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"They Expected the Worst – They Did Not Expect the Unthinkable:"
by Aubrey Boag
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
(emigration statistics table)
About Aubrey Boag
I am a senior history major who has been studying German history and the Holocaust. After I graduate this spring I hope to continue my work with Holocaust and genocide studies in graduate school. I chose to write about Jewish emigration out of Nazi Germany because the topic is one that is in large part unaddressed by historians and misunderstood by the general public. The Holocaust is an event that perplexes me and one that I hope to devote more of my time and studies to in the future.
Abstract (back to top)
“Why didn’t Jews leave Germany sooner?” “Why did they not resist their deportation to the death camps more forcefully?” – Questions of this nature have been asked continuously throughout the last five decades. Hindsight can give the impression that the encounter between Jews and the Third Reich during the Holocaust had to unfold as it eventually did, prompting the question of why Jews failed to see the proverbial writing on the wall.This paper offers a close examination of Jewish experiences and choices between 1933 and 1941 in Nazi Germany with the hope of illustrating that Jews should not be “judged guilty of lack of foresight, of gullibility, of inertia, of cowardice, of irresponsibility, or of defeatism” in light of their hesitation to leave Germany “before it was too late.” (Weinberg, p.4) It argues that Jewish responses to the Nazi threat were logical given the ambiguity of the regime and the extraordinary circumstances the Jews faced. In the end, the main message attributed to this paper is that Jews cannot be blamed for their failure to recognize events which were at this point in time beyond the limits of their imagination. As Marion Kaplan, historian and author of Between Dignity and Despair, puts it, Jews “expected the worst – they did not expect the unthinkable” (Kaplan, p.236).
Essay (back to top)
“Why didn’t Jews leave Germany sooner?” “Why did they not resist their deportation to the death camps more forcefully?” – Questions of this nature have been asked continuously throughout the last five decades. Hindsight can give the impression that the encounter between Jews and the Third Reich during the Holocaust had to unfold as it eventually did, prompting the question of why Jews failed to see the proverbial writing on the wall. However, if historians have found it troubling to determine precisely how the Nazi Regime planned to deal with German Jews at any given moment between 1933 and 1941, how much more challenging must it have been for the Jewish men and women living within Nazi Germany to do so at the time. Those who inquire as to how German Jews could have missed the writing on the wall make their first fatal mistake when they assume there was writing left to be read. The reality is that Nazi Germany was as perplexing to Jews at the time as it still is to us today. A detailed answer to the subject in question is available in the history of Jewish life before 1938. The earlier years of Nazi Germany are crucial for understanding Jewish responses to Nazism because these years shed light on the incremental nature of Nazi persecution. However, the daily lives of Jews before the November Pogrom of 1938 are often eclipsed by the later, horrific years of genocide. The following pages will push past the focus on the history of the Holocaust and offer a close examination of Jewish experiences and choices between 1933 and 1941 in Nazi Germany.
The way Jews perceived the threat of Nazism, as well as the internal struggles they fought with the idea of emigration are two major components that will be addressed during this process of understanding Jewish response. Unlike those in Eastern Europe who found themselves quickly overwhelmed and trapped by the Nazi invasion of 1939, German Jews faced a perplexing hostility that slowly increased in their everyday lives. Meaning, the stages of persecution and the pace at which conditions deteriorated for German Jews were particularly important because they impeded their overall ability to assess probable danger. According to Historian Raul Hilberg, the stages of persecution were identification, isolation, concentration, and annihilation. This progression is of key importance because it is the underlying reason why so many Jews stayed behind and eventually became trapped. Jews living in Nazi Germany were not allotted the advantage of hindsight that we enjoy today. At the time, Jews were unaware of the fact that one stage of persecution was to be followed by another, and they were not even aware that the persecution they were enduring would continue to happen in stages.
Jewish responses to the events they encountered varied according to their expectations for the future. As such, it would usually be inappropriate to judge Jewish responses in accordance to stages of persecution that they did not know were coming. However, because this paper aims to tackle some common misconceptions regarding Jewish emigration, it is organized to examine Jewish responses in accordance to those stages and the pace of deterioration. In short, it will address certain stages and events that are often thought of as “telltale signs” of what lay ahead and point out how Jews perceived these Nazi threats and why the writing on the wall was not as crystal clear as some may have presumed.
Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, and all legal exits out of Germany had been slammed shut by 1941, so this is where this paper's timeline will begin and end. The span of this timeframe is deceptively small, considering the monumental changes that took place for the Jews living within Nazi Germany during these formative years. I will examine four major subjects of Jewish life in reference to the events that took place between the years 1933 and 1941: Jewish perceptions of the Nazi threat, Jewish concerns over emigration, and the obstacles to emigration Jews faced both internally and externally after 1937. The point of understanding Jewish experiences and choices in these four areas is cumulative. By emphasizing the daily life of Jews in Nazi Germany the goal is to put into context just how difficult it was for these ordinary people to try and understand their extraordinary circumstances amid the deliberate official misinformation and confusion Jews faced as a result of the Nazi government.
