1933, "on one of the best business days of the year, on the Saturday before Easter," the regime declared a national boycott of Jewish businesses. In announcing this first national boycott, Hitler called it a "defensive measure" against anti-Nazi propaganda abroad for which he blamed the Jews. The boycott generally lacked public enthusiasm. It was uneven, with little support displayed in Berlin but excesses, including injury to and even murder of Jews, reported elsewhere. SA and Nazi Party circles were joyful, but apathy, even resistance, was widespread. While SA men stood in front of businesses owned by Jews, threatening and taunting those who dared to enter, some Germans chose precisely that day to visit a Jewish doctor or grocer. Moreover, the stock market fell, in part because many Jewish stores were in foreign creditors' or German banking hands. And, the boycott once again raised a vexing question: Who, after all, was a Jew? These problems forced cancellation of the boycott on the same day it had begun. Still, the Nazis claimed "success" despite their own disappointment at "Aryan" responses. To some extent, their claims were right. The boycott had taken a large toll among Jews in fear and intimidation.
Since the boycott was the first major public event turned specifically against them, many Jews left memoirs describing that day. A few shut their businesses to avoid trouble, but most remained open deliberately. Some commented on the loyalty of their customers during this first, early test. One man recalled that his small department store in Hanau did far more business the week before the boycott than it had in years. His customers stocked up in case the boycott dragged on, declaring their solidarity with his family. In Dortmund, observers noted the disgust with which many Germans approached the boycott and the courage with which they entered Jewish stores while the SA hurled insults and abuse their way.
Jews also described their own resistance. Some resisted silently, as in the case of World War I veterans who stood in front of their own stores wearing their uniforms and medals. Others resisted verbally. When a young ruffian, determined to cause damage, aggressively barged into Dr. Herta Nathorff's office shouting, "Is this a Jewish enterprise?" she responded: "This is not an enterprise at all, these are doctor's office hours .... Are you sick?" With that, the boy left. Nathorff made a point of buying in stores owned by Jewish people on that day and told the SA sentry, "For my money, I'll buy where I want!" Erna Albersheim, who had been born "half Jewish" in New York and had married a German-Jewish man, displayed great personal courage in confronting Nazis in Frankfurt, where the boycott was relatively effective. When the Nazis picketed her store, she confronted them as an "American" and told them to leave. They did. "I walked into my store with head erect, but I was glad that no one could see my knees--they had the firmness of jello." In Stettin, Olga Eisenstadt tried education rather than confrontation. She stood outside her small shop arguing her personal case to passersby, in the hope that they might generalize to other Jews:
I pointed out that I was a soldier's widow, that I had received the Emperor's Service Cross in the First World War and the Cross of Honor for soldiers' widows from Hindenburg.... I had also received a diploma from ... Stettin in recognition of my social work during the ... war. I had taught hundreds of soldiers' wives and widows [how] to make supplies for the army.
As measured by Nazi expectations, the official boycott day failed. Jewish businesses were given a brief--official--lease on life because the precarious German economy could not then stand further destabilizing measures. Moreover, Jewish big businesses remained relatively intact, since they employed many "Aryans" and their failure could hurt the overall economy.
Unofficial boycotts, however, whether spontaneous or instigated by local officials, persisted. Many Germans who had been angered or embarrassed by the boycott on April 1 and had shown courage on that day tended to retreat into privacy thereafter. They gradually submitted to the pressures of the "racial community," remaining silent rather than defending Jews. In rural areas, for example, Jewish dealerships of cattle, horses, and grain declined as a result of long-term boycotts. Although at first some peasants remained loyal to business relationships that had occasionally spanned generations, arguing that they got good prices and products from Jewish dealers, they gradually succumbed to pressure. Also, the Nazis disrupted long-term working relationships in the countryside between Jews and non-Jews. Jewish cattle dealers often had to fire their non-Jewish helpers in order to protect them from abuse. But in the cities, too, customers who were loyal at first began to dwindle as the government increased its attack on Jewish businesses.
