Yad Vashem's International Institute for Holocaust Research recently held a three-day research workshop on the subject of the marking of Jews during the Holocaust. The workshop, like those held previously, aimed to tackle a topic not yet investigated to its fullest extent, and to encourage an exchange of views between the participants and the development of new understandings.
The idea for holding the workshop was initiated by staff of the Artifacts Department in Yad Vashem's Museums Division, who have been working on an online project to catalogue and detail the broad range of badges, prisoner tags and clothes used to mark Jewish citizens and prisoners during WWII. During this process, many questions arose as to the origins and decisions made by the German Nazis and their collaborators while creating the markings, as well as regarding the commonly accepted conceptualization of this phenomenon during the Shoah.
"Most of the research about the Holocaust until now has internalized the concept that ghettos, Jewish councils and markings were all part of the same package. But as we discover how many different kinds of markings there were, in different places, at different times and by different authorities, we realize that this is a problematic assumption at the very least."
Prof. Dan Michman, Head of the Research Institute and John Najmann Chair for Holocaust Studies
The workshop focused not only on Poland and Germany, the countries normally cited as formative examples of this development, but also featured research and testimonies from countries such as Belgium, Tunisia, France and Denmark. While many features of markings in these countries differed – the shape and style of the "Jewish badge," where it was worn, and how comprehensively the decree was implemented, for example – it turns out that there were, in fact, a surprising number of common factors. This would be expected if one were to assume that the orders for marking Jews – and thus ostracizing, humiliating and isolating the Jewish populations in each Nazi-occupied country – had come "from above," i.e., from Berlin, but the researchers illustrated that quite often, the initiative actually came "from below," by German occupying commanders or even local administrations endeavoring to interpret Hitler's vague and general statements regarding the "Jewish Question." Thus, for example, German Jews were not the first to be marked: in Germany, the decree came two years after the marking had been introduced in Poland.
Frank Seberechts, a researcher on Flemish nationalism and WWII, demonstrated the differences in implementation of the "Jewish badge" in the two main cities of Belgium – Brussels and Antwerp. In Antwerp, the order was accepted and implemented with expediency, with the badge (marked with just a "J." since the country was multilingual) made available in local municipalities and schools to the 12,000 less affluent and more traditional Jews living there. On the other hand, in the capital city, which held 22,000 mostly secular and relatively wealthy Jewish residents (about half of the country's Jewish population), many authorities claimed "problems" in the distribution of the badge, and many mayors of the different sub-sections of the city refused to cooperate with the dictate. "We cannot lend us to a measure that constitutes such a dire attack on human dignity, whoever it may be," claimed Brussels Mayor Jules Coelst. In the context of the unsolved question, how stars were distributed after the first wave after the official imposition, Seberechts also told an anecdote of a Jewish tailor who advertised yellow stars he had made himself.
Independent researcher Alain Michel gave a fascinating overview of the stages of implementation of the Jewish badge in France – which was in the main an attempt to repress the growing resistance movement, and was influenced by the marking of Jews in other countries. Arrests were made easier through this action – Jews in the southern, unoccupied zone, who only had to carry a stamp in their identity cards and no “Jewish Star”, were on the whole less prone to arrest than their brethren living in the north of the country, who were forced to wear the badge. Michel also noted the sixty or so non-Jewish citizens who made yellow signs on their clothes in solidarity with their Jewish compatriots, some of whom were imprisoned as "friends of the Jews."
Silvia Fracapane tackled the legend of the Danish King Christian X, and his statement that if the Jews of his country were to be made to wear the Jewish star, he and the rest of his subjects would do the same. Although never publically verified (the King's biographer alone claims to have seen it in his diary), this statement became largely adopted by Danes living abroad, who sought ways to publicize such an "honorable reaction" to the German decree. The rumor flourished – encouraged by the October 1942 so-called "Telegram Crisis," when King Christian responded to Hitler’s personal greetings on the occasion of his 72nd birthday with the perfunctory response of "My best thanks, King Christian"; and the apparent German "assassination attempt" on the King when he fell off his horse during his daily ride through Copenhagen. By 1943, life-saving parcels of food arriving via the Red Cross to Terezin for the few hundred Danes imprisoned there (and the only Danes ever actually documented as wearing the "Jewish Star") were attributed to the King himself.
Haim Saadon of Israel's Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East added that the King of Morocco was also rumored to have threatened to don the Star himself if his Jewish population were to be made to do so. In fact, Tunisia was the only country in the Arab world where a yellow badge was introduced (because it was the only German-occupied Arab country where a stable occupation regime existed – for some six months). Saadon explained that the German authorities stationed in the country, which was predominantly a battlefield during the war, were not keen on implementing the wearing of a Jewish badge for fear of the local (and regal) support of the Jews. Ultimately, a decree was only implemented in four cities, as well as in some labor camps due to local initiatives – and the badge ranged from a patch of yellow to an unusual five-pointed star.