Perceiving the threat of Nazism was a problematic task for all German Jews. In hindsight, the step by step process by which Nazi policies were implemented makes what was to come seem portentously clear. However, when viewed individually these policies and the changes they entailed were not necessarily indicative of the terror that lay ahead. In general, yes, each new policy brought with it hardship and despair, but individually Jews did not feel the full weight of the Nazis' comprehensive anti-Jewish policies. The weight of particular decrees or humiliations affected Jews unevenly. One Jewish individual may have found the segregation of Jews and “Aryans” imposed by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 to be appalling, while another Jewish individual could have seen the segregation as beneficial for Jews. This difference of opinion is significant because it suggests that while one Jew may have perceived an event as a threat, another may have viewed the same event as unimportant, or even positive. Jewish perceptions of the Nazi threat directly affected the decision of a Jewish individual considering emigration, and Jewish perceptions varied widely. The first years of Nazi persecution were experienced in different ways by different Jews, depending on their gender, age, class, residential location, and political affiliation.
In order to better understand Jewish response to persecution it is essential to first recognize how each of these factors affected Jewish perception. Thus I will briefly discuss the role of an individual’s gender, age, class, residential location, and political affiliation before moving on. Gender proved significant because it determined the type of persecution one might encounter on a daily basis. Women often suffered less abuse from state officials than their male counterparts, but they tended to be exposed more frequently to hostile interactions with non-Jews in the private sphere. Age played a large role because it could either help Jews or hinder them while making their decision over flight or fight. Younger Jews were often ready to emigrate sooner because they realized before their parents – who likely hesitated due to their longer ties with the Fatherland – that there was no future left for Jewish life in Germany. Class made a considerable difference because more affluent Jews were able to circumvent antisemitic restrictions and compensate for loss in ways that their less wealthy Jewish friends could not. However, the economic prosperity of a Jewish individual could also mean that he or she had more to lose if they emigrated. Jews of considerable wealth sometimes stayed in Germany because of their economic ties. Many Jews who feared leaving their assets behind lost their lives because they eventually became trapped.
Residential location, simply where an individual lived, was of great importance as well. Jews residing in smaller towns often “became victims of economic pressure, social ostracism, and violence earlier and more consistently” than city dwellers. Finally, the political affiliation of a person could lead to double persecution: as a Jew and as a political opponent of the new regime. As historian David Engel writes, Jewish men and women “active in left-wing political movements confronted the most brutal aspects of the regime from the outset, whereas others could at first feel themselves relatively safe from arbitrary search and arrest.” The levels of severity and the frequency with which Jews encountered such hostility depended for the most part on where they fell in respect to these five factors. The effects of each factor could prove to be an advantage or disadvantage to various individuals depending on which of the combinations that individual resembled. For example, a Jew who happens to be young and male would probably have better luck surviving the Nazi Regime than a Jew who was elderly and female. Marion Kaplan’s recent study of Jewish life in Nazi Germany found that the Nazis murdered a disproportionate number of elderly women, thus suggesting that age and gender were a fatal combination. Given the significant influence these factors held over contemporary Jewish perception, it is essential to keep them in mind throughout the following pages.
As previously discussed, Jewish individuals were susceptible to many forms of persecution in Nazi Germany, and their interpretations of Nazi threats therefore differed. Despite their various interpretations, however, all Jews shared a similarity in that their assessments of danger fluctuated in accordance to each stage of persecution they suffered. Significant events simultaneously altered Jewish life and individual perceptions of the Nazi threat. The following chronicle of Jewish life sheds light on the incremental nature of Nazi policy. Events such as Hitler's accession to the chancellorship, the April 1, 1933 Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, the passage of the Nuremburg Laws in September 1935, and the November Pogrom of 1938 are flagged within this timeline because they indicate an increase in hostility and persecution towards Jews. They also serve as defining events in hindsight because they are commonly earmarked by the public today as moments when Jews should have “seen the writing on the wall.”
Throughout the course of these events Jews did their best to decipher Nazi intent, but their judgment was often clouded by the mixed signals they received from both the regime and its non-Jewish citizens. Historians who study the Third Reich argue that Nazi Jewish policy was either “part of a methodical plan (the intentionalist approach), or haphazard, contradictory, and the result of internal bureaucratic dynamics (the functionalist approach).” However, this ongoing debate stems from the bias of the perpetrators and “pales in comparison to the hapless victims of these policies; it was not something victims lived.” What is more, even if the intentionalist position is correct and a plan for Jewish extermination had been set in motion from the moment Nazis acceded power, the existence of such a plan was never made public. Meaning, Jews – who were not privy to the regime’s internal and private discussion of Jewish matters – could only speculate about the long-term objectives of the Nazis indirectly. They had to judge the motives of the regime from what they monitored daily of its actual behavior towards Jews. Therefore, mixed signals from the government and Aryans could complicate the Jewish assessment of danger. Jewish survivors confirm that the government and general Aryan public were sources for their confusion, and evidence to this effect can be found throughout Jewish memoir literature.