Boycotts were only one among many strategies used by the government and mercenary individuals to attack Jews in the economy. Jews were physically brutalized by the regime: in Breslau, for example, the SA beat up Jewish jurists, chasing them from their offices. The Nazis also pressured Jews to liquidate their businesses or sell out to "Aryans." Restrictions and official and unofficial harassment increased in frequency and fervor. As a result, many Jewish businesses, particularly small ones, were forced to shut down or sell out. Alice Baerwald, who lived in Danzig in the early 1930s, described how the Nazis ruined the livelihoods of Jewish families. She wrote about a couple who had built up a large clientele as hairdressers to support themselves and two children. After the Nazi takeover, a German asked to buy the store for a ludicrously low price. Surprised, they turned him down. Soon thereafter, local authorities accused the couple of tax evasion, arrested the man, and confiscated their valuable equipment. The family suffered ruin within a few days. Another couple owned a small drugstore, which they put up for sale when the wife suddenly went blind. An interested buyer exploited the situation by accusing the couple of tax evasion. The husband was arrested and forced to sell for a pittance. The government arrested another head of household for allegedly transferring money abroad, although it was clear that he had legally purchased a delivery car abroad. His business and home furnishings were confiscated. A variety of "Aryans" used the beleaguered position of Jews to their own financial advantage. One cattle dealer recalled: "Blackmail occurred every day. Debtors demanded receipts for bills that they never paid. There was no point in bringing legal action against them in court." Tenants could refuse to pay rent with impunity, and in some cases they accused the landlord of being an "enemy of the state" in order to be temporarily freed of their obligations. By 1936, many areas of small business, particularly those associated with agriculture, were declared judenrein, "free of Jews."
Jewish businesses in which non-Jews held significant shares were relatively safe at first. Some Jewish owners could continue their businesses if they found an "Aryan" partner. But this was a short-term solution at best. Ultimately, Jews had to sell out to their "Aryan" partners, and Jews whose "Aryan" partners had died or disassociated themselves had to give up their businesses. For example, a Jewish woman, no longer protected by her deceased husband's "Aryan" status, had to give up her business at the weekly market in 1939. She became a cleaning woman. Of the approximately 50,000 Jewish small businesses operating at the end of 1932, only 9,000 still existed by July 1938. The bulk had faded to attract "Aryanizers" and had simply collapsed. By November 1938, no more than 20 to 25 percent of all Jewish businesses remained.
While some Jews lost businesses, others lost their jobs or realized the futility of finding jobs as a result of laws passed in April 1933. Feigning strict legality, the Nazis passed the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service" and others like it. The Nazis used these "laws" to exclude opponents of the regime and "non-Aryans," defined as people who had one "non-Aryan" parent or grandparent. The so-called Aryan Paragraph of the April laws forced the dismissal or early retirement of Jewish doctors, lawyers, judges, and civil servants (along with political "undesirables"), with the exception, insisted upon by the aging President Hindenburg, of those who had fought in World War I or had been in their jobs before August 1914. About half of Jewish judges and prosecutors and almost a third of Jewish lawyers lost their jobs. A significant proportion of Jewish doctors lost their German National Health Insurance affiliation (severely limiting or ruining their practices). Since the civil service in Germany encompassed far more jobs than, for example, in the United States, the April laws meant that even lower-status jobs such as civil service messengers, city street cleaners, and train, postal, or Reichsbank employees had to be filled by "Aryans." A further set of decrees put a quota on Jewish students in schools and universities. These decrees affected up to 867,000 people, Jews as well as other "non-Aryan" Christian Germans.
Hereafter, the jobs of millions of Germans--Jews, "Aryans," and those caught in the middle--depended on the Nazi definition of their racial status. A scramble for proof of "Aryan" lineage ensued. The journalist Bella Fromm noted in her diary that "genealogists are doing a grand business. There are advertisements ... daily....`We provide you with every kind of document and evidence.'" They located birth, parish, or synagogue records, acquired declarations from Vital Statistics Offices, or unearthed old family trees.
The field of teaching illustrates the changes that occurred. In 1933 in Prussia, 1 percent of male teachers and 4.5 percent of female teachers were discharged (at least two-thirds of the women who were fired were "non-Aryan," as were almost all the women student teachers who were fired). In early April 1933, Hanna Bergas entered the school in which she taught for the last time:
When I arrived at the school building,... the principal, saying "Good morning" in his customary, friendly way, stopped me, and asked me to come to his room .... When we were seated, he said, in a serious, embarrassed tone of voice, he had orders to ask me not to go into my classroom. I probably knew, he said, that I was not permitted to teach anymore at a German school. I did know, but was it to happen so abruptly? ... Mr. B. was extremely sorry... I collected myself [and] my belongings .... There was nobody ... to say goodbye to, because everybody else had gone to the classroom .... In the afternoon ... colleagues, pupils, their mothers came, some in a sad mood, others angry with their country, lovely bouquets of flowers, large and small, in their arms. In the evening, the little house was full of fragrance and colors, like for a funeral, I thought; and indeed, this was the funeral of my time teaching at a German public school.
