In Nazi Germany, and throughout Europe during the Holocaust period, Jews filed tens of thousands of petitions against their legal status and persecution. In retrospect, this might seem hopeless, almost naive - the reality, however, was more complicated. In this episode of "On The Holocaust" we examine the use of petitions by Jews during the Holocaust - and its mixed results.
Featured guest: Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan, Levine Distinguished Professor of Judaic, Holocaust, and Peace Studies at the Appalachian State University
A Desperate Plea- Transcription:
Nate: In May 1940, Rudolf Hess, Nazi Pary deputy and Reich Minister without portfolio received a petition written by Hans Kauders, a Jew residing in Vienna. Like Hess himself, Kauders was born in the late 19th century and served on the side of the Central Powers during WWI. By 1940, he, along with other Viennese Jews, had experienced severe persecution, degradation and violence. Attempting to change his fate, he wrote the following:
Dear Reich Minister!
As a non-Aryan, severely war-disabled, veteran frontline officer of the world war, I take the freedom to direct the following elaborations to you [...]
I am Viennese-born, married, without children, a captain (retired), sixty years old, and have lived in Vienna all my life. [...]
Already in March 1938, I had to give back the tobacco kiosk license [...] which had provided me a middle-class livelihood up to this point, since as a Jew, I was no longer permitted to stay on as a contractor of the Reich.
Since then entirely without income and work, my wife and I depend on [...] monthly pension payments [...] and are excluded from all cultural establishments. For me, even entering a public garden to get a breath of fresh air is prohibited; and everything only for the reason that I have four Jewish grandparents.
Regarding my service during the war [...] I was gravely injured twice [...] taken prisoner of war [...] my left thigh was amputated at the upper third [...] For “brave conduct facing the enemy,” the former Emperor [...] awarded me the Military Merit Cross 3rd Class [...]
All my efforts to establish a livelihood in a neutral country failed everywhere, because of my severe war disability and age. Yet I am tied with all the fibers of my heart to my fatherland and would love to serve if further in any capacity. [...]
Reich Minister, you shall be convinced that your philanthropy would not be bestowed on somebody undeserving, but on a man, who once fought courageously shoulder to shoulder with the Aryan comrades for their mutual fatherland and who offered a heavy blood sacrifice to his homeland and his people, and who, as an officer and an honest and sincere man, feels deeply hurt now that he is forced to live as a pariah without any fault. [...]
Hans Israel Kauders
Hans Kauders, a Jewish war hero, forced by the Nazi authorities to use the middle name “Israel” given to all male Jews in the Reich, writing to one of the most prominent Nazi leaders of the time, requesting his help. Seems unfathomable. Yet Kauders was not alone. During WWII countless petitions were sent by Jewish individuals and groups to different government authorities throughout Europe in the hope of finding a means to stop or at least delay the prongs of persecution.
Welcome to ‘On the Holocaust,’ a podcast from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I’m your host, Nate Nelson.
During the Holocaust, the Nazi occupation of vast areas in Western, Central and Eastern Europe brought a horrible predicament and imminent threat of danger to countless Jewish communities. Almost overnight, people found themselves facing the danger of losing their livelihood, their dignity, their freedom and even their very lives. This danger was omnipresent and ever-growing. Attempting to resist and combat it was a daily struggle.
In this episode of our series, we’ll examine the widespread phenomenon of wartime Jewish petitions. These entreaties carried urgent, desperate requests: to cancel the classification of a person as Jewish, to lift certain dehumanizing penalties or even to delay the deportation of a person to the camps in the East. Many petitions were sent in a race against time: a petition getting turned down could practically mean a death sentence.
As surprising as it may seem, many Jews actually believed they had the legal means to change the policies of a tyrannical regime and affect their fate. Were Jewish petitions only a desperate plea – or was there something else to them? What can they teach us about Jews in the Holocaust? Helping us today to answer these questions is Professor Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan – who, together with Professor Wolf Gruner, edited the book “RESISTING PERSECUTION: Jews and Their Petitions during the Holocaust”.
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: My name is Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan, and I'm the director of the center for of Judaic, Holocaust, and Peace Studies at Appalachian State University, which is one of the public universities in the UNC system, so in North Carolina in the United States.
