Marion A Kaplan. Feminist Studies. Volume 16, Issue 3. Fall 1990.
“We were so German,” “we were so assimilated,” “we were so middle-class”—these are the refrains one reads over and over in the memoirs of German Jews who try to explain to us (and to themselves) what their lives were like before Nazi barbarism overpowered them. They stress how normal their lives were, how bourgeois their habits and attitudes. German Jews—a predominantly middle-class group comprising less than 1 percent of the German population—had welcomed their legal emancipation in the second half of the nineteenth century and lived in a relatively comfortable, secure environment until 1933. Between 1933 and 1939, however, they saw their economic livelihoods imperiled and their social integration destroyed. Inexorably, they were engulfed in the maelstrom that led to the Holocaust: impoverishment and ostracism for most; emigration for many; hiding for a handful; and ghettoization, forced labor, and extermination for the rest.
The calamity that hit German Jews affected them as Jews first. But Jewish women had gender-specific experiences as well. In addition to suffering the persecution that afflicted all Jews, Jewish women also had the burden of keeping their households and communities together. Racism and persecution as well as survival meant something different for women than men—in practical and psychological terms.
This essay explores the increasingly difficult daily lives of Jewish middle-class women and the work of their main organization, the League of Jewish Women, Juedischer Frauenbund (JFB), in prewar Nazi Germany. By focusing on the 1930s, we can locate the intensification of persecution and its effects on women and their families in a time when few dreamed that developments would end in anything like Auschwitz. In fact, this period is often neglected for either the earlier, more hopeful era of the Weimar Republic (1918-33) or the later shocking years of genocide. But the intermediate era—the nazification of daily life, when the victims had to learn to cope, and when even relationships among ordinary Germans were coarsened—is often far more instructive politically. Moreover, exploring the lives of Jews as they interacted daily with Gentiles challenges the myth of political innocence with which so many Germans today surround their accounts of “daily life in Nazi Germany.” Most importantly for our purpose, gender differences in the experience of being a persecuted Jew can be illustrated more clearly for these years than for later ones. Finally, a brief look at Jewish women’s organizations shows how women responded collectively to increasing persecution.
The focus will be on housewives and mothers, largely because they are the ones who left the most memoirs. Still, they also made up a large portion of the female community. In their twenties, thirties, and forties, these women had embarked upon marriage, created families, and, sometimes, started careers. Like the vast majority of Jews, they experienced the impending catastrophe from their situation as ethnically or religiously Jewish and politically liberal citizens, increasingly shocked by the abrogation of the rights and liberties they once had taken for granted. Other Jewish women will receive less attention here: rarely did those who intermarried, who remained in Germany after the war broke out, or who died leave memoirs behind, at least ones that are accessible today. Of those who managed to escape, single women and the elderly are underrepresented in memoir collections. Finally, memoir collections are often found in Jewish libraries and archives. Hence, writers who were more self-conciously Jewish might have deposited them, possibly creating a sample of Jews who were slightly less integrated into German society than the actual range of women’s situations.
Overview of Jewish Women and Their Community
In 1933, 500,000 people were registered as Jews in Germany (excluding those who had offically left Judaism), or about 0.77 percent of the population. Seventy percent lived in large cities with populations of over 100,000 (one-half of non-Jews lived in places with under 10,000 inhabitants), and one-third (over 160,000) lived in Berlin, where they made up close to 4 percent of the population. Like every minority, the Jewish minority had a career profile that differed significantly from that of the general population. Historically prohibited from a variety of economic endeavors, almost 62 percent of Jews (compared with 18 percent of non-Jews) worked in business and commerce. They were underrepresented in agricultural careers, where less than 2 percent of Jews (but 29 percent of other Germans) were employed. The employment of Jewish women had gradually increased to 27 percent by 1933, but it was still less than that of non-Jewish women (34 percent). Of those who worked, over one-third were salaried employees; about one-fifth were assistants in family enterprises (mithelfende Familienangehoerige). Another one-fifth were self-employed (this could include a large business or a tiny one), and about one-tenth were workers (mostly in industry, but often in the offices rather than on the factory floor).
The socioeconomic position of Jews was overwhelmingly middle class, although the inflation of the early 1920s and the Great Depression had definitely set them back. More women had to assist or support their families—a trend that intensified in the Nazi period—and more Jews had to rely on financial aid from Jewish welfare organizations. In addition, almost one in five Jews in Germany was a refugee from Eastern Europe. Most of these Ostjuden, as they were called, eked out humble existences as industrial workers, minor artisans, or peddlers.
In comparison with non-Jewish women, Jewish women generally had smaller families and more education. They were less likely to work outside the home and more likely to have household help. Although married Jewish women devoted themselves to their families, parents expected their unmarried daughters to prepare for a career. Many—seven times as many proportionally as Christian women—went to the university. As we shall see, after 1933, career development was increasingly obstructed just as wage earning became more urgent.
During the Weimar Republic, strictly religious education and practices were on the decline and mixed marriages on the rise. In the large cities, marriage to Christians was becoming so common-especially among Jewish men—that some Jewish leaders actually feared the complete fusion of their community into German society by the end of the twentieth century. Jews eagerly joined nonsectarian organizations. For example, the Jewish feminist movement (League of Jewish Women) belonged to the German bourgeois feminist movement from 1908 until 1933, and individual Jewish women were prominent members of other German women’s organizations. Jews felt a deep allegiance to the ideals of German civilization as they understood them—the Enlightenment values of tolerance, humanism, and reason. They enjoyed general acceptance in the worlds of art and culture, participated in center and moderate Left politics, and excelled in the “free” professions of medicine and law. Possibly as many as one-third of all women physicians in the Weimar Republic were Jewish.