Bergas's pain at losing her position reflected the loss not only of a job but also of a community and profession. Like Jewish men, professional women suffered economic adversity and the anguish of seeing their social status diminished and their professional reputation rendered meaningless.
Dismissing Jewish teachers conveniently allowed the government to find teaching assignments for 60 percent of 1,320 "Aryan" job applicants in 1933. Here were opportunities for the unemployed and upward mobility during the Great Depression. Similarly, the dismissal of Jews in the Prussian administration affected between 12.5 and 15 percent of positions, and in other states between 4.5 and 5 percent. There seems to have been little public complaint--and silent endorsement--about the ousting of Jews. When the Nazis purged the courts, even as staunch an anti-Nazi as Thomas Mann approved. Married to a Jewish woman, he nevertheless confided to his diary: "It is no great misfortune ... that ... the Jewish presence in the judiciary has been ended," although he worried about his "secret, troubling" thoughts regarding the Jews. He evinced satisfaction when Alfred Kerr, a well-known Berlin critic who had often attacked Mann's work, lost his position. Selfish motives played an important role with Mann as with others. In Hamburg, Lotte Popper's friendly non-Jewish neighbor told her that her daughter had chosen one of two suitors, the assistant judge: "`Now he has the best prospects ... in court, where they are firing so many ... people.' Mrs. Hansen stifled the word `Jews' and ... expounded at great length upon her daughter's happy future."
Non-Jewish doctors, too, profited from the removal of Jewish doctors, accepting positions that had "become free" and patients who no longer patronized Jewish doctors. In June 1933, there were about 5,500 Jewish doctors in Germany, or 11 percent of all physicians (although the percentage is higher if one includes all "non-Aryan," that is, partly Jewish, doctors). They were concentrated in large cities, where most Jews lived. The early 1930s had seen vicious competition among doctors, resulting from the depression and from the increasing numbers of doctors who either belonged to or wanted to join the National Health Insurance organizations. While some doctors demanded the removal of their Jewish colleagues from the National Health Insurance, others pushed for their total ruin. Dr. Henriette Necheles-Magnus described the crude tactics of a non-Jewish doctor who was so eager to absorb her practice that he told her patients she had killed herself.
In June 1933, about 13 percent of women doctors were Jewish, with the proportion much higher in big cities. A few weeks after the German Doctors' League (Verband der Arzte Deutschlands) expelled Jews, the League of German Women Doctors (Deutscher Arztinnenbund) ousted its Jewish members. Herta Nathorff described this exclusion in her diary:
April 16, 1933: Meeting of the League of German Women Doctors. As usual, I went today, after all this is where the most respected and best known women colleagues in Berlin gather. "Strange atmosphere today, I thought, and so many strange faces." A colleague whom I did not know said to me, "You must also be one of us?" and showed me the swastika on the lapel of her coat. Before I could answer, she stood up and fetched a gentleman into our meeting, who said that he had to demand the Gleichschaltung [the Nazi takeover or Nazification] of the League in the name of the government.... Another colleague ... my predecessor in the Red Cross ... who had been dismissed ... because of unfitness and other not very nice human qualities ... stood up and said, "Now I ask the German colleagues to go into the next room for a discussion." Colleague S., a good Catholic, ... asked: "What does that mean--German colleagues?" "All who are not Jews, of course," was the answer. Now it had been said. Silently, we "Jewish and half-Jewish" doctors stood up and with us some "German" doctors--silently we left the room--pale, outraged to our innermost selves. We then went ... to discuss what we should do now. "We should quit the League as a united group," some said. I was opposed. I will gladly allow them the honor of throwing us out, but I will at least not voluntarily abandon my claim to membership.... I am so agitated, so sad and confused, and I am ashamed for my "German" colleagues!
Either on their own or because of government pressure, patients, too, turned away from Jewish doctors. The National Health Insurance organizations scolded and later threatened them for continuing to go to Jewish doctors (and this was only to those remaining Jewish doctors who had not been dropped from the insurance system in April 1933). Moreover, racial enthusiasts accused patients who continued to go to Jewish doctors of being traitors to the Volk.
Late to enter what Germans called the "free" professions--notably medicine and law--Jewish women suffered severe job losses. Whereas some Jewish men could claim exceptional status as veterans or because they had been in their jobs since before 1914, Jewish women could hardly profess to have fought at the front. Furthermore, because of the late admission of women to German universities, most female Jewish professionals had taken their positions only after 1914. The result in the medical field was that the vast majority of Jewish women doctors lost their health insurance affiliation, compared with about 40 percent of Jewish males. In a letter about her sister's loss of most of her medical practice, Betty Scholem concluded that Jews "are being destroyed in this bloodless way just as certainly as if their necks had been wrung."
