Posted: March 18th, 2023
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 greater importance especially in the lives of their husbands (Kaplan, 1998, p. 52).
The eyes of the women… showed how cruelly one was once again torn from the illusion of a normal middleclass existence…. That more and more each day the Jew was becoming fair game was the devastating realization that underscored every experience of this kind (Kaplan, 1998, p. 52).”
The look of the German woman, on the other hand, became one of increasing masculinity with their sense of superiority, which could not have been achieved without denigrating all things Jewish, including Jewish women. Irene Guenther (2004) writes”
On May 10, 1933, Propaganda Chief Goebbels met with Bella Fromm to discuss a fashion show that was being planned at the racetrack club in Berlin. Fromm, the social columnist for the Vossische Zeitung, one of several newspapers published by Ullstein Verlag, had been staging these shows for quite some time. At their meeting, Goebbels informed Fromm that he was satisfied with her work on past fashion presentations, but then issued the following order: “From now on, I want the French fashion to be omitted. Have it replaced by German models. ” Later that evening, Fromm wrote in her diary, “I could not help but smiling. It was too wonderful to imagine – the race track, the elegant crowd. In place of our stylish models, however, the ‘Hitler Maidens, ‘ with ‘Gretchen’ braids, flat heels, and clean-scrubbed faces! Black skirts down to the ankles, brown jackets bearing the swastika! Neither rouge nor lipstick! (Guenther, 2004, p. 91).”
This image was in keeping with the Socialist movement’s attempt to elevate the ordinary Germany wife above the perhaps more sophisticated Jewish wife of a businessman. It was important to the new and emerging German identity to develop distinct and separate identities, and that meant when calling up the image of a German woman vs. A Jewish woman, it was important that the German woman, even in the most basic appearance of an unfashionable German wife, be perceived as more grand, elegant, smarter than the image of any Jewish woman.
In January 1933, as Hitler came to power, a “handbook and suggestion book” for all Nazi leaders, organizations, and members was published. Titled the ABC’s of National Socialism, the book addressed the ideological pillars of Nazism. Its contents ranged from praises for the farmer and his “simple” life, as part of the Nazis’ “blood and soil” philosophy, to the necessity for the nation to implement a policy of autarky, the goal of which was economic self-sufficiency and non-reliance on imports.
AntiSemitism was rife throughout the publication. The author censured large department stores that “keep Jews wealthy and in finery because of their huge mark-ups. ” Additionally, he criticized the “overall slovenliness” of Jewish households. “Dirty tableware, sticky doors, smeared rugs… while the Jewish housewife, herself, is no picture of cleanliness, but idly sits around, painted up and powdered and adorned in silk and baubles (Guenther, 2004, p. 92). ”
This really brings home the idea that German leadership understood that it was necessary to dismantle the Jewish family, socially and racially, in order to bring about complete destruction of the Jews in Europe.
Even single women who had careers in the public spotlight were ostracized from their arts because their Jewish heritage. Helen Bergner was an actress, one whose star was really just beginning to shine when Germany was in the grips of Socialism and Nazi fascists.
In 1933 Bergner made her stage debut in London in Escape Me Never. Then in 1934 Bergner returned to Berlin for the opening of Catharine the Great, a British film. The Nazi censor passed the film and the premiere attracted a fashionable crowd of Germans and foreign diplomats. However, when the first celebrities arrived, rioters began yelling, “Down with the Jew,” and spattered eggs on posters in the lobby. They tried to prevent the theatergoers from entering the theater. The police had to escort them inside. Col. Ernest Roehm, leader of the Storm Troopers, speaking for Hitler, took the stage and begged the audience to remember that Germany was a land of law and order. The film went on to rave reviews but the next day it was withdrawn and the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, informed Bergner that she could no longer make films in Germany. She found that the event occurred three days after Goebbels had announced that non-Aryans, previously banned from German theaters, had been reappearing; he “requested” German authorities to prevent such lawbreaking and if the request was ignored, declared that the public might resort to “self-help to defend itself (Cossner, S., 1998, p. 15).”
Eventually, Bergner escaped Germany, but there was widespread resentment towards her in the film industry and her career never recovered (Cossner, 1998, p. 15). It might be said that even after some Germans escaped Nazi Germany, they were nonetheless its victims.
As the war and the move towards Germany’s final solution progressed, those Jewish women who were in mixed marriages came under the scrutiny of the German government.
The Nazi decision to privilege male over female “Aryans” reflected Nazi misogynist and the higher status of males in German society. The “household” was defined by its male head. In addition, “Aryan” men married to Jewish women still served in the military (until they and “first-degree Mischlinge” were banned in April 1940, the month Germany invaded Denmark and Norway), and the Nazis feared that the morale of these men would suffer if their families were treated like Jews. In addition, Nazi leaders may have assumed that women were passive but that men would protest their own forced transfer — or that of their wives and children — into a Judenhaus. Finally, the Nazis probably transformed into racial law the sexist German legal practice regarding marriages with foreigners: when German women married foreigners, they lost their German citizenship, but when German men married foreigners, their wives became German citizens. In other words, German women lost their blood ties to the Volk when they married “out,” and Jewish women gained some protection from being “incorporated” when they married “in (Kaplan, 1998, pp. 149-150).”
It is a mistake to think that women were afforded any leeway or special treatments because of their gender in WWII Germany. It is in fact shown here that women were, once boycotting and closing of Jewish businesses in Germany began, the glue that held the Jewish family together. Likewise, when the deportation to concentration camps and the implementation of the final solution commenced in reality rather than philosophy; the German government understood the threat the family posed to its agenda, and separated family, husbands from wives, mothers and children, in one of the most horrific and inhumane movements against humanity that have ever occurred in human history.
It there were solace to be gained, it would have been that gained from the union between a husband and his wife, the mother of his children, and that between two lovers, or the sustenance a young child receives in the arms of a young mother. That these things were targeted by the Nazis demonstrates the strength that emanates from those relationships, and how those relationships, emanating from the fortitude of the female spirit, posed a threat to what has been described by some as the most powerful army ever to have existed in the history of the world.
Cosner, Shaaron, and Victoria Cosner. Women under the Third Reich: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. Questia. 7 Apr. 2008 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=29226652.
Fox, Jo. Filming Women in the Third Reich / . Oxford: Berg, 2000. Questia. 7 Apr. 2008 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=102309122.
Guenther, Irene. Nazi Chic? Fashioning Women in the Third Reich. Oxford, England: Berg, 2004. Questia. 7 Apr. 2008 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=104617844.
Kaplan, Marion a. Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Questia. 7 Apr. 2008 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=37056561.
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