A balanced rejoinder to the oft-repeated accusation that German Jews should have recognized Nazi intent, should have left Germany sooner can be found in memoir literature. Jewish men and women have vividly recounted their experiences and consequential interpretations of many events including Hitler's accession to the chancellorship. Though responses varied when Hitler was elected chancellor in January of 1933, the common feeling among most Jews was fear. However, at the same time there was “by and large no apparent sense of panic or even of urgency among the great majority of the approximately 525,000 Jews living in Germany in January 1933.” Anxiety over their future in Germany, not their lives, was the pressing concern. It is imperative to keep this in mind; the concept of systematic mass murder was still beyond the limits of human imagination at this point in history. Jews had been persecuted for generations in Europe and most regarded this moment as merely another spike in antisemitism over the course of history.
During the earlier years of Nazi persecution Jewish feelings regarding emigration were negative. Werner Weinberg, a Holocaust survivor and German Jew, recalled in his 1982 article Why I Did Not Leave Nazi GermanyIn Time that “there was even a moral objection against emigrating” among Jews in Nazi Germany. Weinberg went on to write about a telling experience he had regarding the question of emigration, he described it here:
As Weinberg’s passage demonstrates, a number of German Jews recognized the negative connotation that accompanied emigration. This attitude towards emigration impeded many Jews from emigrating earlier on. However, despite the fact that emigration was initially seen by many Jews as a drastic and unwarranted response, there were still a number of Jews who did make the decision to emigrate early on.(back to top)
This chart not only provides clear evidence of early emigration, but also demonstrates the uneven course of Jewish emigration. Although 37,000 Jews chose to emigrate initially in 1933, this was the highest annual number of Jews to emigrate until 1938, after the November Pogrom. It is beneficial to keep in mind throughout the following pages that Jewish emigration stayed below 25,000 a year between 1934 and 1937. This information leads one to wonder what it was during these early years that mislead Jews into thinking they could and should stay.
Jews overall shared common expectations about Hitler and the Nazi party, and these expectations were most likely what kept them from leaving Germany. Despite initial upheavals, most Jews felt confident that Hitler posed little long-term threat to Jewish livelihood in Germany. Saul Friedlander, a renowned historian of the Holocaust and author of Nazi Germany and the Jews, noted that Jews stayed because they “reasoned that the responsibilities of power, the influence of conservative members of the government, and a watchful outside world would exercise a moderating influence on any Nazi tendency to excess.” In retrospect, the Jews of Nazi Germany had underestimated Hitler just as the Weimar government had before them.
While some felt that Hitler would be controlled via his new position, there were still many other expectations among the Jewish populace. A number of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, were not sure – particularly before the Reichstag elections of March 5, 1933 – how long the Nazis were going to stay in power. Jews consistently held on to the hope that the Nazis would fall from power or their radicalism restrained throughout the duration of the Regime. However, their hopes were not farfetched considering they had recently witnessed political parties enter and leave ruling coalitions through the revolving doors during the Weimar Republic. It is also significant to remember that although yes, there was an initial period of violence after Hitler was elected, state authorities did eventually put an end to these antisemitic riots, and the violence actually subsided between 1934 and 1938. Given this fact, it is no wonder Jewish men and women perceived the threat of Nazism after Hitler's election as they did; it was very probable that Hitler and the Nazi Party were merely passing through the government.
The Boycott of April 1st, 1933 (back to top)
As the months passed Hitler and the Nazis remained, but so did Jewish hopes that their position would not last. The April 1 st Nazi boycott of Jewish business was the next event that altered Jewish perceptions of the Nazi threat. Since it was the first major public event the government had generated specifically against them, it held great significance for German Jews. However, it did not push Jews to emigrate as one might expect.
Hitler declared the national boycott of Jewish business as a “measure against anti-Nazi propaganda abroad for which he blamed the Jews.” Though the boycott held great potential to harm Jews in theory – It could have caused serious economic damage to the Jewish population considering that “more than sixty percent of all gainfully employed Jews were concentrated in the commercial sector, most in retail trade” – in principle it didn’t fare as well. Reactions varied slightly, but the “public proved rather indifferent to the boycott and sometimes even intent on buying in ‘Jewish’ stores.” There were many examples of Aryan customers reassuring Jewish businesses of their loyalty. For example some Germans “chose precisely that day to visit a Jewish doctor or grocer. The support Jews received from some of their Aryan customers, and the over all lack of enthusiasm the public had for the boycott, eased the fears of worried Jews. Some Jews also took comfort in apologetic gestures they received, or at least thought they received, from party members present in their areas that day. One such person who experienced this was Paula Tobias, a Jewish woman and doctor, who recorded in her diary that the encounter she had with the SS, was reassuring. Paula wrote:
Paula Tobias took the hesitant and unsure nature of the SS men guarding her business to be a sign that not all Germans were behind the Nazi persecutions. Sympathy from the non-Jewish population was a common experience Jews had during the boycott. However, it is still important to keep in mind that on the individual level Jews experienced persecution unevenly. Jews had many different experiences and made widely varying assessments of the situation.
