In honor of the fiftieth volume of Yad Vashem Studies, the Editorial Board solicited submissions for a special issue of the journal on the topic of the experiences and fate of the Jewish elderly before, during, and after the period of Nazi persecution. For the most part the experience of the elderly during the Holocaust has only been mentioned in passing in historical research, most obviously because very few of them survived the war.
Yad Vashem Studies Volume 50:2 opens with three memorial tributes in honor of the late Joan Ringelheim, who had a revolutionary impact on the topic of gender and the Holocaust; Eliezer Schweid, who contributed to the study of the Holocaust through his examination of Jewish history and Jewish thought; and Jacques Kornberg, an acclaimed educator and researcher of the Holocaust.
The first article in this volume is by Wolf Gruner, “‘It Cries to Heaven!’: Elderly Jews and Their Individual Resistance to Nazi Persecution in Germany.” In his careful reading of primary source material, including police reports and court records, Gruner argues against perceptions of passivity and outlines the various ways some elderly German Jews protested anti-Jewish policy and oppression.
The next article is by Anna Hájková, titled “Speculations About German Jews: Elderly People from Germany in the Theresienstadt Ghetto.” Based on her seminal study of the Theresienstadt ghetto, Hájková weaves both qualitative and quantitative materials in order to articulate the living conditions and mortality of elderly German Jews in the ghetto, as well as their patterns of behavior, cultural appreciations, and values.
The third article, by Beate Kosmala, is titled “‘Destroyed and Grey in the Face, Staggering with Weakness, But Without a Word of Complaint or Fear’: Elderly Jews on the Run from Deportation and in Hiding in Berlin, 1941–1945.” It is a fascinating account of the challenges that elderly Jews faced when going into hiding in Berlin in order to evade deportation.
The last article is by Michaela Raggam-Blesch, “Two Streets in Vienna as a Focal Point of Jewish Care for the Elderly: Between Dissolution, Concentration, and Deportation.” In her article, Raggam-Blesch sensitively tells the story and chronology of Jewish institutional elder care in Vienna under Nazi oppression and the increasing need and pressure that these institutions faced as more elderly Jews required physical and financial support.
The five book reviews included in this issue cover a range of topics and were written by Robert Rozett, Jonathan Sarna, Simone Gigliotti, Tim Corbett, and Per Anders Rudling and Jared McBride.
Wolf Gruner, “It Cries to Heaven!”: Elderly Jews and Their Individual Resistance to Nazi Persecution in Germany
Literature on Nazi Germany barely discusses elderly Jews. Most historians portray them as either waiting for emigration, left behind after their family had moved, committing suicide, or being a privileged group deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. By contrast, this article investigates the elderly as active elements of the Jewish population by focusing on their opposition to the Nazi persecution. Evidence from police reports and court records demonstrates how elderly men and women actively defied anti-Jewish policies in various ways. Chiefly notable was their widespread resistance against coerced identity changes marking them as Jews, which nullified their Germanness. Elderly men and women also widely engaged in oral and written protests against the persecution as well as disobedience of laws and local restrictions, for which the Nazi state punished them harshly. Many of the courageous elderly Jews who opposed Nazi measures perished.
Anna Hájková, Speculations About German Jews: Elderly People from Germany in the Theresienstadt Ghetto
For those 42,000 German Jews who were deported to Theresienstadt between June 1942 and May 1945, the ghetto meant the last chapter of the much-discussed German Jewish bourgeoisie. However, we know very little about how this foundational generation of German Jewish bourgeoisie faced the Holocaust. Descriptions of them are largely stereotypical and even negative from the perspective of younger Czech Jews.
This essay explores the world of Theresienstadt through the eyes of elderly German Jews. It includes their demographics and mortality, their living conditions, their struggle to survive, and how they fit into the prisoner society.
The German elderly made new acquaintances, learned to make their way in the ghetto, acquired new skills, and found new jobs. Many of them even learned rudimentary Czech, and were often enthusiastic about cultural productions in Theresienstadt. Observing the old German Jews in Theresienstadt offers key new insights about the habitus and values of the bourgeois, assimilated, and urban German Jews of the 1860-1880 generation, who stand paradigmatically for the German Jewish history of the Wilhelmine empire and the Weimar Republic.
Beate Kosmala, “Destroyed and Grey in the Face, Staggering with Weakness, But Without a Word of Complaint or Fear”: Elderly Jews on the Run from Deportation and in Hiding in Berlin, 1941–1945
Against the backdrop of the deportations of Jews from Berlin, this essay examines a number of failed or successful attempts by elderly Jews to survive in hiding. Although it seems reasonable to assume that younger Jewish women and men mustered the will to survive and recognized the possibility of resisting the deportation orders, there was also a remarkably large proportion of elderly people among those who attempted this in Berlin. Of the approximately 1,800 Jews (or more) who survived in hiding until the end of the war, 188 persons are known to have been sixty years or older in 1942. The article focuses on the personal history of some of these survivors, and investigates their respective initial situations, family constellations, strong personal drive, and specific problems of elderly people in their impressive struggle for survival, with an outlook on their often precarious postwar fate.