Although Jews adapted to the social, political, or cultural styles of their surroundings, “quoting Goethe at every meal,” they also preserved a sense of ethnic solidarity and religious cohesion. They did so through organizing religious or secular Jewish groups and through maintaining traditional family holiday celebrations. Women’s organizations, in particular, fostered a sense of Jewish identity—including religious identity—throughout the Weimar years. Thus, as we shall see, the interest by women’s organizations in their Jewish heritage during the Nazi period was not a sudden shift; it was an intensification of a trend already well under way. Finally, a small Zionist movement, while failing to make significant inroads into the assimilationist commitments of most German Jews, sharpened Jewish self-consciousness.
Jewish cohesion was also a response to a pervasive anti-Semitism with roots in Imperial Germany (1871-1918). Virtually all Jews knew of anti-Semites or of an anti-Semitic incident directed against someone in their immediate circle of friends or relatives. The mission of one of the largest Jewish organizations in Germany, the Central Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, founded in 1893, was to fight anti-Semitism politically and judicially and to strengthen Jewish and German consciousness within the Jewish communities. Germany’s defeat in World War I and postwar political and economic instability magnified anti-Jewish passions. To the radical Right and its diverse followers, Jews became the scapegoats for all social and economic ills. Even more common and widespread was what Donald Niewyk has called “moderate anti-Semitism, that vague sense of unease about Jews that stopped far short of wanting to harm them but that may have helped to neutralize whatever aversion Germans might otherwise have felt for the Nazis.” This atmosphere could be found in churches, universities, political parties, and the government as well as in relationships between Jews and other Germans.
Even those Jewish women who worked closely with other German women commented on the distance between Jew and Christian: “We lived among each other, sat together in the same school room, attended university together, met each other at social events—and were complete strangers.” There were exceptions, close and lasting friendships that extended until deportation or even until today, but for the vast majority of Jews, their tenuous friendships with other Germans dissolved as the Nazi terror grew.
Ostracism and Economic Strangulation: The Lives of Jewish Women in Public and Private
With the Nazi seizure of power in January 1933, Jews as individuals had to struggle for daily survival and Jewish organizations had to begin providing unprecedented and massive economic, social, and cultural aid. Jews were forced into an era of “dissimilation”—a process of separation and then segregation—that took about six years, gradually gathering speed and thoroughness. A brief outline of this interim, before the deportations and genocide, provides necessary background for understanding the variety of Jewish responses.
Soon after taking power, the Nazis scheduled an official boycott of Jewish businesses and professional establishments for 1 April 1933. On that day, storm troopers stood in front of Jewish stores, threatening and exhorting shoppers to “buy German.” As unofficial boycotts continued, the Nazis enacted discriminatory legislation. The “April Laws” of 1933 provided for the expulsion of Jews from the civil service, the legal and medical professions, and post-primary schools and universities. This “legal” attack reached its peak in late 1935 with the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor,” or Nuremberg Laws, which forbade sexual intercourse or intermarriage between Jews and “Aryans” (perceived as “pure” Germans) and made it unlawful for a Jew to employ an “Aryan” domestic servant under the age of forty-five. The “laws” were followed by over 400 pieces of anti-Jewish legislation promulgated by the Nazis between 1933 and 1939. The last stage before outright and organized violence was “aryanization,” the attempt to drive Jews from the economy. Proceeding fitfully throughout 1936 and 1937, aryanization speeded up in 1938 and 1939 to the point where the economy could be considered judenrein (free of Jews). In 1938, persecutions reached a new level of intensity culminating in the November pogrom, commonly called Crystal Night. This milestone claimed the lives of at least 100 Jews and destroyed over a thousand synagogues and countless homes and shops. Over 30,000 Jewish men were incarcerated in concentration camps.
Despite what appears in hindsight to be the increasing speed and clarity of persecution, Nazi policy followed what one historian described as a “twisted road to Auschwitz.” Contradictory pronouncements, regional variations, conflicting satrapies, lack of coordination at the top, and the attempt to appear moderate to other nations gave contemporaries profoundly mixed signals. It was only after the November pogrom that most Jews were finally convinced of their peril. At every stage, some Jews thought, and others hoped, that the government would cease its persecutions. As the Jewish community moved from a relatively porous relationship with the surrounding society to a severely encapsulated one, many believed they could make peace with the new circumstances. Even after the Nuremberg Laws, for example, the central organization of Jews was willing to see them as a “tolerable arrangement” and to work for a modus vivendi with the Nazi state.
As dissimilation intensified, the concept of “normal” became increasingly elastic. This was a complicated process. For some, there was the longing to make life “normal” within the ever-narrowing boundaries drawn by the Nazis; for others, there was a denial of what they saw happening; for many, there was a combination of both at the same time: the desire and need to believe that they and their families could remain in their homeland, even under new and trying conditions. Today, historians of daily life in Nazi Germany are attempting to capture the double character of normality and terror, the effects of both a normal bureaucratic state and an exceptional state on its citizens. This double character is all the more pronounced—and more complicated—for its victims, whose perceptions of the conflicting signals were colored not only by their anxieties but also by their hopes.
