Reading the Writing on the Wall

Shortly after I began working on an oral history project to record women’s reactions to Nazi Germany, the material I had gathered led me to research the quite different reactions of Jewish men and Jewish women to the issues of escape, self-defense, conformity, rebellion, and planning for the future. I suggest that men and women evaluated their situation from contrasting perspectives—specifically that 1) they experienced antisemitism differently and 2) that they weighed their options according to different priorities.

Decision-making about emigration seems related to how deeply individuals identified with mainstream society. The more integrated a person felt into the economy and the culture, the less seriously he took Hitler’s threats. I say “he” because I suggest that men felt more assimilated into the non-Jewish world than their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. As a consequence of their lower degree of assimilation, women often perceived the danger of antisemitism earlier than their male counterparts and within the family often urged emigration.

The people in my study (like the leaders of the Jewish community) viewed their alternatives in terms of polarized needs, caught between the psychological necessity to see themselves as in control and their future as manageable and the survival instincts which told them that because they had no power, safety lay only in leaving Germany.

Several general conditions formed the background against which Jewish men considered their choices. First, men personally experienced the random and brutal violence of stormtroopers. Until the deportations began, women were treated “chivalrously.” Men, by contrast, especially if they were professionals or civil servants, confronted hardship immediately after Hitler’s assumption of power.

It might seem, therefore, that the statistical evidence showing the overwhelming predominance of men in the early emigration proved that Jewish men perceived the magnitude of the Nazi threat first and acted. But, in fact, direct attacks affected only a small percentage of all Jewish men. Other values, anchored in masculine socialization, prompted most men to underestimate the threat of remaining in their Vaterland.

From boyhood, specific values and experiences conditioned men to view their activities in terms of investment and reward. After devoting decades or a lifetime to his business or position, a man felt he had earned something. His very identity was anchored in that trade, skill, reputation, income or business. Thus, a man who believed his conduct to be above reproach, whether wealthy or not, could imagine himself immune from antisemitism.

A strong identification with a business or institution blinded people to their vulnerability and encouraged them to defend their integrity by remaining in Nazi Germany. Another set of traditions affected men more strongly than women. Boys grew up sharing the patriotism, scholarship, and honor of the Gymnasium (and the less elitist Hochschule). “You must remember,” explained Dr. Robert Salomon, a radiologist who grew up in Belgium and Frankfurt, “that for us Deutschtum meant Enlightenment, Goethe, Schiller, Luther, Heine, Kant and Mendelssohn.” He did not note Luther’s antisemitic statements. “Our families arrived in the Rhineland with Caesar, long before any of those Germanic tribes,” he said proudly.

Military service further deepened men’s integration into German society. Even young men with one Jewish parent who were drafted into the German army (and not expelled until 1941) recall that the military remained virtually free of the antisemitic comments and insults experienced by Mischlinge (those with any Jewish ancestors) in civilian life.

Less easy to document is a final ingredient of decision-making, a faith in orderliness. Believing in the ultimate rationality of the world and in Planung, men more than women confidently assumed they could manipulate “the system,” even a Nazi system.

If economic antisemitism so obviously devastated Jewish businesses and property, what factors explain the victims’ hesitation to recognize the hopelessness of their situation? An important segment of the answer lies with the ambiguity of Nazi policies. Ideological differences, disagreements and intra-party rivalries resulted in loopholes, exceptions, and oversights. Even as propaganda blared race-hatred, policy could be read in two ways.

A second factor explaining many businessmen’s reluctance to grasp the hopelessness of their situation lies in the legalistic facade Hitler had perfected during his days as a “respectable” politician. Both victims and perpetrators minimized the seriousness of Hitler’s lethal goals.

Men perceived themselves—and to a formidable extent they were—as embedded, not merely in the Kultur, but in an entire mesh of social, financial and intellectual traditions, and trusted their ability to manipulate their environment.

Men, my findings suggest, typically placed greater faith in their non- Jewish friends’ promises of support than did women. Men identified more deeply with public institutions than women and clung to the hope of a miracle rescue from an increasingly hostile world.

Women’s identity depended upon their family and community. John Stuart Mill once remarked that men choose careers and women choose husbands. Without defending this as an ideal, it nonetheless characterized most women’s expectations during the inter-war years. Generally, girls did not receive as advanced an education as their brothers; often religion, family ties, and friendships played a dominant role in their emotional lives, and although many Jewish women had participated in volunteer war work, they did not share the “front experience,” or join veterans’ associations.

Because women identified as wives and mothers, their perceptions and experiences of antisemitism differed from their husbands’; and when they considered their options, they came to different conclusions.

Before antisemitism threatened the economic survival of most Jewish men, it pervaded the social networks which played a central role in most Jewish women’s lives. This assertion casts doubt on the convenient assumption that most non-Jews acquiesced to Hitler’s racial madness only when capitulation became absolutely mandatory. Evidence based on memoirs and interviews points to the opposite conclusion—and most dramatically when we listen to women. Social ties proved to be more fragile than business contracts or “crony” networks. Men experienced random violence, but women faced steady erosion of daily life at all levels.

Social antisemitism took effect more quickly than legal and economic antisemitism. At national and local levels, women’s organizations which had long welcomed Jewish women into their work expelled Jewish women overnight. (This applied, too, to women who had converted to Catholicism and Protestantism and did not see themselves as Jewish.) Virtually all member associations of the Bund Deutscher frauenvereine quietly purged their Jewish members without a protest, or even much hesitation. Articles in the Blatter des Judischen frauenbundes suggest the ways in which Jewish women encountered antisemitism. The journal carried warnings about non- Jewish servants who might report “typically Jewish” behavior to local officials. Some authors warned women not to dress ostentatiously and not to reinforce negative stereotypes. And then, the magazine told women to take pride in their Jewish heritage.

