The rise of the Nazi Party in 1933 signaled a turning point for 525,000 German Jews that would take years to unfold in the rest of Europe. The ultimate result was World War II and the Holocaust, but long before the ultimate devastation of world Jewry, German Jews felt their world turn upside-down as the emancipation they had achieved came to an end. In the previous newsletter, we discussed the importance of teaching the history of Jews long before the war, when they thrived in communities all over Europe. This newsletter is more localized, as it focuses specifically on German Jewry in the period immediately preceding World War II, when the Nazis set their anti-Jewish agenda into action.
When teaching the subject of the Holocaust, one must start at the beginning, and discuss the political circumstances that allowed Hitler to gain power, as well as the assimilated Jewish population, and its demise by the country they considered to be “home.”
German Jews were almost entirely emancipated during the period of the Weimar Republic (1918). All previous restrictions that had existed on Jews were annulled, and Jews could take part in all aspects of public life. They began to make their way into many government-run organizations, universities, the legal system, and public service. Jews also became prominent in literature and the arts, philosophy, and science. Their numbers among German recipients of the Nobel Prize was far beyond their proportion in the population (which was less than 0.75% according to a June, 1933 census). There were Jews who had served in the German army during World War I, and approximately 12,000 fell in battle.
The Nazi party, guided by a racist and antisemitic ideology, ended the Weimar Republic in January, 1933, and took steps to implement a nationwide anti-Jewish policy. The first step was a boycott of Jewish businesses, followed by anti-Jewish legislation aiming to remove Jews from the fields which had recently become available to them. On September 15, 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were ratified. These laws defined Jews as members of a separate race, of different blood, whose citizenship of the German state was rescinded. It was at this time that a Jew was racially defined as anyone with three Jewish grandparents, even if the person had not been raised a Jew, nor considered one according to Jewish law.
Throughout the following years, as Germany prepared for war, Jewish property was confiscated, and the process of “Aryanization” intensified. In 1938, the SS, which had become the leading factor in the implementation of anti-Jewish policy, orchestrated a number of actions, most notably the forced emigration of Jews from Austria. German Jews could no longer ignore what was happening around them, and it was all given full expression on November 9, 1938, in the pogrom known as Kristallnacht.
Teaching about the Situation for German Jews 1933-1939
There are numerous and interesting ways to address this topic in the classroom. It can also be made relevant to a variety of ages. Like any historical period, German antisemitism did not occur in a vacuum, without precedent. An effective way of teaching history, is to provide context. To this end, I will also discuss sources on antisemitism in general that may be used in the classroom. One of the pedagogically “friendly” elements of this topic is that each step in the Nazi anti-Jewish policy can be discussed in detail using primary sources and photographs. Below I will list and explain some of the sources that might be helpful as a resource when teaching this material.
“But the Story Didn’t End That Way...”
This Yad Vashem publication separates the rise of Hitler, the Aryanization of Germany, and the exclusion of Jews from society into sections each with a matching poster. These units may be used with middle school and high school students, to help them understand the history of the period, as well as pose important questions that can be discussed in groups.
Documents on the Holocaust, edited by Yitzhak Arad, Israel Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot.
An excellent resource for use in a high school classroom, this book is a compilation of primary documents with an entire chapter on Germany and Austria. Students will have the opportunity to analyze the historical period for themselves. They may be divided into groups or work on their own, and examine for themselves the development of racist Nazi ideology.
Holocaust: Forever Outsiders, by Linda Jacobs Altman; and Holocaust: Smoke to Flame, by Victoria Sherrow
In volumes 1 and 2 of this series, the authors give a brief but sufficiently detailed survey of Jewish history from ancient times to 1938. Infused with pictures, maps, and examples of antisemitic propaganda, students can conceptualize this historical period and how long-standing antisemitism bore down its wrath on German Jewry in the 1930s.
Probing the Depths of Jewish Antisemitism: German Society and the Persecution of the Jews, 1933-1941 edited by David Bankier
Dealing with the years of the Nazi party’s plan to dehumanize and exclude Jews from society, this book would best be used in a high school classroom or with adult education. Divided into chapters, each with a series of essays written by scholars in the field, students will gain an academic background in the subject of German antisemitism during pre-war and early-war years.
Teaching about Xenophobia
One of the purposes and goals in teaching about the Holocaust and its lead-up is to prevent the proliferation of racism, hatred, and xenophobia. It is easy to expand a discussion on the German Jewish situation in the 1930s to issues of racism and xenophobia. We do not recommend conducting classroom activities in which students put themselves in the shoes of those persecuted. However, this subject lends itself easily to a discussion and series of programs on the issue of assimilated citizens suddenly feeling unwelcome in the place they call home.
The Nazis were meticulous and well organized in their legal discrimination of Jews in society. The Nuremberg Laws in September, 1935 stripped Jews of their rights and turned them into second-class residents. It is important to stress that this was all done “legally” and not in a chaotic manner. With this point, it may be easier for students to understand how this came on slowly and suddenly, and how it may have been hard for German Jews to imagine that it could get worse. This is the worst that it had been for them for a long time, and they hoped that the Nazis would stop paying attention to them once they had relegated them to a lower class. However, this was not the case. Jews were forbidden from entering theaters and special benches were designated for them in public parks. In schools, children were taught of racial distinctions between Aryans and Jews, causing ridicule of Jewish students. Eventually, Jewish children who attended public schools were expelled and forced to attend Jewish schools.
Once Hitler assumed power in 1933, the situation for German Jews quickly deteriorated in a way different than Jews in other European countries later invaded by Nazi forces. Beyond the history and the factual series of legislation often unfathomable to comprehend, the events of the 1930s raises issues of xenophobia, social exclusion of others, and how hatred can permeate an entire society. It is always important to provide context to historical lessons and this is no exception. It is easier to connect students to issues of the Holocaust when the topics are broadened and applied in a more general manner. For a teacher, there is ample and rich material to use with middle school and high school students. Teaching the Holocaust by beginning with Germany in 1933, the Nuremberg Laws, and what isolation and exclusion does to a citizen population, will build a more knowledgeable student body, and ultimately, a more tolerant world.