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Unit 8: Out of the Ashes
(1914 to 1945)
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Teaching This Unit
Contemporary society, when reflecting on the Jewish experience in the twentieth century, thinks of the horror of the Nazi Holocaust in which Jews, six million of them, were ruthlessly murdered. But in the early part of this century, the possibility of such an event was far from anyone's mind, including the Jews'. During the First World War, the Jews, as citizens of various European countries, fought on both sides of the conflict alongside their compatriots, and sometimes against their co-religionists. The Jews were indeed integrated into Western Europe (see map 8 of Jewish population centers in the Study Guide), although the Dreyfus Affair had been a shock to those who believed that they had been totally accepted into European society.

Eastern Europe

Lithuania, Galicia and central Poland were severely devastated during the war, and the Jews in those areas suffered. Almost 600,000 Jews wandered Eastern Europe. The Tsarist government had no choice but to abolish the Pale of Settlement (see the last chapter) and allow the Jews to settle in the interior of Russia. Later, in March 1917, the Tsarist government was overthrown and legal distinctions based on religion were totally abolished. What heady days they were for the Russian Jews!

As Professor Stanislawski points out, the euphoria was further heightened by the British government's announcement of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917. In this landmark document (see Source Reader Selection 1), the British appeared to back the Zionist cause by supporting Palestine as the site for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. (It would take several years before this dream came to pass, as we will see in the next unit.)

A few days later the Bolsheviks seized power in another revolution in Russia. The Jews at first resisted this new government, but when the conservative forces blamed the Jews for the revolution, killed many of them and destroyed many Jewish communities, the Jews looked to the Red Army to guarantee their security. (See the historic archive footage of the Communist Red Army.) In the 1920s, Jews were in a peculiar position in the new Soviet society. They were heartened by strong measures to eradicate anti-Semitism but frustrated that most of their Jewish endeavors, from synagogue worship to activities on behalf of their political parties, were deemed counter-revolutionary.

Some Jews were involved in cultural pursuits that were sanctioned by the government. In the 1920s, as Professor Stanislawski points out, Jews' creative pursuits were accepted if they possessed the correct proletarian attitudes. (Consider an example of Jewish poetry deemed appropriate by the government, which appears in Source Reader Selection 5.)

Even with the onset of the 1930s and the Stalinist oppression of many minorities within the Soviet Union, Jews were economically and socially integrated. From the standpoint of Jewish religious and cultural freedom, however, Soviet policy was a disaster.

In East Central Europe, the Jews in the new states that emerged after World War I were faced with the rise of anti-Semitism and increased economic competition. While many Jews were in dire economic straits, they were culturally fertile, founding newspapers, theatres, religious institutions and the like. Their political activities ranged from fervent Zionism (see Source Reader Selection 4), socialism and national autonomism to participation in social democratic and religious parties. The Jewish upper classes were at home in these new states, but their situation was far better than that of most Jews.

The Jews of Western Europe successfully integrated into their new societies after World War I, and could be found in all professions. Even the rise of anti-Semitism did not overly concern Jews with a strong sense of ethnic identity. They felt that with the march of progress, these reactionary ideas would simply disappear. Some who ceased to conceive of themselves as active members of the Jewish people still felt part and parcel of their countries of residence, as the last will and testament of historian Marc Bloch indicates. (See Source Reader Selection 3.)

Weimar Germany, as the German government created after World War I was called, was home to many Jews who enthusiastically participated in its culture. At the beginning of the video, we are treated to a roster of famous Jews who actively joined in Weimar society. It should be noted that in light of the Holocaust, many scholars have severely questioned the degree that Jews assimilated into German culture. If the Jews had been fully accepted, they argue, the Nazi nightmare would not have been possible. In Germany, Jews not only supported German culture but created a renaissance in Jewish thought. Thinkers such as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig developed new Jewish philosophies in order to satisfy the quest for Jewish spirituality in a modern secular environment. They turned to classical Jewish texts to find meaning in their existence. (See the excerpt from Rosenzweig's profound "The Star of Redemption," which is found in Source Reader Selection 2.)