Nate: Pegelow-Kaplan’s interest in petitions developed quite early in his academic career. While writing his dissertation in 2004, his research dealt with people whom the Nazis suspected of being Jewish or Mischlinge – the Nazi label for the offspring of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish parentage. During this research, he discovered that one of the many types of people using petitions were people trying to shed the Jewish label as designated by the state:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: There was, of course, a veritable obsession with finding, determining people's “racial descent,” especially in cases of doubt. And there were always doubts, even all the way to the upper rings of the Nazi party. I mean, some of the kind of wording sometimes or suspicion that were kind of launched even against Heydrich, the head of the Reich Security main office, of some alleged Jewish ancestry So that became really like a veritable obsession for the state. And as a result, of course, people within the party, that's kind of one segment precisely or within the Volksgemeinschaft, the “people's community,” were in fact, figuring out ways to, in fact, kind of escape, from what was, in their view, in the Nazi’s view, a stigma, and, of course, as the Shoah began in 1941-42, it already meant a potential danger to their lives, and they started to petition.
Nate: The widespread nature of the phenomenon of petitioning – which was not limited to the classification of someone as Jewish or non-Jewish alone, quickly became clear:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: When I came across these types of very specific petitions, it struck me because there were quite a number of them. I didn't document as many, but the statistical evidence I found, put it all the way to 160,000. And once I started then digging and looking up closer, I realized this, of course, was anything but confined to this very specific group of people or groups. But in fact, was a much much broader practice, that also reached into the regular Jewish communities, not just in the Reich, but actually across the continent and beyond.
Nate: Up until recently, petitions sent by Jews to different authorities during the Holocaust were largely overlooked by researchers. They were often dismissed as an ineffective tool, a desperate cry for help aimed at a non-responsive hostile regime. This perception went hand-in-hand with the claim that in many instances, Jews during the Holocaust failed to adequately perceive the gravity of the events at hand. They were seen as comparatively inactive, choosing to not truly confront or resist the reality of their situation. However in their book Gruner and Pegelow-Kaplan together with other researchers show how in fact this is a rather simplistic understanding of Jewish resistance, one which misrepresents the complex reasonings for Jewish activity or inactivity and the true meaning of wartime petitioning.
So why did Jews choose to petition? Firstly, it’s important to remember that in fact this practice was hardly a new one:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: There are of course long histories of petitioning practices. In fact, not just in the Middle Ages, but even earlier to the Roman Republic and also the Roman Empire, where they were also used to request certain favors from the ruler, from the emperor in this regard. It's important to keep this longer history in consideration. There's a long history we can trace of petitioning practices from Jews of various parts of Europe.
Nate: This practice of petitioning had been used by Jews throughout history when they were persecuted or felt injustice and this action proved in many cases successful.
Sensing their vulnerable position, the Jews of Europe in the period leading up to the Holocaust and during the war years, turned once again to petitioning
Shifting borders, deportation, or refuge appeals, to different countries, and shifting immigration policies, meant many petitioners were in situations extending beyond a single country:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: Not exclusively but often we have the transnational dimensions. Some of the language, some of the strategies, some of the approaches really are being circulated across borders, not just used in the Reich, like in Berlin or Frankfurt or Cologne or Hamburg, but in fact also circulating into the protectorate like into German occupied France or into Hungary or whatever, and then really in a fascinating way kind of figuring out ways, again expressing the desperation of the petitioners of trying to get anything possible to get a break and to escape whatever kind of fate laid ahead.
Nate: Though at times anonymous, the vast majority of these petitions, as in Hans Kauders’s case, had clearly identifiable authors. On many occasions, Jews had to make painful and difficult claims while writing their petitions. For many of them this meant, first and foremost, denying their Jewish heritage - their parents or grandparents, and in fact their own identities, which was of course, a challenging process.