Life for German-Jewish women changed dramatically with the beginning of the Nazi regime. One of the first signs of a “new era” (even before one lost a job or one’s husband, father, or brother did) was the loss of former friends. One woman reported that she had enjoyed getting together with friends from her hometown in a cafe once a month:
Since the Nazis came to power, I hadn’t taken part in these gatherings. I didn’t want to cause difficulties for my friends as a result of my [Jewish] presence.
One day she met one of her friends:
She tried to convince me that they were all still my friends, so I decided to go to the next meeting … I couldn’t sleep at all the night before the gathering. I was worried about my Christian friends, but I was also worried about myself … I knew I would observe them very carefully. I would notice even a shadow of their discomfort at my entry … But I didn’t have to read their eyes or note a change in their tone. The empty table in the booth where we had always met spoke loudly and clearly … But I couldn’t blame them. Why should they have risked the loss of their jobs only to prove to me that Jews could still have friends in Germany?
Of course, not all Germans abandoned their Jewish friends. In fact, it was often precisely 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 crowded store, or the “sympathy purchases” after the April boycott—that gave Jews mixed messages, letting some deceive themselves into staying. Furthermore, in the early years, Jews experienced only isolated local ostracism or attacks, often based on economic rivalries and resentments rather than on purely racial grounds.
But the government intended to completely isolate Jews and could count on grass roots enthusiasm. Well before the Nazis prohibited friendly contacts with Jews, gossip and denunciations discouraged such associations. Basing his research on Gestapo (Secret State Police) files, Robert Gellately has observed “an extraordinary degree and variety of accommodation … to the regime’s doctrines on race. Friendships and business relationships going back many years were broken off.” Of interest here is not only the fear of terror, but also the often zealous autosurveillance by the Germans themselves. This had an effect on the Jews too. For example, in a small Rhineland town, in late 1933, a Christian woman went to visit her Jewish friend. When she arrived at the door, her friend looked at her in horror: “For God’s sake, Frieda, leave, don’t come in, we are already being watched.” With tears in their eyes, they turned away from each other. Thus, companionship with non-Jews became the rare exception. Jews felt as if they were becoming society’s lepers.
Loss of friends was accompanied by general social ostracism. The Gestapo and the courts used charges of friendship and, more seriously, “race defilement,” “to discipline [or ‘educate’] society at large about the importance of the race issue … but beyond that … to adjust all opinions to bring them into line with Nazi teachings.” By 1936, the Nazis had “brought off a deepening of the gap” between Jews and other Germans. Officials, neighbors, even the postal carrier looked past or through Jews as they crossed paths at the local market or in the corridors. I suspect that the loss of friends and the decline of sociability in the neighborhood affected Jewish women more than men, because women were more integrated into and dependent upon the community and neighborhood. They were more accustomed to neighborly exchanges and courtesies. Their lives straddled the interface between family and community. Highly organized and active in communal, volunteer, or women’s organizations, women suffered acutely when they were ostracized. Moreover, women probably had more frequent contacts with the state than men. They had more meetings with such state agents as post office and railroad clerks; social workers; and, for mothers in particular, teachers. Men saw less of neighbors to begin with and had less time to engage in communal or volunteer activities. Also, although men now suffered the loss of even a modicum of courtesy at work, they were more used to competition and a certain degree of conflict in their everyday work life.
The pain of being the object of a general, hateful taboo affected most Jews long before the actual violence began. One woman recalled that when she traveled on the tram, on the day of the April 1933 boycott, she felt self-conscious about being Jewish and feared that the people next to her might move away from her if they guessed her true identity. Another woman wrote that anxiety accompanied her wherever she went.
If I had to talk to shop attendants I’d be afraid they would be hostile to me as soon as they discovered I was Jewish; when I waited for the tram, I always thought the conductor wouldn’t stop for me if he knew I was Jewish … I waited for such events all the time and this anxiety tormented me unceasingly. Long before the Nazis forbade it, I had stopped going to movies or the theater, because I simply couldn’t stand being around people who hated us.
Rapidly, more concrete dislocations began to affect women. The loss of jobs—their own, their husbands’, and fathers’—threatened economic well-being. In early April 1933, a teacher reported:
Briefly before 8:00 a.m., 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, he assured me … I collected myself … I also collected my belongings … There was nobody … to say goodbye to, because everybody else had gone to the classroom …
I rode home … 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.
Immediately after the “April Laws,” about one-half of Jewish judges and prosecutors and almost one-third of Jewish lawyers lost their jobs. One-fourth of Jewish physicians lost their German National Health Insurance (Krankenkasse) affiliation. In September, the Nazis excluded Jews from the Chambers of Culture, and from the worlds of art, film, music, literature, and journalism, areas in which they had been disproportionately active. Restrictions, official and unofficial harassment, and economic boycotts all increased in their frequency and fervor. As a result, many Jewish businesses, particularly small ones, were forced to shut down or sell out.
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 among Jewish employees became rampant. By the spring of 1933, nearly one-third of Jewish clerks—compared with one-fifth of the non-Jewish ones—were looking for jobs. Because over one-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. Furthermore, Jewish sources estimated that three-quarters of Jewish women in business and trade were affected by the discriminatory laws and the early anti-Jewish boycotts. By April 1938, more than 60 percent of all Jewish businesses did not exist, and Jewish social workers were trying to help 60,000 unemployed people. Furthermore, those businesses that lingered on tended to be either at the very top (a few banks and financial institutions) or at the bottom (independent artisans). Women rarely worked in either.
