In the 1920s in Western Europe much progress was achieved in the sciences and the arts. But with these advances many people felt insecure and attempted to turn back the clock. The Jews were considered to be the major reason for these Europeans' feelings of dislocation, since some Jews were at the center of politics and culture. Shocking to the minds of some, the Jews were indistinguishable from their fellow citizens.
In Eastern Europe Jewish culture was thriving as Yiddishists, Zionists, and Bundists competed with each other for the affection of the Jewish masses. In the Soviet Union Jews were emancipated but limited in the practice of their faith.
It was difficult for the well-integrated German Jews to react to the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1920s. When Hitler came to power, he first sought to eliminate his opposition. He disliked randomness in anti-Semitic attacks and sought greater efficiency in discriminating against the Jews. Through legislation the Jews were gradually removed from German life and isolated. The 1936 Olympic Games staged in Berlin were used by the Nazis to show the respectability of their state.
As Germany intervened in neighboring countries to protect German-speaking communities, many of the Jews came under Nazi control and they suffered. Germans maintained that the Jews were being protected, but in November 1938, on the "night of broken glass," synagogues were set ablaze, Jewish businesses were wrecked, and many Jews were killed.
Where could the Jews go? Some went to Palestine to help build a new Jewish society, but Britain, which controlled Palestine, clamped down on immigration into that country. Some were allowed into the United States, England, Latin America, and the port of Shanghai. But, mostly, the countries of the world did not welcome them, as seen in the tragic story of the ship St. Louis. When World War II broke out, millions of additional Jews came under Nazi rule. In the western areas of the Soviet Union mobile killing groups traveled with Nazi armies and murdered one and a half million Jews. Other Jews were crowded into ghettos, forced to work in labor camps, and endured indescribable deprivation.
Hitler and his advisers decided eventually on a "final solution" to the Jewish question: the Jews were to be transported in cattle cars to camps where they would be killed in gas chambers. In this fashion Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, the physically handicapped, and the mentally insane were eliminated.
The Jews were often not aware of the Nazi plans. Still, they resisted their Nazi captors in their daily lives in the ghettos and concentration camps. They organized schools and prayer groups, supported other cultural activities, and attempted to carry on some form of normal existence. Some of the Jews physically attacked the Nazis, as seen in the famous Warsaw ghetto uprising.
A few countries like Denmark protected their Jews. So did the Dutch people, but the Jews were rounded up anyway, including young Anne Frank. When the Allies entered the war, they did not bomb the concentration and death camps but devoted all their energy to ending the general war as soon as possible.
- Chart the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany.
- Understand the reaction of European Jews to the mounting dangers they faced.
- Examine the connection between the destruction of European Jewry and World War II as a whole.
- Explore the multifaceted responses of Jews to the tragedy.