However some of those petitioning to the Nazi regime did not consider themselves to be Jewish. The Nazi Nuremberg laws decreed that every person with at least one Jewish grandparent was partially Jewish – Mischling zweiten Grades or Mischling ersten Grades. This meant that even some people born Christian and practising the Christian faith could be classified as Jews. This was the case of Walter Jellinek, a high-ranking legal scholar born in 1885 in Vienna – who was registered as a Jew but was later baptised:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: His father also was a legal scholar. Of course, it was very difficult for anybody of Jewish background to get any university chair in Germany, in the Reich, right, so we're talking about the Kaiser Reich, of course. So often of course, that required conversion,. his father was really turning agnostic – but once his own father, so Jellinek’s grandfather, died, who was a Rabbi, the son decided then to have his own son, Walter, baptized – to give him more opportunities in this regard .
Nate: Following his father’s footsteps, Walter Jellinek became a leading legal scholar – and gained an influential status in legal and academic circles:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: He started out his career by kind of revising the highly influential works that his father had produced during the Empire already. And then in the Weimar Republic really started to make quite a career, not to say that antisemitism disappeared, quite the opposite, but nonetheless a successful career. At this point, of course, he had converted and was a member of the Protestant Church, and he was actually even slated to take over to become the rector of the Heidelberg University. This, of course, no longer came to pass after 1933.
Nate: After his standing in the university and his place in German society was hindered by the Nazi persecution – he began sending out petitions to various Nazi officials, hoping to get exemptions from antisemitic laws and eventually even trying to cancel his classification as Jewish:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: Jellinek started petitioning relatively early on – already in 1933-1934. He also was concerned about his children, especially his daughter who wanted to study at a university, and this of course would have also barred if that overall racial classification of Jellinek as a, quote on quote, “full” Jew by Nazi law and standard would be upheld. So he started petitioning first at the local level at the university, then of course to the Gau, then to the Interior Ministry, and eventually – figuring out the distinct shift and changes in the legal system – directly petitioning Hitler, because at this point we have of course the rise of the prerogative state. So we have a petition that of course Hitler didn't decide on it – it’s very unlikely that he ever read it. So then various officials were working on the case– and these cases, as I mentioned earlier, really took time. Now, of course, in his case it took all the way to 1941. So we're talking about an excessively long time.
Nate: Jellinek’s background as a leading legal scholar helped him carefully navigate the Nazi legal justice system – and make his case vigorously to various agencies and bodies in the Nazi apparatus:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: Jellinek, in many ways was not typical – because he was a very prominent legal scholar. So he was not just reading the legal discourses over petitioning – he in fact also was – prior to the Third Reich – contributing to them quite distinctly, especially the overall question of petitioning as an individual right. He was continually tapping into these transnational networks I was alluding to. In the pre-war period he was even sending out payments. Of course, we had the resources to do it: to have folks go out, contact relatives in the Protectorate and elsewhere in Hungary to do research on the family to sustain his bizarre sounding construct of the Aryan religious Jew.
Nate: Since Jellinek’s membership in a Protestant Church and his father’s conversion were not enough – he decided to make the case that his entire family was actually of secret Christian origin and only converted to Judaism in the first place due to religious persecution by the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor in the 18th century:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: The background was that the family had been forced to convert under Joseph II. It was supposedly a Christian sect and they were given the option under Joseph II either to convert to the true Christian religion – which of course was Catholicism from the view of the Habsburg dynasty – or to go to Judaism. And so they actually opted for Judaism. So that was the distinct reasoning that he tried to get support for. So in 1941 it was decided it would be rejected and he would be classified as Jewish by Nazi law. In his case, of course, again, that didn't end his petitioning. He was working on the local level getting support from the Mayor of Heidelberg, among others, where he lived.
Nate: Despite the fact that his petition was eventually rejected – Jellinek managed to buy precious time and protect most members of his family from deportation and death:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: He actually survived. Unfortunately, his brother was taken and picked up by the Gestapo, brutally beaten in prison and then died afterwards – but most of the family members did survive.
Nate: The eventual success of Jellinek’s efforts brings an important question into this discussion: were petitions successful? In the simple sense of how many petitions achieved their stated goal – Pegelow-Kaplan explains that strictly in terms of acceptance rates, the figures are quite low:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: There’s the question of how to understand success. If the overall measurement is did the petitioner get what they wanted and is that our measure of success? Right. Then of course one has to say that the overall success rate in this case or the achievement was relatively low and modest. So petitions for exemptions from the Nuremberg Laws, for example. The Reich Interior Ministry after 1935 until early 1940 processed about like 10,000. The success rate was relatively low, far below like even under 5%.
