Jews in Nazi Berlin
Edited by Beate Meyer, Hermann Simon and Chana Schuetz | The University of Chicago Press | 356 pages | $40

In his foreword to this huge collection of archival material on the systematic destruction and deportation of Berlin Jews from 1938 to 1945, Dr. Hermann Simon, the former director of the New Synagogue, Berlin-Jewish Center Foundation, writes that more than a million visitors have come to his historical exhibition since its opening on May 8, 1995. He comments; “They came to a place where history’s scars are enduringly visible, because of the confrontation of the past and the present.”

But to describe the Berlin’s Jewish past as “history’s scars” fails to tell us how this home to a third of German Jewry, where they constituted a large part of the cultural, medical, legal and business community, became a house of shame and humiliation, legal robbery and center of deportation of its innocent citizens to the gas chambers.

Every family photo, newspaper page, letter, identity document and diary speaks for itself, and they all provide a collective history of how a huge and orderly community was first humiliated, then robbed and in the end disposed of. There were some scars, but certainly more graves and ruined lives that never healed, while today’s Holocaust denial bodes ill for the future.

The book, written by the foremost German Jewish scholars and historians, begins with a description of the fateful year – 1938 – written by Hermann Simon. On March 15 Jews were deprived of their status of a protected body and became a helpless registered association. Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, November 9-10, 1938, was followed by segregated education, deprivation of the freedom of movement, special identity cards, ransom for the damage caused by Nazi thugs, taxes on special assets and intensified emigration. Each week saw a progressive tightening of the noose. It became clear that there would be no justice nor the rule of the law for German Jewry.

The difficulties faced by the desperate emigrants are dealt with by Michael Schaebitz, who writes on the expulsion and flight of German Jewry. The “Aryanization,” the legal robbery that led to the financial ruin of Berlin Jews and of the prominent Garbaty family is described by Beate Meyer. Albert Meirer writes on the order of January 23, 1942, requiring Jews to wear the yellow star, whose introduction coincided with the final administrative preparations for the deportations and extermination. Jews had to stay in the vicinity of their residences. They could no longer own irons or wear medals or other distinctions. The branding and impoverishment of the Berlin’s Jewry was complete.

Dr. Chana C. Schuetz describes Berlin’s Zionist movement. Around 236,000 Jews – roughly half of Germany’s Jewish population – left the country from the time Hitler came to power in 1933 up to the outbreak of World War II. Of these 57,000 went to Palestine, 22,614 with the support of the Palestine Office, which selected applicants according to their suitability. There were 35 hachshara centers around Berlin alone.

Those who had more than £1,000 arrived in Palestine on capitalist certificates. A special category of certificates was also available for the Youth Aliya adolescents, between the ages of 15 and 17, without parents. But from October 1939, certificates could no longer be issued as Germany and Britain were at war. From March 1939 to August 1940, the Palestine Office organized “illegal” immigration (Aliya Bet), and about 1,700 Jews on six such transports reached Palestine. This ended when British forced 1,100 refugees aboard the Patria for transport to Mauritius. The Hagana tried to stop this crime with a bomb, but the Patria sank with the loss of 250 lives.

By the summer of 1938, a quarter of Berlin’s Jews depended on welfare and there was wide unemployment. In May 1939, all Jewish men in Germany 18-55 and women 18-50 were ordered to register for labor deployment, usually hard labor such as collecting trash, cleaning toilets and clearing snow. They often suffered humiliation and harassment. Of the 41,000 registered Jews, about half were older than 45. However some 19,000 became employed by Berlin’s armaments industry in jobs that became their lifelines after the beginning of deportations.

On February 27, 1943, the Gestapo arranged at the Rosenstrasse building a transport for the deportation of some 1,700 mixed-marriage armaments industry Jewish employees. Unexpectedly the gentile wives of the arrested started to protest, demanding the release of their husbands. This lasted for a whole week and was the single known open action against the Nazi regime. Finally the Gestapo yielded and postponed the deportation, and the men went back to work.

As in other ghettoes, there was a constant conflict of interests between industry, which was short of workers, and the SS, keen on deportations.

Christian Dirks refers to the “snatchers,” the Jewish informers for the Gestapo. Between 1943 and 1945 some 20 Jews carried out such spying services, hunting the so-called U-boote, or Jews in hiding, and other dirty work. Two of them, Stella Kuebler and Rolf Isaacsohn, betrayed thousands of Jews, desperately attempting to hide themselves among gentiles in bombed-out houses, frequently under the most difficult of conditions. Many of them carried forged identity cards, but often fell into the hands of ruthless profiteers, private exploiters and snatchers. But they also received help from friends, and sometimes even from complete strangers.

The first deportation of Berlin Jews to the east on October 18, 1941, was hardly different from the “actions” carried out in Poland. Jews were hunted, robbed, mistreated and humiliated; no one believed in “resettlement” any more. 

To survive one needed luck and an uncanny ability to live a double life in constant danger. Barbara Schieb and Michael Schaebitz tell us how Hans Rosenthal and the Frankensteins survived against all odds. Between 1,400 and 1,500 “submarines” survived underground, in addition to the 5,000 Jews who were protected through their marriage to non-Jews.

The Jewish community leadership, informed on October 1, 1941, about the “resettlement,” decided to participate “despite heavy misgivings.” The assembly camp was opened in a synagogue at 7-8 Leventzov Street and the council assisted in deportations. On October 20, 1942, more than 500 Jewish community employees were marked for deportation and the Jewish Communal Center was closed on January 29, 1943. 

Between the fall of 1941 and that of 1942, 16,000 Berlin Jews were deported. In 1942, due to the discovery of corruption in the local Gestapo, the Viennese Gestapo with Alois Brunner was brought in to replace the local one, and the number of deported increased considerably.

The Gestapo had no difficulty in finding its Jewish victims, writes Dr. Diana Schulle, since it found and exploited their extensive archives, containing all the information on Jews and their activities going back to 1873, including converts. A special Office for Race and Resettlement was housed in the New Synagogue at Oranienburg Street, conveniently next to the Gestapo’s prison and torture chambers. The Germans needed proof that their “Aryan identity” extended to their grandparents’ generation, certified by the special all-powerful Office for Genealogical Research, and this again facilitated the Gestapo’s task in its hunt for Jewish victims.

The book’s team of editors, historians and researchers succeeded with a great number of photographs to restore some features of wartime Berlin and its Jewish community in a frank and direct manner, adding another important volume to our growing Holocaust library.

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