In September 1933, Goebbels took over the Chamber of Culture and excluded Jews from German cultural life, film, theater, music, fine arts, literature, and journalism--areas in which Jews had been disproportionately active. Simultaneously, many private businesses and state licensing boards demanded that their employees be "Aryans."
Unemployment began to plague the Jewish community. In 1933, about two-thirds of Jewish salaried employees worked in Jewish businesses and firms. With the disappearance of many Jewish firms, joblessness soared. By the spring of 1933, nearly one-third of Jewish clerks--compared with one-fifth of the non-Jewish ones--were looking for jobs. In Berlin alone, where the general unemployment rate hovered at 16 percent, more than a third of Jewish salaried employees and half of Jewish workers were jobless. Even as the German economy improved, with unemployment dropping from 6 million in January 1933 to 2.5 million in January 1936, Jews took no part in the general recovery.
Because more than half (53 percent) of employed Jewish women worked in business and commerce, largely as family assistants (22 percent) and salaried employees (40 percent), they lost their jobs as family businesses and Jewish shops closed down. Jewish sources estimated that three-quarters of Jewish women in business and trade were hurt by the discriminatory laws and the early anti-Jewish boycotts. Jewish Employment Bureau statistics for 1934 and 1936 show that, although women seemed to find employment more readily than men (except in the free professions), only a minority of job seekers of either sex actually found placements. By April 1938, over 60 percent of all businesses that Jews had owned before 1933 no longer existed, and Jewish social workers were trying to help 60,000 unemployed Jews. Furthermore, those businesses that lingered on tended to be either at the very top (a few banks and financial institutions) or the bottom (independent artisans). Women rarely worked in either.
Despite limited job options, many Jewish women who had never worked outside the home suddenly needed employment. While some sought jobs with strangers, others began to work for their husbands who could no longer afford to pay employees. The hope was that "work for married women [was] only ... an expedient in an emergency." By proclaiming the crisis nature of women's new position, Jews, both male and female, could dream of better times and ignore the even more unsettling issue of changing gender roles in the midst of turmoil. Contrary to their hopes, by 1938 there were "relatively few families in which the wife [did] not work in some way to earn a living." Finding a job under new and hostile circumstances, particularly for women who had never worked outside the home, could be deeply demoralizing. Women had to assess their abilities in midlife--often with little more than a typical girl's education and no marketable skills. Job ads, employment offices, friends, and acquaintances held out little hope.
Still, in spite of discouragement, both memoirs and statistics show that women eagerly sought opportunities either to train for a job for the first time or, in many cases, to retrain for new jobs. Some prepared for new work in Germany, many for jobs they hoped to fill abroad. Ruth Abraham took a speed course in becoming a corsetiere while on a three-month visit to her sister in Palestine. Although Jews could no longer be licensed by the time she returned to Germany, she quickly developed a private circle of customers. Some women prepared for several jobs and studied several different languages at once, assuming that they needed to be versatile should they emigrate. One woman studied English and took lessons in sewing furs, making chocolate, and doing industrial ironing. A mother and her daughter took courses in Spanish, English, baking, and fine cookery. Then they asked their laundress to accept them as apprentices. This role was not only new for them but was also a reversal of their previous class position.
Whereas most women understood their behavior within the context of an emergency, some may have taken advantage of dire circumstances to fulfill ambitions that would have languished in better times. One woman not only took cooking classes because she would soon need to handle the household herself but also began training as a psychotherapist to support her family when they emigrated. She had to leave her husband and children for an entire year in order to study at Jung's institute in Zurich. In normal times, she probably would have remained simply a doctor's wife.
The Jewish communities in various towns and cities also offered courses in which women eagerly enrolled. In Hamburg, such courses included cooking and baking, sewing and tailoring, hat making, glove making, artificial flower arranging, and smocking. Communities also offered typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, photography, and languages classes. By 1935, Jewish organizations needed more home economics teachers. While many financed their training (and, in many cases, retraining) themselves, the Jewish community's Central Bureau for Economic Relief supported the instruction of 20,000 men and women until the end of 1937. Moreover, by 1938 there were ninety-four retraining collectives for agriculture, handicraft, home economics, and nursing. Zionist organizations played a large role in these collectives through their Hachsharah centers, which taught practical skills needed in Palestine. About 23,000 young people--about one-third of them females--learned how to raise chickens or to work as locksmiths, tailors, or baby nurses. Ultimately, by 1941, 17,000 Jews readied in these centers entered Palestine under its quota for "workers."