Nate: Despite the failure of many petitions, it seems that some were accepted by authorities. However, it is difficult for us to examine the success of many petitions – since we don’t always have the full background of the petitioners and their true motives:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: Many of those petitions, of course, are only kind of snippets in many ways. We sometimes only have the name of the petitioner. We have the distinct reasoning. We have a little bit of a background, but there's really not that much material to be found in this regard, as opposed to cases like Jellinek, which are very well documented.
Nnate: The case of Walter Jellinek also proves that even when a petition failed – it could sometimes buy time for the petitioner and greatly help their chances. For petitioners, the lengthy process of looking into petitions could work in their favour:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: We see, in fact, that not in all cases, but in many cases like processing petitions, especially pre-war, also early war periods, especially looking at the Reich or Western Europe, took quite a long time. It's not just done like in a few weeks and months. In most cases, the processing agency actually ordered others, including the Gestapo, not to deport, right – after the deportation started at 1941-1942. That bought time. And what we see - when I looked at Yad Vashem going through petitions that were going to the UGIF or the organization brought about by the Nazis - we see a number of examples in which this actually worked out in somebody's favor. So the petitions weren't processed and then they were kind of going back or trying to get back to the petitioners like a few months later - and then the record shows that the petitioners are no more to be found.
Nate: We cannot know for sure whether this was a planned strategy of petitioners or an unintended result of bureaucratic procrastination, but petitions did manage to help quite a few Jews escape Nazi-controlled territories or get into hiding:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: I looked at some of the records that we have available of the survivors, but also others, actually got out across the Pyrenees into Spain and then further south. So this was not a minor affair. The same goes, of course, for those who weren't as flexible and couldn't travel and didn't have the support they needed, that was required, but they were going into hiding. Well, going into hiding is not simply like you leave your apartment and you go underground. It also, of course, takes tremendous resources and also preparation you to find people who are supplying you with food stuff and whatsoever.
Nate: The case of Joseph Epelberg, a Jewish refugee in German occupied France imprisoned in the Drancy Camp in the outskirts of Paris also demonstrates at least some level of success. While Epelberg was imprisoned, his wife sent out a petition to Nazi occupation authorities asking for him to be released due to his value to the Third Reich as a skilled worker in the fur industry. Documents from the 1940s clearly show that her efforts were initially successful and that Epelberg was released from Drancy:
Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan: So that got him off the hook, got him released from Drancy. Again, I haven't been able to find and sometimes the spelling is a little different. But I didn't see any one of the two under the victims and any of the comprehensive collections we have via Yad Vashem or elsewhere of the victims off the Shoah. It doesn't mean that he didn't perish in the end but at least at this point, I can't establish it. There's a chance, again that he got out and went into hiding.
Nate: As for Kauders, the World War I veteran who petitioned Rudolf Hess, we know that he was deported from Vienna to Theresienstadt on September 10 1942 where he most likely perished, his pleas for help left unanswered.
It seems that some petitioners truly believed that they could convince the Nazi regime and other collaborating authorities to make an exemption of them, while others mostly tried to buy time for themselves and their families, successfully tricking and outsmarting the Nazi bureaucratic apparatus. Some petitioners, like Jellinek, used elaborate historical claims dating back to the 18th century – while others, like Epelberg, made the simple case that they were useful to the Wehrmacht.
Above all else, petitions help us better understand the different strategies different Jews took in order to protect themselves. Despite the misconception that Jews did not resist the Nazi persecution and extermination – petitions demonstrate a hidden world of Jewish resistance. Using history, rhetoric, legal machinations, and even taking advantage of bureaucratic procrastination – many Jews tirelessly struggled to save themselves and their loved ones.
With that, we come to a close. If you’d like to learn more about the Holocaust, visit yadvashem.org.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem: the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, hosted by me, Nate Nelson. Our program is produced by Jonathan Clapsaddle, Irit Dagan, Dafna Dolinko, Dani Timor and Ran Levi. This episode was written by Agam Kedem Levi and edited by Dor Shafir.
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