Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Unsung Heroes

BETWEEN DIGNITY AND DESPAIR: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany.\o7 By Marion A. Kaplan (Oxford University Press: 290 pp., $30)\f7

July 26, 1998|WALTER LAQUEUR | 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)

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."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|