Nazi Germany

But all of this turned out to be beside the point for German Jewry, and truly for all of European Jewry. What was in hindsight the most important development was the rise of the National Socialist (Nazi) party, led by Adolf Hitler. This splinter group was seen by most Germans as marginal from both a political and human perspective. Hitler, who failed in his attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government, wrote a book in 1924 entitled "Mein Kampf" ("My Struggle") while in prison for the crime. In this long-winded and unoriginal work, he stressed the humiliation of Germany by the Allies at the end of World War I, and the centrality of racial anti-Semitic policy in solving the problems of German society. A selection from "Mein Kampf" appears in Source Reader Selection 6.

The Nazis were an insignificant group. But when the worldwide economic depression hit Germany, it brought on extreme economic dislocation. (See the footage of the bread lines and of the laundry baskets filled with worthless money that was used to buy staples.) By March 1932, Hitler received eleven million votes in the German presidential elections. That same year, the Nazis won the largest number of seats of any party, although not a majority, in the Reichstag elections. Scholars have long debated whether the German people voted for the Nazis because of the overtly anti-Semitic planks in their platform, or whether anti-Semitic ideology was peripheral to the Nazis' political success. Note the variety of opinions expressed in film clips in the video as the series attempts to explain what attracted the German people to vote for Hitler's party. By March 1933, Adolf Hitler became the dictator (Fuhrer) of Germany through legal means. What Hitler may have lacked in the sophistication of his political ideas, he made up for in his ability to galvanize a political movement and lead it to a position of power.

Contrary to the opinion of political pundits of the time, Hitler began to implement an anti-Semitic program. He ordered a boycott of Jewish businesses and introduced racial pseudoscientific definitions into German law. These laws now discriminated against Jews who held civil-service positions, who were members of the German press or who benefited from various educational facilities. (See Source Reader Selection 4.) Read carefully Professor Stanislawski's comments in the Study Guide.

Refugees

German Jews began to emigrate, but many still felt that it was important not to give in to the Nazi barbarians. Try to help the students understand these Jews' position. By September 1935, the Nuremburg Laws were enacted, formalizing distinctions between Aryans and non-Aryans. (These key documents in the evolution of Nazi anti-Semitic policy are reproduced in Source Reader selections 7 and 8.) Political and intellectual opponents of the regime were sent to concentration camps, as the video movingly depicts. The visit of Abba Eban to Dachau is quite unforgettable.

The legal status of Jews in German society was gradually destroyed and their livelihood irreparably damaged. Jews continued to leave Germany, and footage of Jews arriving in Palestine is included in the video. The series also explores the tragic story of the ship St. Louis, whose boatload of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany was not permitted to land in the United States because of the immigration quotas discussed in the last chapter.

Professor Stanislawski discusses the options open to the Jews of Germany, and describes how the Jews were conditioned over the years to respond to anti-Semitic threats by united action and appeals to justice. This contention is, understandably, a sore point in Jewish historiography and deserves careful reflection by teachers and students alike. Jews did react by establishing their own schools and welfare organizations and supporting the emigration process. The German Jews cannot be faulted for not knowing what lay in store for them. The Nazis did not know either.

The television series contains significant footage of the anti-Jewish activities of the Nazis and their party before 1939. You will see book burnings; anti-Semitic advertisements; signs plastered on billboards calling for boycotts of Jewish stores; and the general demeaning of Jews by Nazis, who, for example, forced Jews to scrub streets. In November 1938, one of the fiercest pogroms in the history of Germany was unleashed upon the Jews. It was called Kristallnacht -- the night of broken glass. Synagogues were set ablaze, Jewish stores and homes were destroyed and Jews were beaten and maimed. The video contains stills of these events, which seem to belong more to barbarian times than to the modern era.

In the 1930s, Germany rebuilt its armed forces and moved to annex some of the territories that surrounded the Reich, as students of World War II are well aware. With the conquest, tragically, more Jews came under Nazi control, and with the invasion of Poland in 1939, which started World War II, two million more Jews were to be found under Nazi administration. The eastern part of Poland, however, was ceded to the Soviet Union, Germany's ally in the Polish invasion.