Women’s economic future looked bleak. The exclusion of Jews from German universities and institutions of higher learning restricted employment possibilities. Even new admissions in trade and vocational schools were limited to 1.5 percent “non-Aryans.” By mid-1935, the apprenticeship office for Jewish girls reported that every second young woman now aimed to be a seamstress. Before 1933, these same young women would have looked forward to business or professional careers. By 1937, when young women had shifted their focus to jobs useful in countries of emigration, 24 percent of high school seniors planned to learn a craft, largely preferring tailoring (20 percent). Sixteen percent trained for domestic service, 13 percent for commerce, and 12 percent for social work. Moreover, the choices available to girls were more limited—if one excludes housework—than those open to boys. Welfare organizations suggested sewing-related jobs for women, such as knitting, tailoring, or making clothing decorations, whereas men could consider many more options, including becoming painters, billboard designers, upholsterers, shoemakers, dyers, tailors, or skilled industrial workers.
To make matters worse, it seems that parents preferred to keep girls home, either to shelter them from unpleasant work or to help out around the house. The old-fashioned idea that girls would not need a career because they would marry continued even as that fantasy became more inconsistent with reality. As late as July 1936, the emigration preparatory career training school at Gross-Breesen could not fill its girls’ section but had to turn down 400 boys. Also, Jewish community welfare organizations often gave preferential treatment to boys seeking career training. The newsletter of the Jewish feminist movement announced that one provincial welfare office had given subsidies to seventy-two boys and only ten girls.
As the situation for Jews in Germany worsened, an internal migration took place. Economic strangulation occurred most quickly in small towns, where often more than 80 percent of the Jewish population was left destitute. Furthermore, Jews attempted to escape from the personal hostility of villages and smaller towns by seeking the anonymity and, hence, relative safety, of large cities. Thus, the Jewish population was in constant flux. Women who moved their families had to adjust their household to a new urban environment and deteriorating political circumstances and still try to maintain a relatively stable family life. Women who stayed in big cities participated as never before in social welfare work within Jewish communities and Jewish women’s organizations to integrate the steady stream of newcomers. Often women did this while preparing their own families for emigration.
To meet new and mounting economic hardships, Jewish housewives tried, where possible, to prepare less expensive meals, to make home and clothing repairs themselves, and to make do with less help around the house. The Nuremberg Laws (which severely restricted “Aryan” household help in Jewish homes) left Jewish women to their own devices in running a household with greater problems, in shopping for food in increasingly hostile stores and in doing these tasks with ever-shrinking resources.
The pain of their children—who often faced anti-Semitism more immediately than their parents from classmates and teachers in German public schools—disturbed both women and men profoundly as parents, but women learned of and dealt with the children’s distress more directly than men. When children came home from school, their mothers heard the stories first and had to respond. Mothers also supervised their children’s homework. Imagine the contradictory emotions of a Jewish mother who was reassured to learn that her son had sung patriotic songs, said “Heil Hitler” to the teacher, and received praise for his laudatory essay about Hitler: his “gross political miseducation at school would keep [him] out of trouble.” About a year later the same child, now enrolled in a Jewish school, wrote a story about Jewish resistance as a Mother’s Day gift for his mother. Upon reading it, she was frightened, for his “political awakening … could lead to trouble for the whole family.” Principals summoned mothers to pick up their children when they were expelled from school, and these mothers then sought new schools for their children. Mothers were usually the ones whom teachers phoned when children were to be excluded from class events. One mother reported that her children were not allowed to participate in any special event:
My daughter cried, not because she couldn’t go to the theater … she cried, because she was ostracized from the group, as though she wasn’t good enough for her classmates … I believe that the Nazi teacher was ashamed of herself now and then, when she looked into the sad eyes of my little daughter, because she phoned me several times and asked that I not send the child to school on the days when something enjoyable had been planned for the children.
On Mother’s Day, Jewish children had to take part in the school festivities but were not allowed to sing along. When the Jewish children protested, their teacher responded: “I know that you have a mother too, but she is only a Jewish mother.”
This kind of harassment provoked many families to enroll their children in Jewish schools. Still, about one-half of Jewish children between the ages of six and fourteen remained in the public elementary schools, subject to torment by teachers and other children, until November 1938 when the Nazis barred their attendance.
Between 1934 and 1939, about 18,000 Jewish children left Nazi Germany for safer havens on what were called “children’s transports” (Kindertransporte). Immediately after the November pogrom, with husbands in concentration camps, many mothers had to make the excruciating decision to send their children abroad. About 8,000 children went to England, 3,400 to Palestine, and the rest to other European countries and the United States. There they received foster care (or in the case of Palestine, lived on kibbutzim or in children’s homes) until their parents could join them. Many parents never made it.
“Children turn into letters” was a phrase expressing the despair of parents who remained behind. The loss of daily intimacy with their children affected parents, but again, mothers most immediately. And, for those increasingly nervous and frightened children who stayed on—the children’s transports, like other exits, never were sufficient—parents watched their opportunities dwindle. By the early war years, Jewish children found it difficult to play freely in the fresh air. The Nazis banned Jews from the parks and forests, and even small groups of children were no longer allowed to play in outdoor yards. They were permitted to play only in Jewish cemeteries.