Marta Appel said about the boycott: “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.” These moments of kindness created mixed signals. An experience of loyalty – “the friend who came by ostentatiously, the former classmate who went out of her way to shake hands with a Jewish woman in a crowed store, or the sympathy purchases” – during the April boycott also provided false hope to Jewish individuals, and impeded many Jews from fleeing in time.
Victor Klemperer’s response to the boycott was more pessimistic than Marta Apple’s view, particularly in regards to the future. His diary entry states:
It is telling that Victor recognizes danger ahead yet feels no urgent need to emigrate. This again lays weight to the fact that Jews held no preconceived thoughts about mass genocide and that they had no idea what awaited them in the future.
Another case of Jewish response to the April 1 st boycott is that of Edwin Landau. Edwin experienced and perceived the boycott much differently than both Marta Appel and Victor Klemperer had. He noted, after witnessing the events of that day he could no longer hold in his emotions and broke down in front of his children and wife. He wrote:
Edwin and his family emigrated in November of 1934.
As Marta Appel, Victor Klemperer, and Edwin Landau’s stories show, Jewish responses varied by individuals when it came to perceiving the threat of Nazism. Edwin Landau’s response was extremely rare, but it did happen. A small number of other Jews did draw the same conclusions as Edwin and emigrate during the early years of persecution. However, the general feeling among Jews towards emigration at this time was not one of urgency, it was one of patience. At this point most Jews hoped to weather the storm of Nazi persecution in Germany. They still hoped that the regime would fall, or that its extreme persecution would fade.
The Nuremburg Laws of 1935 (back to top)
The Nuremburg Laws of 1935 were the next event that changed Jewish perception and their daily lives. This moment also marks a big change in the “identification” of Jews, the first stage in process of persecution outlined by Hilberg. Before this point it was unclear who was or was not a Jew. This legal measure distinguished officially the line between Jews and Aryans.
The Nuremburg laws were announced by Hitler on September 15, 1935, during the annual Nazi Party rally in Nuremburg. By definition, they meant the “segregation of the Jews according to racial criteria and placing of the Jewish community as such under alien status.” The laws that readily affected Jews most were the National Citizens Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. In short, the first law effectively revoked Jewish citizenship, and the second outlawed marriages between Jews and non-Jews. The speech in which Hitler announced the new laws was itself very misleading. He set the background by stating that the Jews were behind the growing tension among the population. Then Hitler came to his main point:
To prevent [Jewish] behavior from leading to quite determined defensive action on the part of the outraged population, the extent of which cannot be foreseen, the only alternative would be a legislative solution to the problem. The Reich Government is guided by the hope of possibly being able to bring about, by means of a singular momentous measure, a framework within which the German Volk would be in a position to establish tolerable relations with the Jewish people.
The ambiguous and misleading nature of Hitler’s speech left many perplexed about what the intentions of the Nuremberg Laws were. Hitler had publicly declared that Jewish perniciousness created problems in German society, and then suggested a way to ease antisemitic tensions among the populace. Although most Jews did not accept the claim that they were pernicious, they were used to such antisemitic slander and therefore did not take Hitler’s accusation as seriously as some today might presume. What caught Jewish attention was that Hitler had implied that the Nuremburg Laws would be mutually beneficial for Aryans, as well as German Jews. When taken at face value the laws did not mean the end of Jewish life in Germany. The laws actually implied that a segregated life between the two groups would be possible, and Jews clung to this new hope for a new life.
Jewish reactions to the laws once again varied due to numerous mitigating factors. However, many Jews felt that the laws might actually be beneficial for different reasons. A lot of Jews acquiesced with the laws because they agreed with the idea of segregation. Others, both Jews and non- Jews, are recorded as having supported the law, “on the assumption that enforcement of the law would put an end to the anti-Jewish terror of the previous months.” They hoped that with the new laws tranquility would return and with it Germany’s good name.
In Berlin it was recorded that the Nuremburg Laws were perceived as favorable. Berliners were pleased that the relationship between German Jewry and the state had been clearly defined: Jewry was transformed into a national minority and received through the protection of the state the opportunity to develop its own cultural and national life. In spite of the anxiety and some protests from Germans employed by Jews, the public had received the new laws quite well overall. David Bankier, historian and author of The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism, describes the typical non-Jewish response to the laws as follows:
Yet despite this account of non-Jewish response, not everyone agreed that segregation was for the better, especially among Jews.