Genocide

Life became unbearable for the Jews. Acts of violence against persons and property, degradation and sadism were the order of the day. Jews were driven into the big cities, gradually separated from the rest of the population, moved into ghettos and forced to report for hard labor. They could not leave their designated areas for any reason. The Germans demanded that the Jews manage the affairs of their own population and follow Nazi regulations. The Jewish councils -- Judenrate -- that emerged attracted a mixture of noble and unsavory types. Still, they tried seriously to mitigate the horrors of Nazi oppression. In the most dehumanizing of situations in the ghetto, the Jews established a remarkable social and cultural life. (For a report on ghetto life, see Source Reader Selection 11.) Thousands of Jews died of starvation and disease because of the unspeakably horrible conditions that existed in these cramped residential areas.

But it was not only in Poland that the Nazis were victorious. Country by country fell to them in Northern and Western Europe, and half a million more Jews now bore the brunt of Nazi brutality. The story of the Jews in Eastern European countries such as Rumania, Hungary and Bulgaria is told in the Study Guide chapter. Nazi policies towards the Jews in the countries they controlled depended on whether the territories were incorporated into the Reich, and the degree of help offered by the local population in promoting anti-Jewish activities. Some peoples, most notably the Danes, helped their Jewish population escape to a safe haven. The moral dilemmas these people faced are worthy of serious reflection.

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, large-scale murders of Jews commenced. As the German army progressed from town to town, special killing squads rounded up the local Jews and shot them. Over a million Jews died in such attacks. By January 1942 the Nazis decided that forced ghettoization and mobile killing operations would not solve their "Jewish problem" quickly and efficiently. They then devised the "final solution" to kill the Jews by transporting them to death camps, where they would be exterminated in gas chambers. This decision was made in a Berlin suburb at the so-called Wannsee conference. The minutes of the meeting are excerpted in Source Reader Selection 10. It should be read very carefully. The student should note the antiseptic language that was employed when discussing the murder of the Jews and how this bureaucratization enabled the Nazis to carry out their inhuman program. For the Nazis, the murder of the Jews became simply a technological challenge.

The deportation and gassings continued throughout the war. The Nazis believed that the extermination of the Jews was equal in importance to conducting the war effort against the Allies. The video contains footage of all these horrors. . . .

Fighting Back

Sometimes, Jews were able to resist Nazi orders, but uprisings were resorted to only when there was no hope left. See the film of the famous Warsaw ghetto revolt, which stymied the Nazis for many days. The report of an uprising in the Treblinka death camp is recorded in Source Reader Selection 12. Scholars lately have also stressed the spiritual and cultural resistance that the Jews displayed in the ghettos and camps. The Jews, unlike other national groups fighting the Nazis, did not receive aid from outside sources. Often Jews were not allowed to join the partisan forces, who, for their own anti-Semitic ideological reasons, would betray the Jews to the Nazis. The students should recognize how remarkable it was that the Jews did resist in the most terrible of times.

The world governments have been accused of remaining passive in the face of this genocide. The American government believed that winning the war was the fastest and surest way to prevent the extermination of the Jews. But why didn't the Allies destroy the death camps that they knew lay in the paths of their bombing runs? Most important, Western countries not under Nazi control refused to rescind legislation curtailing immigration that was enacted before the Nazis had come to power. The only salvation for the Jews was emigration, and the Jews had nowhere to go. The Jews were not even permitted to emigrate to Palestine in large numbers because of British policy at that time as discussed in the next chapter. In 1943 a Jew in London committed suicide in protest against the inactivity of the Allies in the face of the massacre of the Jews. His stirring accusation appears in Source Reader Selection 13.

A Ruined World

The Nazis were finally defeated and the Allies won the war. Sixty-seven percent of European Jewry, six million Jews, had been murdered. (See Source Reader Selection 15 on the number of Jews that perished from each European country. On those who were liberated from the death camps themselves, see Source Reader Selection 14. Read it carefully.)

World Jewry, as Professor Stanislawski notes, was never the same. And this was not only because of the demographic changes. (See chart 2 in the Study Guide chapter.) Psychologically and spiritually the wounds still fester. Questions about God, man and Jewish life go unanswered but are continually explored.

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