Women’s organizations urged women to preserve the “moral strength to survive” and looked to biblical heroines for role models. In the face of progressively worsening living conditions, it was women who were supposed to “make things work.” For example, as families moved into smaller apartments, or as others took in boarders in order to make ends meet, tighter living quarters caused strains. The League of Jewish Women noted:
It is the duty … of the Jewish woman to regulate the schedule and the organization of the household so that everyone is satisfied. She has to give her husband, the head of the household, the necessary time to be alone to relax … She has to adjust without being subordinate. This is more necessary than ever, given today’s living arrangements. Then, living together, even with many people in tight circumstances, will bring about that kind of communal feeling that will bring peace to the household.
The women’s organization, nevertheless, acknowledged that, because women felt called upon to do more for their families and more often became the sole support of families, men should begin to do housework too. Timidly they reminded their readers:
It won’t always be avoidable, that our men will have to take part of the household duties, as is customary in North American homes. It is necessary to get together and talk about our resistance to this—a resistance found more in women than in men … in order to overcome it.
Women frequently made tough demands on themselves, taking responsibility for the psychological work necessary to raise the spirits of their children and husbands and to tide the family over until better times. These expectations even affected Jewish women whose husbands were “Aryan” and, therefore, safe. One woman who lived in constant dread of what could happen to her mother (before she admitted to herself that she, too, was in danger) restrained herself from sharing her worries with her husband. She confided to her diary: “I can’t burden my husband … with my family problems …” This heightened sense of familial obligation—fostered by community and friends—was certainly an extra burden but also, perhaps, a source of solace and strength. Suffering a nervous breakdown around the time of the November pogrom, one woman wrote:
No doctor could help me … I also was struck by a dangerous case of asthma, the attacks came ever more frequently and seriously … Everyone tried to convince me that I alone had to be able to overcome my fear and desperation in order to help my family in these terrible times instead of lying there so helpless. They insisted on the urgency of this to such an extent that I finally gathered all my strength in the hopes of finding a way out of Germany.
Women and Emigration: Perception and Realities
It was most often women who saw the danger signals first and urged their husbands to emigrate from the terrors of Germany. One woman’s memoir noted that, in a discussion among friends about a physician who had just fled in the spring of 1935, most of the men in the room condemned him.
The women protested strongly: they found that it took more courage to go than to stay … “Why should we stay here and wait for our eventual ruin? Isn’t it better to go and to build up a new existence somewhere else, before our strength is exhausted by the constant physical and psychic pressure? Isn’t the future of our children more important than a completely senseless holding out…” All the women, without exception, shared this opinion…, while the men, more or less passionately, spoke against it. Also, on the way home, I discussed this with my husband. Like all other men, he simply couldn’t imagine how one could leave one’s beloved homeland and the duties that fill a man’s life. “Could you really give that all up…?” The tone of his voice told me how upset he was at the mere thought of this. “I could,” I said, without hesitating a second.
The different attitudes of women and men described here seems to reflect a gender-specific reaction remarked upon by sociologists and psychologists: in dangerous situations, men tend to “stand their ground,” whereas women avoid conflict, preferring flight as a strategy.
A more important reason why women were more amenable to emigration than their husbands is that women were less tied to the public worlds of jobs or businesses. Women were—as Claudia Koonz has pointed out—less assimilated than men into the economy and culture. The daughter of a wealthy businessman commented, “When the Nazis appeared on the scene, he was too reluctant to consolidate everything and leave Germany. He may have been a bit too attached to his status, as well as his possessions.” Although their decision to leave Germany was as fraught with practical consequences as their husbands’, because they, too, would face the uncertainties and poverty associated with emigration, wives did not have to tear themselves away from their life work—whether a business or professional practice—or from patients, clients, or colleagues. Women had far less to leave behind. But, even business or career women were apparently less reluctant than their spouses to leave. One wife, a wealthy manufacturer whose husband had married into and managed her business, wanted to pack their bags and flee immediately in 1933. He, on the other hand, refused to leave the business. Although the wife could not convince her husband that they should flee, she insisted that they both learn a trade that would be useful abroad. After his arrest and release from a concentration camp in November 1938, they managed to escape to Shanghai, where their new skills helped them survive. In short, in light of men’s primary identity with their work, they often felt trapped into staying. Women, whose identity was more family-oriented, struggled to preserve what was central to them by fleeing with it.
Women and men led relatively distinct lives, and they often interpreted daily events differently. Although less integrated than men into work and culture, women were more integrated into their community. As noted earlier, there were the daily pleasantries with neighbors, regular exchanges with the grocer and baker, occasional visits to the school, attendance at concerts or local lectures, and, often, participation in local women’s organizations. Raised to be sensitive to interpersonal behavior and social situations, women’s social antennae were more finely tuned than their husbands’. They registered the increasing hostility of their immediate surroundings, unmitigated by a promising business prospect, a deep feeling for German culture (as experienced by their more educated husbands), or the patriotism of husbands who had fought in World War I. Women’s constant contacts with their own and other people’s children and the community probably alerted them to the warning signals that come through interpersonal relations—and they took those signals very seriously. Men, on the other hand, scrutinized and analyzed the confusing legal and economic decrees and the often contradictory public utterances of the Nazis. Men mediated their experiences through newspapers and broadcasts. Politics may have remained more abstract to them, whereas women’s “business”—their neighbors, direct everyday contacts, the minutiae (and significance) of ordinary details—brought politics home.