Most Jews in fact were angered by the laws and many started to reexamine Nazi threats. Another common response to segregation can be found in the Jewish establishments that were created to house Jewish cultural life after it was expelled from its previous home in German culture. One such organization, the Jewish Kulturbund, was founded in part with the ambition “to create a cultural life of such a quality that it would teach the Germans a lesson!” as historian Saul Friedlander comments. The Kulturbund served many purposes for the Jewish community, and the ambitions of the Jews who participated in it are telling. Their attitude was common among Jews who felt spited and wanted to prove themselves by reasserting their long established place in high culture, if not mainstream German culture.
After 1935 speculation began to grow within the Jewish population, and many more Jews began to contemplate emigration. However, there still was not an urgency to emigrate, and many Jews stayed despite the fact that the economic and social conditions for German Jews had steadily deteriorated since 1933. Until November of 1938 Jews would be unclear and unsure of what was to come. Ismar Elbogen, a prominent Jewish historian of that time, expressed a feeling commonly held by all Jews when he wrote: “They can condemn us to hunger but they cannot condemn us to starvation.” However, this attitude was to change in 1938 with the next significant anti-Jewish event in Nazi Germany – the November Pogrom.
The November Pogrom of 1938 (back to top)
Jewish hopes were crushed on November 9 th, 1938 when the November Pogrom began, hitting German Jews with force. The violence and lawlessness that characterized the pogrom was unexpected and terrified the Jewish populace. The impression many have in hindsight is that this event was inevitable and should have been obviously clear to Jews. However, when examined in context Jewish shock at the November Pogrom is understandable and warranted. The noose had been tightening since 1933, but it had done so slowly. Many Jews had adapted with each stage of persecution to their new restricted life style and therefore did not realize the extent of their situation until the pogrom took place. The incremental nature of Nazi policy and the pace at which conditions had deteriorated skewed Jewish vision and severely hindered their ability to assess danger.
After this moment there was much less hesitation among Jews towards emigration – Jewish families and individuals scrambled to get out Germany. However, emigration proved difficult and Jews encountered many obstacles as they tried to flee. The cruel irony was that as the need to emigrate became apparent, the opportunities for emigration decreased quickly and drastically. However, before the obstacles that impeded Jewish emigration can be discussed, the reasons why Jews were hesitant to leave between 1933 and 1937 must be addressed.
Reasons for Jewish Hesitation (back to top)
There were many valid reasons why Jews vacillated between the decision of flight or fight before 1938. But, the three most common reasons for hesitation were due to the vagueness of the regime, the mixed messages Jews received from both the German government and public, and the cost of emigration – both literal costs and less tangible costs. These reasons are the basic answer as to why Jews stayed in Germany rather than emigrate elsewhere. The supporting evidence for each reason is essential because it helps us to understand Jewish circumstances and the difficulty Jews faced while making such life changing decisions amid deception and confusion. The lulls in Nazi policy and vague intentions of the regime have already been mentioned, but because they are so important they will be summarized first, before moving on to the other reasons.
The Regime’s Vague Intentions (back to top)
The intentions of the Third Reich were not obvious, and both Jews and non-Jews were unaware of the course that lay ahead. The all around vagueness of the Third Reich itself left Jews with no option other than to try and guess the long-term objectives of the Nazis indirectly, judging from what they monitored daily of its behavior towards them. And what was discernible – particularly before 1938 when things got considerably worse due to increasing "Aryanization" (takeover of Jewish businesses by non-Jewish Germans), concentration, and government-sponsored violence – was interpreted differently by various individuals. German Jews could never be completely sure of the Regime’s intentions. The regime was blatant about its lack of desire to ease uncertainty among Jews. One example that attests to this took place in November 1933 when the Organization of Independent Orthodox Communities sent a memorandum to Hitler requesting his compliance to tell the truth openly about what lay in store for German Jews. The authors of the letter stated that though they were certain that the Nazis did not have in mind the annihilation of Germany Jewry, they demanded to be told so if they were wrong on this point. Tellingly, Hitler offered no response and Jews once again were left to decipher Nazi policy on their own.
In addition to the uncertainty the regime created amongst Jews, other mitigating factors, both small and large, encouraged some Jews to stay in Germany. A mixed signal from the government, as well as non-Jewish friends and strangers, commonly twisted Jewish perceptions, and therefore constitutes as a second reason why Jews hesitated to emigrate.
With the walls of their previous lives crumbling around them, Jews tried to maintain their families and communities. In their desperation to do so, they clung to the mixed signals the received from various places – a lull in antisemitic boycotts here, a kind word there. Jews hoped the Nazis would fall out of power or that their antisemitic policies would relax. The government was the most confusing source of information for both Jews and non-Jews alike. The regime, as discussed above, was unwilling to offer any insight whatsoever as to what its long-range intentions were for Jews. Therefore, most Jews were left with only Nazi policy and behavior to guide their guess as to what might lie ahead, and amid the confusion they clung to any sign that the government might be relaxing its policies, any hint that things could improve.
