The Marking of the Jews during the Holocaust

The Jerusalem Post went behind the scenes at Yad Vashem's Artifacts Department to learn about how the Jews were physically labeled by the Nazis.

July 9, 2019 21:47
4 minute read.
The Marking of the Jews during the Holocaust

A yellow button shaped like a Star of David worn by the Jews of Bulgaria during the Holocaust. (photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)

The yellow Star of David is an iconic image printed in our minds when we think of the Holocaust.

“Most people think that the ‘Jude’ [Jew in German] yellow star was the only way to mark the Jews during the Shoah, but this was not the case – some of the Jewish badges were very different,” explained Iris Bar-Nir Cohen, who works in Yad Vashem’s Artifacts Department.

Yad Vashem hosted a workshop this week that focused on the “Marking of Jews During the Holocaust.” The workshop discussed in detail the various types of badges used to label the Jews during the Holocaust and “how forcing them to wear these badges identifying them as Jews, which was one of the tactics of harassment that enabled the Germans to recognize Jews as such on sight, was designed to separate Jews from the rest of the population,” explained Simmy Allen, head of International Media for Yad Vashem.

The Jerusalem Post was given an exclusive behind the scenes look at some of the yellow insignia worn by Jews during the Holocaust from around the world.

“The Germans didn’t invade all countries at the same time,” Cohen said, walking into one of the artifact store rooms at the Holocaust Remembrance Center. “It was a step-by-step system. The symbols were different in different countries; not all were made out of materials.”

The large room is lined with wooden shelves, drawers and cupboards, which are filled with different items that once belonged to those who went through the Holocaust.

A menorah stood in one part of the room near a doll house, while a cupboard filled with dolls, and another filled with tin plates and cups, caught my eye.

“A lot of these objects were what helped people to survive; it meant a lot to them,” she said about the tin crockery. “These utensils were with them throughout the Holocaust. Without that plate, they didn’t get food – and without food, there was no surviving.”

As she gloved up her hands, she showed the Post several different types of Jewish badges that were worn.

She pulled out a button in the shape of a yellow Star of David, as well as a pin with the letter “Z” and a material badge with the word “Juif” on it.

“The button is what was worn as the Jewish marking in Bulgaria,” she said, adding that the pin was pinned onto clothing in Croatia, and the material badge from France.

Cohen explained that Holocaust survivors kept the insignia, “because they didn’t want to forget or throw it away.”

She added that there are over 200 different Jewish badges in Yad Vashem’s possession.

Part of the research project into the story behind the insignia has also included an index or mini-site on Yad Vashem’s website.
Yad Vashem’s director of the Artifacts Department Michael Tal told the Post that they wanted people to know and learn about the different symbols – the shapes, sizes and materials used, as well as their variety – and that is why they created this index.

“The index doesn’t just show that they’re yellow stars, it also shows the history of those who donated the symbol to us,” he said.
Jews were also forced to wear the Jewish symbols once they were confined in the ghettos. Tal explained that this was because “they were sent out on work details and left the ghetto.”

Adding to this, Prof. Dan Michman, head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem said that some of the ghettos didn’t have walls, so although Jews were confined to a certain area, they still needed to be identifiable.

“Some of the ghettos were marked just by streets,” he said, adding that there were only ghettos in Eastern Europe. “If they didn’t have the yellow star, they would be able to escape or leave. It was also a mode of behavior – the markings started a year before they were confined to the ghetto.”

Asked about how Jews felt when they were labeled, all three experts agreed that this may have started the process of making them feel less human and feel targeted, as well as shamed – a process that was completed once they were given their numbers after being deported to concentration camps.

Cohen, Michman and Tal all emphasized the importance of this research project for public knowledge.

“We want to tell people the testimony of what really happened during this horrible time: who had to wear it and when, and how this process happened and at what ages – from six years old, adults, the elderly – and how this changed from country to country,” Tal said.

Cohen concluded that disseminating information, education and knowledge are the best tools to combat ignorance, hatred and issues like Holocaust denial.

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