That women and men often assessed the dangers differently reflected their different contacts and frames of reference. But, decisions seem to have been made by husbands—or circumstances. The widespread assumption that women lacked political acumen gave their warnings less credibility in the eyes of their husbands. Thus, one woman’s prophecies of doom met with her husband’s amusement: “He laughed at me and argued that such an insane dictatorship could not last long … he was so certain that there would be a positive outcome….” Even after their seven-year-old son was beaten up at school, her husband was still optimistic.
Some of the men who did not take their wives’ warnings seriously were those who had received reprieves from the exclusionary decrees of April 1933 (although the reprieves proved to be temporary). In 1933, President Hindenburg interceded to protect those Jewish civil servants, lawyers, physicians, or teachers who had fought in World War I; whose fathers or sons had served; or who had been hired for their posts before 1918. The wives of these men typically could not convince their husbands that they were in danger. For example, Hindenburg’s move restored one severely wounded veteran’s faith in Germany. He would keep his job as a jurist, so he could not take seriously the idea of emigrating with four small children. One woman, who argued in vain with her husband to leave Germany, noted that she was “powerless against his optimism … he constantly fell back on the argument that he had been at the front in World War I.” Carol Gilligan’s psychological theories may apply here: men tended to view their situation in terms of rights, women in terms of affiliations and relationships.
Not only were men inclined to trust their own political perceptions more than those of their wives, but their role and status as breadwinner and head of household also often contributed to their hesitancy to emigrate. One housewife described her attempt to convince her husband to flee: “A woman sometimes has a sixth feeling…. I said to my husband, ‘You know, I think we will have to leave.’ He said, ‘No, you won’t have a six-room apartment and two servants if we do that.’ But I said, ‘OK, then I’ll have a one-room flat with you: but I want to be safe.’“ Despite his reluctance to leave, she studied English and learned practical trades for emigration, including sewing furs, making chocolate, and doing industrial ironing. After his arrest by and release from the Gestapo, the couple left Germany and she supported the family in Australia.
Women’s subordinate status in the public world and their focus on the household may have made them more amenable to the kinds of work they would have to perform in places of refuge. In England and the United States, for example, refugee wives frequently “made do” for the duration, working as domestic servants, while husbands attempted to reestablish their businesses or professional careers. In couples where husbands became butlers and wives maids, the husband often experienced a loss of status more intensely. A daughter described how her mother, formerly a housewife and pianist, cheerfully and successfully took on the role of maid, whereas her father, formerly a chief accountant in a bank, failed as a butler and barely passed as a gardener. Even when both sexes fulfilled their refugee roles well, women seemed less status conscious than men. Perhaps women did not experience the descent from employing a servant to becoming one to the same degree as men because their public status had always been derivative of their fathers’ or husbands’ anyway.
A combination of events usually led to the final decision to leave. For one woman, who 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 they did not match the moderate character of the German people,” the decision was induced by the abuse her husband and children faced and by the difficulties of running a household after the Nuremberg Laws. For those who had not yet made a decision, the violence of the November pogrom definitively tipped the balance toward emigration. The pogrom provided another example of the contradictory behavior of Germans toward Jews—the mixture of rampant viciousness with occasional kindness. As mobs attacked and burned Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues, one woman recalled the events as follows:
While I was sweeping up some of the debris, I noticed another mob of hoodlums, among them women. They were armed with axes as they approached … [and] proceeded to ransack the entire house … Everyone who could have given us shelter was in a similar situation. Then I thought of Anna K., the former parlor maid … Soon we were on our way in hope that there would be some straw bed in her barn … She had two such beds, but we would have to leave early the next day, … because her brother had become a member of the SA.
Whereas up to this point the number of Jewish emigrants per year had fluctuated between 21,000 (1935) and 40,000 (1938), it became a mass flight reaching 78,000 in 1939.
This is not to imply that the handwriting was always clearly on the wall. That conclusion emerges largely with the advantages of hindsight. In the 1930s, Nazi “deception and cynical dishonesty served the purpose of tranquilizing the Jewish community.” More significantly, perceptions by Jews of their predicament were not the only factors affecting emigration. A major obstacle to mass Jewish emigration lay in the occupational and age structure of the Jewish community—middle-aged and elderly businesspeople who would face grave difficulties resettling. Most importantly, the restrictions of foreign countries against immigrants prevented escape. In July 1938, the thirty-two nations assembled at the Evian Conference “regretted” that they could not take in more Jews. The New York Herald Tribune concluded: “Powers Slam Doors against German Jews.” A final obstacle to emigration was simple lack of luck, for most would-be emigrants were not fortunate enough to have relatives or friends abroad who could sponsor their admission into a country of refuge.
The above analysis of the desire to emigrate highlights women’s different expectations, priorities, and perceptions. It does not follow, however, that more women than men actually left. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Fewer women than men left Germany. Why was this so?
There were still compelling reasons to stay, although life became increasingly difficult. First, women, especially young women, could still find jobs in the Jewish sector of the German economy more easily than men. As Jews were expelled from German social welfare programs, the social service sector within the Jewish communities grew. This Jewish sector hired young women for domestic, welfare, or educational jobs such as social workers, nurses, administrators in hospitals or homes, and teachers or administrators in home economics schools.