A more emotional element in the workshop was the testimonies – written both during and after the Shoah – of those people forced to wear the identifying badge. Israeli researcher Ayana Sassoon gave an absorbing overview of the emotions caused by the marking edicts, which for many were among the most difficult and memorable experiences described by them in their diaries and memoirs. She identified a number of themes that repeated themselves in many of the entries – shame, references to the marking of Jews in the Middle Ages, varying expressions of public opinion, and what she termed "spatial ghettoization." On the latter term, she explained that Jews who once lived in mixed populations seemed to disappear from those areas, once they were forced to wear a yellow star. As Polish-Jewish educator Chaim Aron Kaplan wrote in his diary: "The Jews themselves have unintentionally created a ghetto… a Jew marked with the badge of shame simply restrains himself from appearing in those streets." On the converse side, the markings appeared to multiply in the Jewish areas, especially once the Jews were concentrated in specific areas such as the Nazi-enforced ghettos. "Nalewki Street has turned into Hollywood," wrote Warsaw ghetto historian Emmanuel Ringelblum. "Only stars wander around there." Of course, once in the ghetto, the badges took on new meanings – with additional signs denoting various roles and advantages; which also means that the post-war image that there was only one type of marking, at least at a certain place, is incorrect.
German diarist Viktor Klemperermade efforts to note every reaction by his non-Jewish compatriots to him wearing a badge, such as sympathy or alternately as a tool to teach younger generations about the "differentness" of the Jewish people. But the most captivating quotes were by the Jews themselves, especially the secular higher classes that had previously been such an integral part of the wider society. "I suddenly felt I was no longer myself, that everything had changed, that I had become a foreigner," wrote Hélène Berr in Paris in 1942. "It was as if my forehead had been seared by a branding iron."
Verena Buser from the Fachhochschule Potsdam, Germany, tackled the topic of children and teenagers wearing a Jewish mark. She pointed out that the social exclusion engendered by the decree impaired their development of relationships with other children, adults and teachers – "That hit me the deepest," commented Heinrich Demerer about not being able to play with his best friend – although many dared to remove the badge while playing with non-Jewish friends or sneaking out of the ghetto to the "Aryan side" to procure food and other life-saving products. Some, however, expressed that the "Jewish Star" gave them a feeling of "home," as one of the last experiences they had together with their parents. Perhaps surprisingly, many young Jewish adults felt a sense of pride and belonging while wearing the badge, and took pains to get themselves photographed proudly displaying it. In his memoirs, Simcha Guterman wrote: "I will be the first to wear the badge! I shall bear it with honor! Shame? Those who forced us to wear it should be ashamed! And what if a robber should strip me of my clothes and abandon me bare and naked on the main road, should I be ashamed?! Of what? The disgrace is all his!”
In her presentation, Canadian researcher Magdalena Kubow raised the unusual topic of possible advantages of the Jewish badges. She brought evidence of Polish women donning armbands bearings Stars of David to escape the mass rape performed by German soldiers on occupied populations, and Germans themselves wearing different signs to disguise themselves as Jews as the war came to an end and thus escape arrest. Kubow also discussed the "appropriation" of such markings today – such as the infamous "Anne Frank" costume advertised on e-Bay and the striped shirt with a yellow six-pointed star sold in the Zara clothing chain – as well as the "re-appropriation" of marks, such as tattoos, used by grandchildren of survivors to identify with their grandparents' experiences during the war.
Ending the workshop was a gripping presentation by French-Israeli historian Tal Bruttmann on the history of the use of tattoos to mark prisoners in Auschwitz – the only camp with such an institutionalized policy. Beginning with the tattooing of Soviet prisoners in the early 1940s, the policy developed to tattooing (male) Jews on the chest and then later on the forearm (both genders) in order to easily identify them. Some notable exceptions were Hungarian and Polish Jews sent to Auschwitz in 1944 who were never tattooed – as a result of the decision to use the death camp as a temporary transit center before sending them to the Reich for labor. Bruttmann also demonstrated the ease with which anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the "system" could identify a fake tattoo – used in both real life and the postwar entertainment industry as a means for depicting a Jewish concentration camp victim.
In his conclusion, Prof Michman reiterated the need to move away from the classic model, laid out by renowned Holocaust researcher Prof. Raul Hilberg, of a top-down chain of command through which the stages of defining, appropriating, concentrating and annihilating the Jews was carried out methodically by the Germans throughout occupied Europe and North Africa. "Researchers are coming to the realization that much of the anti-Jewish policy was improvised, implemented and enforced through local initiatives, albeit within an overall Hitler-led vision of 'removal' of the Jews, and this workshop has made an enormous contribution to this way of thinking," he claimed.
Research Institute Director Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvieto argued that even when disproved, models can be a useful tool for constructing new ideas. She pointed out that to the questions of strategy and use (whether Jewish markings were an ideological invention or a practical one), micro-historical accounts are gearing researchers in the direction of understanding more localized contexts and thus coming to different – and more sophisticated – conclusions than those adopted in the twentieth century.
The workshop took place with the generous support of the Gutwirth Family Fund.
This article originally appeared in the "Yad Vashem Jerusalem Magazine," volume 90.