In people’s memories it was often these personal and apparently trivial events which sent shock waves through a neighborhood or family. Lilli Kretzmir recalls that the beggar who appeared every Tuesday at the back door for a handout arrived one day with a stiff right arm “Heil Hitler” instead of the humble outstretched palm. Frances Henry recalls the insults hurled at her mother as she walked through the streets with her half-Jewish child.

“She was walking down a street in Sonderburg, wheeling me, then a very small child, in a baby carriage. On turning a comer, she was accosted by a group of youths who shouted at her, ‘Here comes the dirty whore who goes to bed with a Jew and has the nerve to wheel around her bastard.”

The Gemeinde (official Jewish Community) contributed to each Jew’s evaluation of the situation, but Jewish public opinion was also formed by experiences in the streets and conversations in the homes. Because antisemitism expressed itself most cruelly in the schools, children often suffered first: and if they reported their trials to a parent, they probably decided to confide in their mothers. After all, it was the mothers who helped children memorize homework—like racial codes, and antisemitic “history.” Magda Meyersohn noted in addition that because boys had grown up wrestling and fighting, they withstood harassment better. Girls, by contrast, had lived a sheltered life and suffered from the psychological ostracism by their friends. Ilse Wischnia, who grew up in Rothenburg and Frankfurt, recalls that often boys would beat up Jewish girls on the way to school— aggression for which they were totally unprepared. Her brother had learned to fight back even against overwhelming odds; but the girls felt completely helpless.

Women lived in communities, shops, neighborhoods and towns where they felt acutely what Milena Jesenka called rufmord:

“Death by gossip, by lies, by hostile comments, Nachrede and false allegations. Rufmord wounds more deeply then steel. You bring a murdered person to the cemetery. There he finds his peace. The victim of rufmord has to keep on living and yet cannot really live.”

Men faced direct challenges; women faced the insidious and inexorable erosion of their social world. Therefore, women often felt how precarious their situation was before the men in their families. Often in subtle ways, they “gave the push.”

Crisis of any kind typically restructures social arrangements, flattening the power pyramid and diffusing responsibility among the previously powerless. Rising antisemitism in Nazi Germany meant a relative increase in status for women relative to men in the day-to-day work of escape and survival. As public life deteriorated the family took on new emotional meaning as a place of shelter. My informants by and large withdrew from non-Jewish society without approaching Jewish associations. The family provided the kind of “space” for humane values and dignity that activists created within the rubric of Zionist or communal organizations. Without denying that a few young women played leading roles in these organizations, generally men predominated. Most women asserted themselves against adversity within the domestic milieu.

Frequently, too, women used their skills actually to secure their family’s exit. Helen Sachs asked me what I thought the most popular book in 1936 Leipzig was among Jews. Not the Schocken Bucherei, not even Hermann Hesse, but the New York telephone directory. Women (because they typed and often knew English) searched for Americans with the same last name as theirs in order to write desperate pleas for affidavits. “Some answered,” recalls Mrs. Sachs; “but not enough.”

Their skills (poorly paid and less specialized) would travel. Home economics, child care, typing, housekeeping, and nursing offered more prospects than, for example, German law or cattle-dealing.

Commonly, too, women profited from Nazi police and Gestapo misogyny by slipping past checkpoints, taking “shopping trips” to Paris or Zurich to procure visas, and smuggling documents. After mass arrests and deportations began, women by definition did most of the courier work because any draft-age man with doubtful papers could be strip-searched on the spot. Besides being less vulnerable to searches, even when searched, women could “pass” because they were not circumcised.

Among those who left Germany, too, differences persisted. Psychologically, women apparently found it easier to “turn the page” and begin a new life abroad. Many children recalled their fathers having died of a broken heart, but did not mention mothers. One of my informants, in discussing her father’s suicide, paused to explain why she and her mother did not follow suit. “Kill ourselves? How could a mother leave her kids? Not a possibility!”

Men and women thought about the future from different standpoints. Marta Appel recalled driving home with her husband after a dinner party at which every male guest insisted on remaining in Germany and the women consistently urged emigration. Why? Marta Appel thought because women saw the future—and perhaps the meaning of life—in terms of their children. This suggests, although Frau Appel did not draw the conclusion directly, that courage for men meant standing fast, defending terrain they had won. Women, by contrast, saw courage as flexibility, risking short-term material setbacks against the hope for their children’s happiness. In other words, men evaluated their milieu in terms of expectations that public order would ultimately provide lawabiding citizens with at least security and possibly leverage. Women grasped better a rapidly disintegrating reality which left Jews helpless.

Lore Jonas recalled that her mother managed to pry her father loose from Germany only by threatening divorce. Daughters or wives consistently urged the family to emigrate against their fathers’ judgement.

In every case, my informants assured me that the father made all decisions in the family. “It was not like nowadays. You cannot imagine how totally Papa dominated.” During an interview with Use Rotschild (who grew up in Karlsruhe and now lives in Worcester), she insisted her father wielded unchallenged authority.

But then she remembered one day in 1938 when her father returned home with plans to remodel the bathroom. Her mother for the first time in anyone’s memory “put her foot down,” telling her husband: “We will not leave a beautiful new bathroom for the Nazis to use.” Shortly thereafter the father decided to accept the invitation by American cousins to immigrate.

Claudia Koonz is Professor of History at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She is the author of Mothers in the Fatherland: Women the Family and Nazi Politics (St Martin’s Press, 1986). The material in this article appeared in somewhat different form in The Jews in Nazi Germany, 1933-1945, Mohr, Tuebingen, 1986. Excerpted with the permission of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.