Unsung Heroes

<i> Walter Laqueur is the author of numerous studies, including "Weimar: A Cultural History" (Putnam), "Fascism: Past, Present, Future" (Oxford University Press) and "Fin De Siecle and Other Essays on America and Europe" (Transaction)</i>

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, German Jews became pariahs in the country that they and their ancestors had considered home. But this happened gradually, and seen in retrospect, this was part of their tragedy, the reason more didn’t try to escape while it was still possible. True, no country wanted them, and most had closed their doors almost hermetically, but there were still some faraway exotic places of which little, if anything, was known, except the fact that their consuls in Berlin could be persuaded to issue papers that might, or might not, be considered valid visas.

When the Nazis entered Austria, there was no gradualism as far as the persecutions and the ghettoization were concerned; this explains why relatively more people left Austria in five months than Germany in five years. When anti-Jewish legislation was introduced in Germany early in 1933, Jews were dismissed from all positions in the state and local administrations (including schools, universities, hospitals and so on), they could not perform in the arts, they were gradually eliminated from social and economic life, their shops and businesses were boycotted, and they were forced to sell their property, often at a nominal price.

But in the beginning certain exceptions were made, for instance, with regard to those who had served as soldiers in World War I and to their families or citizens of foreign countries. Hence the early illusions that remained not only among the German patriots among them but also among the Orthodox believers who had always thought that the Jews should stick to their own kind and not assimilate. For several years after 1933, there was the hope that the worst had already happened, and that there would be room for a small Jewish community in the Third Reich with a very low profile and that there was no particular urgency to emigrate. “Adjustment” was one of the key words in those years. But gradually the noose tightened and, after the Olympic Games of 1936, the situation rapidly deteriorated. The turning point was Kristallnacht in November 1938, but even then it was by no means clear that Auschwitz would be at the end of the road.

For more than six years, up to the outbreak of World War II, there was something like Jewish communal, social and cultural life in Germany. Kaplan, who teaches history at Queen’s College, New York, has investigated how these activities functioned at the grass-roots level in her important study, “Between Dignity and Despair.” This has seldom been done before, and it is also true that, as the author claims, the existing accounts were mostly written from a man’s point of view dealing with politics, in which few women were active. But as the men were squeezed out of their professions and as their incomes shrank (and also their self-confidence), women took on male roles. They kept the family together, supervised the education of the children and took care of the family’s physical comforts in conditions infinitely worse than in earlier years. They provided psychological support, became the pillar on which the family rested and made vital decisions that previously had been a male preserve. They also saw, Kaplan believes, the warning signs before the menfolk and pushed their families to emigrate at a time when the men still hesitated.


“Between Dignity and Despair” makes no secret of its point of view: It is women’s history. The great majority of the unpublished memoirs from which the author derives her knowledge were written by women in later years. This selective approach is both this pioneering book’s great strength and its basic weakness. As Kaplan argues, gender was an important fact in the Holocaust, and at times it was of critical significance. Unlike some of her radical colleagues, she does not maintain that Jewish women were doubly oppressed as members of a so-called inferior race and sex. That view would be difficult to support in the case of Germany where, until the deportations started in 1942, Jewish women enjoyed more privileges than men. They were not physically assaulted in the streets, and Nazi propaganda almost always focused on men.

Women were hardly ever arrested except if they had engaged prominently in anti-Nazi political activities. Tens of thousand of men were arrested after Kristallnacht but not a single Jewish woman. The laws for the protection of the Aryan race that made sex between Jews and non-Jews a criminal offense were virtually never used against Jewish women. Whereas thousands of male homosexuals were arrested or sent to concentration camps, lesbians were not guilty of a criminal offense in German law, even though a handful might have been detained as “asocial elements.”

All this is not to say that the Nazis had a weakness for Jewish women or that they behaved gentlemanly; they were misogynists by deep conviction. It simply meant that a taboo was in force, which in peacetime would not be broken. On occasion this continued even during the war: There was the famous protest in Berlin in 1943, when Christian women successfully demonstrated against the arrest of their Jewish spouses. Had this spontaneous protest been staged by men rather than women, the Gestapo would have made short shrift of them. It was also easier for a woman to hide during the war simply because men of military age were usually in uniform and those who were not immediately attracted attention. As for the final destiny of Jewish men and women, of course, there was not the slightest difference as far as the Nazis were concerned: They were all to be exterminated.

Kaplan says women were more inclined to emigrate, and she gives the reasons: Women, she thinks, had less to lose, were less involved in the economy, less integrated in the public world, less patriotically German, less at home with German culture and had better social antennae for what was happening around them. This is an interesting theory, but it does not correspond with what I recall from my years in Nazi Germany and what my surviving contemporaries tell me. There were women in these incredibly difficult conditions who, as Kaplan describes, became the unsung heroes of the years of oppression and assumed positions of leadership for which they had never been prepared. But there also were others who collapsed into despair, lethargy and quite often into psychosomatic illness. Kaplan would have been on safer ground had she claimed that among those who emigrated, women often became the head of the family in their country of emigration because they showed more initiative, found work more easily and became the main breadwinners.


But as far as the decision to emigrate was concerned, there is no real evidence that there was a significant difference between the attitudes of men and women. The decision depended far more on age, on connections with family or friends abroad and on other such considerations. It depended last but not least on the financial situation of the family. Ostjuden, Jews who had emigrated from Eastern Europe before and after World War I, were more suspicious of authority than German Jews who had been educated to be good citizens; they were less deeply rooted and therefore more mobile.

Kaplan’s book is provoking when she writes about women’s perspectives, attitudes and feelings--even when she reaches doubtful conclusions. But it should always be kept in mind that those she writes about were the assimilated secular, non-Zionist, middle-class women who joined the League of Jewish Women but seldom attended synagogue services. But many, perhaps a majority, did not belong to these categories. There were Orthodox or working-class Jews and many thousands who had come to Germany from Eastern Europe just before or after World War I. Most of them did not read Rilke or play the piano because they had not been to finishing schools and they would not write memoirs in later years. We know little about them for, as the adage for young historians said, “No sources, no history.”

The absence of diaries and other written materials by the poor, the Orthodox and recent immigrants from the East is one of the great difficulties facing the historian who wants to write on daily life. On some topics he or she will face an abundance of source material; I must have read half a dozen memoirs over the last few years about the school I attended in Nazi Germany after 1933. There are many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of accounts of different sorts on Jewish life during that period. Because the historian cannot possibly use all of them, there is the strong temptation to pick those confirming his or her preconceived notions. On other topics, the historian may find little or nothing in these memoirs. As the street singer in the final scene of “The Three-Penny Opera” sagely put it: “And you see the ones in brightness. Those in darkness drop from sight.”