Mixed Signals (back to top)
The behavior of the government was one source which Jews heavily relied on when predicting future circumstances. Many things had improved via the government since the Nazis came to power in 1933. For example, it is true that after Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor in 1933, there were numerous acts of violence against Jews perpetrated by Nazi storm troopers in the SA. However, the violence subsided between 1934 and 1938 due to the actions of state authorities. They had suppressed the acts of violence because they feared the general threat to public order they posed. However, the self-motivation behind the government’s reasoning was mistaken by the Jewish community who took their interference as a sign of hope. This moment provided a sense of false security for Jews who now expected the government would always intervene on their behalf if things became too out of hand.
Another issue that gave Jews a false sense of security was the continued presence in the government of the old, respected President Paul von Hindenburg. As the head of state, many felt Hindenburg would keep the new government in line. Jews put so much faith in this man that they actually wrote to him about their distress. Frieda Friedmann, a Jewish woman from Berlin, was one such case. She wrote to Hindenburg on February 23, 1933:
Frieda’s words in this letter speak volumes. She is completely comfortable as a Jew expressing her feelings to Hindenburg; she has a seemingly unshakable confidence in him. Her letter is evidence that Jews not only relied on Hindenburg’s presence, but took comfort in it. What is even more telling was what happened next, when “Hindenburg’s office promptly acknowledged receipt of the letter, and the President let Frieda Friedmann know that he was decidedly opposed to excesses perpetrated against Jews.” This letter is a prime example of the mixed signals the government was sending to Jews. Frieda Friedmann was without a doubt reassured by the letter of confidence from her beloved Hindenburg, as anyone naturally would be in her situation. Little did she know however, that her letter had also been transmitted to Hitler, who took quite a different stance than Hindenburg. Hitler wrote in the margin: “This lady’s claims are swindle! Obviously there has been no incitement to a pogrom!” Instances of false hope given by mixed signals such as this would prove deadly to patriotic German Jews later on.
There were many more mixed signals received by Jews from the government. A number of veterans refused to leave the Germany because they believed that as men who had served their country they would be spared. The confusion among veterans and their status was a product of a government policy which had excluded Jews from army service as early as 1934, yet still continued to honor veterans by sending them decorations for past service as late as August 1935. Jewish wives of veterans typically had a hard time convincing their husbands that they too were in danger. In her recent study of Jewish life in Nazi Germany, historian Marion Kaplan describes how one Jewish woman who pushed her husband to emigrate said that he “constantly fell back on the argument that he had been at the front in World War I.”
Jews received mixed signals yet again from the government in 1936 when it allowed unrestricted freedom to Jewish artists as long as they worked within a range of ‘Jewish’ themes only. Jewish leaders, intellectuals, and general members of the community mistook this particular government policy as reassurance to Hitler’s earlier claim that his goal was only to separate the German Volk from the Jews, so that Jewish life in Germany, though segregated, would still be possible.
Jews experienced mixed signals from not only the government but also from sympathetic or loyal “Aryans” as well. Many individual Germans, including Nazi party members, sent mixed signals to Jews. Despite strong widespread admonitions against it, many Germans continued to do business with Jews well into the 1930s. Even as late as 1938 a few top Nazi officials were still patronizing Jewish-owned hotels. For Jews, the ongoing business relations they still shared with Nazi party members gave them a false sense of security. Some felt these relationships could even serve as a form of protection from persecution.
The words from a non-Jewish friend or stranger provided a glimmer of hope for many Jewish men and women. Lisa Brauer recalled: “There were days when we were overwhelmed by desperation, but an understanding word from an Aryan neighbor, a kind inquiry from a Gentile acquaintance, gave us always…new hope and confidence.” Surprising words of encouragement and moments of decency came as a relief to Jews, but they also served as false grounds for optimism. They supported the idea that not all Germans were “that way,” and that there were still “good Germans” out there on whom Jews could rely.
Jews consequently took small expressions of generosity as sign that things could change for the better. It was such ambiguity – kindness on the one hand, persecution on the other – that made it hard for Jews to clearly assess the dangers that surrounded them. One Jewish woman attested to this when she wrote that every Jewish person "knew a decent German" and recalled that many Jews thought "the radical Nazi laws would never be carried out because of the moderate character of the German people." The smallest common courtesies were taken as great acts of kindness and encouraged Jews who might have emigrated sooner to hang on.
Costs of Emigration (back to top)
The third general reason for Jewish hesitation was the cost of emigration. Emigration entailed serious loss for Jews, both material and less tangible costs, but each had an equal hand in Jewish hesitation. The material costs of emigrating were considerably higher. Many Jewish men were losing their jobs and businesses more consistently after 1933 and the massive tax levied on assets leaving the country threatened to obliterate what little savings Jews might have. Jewish property was also sold at ever shrinking prices due to accelerating pace of Aryanization, and the emigration tax was prohibitive.
