Jewish Women in Hitler's Germany

Jewish Women's Response To The Third Reich

Of the many books that have been written since World War II about Nazi Germany and the "final solution," some of the most insightful and emotional stories have been individual accounts by people who were trapped in what must have seemed a never ending and surreal nightmare; like Ann Frank, whose diary describes a young girl's emergence into young womanhood and love. Mary Kaplan (1998), in her book Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, explores the era and the holocaust from a different perspective, from the role of Jewish women as she tries to answer questions that have never really been answered like: Why didn't they leave as they witnessed a consuming hate manifest itself in Nazism? This essay, relying upon the research and writing of Kaplan and others, attempts to understand, from a woman's perspective, how Jews and Germans disentangled themselves emotionally, socially, as Germans, culturally in a way that led to the destruction of five million men, women, and children in a near successful attempt to carry out Adolf Hitler's final solution.

The themes and ideas explored on the following pages are emotional and controversial, but cannot be avoided when nudging ghosts from their rests to relive the tortures of their lives. It cannot be avoided that some people today will have doubt the events discussed here, and might even resent being made to feel an emotional awakening when the enormity of the reality of loss of millions of human beings whose destinies in this world as scientists, writers, artists, fashion designers, geologists, and even tire changers had not yet been fulfilled. These are not thoughts or images that the human psyche has an easy time coping with, but in order to understand every facet of what went wrong during that period to keep the human conscience raised against those violations of humanity. Even though we have seen those atrocities since the holocaust, they do not go unnoticed and the world looks to hold people accountable for them in the hope that one day mankind will eradicate racism, fear, jealousy, prejudice, and hate; which can only survive in ignorance.

Before and After the Eradication of Jewry from German Life

Before fascism took on the task of eradicating the Jewish race from Europe, in Germany Jews had assimilated, in some ways, culturally and, in all ways, socially into German life. Kaplan quotes survivors saying:

We were so German," "we were so assimilated," "we were so middle class" --these are the refrains we read over and over again in the words of German Jews who try to explain to us (and to themselves) what their lives were like before Nazi savagery overpowered them (Kaplan, 1998, p. 6)."

Kaplan makes that the point that Germany had to first excise their public Jewry before they could move to personal and individual murder of them (Kaplan, 1998, p. 6). To that end, it became the strategy of the Hitler regime to propagate Germans' deep seeded hate, fear, and prejudice and to bring those emotions to the surface of the German conscience (Kaplan, 1998, p. 6). In that way, too, it would be possible to breed new prejudice, fear, and hate in the hearts and minds of the people and children in whom such thoughts and feelings did not previously exist. Kaplan describes this process:

In 1933, a Jewish ten-year-old observed Nazis marching with placards reading "Germans, Don't Buy from Jews. World Jewry Wants to Destroy Germany. Germans, Defend Yourselves (Kaplan, 1998, p. 4)."

Whether or not the German people had experienced these feeling or thoughts about their Jewish neighbors was no longer relevant. The curiosity had to rise as to what was the fear, the concern, the knowledge behind these messages; what did someone else know about the Jews that perhaps they themselves did not know about their own neighbors. About this process Kaplan says:

As the regime disenfranchised Jews, robbing them of their economic livelihoods and social integration, many Germans approved and more looked on, bolstering, and sometimes preempting, the regime's cruelties. Well before the physical death of German Jews, the German "racial community" -- the man and woman on the street, the real "ordinary Germans" -- made Jews suffer social death every day. This social death was the prerequisite for deportation and genocide (Kaplan, 1998, p. 5)."

The era is, of course, pre-woman's movement, and at that time in history and place women were very much the social conscience of the family. Still responsible for setting the pace for the family's overall activities, women, says Kaplan, still took care of school schedules, social schedules, entertainment, dining, and the lives of their families in general (Kaplan, 1998, p. 5). As the Nazis carried out their plan to eradicate the Jews from existence - because that was in fact the premise upon which the final solution was arrived at - then it became necessary for German mothers and wives and young women to be indoctrinated into the hate programs aimed at Jews. This meant that Jewish friends, neighbors, perhaps even family members had to be separated from Germans.

In September of 1933, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted, a set of rules that would be implemented on the basis of race (Kaplan, 1998, p. 17). Now, it was possible for middle class, and lesser housewives, mothers, and all non-Jewish women to feel the distinction of superiority over another human race, thus elevating themselves in a way that, perhaps for the first time ever, made them feel superior to another human being. So long as you had no Jewish blood, you were automatically privileged over another race of peoples. On both fronts, non-Jewish and Jewish, people retreated to their family circles where they felt safe and protected from the outside intrusive laws and hostility (Kaplan, 1998, p. 50).

The Jewish Woman in Nazi Germany

It becomes easy to understand the stratification that Germany's fascist leaders were attempting to create between Jewish women and Germany's mothers of the Third Reich when we look at the way in which both were portrayed to the public on film. These images are important, because they support the notion of Germans with non-Jewish blood to be superior to Jews. German women were presented to the public on film in two capacities: motherhood and as "war women" (Fox, Jo, 2000, p. 44; p. 71). From the perspective of motherhood, the filming of non-Jewish women presented young and glamorous looking women as Christian mothers, producing off-spring for the advancement of Germany's pure bloodlines (Fox, 200, p. 44). As "war women," they appeared disciplined, austere, focused, intelligent, and appeared to be on some level of equality with men in the war movement (Fox, 2000, p. 77). Indeed, they were acknowledged for their vital roles in the home and the war effort as structural supporters of great decisions, but they were by no means the equal of any German man.

On the other hand, Jewish women were presented as deliverer of the anti-Christian babies, and as the wives and daughters of money-mongers. It was probably easy to raise the resentments of German women against Jewish women for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which was perhaps the mystery that surrounded the close-knit Jewish family tradition.

As the world move towards war, the Jewish families in Germany became even more close-knit, now because of the hostility that had been raised in the public against them. Campaigns on every front had been waged; news, propaganda, boycotting Jewish businesses, and the Nuremberg Laws.

As never before in their lives, Jewish women and families faced new and mounting social, economic, and psychological hardships. The family became a refuge even as the Nazis challenged its basic security. To salvage peace of mind and accommodate to a dire situation, women took on traditional as well as novel roles. They remained the ones to calm the family, to keep up the normal rhythms of life. Yet gender roles were dramatically reversed when women, rather than men, interceded for their families with state officials and when women, rather than men, pushed their families to flee Germany (Kaplan, 1998, p. 50)."

However, by the time hostilities turned into war, it was too late for those Jews who had remained in Germany with hopes that the conditions would run through a course of social change, then, revert back to some sense of normality (Kaplan, 1998, p. 50). Life that had centered around families would soon experience the horror of being torn apart with deportation to the ghettos and to concentration camps. Even as families were being uprooted from their homes and transported to ghettos or concentration camps, it was the women whose lives continued in an as near normal fashion as possible; they remained the magnetic north of the family circle (Kaplan, 1998, p. 52). Their work in cooking, mending, cleaning and in support of their husbands who now suffered an idleness that many were unaccustomed to went on, only perhaps with…