According to Jewish observers, women seemed "more accommodating and adaptable" and had "fewer inhibitions" than men; were willing to enter retraining programs at older ages than men; and were more amenable to changing their lives to fit the times. The number of women who successfully retrained in these years was almost evenly distributed between the ages of twenty and fifty, whereas men most frequently retrained between the ages of twenty and thirty, and usually stopped seeking retraining by forty. Leaders of the Berlin Jewish Community noted that retraining for women was less costly and took less time than for men (three to six months for women, compared with about one year for men). Presumably, women were taught less skilled jobs than men. Also, although most had worked as sales clerks or office help, they already knew many of the skills necessary for jobs as seamstresses, milliners, or domestic workers.
Younger women under age thirty-five were the most likely to still find work. They took jobs in Jewish concerns as other Jews began to emigrate. Also, the demand for help picked up in the expanding Jewish social service sector and--after the Nuremberg Laws--in Jewish households. In 1936, 52 percent of the female applicants for commercial jobs in Berlin could be placed, compared with 22 percent of the male applicants. That same year the demand for Jewish female household personnel in Berlin exceeded the supply. There was a general shortage of female household helpers, particularly in small towns, and an even more serious shortage of nurses in Jewish hospitals and convalescent homes.
Job availability in some sectors notwithstanding, the employment and economic prospects of all Jews was bleak. Whereas only 8 percent of Jews were manual workers in 1933, 56 percent fell into that category by 1939. As unemployment increased, so too did poverty. The highest percentages of needy Jews were found in areas with the largest proportion of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. In 1937 the Berlin Jewish Community supported fifteen soup kitchens and provided used clothing for thousands of Jewish Berliners.
Legally, Jews had rights to public assistance until 1939. In practice, however, the Nazis found ways of denying all forms of state and quasi-state benefits to Jews. Although the total number of Jews receiving every form of public welfare during the 1930s is not available, as early as the winter of 1935-36 the Jewish Winter Relief Agency subsidized 20 percent of the Jewish population; another 20 to 25 percent were living off the capital they had received from the sale of their businesses. In 1936, nearly 60,000 Berlin Jews received clothing from such used-clothing storerooms. Men's suits, in particular, were in great demand, whereas women's clothing, easier to repair by experienced housewives, could be replaced more readily. Winter Relief Agency workers remarked that the social descent of Jews could be seen "most clearly by their depleted clothing. To remedy [this] means not only material, but also psychological relief."
As early as April 1933 (a few months before the founding of the Central Organization of German Jews), leading Jewish organizations had founded the Central Committee for Help and Construction (Zentralausschuss fur Hilfe und Aufbau) to prepare for possible emergencies. The Central Committee broadened the scope of social welfare work, joining the Central Organization of German Jews in early 1935. The Central Organization spent its budget for 1936 (of about 4.3 million marks) on migration and emigration, economic aid, and welfare work. Its revenues came only in part (1.6 million marks) from the German-Jewish community; grants from abroad provided about 2.1 million marks, and the rest was pure deficit. Sadly, as early as 1937 the Central Organization recognized that it could no longer meet the requirements of its constituencies. It had received monetary requests "from all regions ... because poverty had soared. All of these petitions had to be turned down with a heavy heart."
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Marion Kaplan is Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany, which won the National Jewish Book Award and the German History Prize and The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany. She lives in New York City.
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I read this book for a class on the Holcaust at college. I think the author did a brilliant job at portraying the struggle of Jews in Nazi Germany. The author, who has such a readable style that it is difficult to put the book down, delves into the lives of the ordinary Jews in Germany. She mentions things that are rarely dealt with in other works: the tearful goodbyes shared "illegally" at train stations, the men and women who decided to hide "in plain sight" by passing as Aryans, the despair of those in Judenhaussen who decide to take their own lives, Jewish resistance, the Jewish workers who are considered "instrumental" in the German war effort, and the everyday things of love, life, marriage, and relationship bonds. Kaplan also deals with the role Jewish women played throughout Nazi Germany. A wonderful book, simplistic in style but speaks volumes.
To: "Anonymous, posted on June 1, 2012". Dear Anonymous; it's really too bad that you rated this book "not worth reading" as the actions described in this book, led precisely to the demise and tragedy of Jewish people. What do you deem a "good Holocaust book"..... memoir of tortures in the concentration camps? Expand your mind.....!
If you're looking for a good book about the Holocaust or life in Naxi Germany, this is not it. The book is mostly bibliography.