Although the employment situation of Jewish women helped keep them in Germany, that of men helped get them out. Some husbands or sons had business connections abroad, facilitating their immediate flight, and others emigrated alone in order to establish themselves and then send for their families. Women’s organizations agreed that wives should not “hinder” husbands from emigrating alone if there was no alternative. They argued, however, that it was often no cheaper for men to emigrate without their wives. A single man still had to pay nearly as much for rent, meal, and laundry service as when a wife ran the household for both. Besides, women could earn the extra income necessary to establish the family or act as breadwinners “at first.” Most importantly, they stressed that women were necessary because they gave men support and advice.
Another compelling reason why more women remained behind was the fact that, before the war, men faced more immediate, physical danger than women and were forced to flee promptly. In a strange twist of fortune, the men interred in concentration camps during the November pogrom were released only upon showing proof of their ability to leave Germany immediately. Families—mostly wives and mothers—strained every resource to provide the documentation to free these men and send them on their way. Further, as more sons left, daughters remained as the sole caretakers for elderly parents. One female commentator noted that she knew of “a whole slew of young women who can’t think of emigration because they don’t know who might care for their elderly mother in the interim, before they could start sending her money. In the same families, the sons went their way without any thought.” By 1936, the League of Jewish Women saw cause for serious concern regarding the “special problem of the emigration of women which is often partly overlooked and not correctly understood.” Not only did it seem to the League of Jewish Women that far fewer women then men were leaving, but also that, if the trend continued, Jewish men of marriageable age would live abroad and would intermarry, but Jewish women would stay behind in Germany with no chance at all of marrying. The League of Jewish Women reminded parents of their “responsibility to free their daughters too … [even if daughters] feel stronger psychological ties to their families than sons do, [which] probably lies in the female psyche.”
The growing disproportion of Jewish women in the German Jewish population also resulted from the fact that there were more Jewish women than men in Germany to begin with. Thus, in order to stay even, a greater absolute number of women would have had to emigrate. In 1933, 52.3 percent of Jews were women, resulting from such factors as male casualties during World War I and greater exogamy among Jewish men. The slow rate of female emigration meant that the female proportion of the Jewish population had risen to 57.5 percent by 1939. Because many of the young had emigrated by 1935, the percentage of elderly Jews—among them a large number of widows—also increased proportionately. In 1933, there had already been 1,400 women to 1,000 men over the age of sixty-five. By October 1938, 11,000 elderly Jewish women were in need of Winter Relief (Winterhilfe). In short, in slightly less than eight years, two-thirds of German Jews emigrated (many to European countries where they were later caught up in the Nazi net), leaving a disproportionate number of the elderly and women. The statistics, memoirs, and interviews all give the impression that the Nazis, whose propaganda trumpeted the threat of Jewish men as rapists, thieves, and crooks, murdered a high percentage of elderly Jewish women.
Jewish women’s organizations, and the League of Jewish Women in particular, tried to alleviate the worsening conditions of all Jews, with special attention to the plight of women. Whereas from its inception in 1904, the league had focused on feminist issues of concern to Jewish women, between 1933 and its demise in 1938, the league took part in a battle for survival along with other Jewish organizations. This endeavor aimed to keep communal organizations intact and to maintain Jewish customs and traditions, to help needy Jews, and to prepare people for emigration.
With the Nazi seizure of power, the league began to work closely with the Central Organization of German Jews (Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden) and its welfare bureau (Zentralausschuss fuer Hilfe and Aufbau). As the Jewish community continued to draw closer together under the pressure from outside, the league also strengthened its ties to other Jewish women’s organizations and to the Jewish youth movement. Furthermore, it founded new chapters and welcomed new members. When, for example, professional women’s organizations were nazified in the process called Gleichschaltung and Jewish women were thrown out, the league set up its own groups for Jewish career women. In Berlin, the league’s Professional Women’s Group grew so large that it consisted of nine subgroups, including welfare workers, technical assistants, kindergarten teachers, nursery school teachers, youth group leaders, physicians, gym teachers, arts and crafts instructors, and groups interested in pedagogy. A letter written by one of these new members noted that …
as everything crumbled around us, as our professional groups were dissolved, as we lost our jobs, the league invited all professional women. Soon, various groups were formed to give everyone the opportunity to meet with professional colleagues and to attend professionally interesting lectures.
Typically, the women’s organization also looked after members’ morale. It instituted neighborhood evenings “so that women of different professions living in one neighborhood could meet … to come together both intellectually and spiritually in a small circle.” One woman reported: “The first evening was unforgettable. Everyone introduced themselves by name and profession, skimmed over their education, hiring and job, and—the disintegration…. Then we spoke of our adjustment to our current lives.”
Unwilling to accept complete cultural deprivation, Jews resisted their exclusion from German cultural life by creating their own. German Jews continued to appreciate German music and the Enlightenment classics in their own theaters and auditoriums. This included holding concerts and public lectures on secular topics in the synagogues. They also promoted Jewish education, opening two Jewish continuing education institutions in 1934. The League of Jewish Women sponsored cultural activities, such as reading circles, lectures, and a newsletter, which were primarily concerned with Jewish custom, history, and religion. For example, in Bochum, women studied Mishna. In Gelsenkirchen, forty-five to fifty participants formed a study group called “A Path through the Jewish Year.” In Munich, they studied the weekly Torah section, attended a Bible course, and heard guest lectures on the era of Jewish Emancipation. Koenigsberg women participated in a lecture series on the Bible. And in Cologne, a study group met to discuss Jewish newspapers and the philosophy of Martin Buber. Local league groups also organized traveling libraries like those in Dortmund, concerts, and exhibits of Jewish women artists.