In addition to all of this, Jewish families had to deal with the arbitrary exchange rate offered by the Reichsbank. This rate proved devastating to Jews seeking foreign currency. The exchange rate was terrible from early on and continued to grow steadily worse. Records show that “until 1935 emigrants exchanged their marks at fifty percent of their value, then at thirty percent, and finally, on the eve of the war, at four percent.” Historian Saul Friedlander pointedly notes that “although the Nazis wanted to get rid of the Jews in Germany, they were intent on dispossessing them first by increasingly harsh methods.”
The other cost of emigration was the emotional pain that accompanied emigration. Though this cost is less tangible, it was in fact more difficult for many emigrants to endure. The thought of leaving loved ones and their homeland behind deterred Jews who were considering emigration. Werner Weinberg, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, made a crucial point when he wrote in his memoir: “How many people have ever given thought to what it means to tear oneself up by the roots and leave an environment that has been one’s physical, cultural, and emotional home perhaps for generations?... An uprooting that is totally involuntary causes great pain.”
For most German Jews emigration meant for most abandoning the only life they had ever known. It entailed leaving behind their close relationships with family members and friends to enter a new and unfamiliar land. Jewish emigrants were unsure of when they would see their loved ones again and many couldn’t bear the heartbreaking feelings that accompanied emigration. Moreover, as the years of segregation continued, the Jewish community had turned inward and fostered strong ties of between many families and individuals. Therefore, emigration not only affected those leaving, but those they left behind as well. Ever shrinking circles of friends and family suffered a loneliness that was “of such a degree and so sudden…as never before had been experienced even in Jewish history.” Women became especially close under these circumstances, making emigration even harder. Israelitisches Familienblatt, a Jewish newspaper in Nazi Germany, interviewed one Jewish woman in 1936 described the feeling of leaving a woman friend as “dying a little.” This short description was also published by the periodical and summarizes the agony of emigration:
There was pain in leaving friends, but also in abandoning one’s homeland. German Jews felt strong ties to Germany and this held many back when considering emigration. Though younger Jews were attached to their home, it was the older Jews who really tossed and turned most over this feeling. Jews who had served in the war or held government positions prior to the 1930s were particularly stubborn when it came to leaving their homeland. Else Gerstel found that though she begged and begged her husband to emigrate, he, a former judge, insisted that “the German people, the German judges, would not stand for this madness.” According to Kaplan, holding on to a love for one’s country, as Else Gerstel’s husband had, was not uncommon, but it was dangerous. This sense of patriotism among Jews “blunted their sense of impeding danger,” and left them vulnerable to Nazi persecution.
To summarize, Jews did not emigrate sooner because they were uncertain of what the reality of their situation was in Nazi Germany. The vagueness of the regime, the mixed messages sent by those they encountered, and the overall cost of emigration (materially and emotionally) are all valid reasons for Jewish hesitation. The dangerous intentions of the regime were not made obvious before the November Pogrom and so before this point there was no sense of urgency surrounding emigration. After the pogrom Jews tried desperately to emigrate but they “faced onerous, and sometimes insurmountable, barriers” that had become increasingly worse in the late 1930s. The final section of this paper examines these barriers, focusing on how they affected German Jews still trapped within the lion’s den.
Obstacles to Emigration (back to top)
By the late 1930s profound barriers existed to emigration, as Jews increasingly faced closing doors and poverty. There were both internal and external obstacles Jews had to overcome if they wanted to emigrate. The internal obstacles Jews faced were a product of the Nazi regime and were discussed earlier in regard to the cost of emigration for Jews. To summarize those points, it was Nazi measures such as the ‘flight tax’ and restrictions on transporting Jewish property that thwarted most Jewish attempts to leave Germany. Aryanization – the complete takeover of Jewish assets – was by and large the main internal barrier Jews faced. This slow process had eventually depleted the savings of most Jews, and without the means to pay for the high costs of emigration they were unable to leave. The barriers that proved most impossible to surmount, however, were the external barriers.
External obstacles had grown increasingly worse over the course of the 1930s. There were obstacles to emigration that neither the Nazis nor Jews could have eliminated, since they were imposed by the various countries receiving German Jewish refugees. By the early 1930s, nearly every nation “possessed legal and administrative means of restricting emigration, and with much of the world suffering economic depression, most thought it wise to employ them.” As a consequence of this policy many Jews who wished to flee were left with nowhere to go. Initially other countries expressed sympathy for Jews had been, but as time wore on and the Nazi regime lasted, that sympathy dissipated. Already in 1935 “officials in the most likely receiving countries were actively trying to hold the refugee flow to a minimum.”