Michaela Raggam-Blesch, Two Streets in Vienna as a Focal Point of Jewish Care for the Elderly: Between Dissolution, Concentration, and Deportation
After the Nazi takeover, many elderly people were left without care, as their relatives had fled the country. The official Jewish community organization in Vienna tried to create additional space and new facilities in order to cater to the elderly, since the Jewish old-age home at Seegasse 9 was hopelessly overcrowded. Therefore, existing institutions—among them two Jewish schools in Malzgasse—were converted into retirement homes. During the mass deportations, several temporary “housing communities” had to be created for elderly people. Many had been rounded up together with their families yet were deferred from the transports until the onset of deportations to Theresienstadt, the so-called Altersghetto (“ghetto for the elderly”), in June 1942. In these “housing communities” the elderly found themselves in crowded conditions, awaiting their impending deportation. Together with the provisional retirement homes, these spaces were to constitute waystations on the path to annihilation.
Review of Dallas Michelbacher, Jewish Forced Labor in Romania, 1940-1944
In Jewish Forced Labor in Romania, 1940-1944, Dallas Michelbacher describes and analyzes key themes: the establishment and evolution of forced labor; the dysfunctionality of the system; the corruption of Romanian officials and extortion of Jews; the experiences and suffering of the Jewish forced laborers; and how dysfunctionality and corruption provided a window for Jews to ameliorate their lot. He highlights the pernicious role of Radu Lecca, and explains how Romanianization, replacing Jews with Romanian Christians in Romanian life, influenced Ion Antonescu in his approach to Jews and Jewish labor in Romania.
Review of Catherine Collomp, Rescue, Relief and Resistance: The Jewish Labor Committee’s Anti-Nazi Operations, 1934-1945
Catherine Collomp’s study of the Jewish Labor Committee’s anti-Nazi operation joins a growing body of literature that collectively points to the need to reappraise familiar generalizations concerning American Jewry’s inaction and ineffectiveness during the Holocaust. Mounting evidence shows that American Jewish individuals and groups worked clandestinely and behind-the-scenes (“under the seal of silence”) but accomplished much more than generally recognized. Collomp’s book, with others, demonstrates the urgent need for a full-scale reevaluation of American Jewry’s role in saving Jews and fighting Nazism during the Holocaust years.
Review of Tanja von Fransecky, Escapees: The History of Jews Who Fled Nazi Deportation Trains in France, Belgium and the Netherlands
Escapes from deportation trains during the Holocaust were courageous yet dangerous and often fatal. As argued in Tanja von Fransecky’s Escapees: The History of Jews Who Fled Nazi Deportation Trains in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, the motivations and survival of escaping deportees were highly differentiated and contingent on social, political, and environmental factors. In telling this story, the little-known role of train guards in the deportation bureaucracy is juxtaposed with the influence of Jewish resistance networks in facilitating post-jump trajectories and wartime survival of escapees. Drawing on contemporary archival sources, compensation files, testimonies and interviews with witnesses, and judicial materials, von Fransecky reconstructs a dynamic and violent transnational map of deportees’ jumping attempts and their legacy as escape resistance.
Review of Elizabeth Anthony, The Compromise of Return: Viennese Jews after the Holocaust
The Compromise of Return provides a carefully researched, concisely written, and accessible study that not only deepens our understanding of the complex experiences of return and reestablishment of Jewish life in post-Nazi Austria, but also embeds these in the often reprehensible context of Austria’s postwar policies toward these Jewish survivors. This work makes a much-needed contribution to expanding our horizons beyond the context of postwar Germany, with a particularly commendable effort to integrate gender and women’s history into the substantial literature on Vienna’s Jewish history.
Review of John-Paul Himka, Ukrainian Nationalists and the Holocaust: OUN and UPA’s Participation in the Destruction of Ukrainian Jewry, 1941-1944
John-Paul Himka’s new book, Ukrainian Nationalists and the Holocaust: OUN and UPA’s Participation in the Destruction of Ukrainian Jewry, 1941-1944, represents a milestone in research on the complicity of the OUN-UPA in the Holocaust. Based on decades worth of research in dozens of archives around the world, Himka makes a well-documented and indisputable case for Ukrainian nationalist involvement in every facet of the Holocaust in Ukraine. The book is accessible to newcomers to the topic, as well as to seasoned veterans of these contentious historiographical debates. This review essay outlines the contributions and raises questions for future research and debate.