Local sections of the league also, but more rarely, discussed general topics relating to cultural issues and women. As late as January 1935, the Berlin local discussed “Recent Literature on the Woman Question.” In these early years of Nazism, Jewish women, like Jewish men, refused to give up their dual identities as Germans and Jews. As they turned more to Jewish learning and culture, they upheld their version of German culture—enlightened and liberal—against the barbarism around them. The leaders of the League of Jewish Women reaffirmed their allegiance to the women’s movement, seeing themselves as “trustees of the German women’s movement in its purest, most spiritual, social-ethical, unpolitical form.” Bertha Pappenheim, the founder of the league, refused to yield her German heritage, insisting that “being a German, a woman and a Jew are three duties that can strain an individual to the utmost, but also three sources of … vitality. They do not extinguish each other, in fact they strengthen and enrich each other.”
The league knew that people whose social and economic conditions had declined so rapidly needed psychological and material support. One creative way to resist demoralization was to publish a cookbook, which helped solve a nutritional dilemma for Jews who had difficulty buying kosher meat after Hitler forbade ritual slaughtering. It went through four editions in its first year (1935). When the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 excluded Jews from the German Winter Relief, the league participated in a Jewish winter relief program. In numerous cities, its members helped collect money, clothing, and fuel. In Berlin, eighteen collecting depots sent about 30,000 care packages to needy families every month.
As more Jews lost their jobs or businesses—at the end of 1936, about 20 percent were on welfare and another 20 to 25 percent were living off the capital they had received for the sale of their businesses—the league tried to help Jewish women and their families adjust to lower living standards. Its local chapters offered courses in cooking, darning, ironing, knitting, tailoring, sewing, first-aid instruction, and household repairs. In Bochum, for example, one branch organized four evenings with the theme of “Self-Help.” In various cities, the league set up communal kitchens, small play groups for children whose mothers needed to do part-time work, and discussion sessions where women could talk about their problems and receive practical and moral support. In Munich, 130 women regularly attended such Hausfrau afternoons.
The league also expanded its childcare facilities (which included a lunch program and a home and rest home for children), its rest home for working women, and its support of the retired women and widows’ groups. Furthermore, it increased its subsidies for needy women who had to take recuperative vacations or visit a health spa. In October 1938, the league’s newsletter recommended setting up communal apartments as a way of stemming the housing shortage and caring for the Jewish elderly. Aware of a growing need among men as well, the league instituted home economics courses for boys, opened one of its homes for the aged to “older gentlemen,” and offered places in its Berlin dormitory (formerly a dorm for women students) for “possibly also young men.”
Repeatedly, the league’s newsletter underlined the essential role of women in providing persecuted families with a peaceful home environment. The league took for granted the notion that women were the ones who preserved the family’s equilibrium. It assumed that women would persevere in their usual role of providing optimism and sustenance. In turn, it helped women with practical, spiritual, and intellectual advice when they could no longer face the misery around them.
The last important effort of the League of Jewish Women involved preparing women for emigration. At first, the organization did not support emigration. However, after the Nuremberg Laws, it intensified its efforts to train girls for agriculture, domestic service, and crafts—careers in demand in Palestine and other countries of destination. By 1936, the league’s newsletter and counseling centers focused extensively on the question of emigration, discussing practical problems; cultural differences; and the legal status of women in such faraway places as Paraguay, Shanghai, or New York. Furthermore, the league intended to organize its members abroad so that they could extend aid to newly arrived refugees. Yet, as already mentioned, the league remained dissatisfied with the slow rate at which women emigrated.
After the November pogrom, the league was ordered dissolved. Its treasury and institutions were absorbed into the Central Organization of German Jews, and its leaders joined the staff of that organization. Although many of these women had opportunities to emigrate (many had accompanied children out of the country only to return), they chose to continue their work for the Jewish community. Their duties became more difficult and depressing. In July 1942, Hannah Karminski, former executive secretary of the League of Jewish Women, wrote a friend: “This work can no longer give any satisfaction. It hardly has anything to do with what we understood `social work’ to mean … but, because one continues to work with people, once in a while there are moments in which being here seems to make sense.” Most of these women were deported in 1942 and became victims of Hitler’s war against the Jews.
German Jewish women had lived in familiar, comfortable surroundings until these had turned hostile and murderous, like a grotesque dream. Their roles as housewives and mothers sharpened their alertness to danger, helping some plan for the future. Others, confronted with the increasing dreadfulness of daily life, uncomprehending children, escalating deprivation and anxiety, and the loss of friends tried to manage as best they could. They were able to resist complete despondency through family and social networks. They had to manage the proverbial double burden of employment and housework, and, indeed, a triple burden when one adds escalating emotional care-taking. In addition, many volunteered to work with women’s organizations, which attempted to alleviate some of the practical and psychological stress within a community suddenly impoverished, ostracized, and torn apart by the emigration of its loved ones. In the limited time and space allotted them and with the restricted means at their disposal, women’s organizations encouraged job retraining, emigration, and self-help and attempted to boost morale and a positive Jewish consciousness. Needless to say, neither organizations nor individuals were able to withstand the force of state persecution and terror or to prevent the annihilation of the Jewish community in Germany and the rest of Europe.