After the November Pogrom in 1938 there were again vigorous cries against Nazi policies from the West, and the United States even recalled its ambassador from Berlin. In response to these protests the Nazis launched a propaganda campaign against countries like America. Historian David Engel notes that the Nazis “chided as hypocrites those nations who decried persecution while denying the persecuted a safe haven.” Their tactics were successful in drawing a response from the US President Roosevelt, who countered these attacks by initiating the Evian conference.
The Evian conference was held in France during July, 1938. Roosevelt had convened the conference of 32 countries with the hope that some would potentially be open to receiving Jewish refugees. All of the nations present were asked to explain how they could individually contribute to alleviating the refugee crisis. However, it was stipulated in advance that no country would be asked to change any of its existing immigration policies. The conference failed miserably to open any more doors for Jewish refugees. Peter Gay, a Jew trapped in Berlin, recalled: “…the international conference held at Evian…was depressing proof that goodwill by itself was impotent… There was much humane talk and no humane action.” The consequences this conference had for German Jews were severe. First and foremost Hitler was amused with its outcome – it had inadvertently proven to the Nazis that Jews were not wanted on a world wide scale. Another effect was to discourage the many Jews still trapped within Nazi Germany. Evian had reinforced Hitler’s belief that Jews were a problem to the world in general, and also reasserted Jewish fears that they were trapped within the Nazi Reich.
To sum up these points: Jewish emigration was brutally restricted during the late 1930s by both internal and external barriers. Jews who were able to flee did so facing much resistance. The noose had slowly tightened between the years of 1933 and 1938 and German Jews realized only too late that they were teetering on the edge of a hopeless situation. On October 23, 1941 the Nazis forbid the emigration of Jews from the Reich and leaving was no longer an option. However, “long before the German exit door was slammed shut, immigration countries had barricaded themselves effectively against the Jews.”
Conclusion (back to top)
In conclusion, Jews should not be “judged guilty of lack of foresight, of gullibility, of inertia, of cowardice, of irresponsibility, or of defeatism” in light of their hesitation to leave Germany “before it was too late.” Jewish responses to the Nazi threat were logical given the ambiguity of the regime and the extraordinary circumstances the Jews faced. Years of earlier persecution created fear in German Jews. And yet, the mixed messages Jews received and lulls in persecution they encountered caused perplexity among Jews and even allowed hope. Paradoxically, Jews were distracted from making the painful decision to emigrate by the daily persecutions they endured. As a result, most didn’t decide they needed to flee until they were trapped. Another fact which is often over looked is that many Jews had emigrated. There were between 270,000 and 300,000 Jews who managed to flee Germany – that equals about three fifths of German Jewry.
One of the most crucial points to make clear is that Jews were making their decisions regarding emigration without the knowledge that systematic mass genocide was even a possibility. The Holocaust and the horrors it entailed were beyond the scope of human imagination at this point in time. Before 1945, and even afterwards, many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, refused to believe that death factories existed or that the intent of the Nazi regime was to murder Jews. Such ideas were far beyond the limits of human thought. A prime example of just how perplexing the concept of mass murder and violence was to Jews can be found in Filip Muller’s memoir, Eye Witness Auschwitz. Muller described his first days at Auschwitz as bewildering and shocking. He saw men beaten to death directly before him for no apparent reason and could not fathom what was happening around him. The difficultly Jews had realizing the true extent of their situation is best depicted when Muller writes about a new Jewish prisoner’s response to the violence in Auschwitz:
Muller states that the man later walked straight up to a commandant of the camp and reported the kapo responsible for the murders. The lawyer was beaten to death where he stood as punishment. This incident is significant because it raises the point that Jews were not truly aware of the heinous fate that awaited them if they failed to emigrate. They were unable to comprehend the idea that Nazis actually did intend to kill them even as they watched other Jews be killed in front of them. The experience of the lawyer in Muller’s memoir is point in case – Jews did not know what horrific violence would ensue.
As Marion Kaplan states in her book Between Dignity and Despair, it is a profound and cruel distortion when Jews are chastised in hindsight for “not having emigrated quickly enough, for hoping they could remain in Germany, for loving Germany too much, for not seeing the writing on the wall.” German Jews responded to Nazi persecution with the best of their abilities. And, although many did have ties to Germany that made them want to stay, the early years of Nazi persecution had deceived and confused German Jews into staying as well. After the November Pogrom almost all Jews scrambled for a way out of Germany. However, emigration was not possible for everyone and many unfortunate Jews were trapped. If one thing is to be remembered it is that it was never Jewish perceptions of their predicament – either before or after 1938 – that proved to be crucial factors affecting their emigration. It was the punitive emigration laws internally and externally that heartlessly shut the doors to Jewish emigration out of Nazi Germany. In the end, Jews cannot be blamed for their failure to recognize events which were at this point in time beyond the limits of their imagination. As Kaplan puts it, “they expected the worst – they did not expect the unthinkable.”
Notes (back to top)
Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/15/07)
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: