December 1940–June 1941

On June 15, 1941, in the afternoon, a week before the beginning of the German assault against the Soviet Union, Goebbels was summoned to the Reich Chancellery: Hitler, it seems, wished to get the right support from his most fanatically devoted underling.

The Nazi leader’s ruminations were first and foremost an exercise in self-reassurance: “The most powerful attack that history had ever seen,” the minister recorded. “What happened to Napoleon would not repeat itself…the Führer estimated that the entire campaign would take approximately 4 months; I think it will be much less. We stand on the eve of an unparalleled victory.” In Goebbels’s view, the attack was a vital necessity for global strategic reasons and no less so on ideological grounds: “It is not Czarism that will be brought back to Russia; an authentic socialism will replace Judeo-bolshevism. Every old Nazi will rejoice at the opportunity of witnessing these events. The pact with Russia was in fact a stain on our shield…what we have fought against throughout our life, we shall now exterminate. I say this to the Führer and he completely agrees with me.”1

Suddenly Hitler added a comment as unexpected as it was atypical: “The Führer says,” Goebbels recorded, “whether we are right or wrong, we must win. This is the only way. And it is right, moral and necessary. And once we have won, who will ask us about the methods. In any case, we have so much to account for that we must win; otherwise our whole people—and we in the first place, and all that we love—would be erased” [Wir haben sowieso soviel auf dem Kerbholz, dass wir siegen müssen, weil sonst unser ganzes Volk, wir an der Spitze mit allem was uns lieb ist, ausradiert würde.]2 From that point on, in other words, there was no way back.


Whether in the summer of 1940 Hitler had ever seriously considered the invasion of the British Isles (Operation Sea Lion) remains a moot question. Throughout those same months the onslaught of the Luftwaffe against Britain’s coastal defenses did not achieve the essential precondition for a landing: control of the skies over southern England. The massive bombing of cities that followed, mainly the raids on London (the Blitz), did not break the population’s morale, and in the fall the Battle of Britain was turning to the advantage of the Royal Air Force.

At the same time Hitler was considering his alternative strategy. After the defeat of France and the British rejection of his “peace proposal,” the Nazi leader mentioned the global strategic impact of an attack against the Soviet Union on several occasions, particularly in the course of the military conference at the Berghof, on July 31, 1940. According to Halder’s notes, Hitler’s argument ran as follows: “England’s hope is Russia and America. If hope in Russia is eliminated, America also is eliminated, because enormous increase in the importance of Japan in the Far East will result from the elimination of Russia.”3

The overall strategic framework was of course indissolubly linked, as we shall see, to Hitler’s unchanged ideological hatred of Bolshevism (of Judeo-Bolshevism, as he would mostly perceive it) and to the more traditional German aspiration to dominate the spaces of the East and their boundless reserves of raw materials. Only control of this economic potential would turn the Reich into an unassailable power, poised to dominate the world.

The Tripartite Pact, signed on September 27, 1940, between Germany, Italy, and Japan, was meant as a warning to the United States no less than to the Soviet Union.4 But when, in mid-November 1940, the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, arrived in Berlin for negotiations and Hitler suggested a common front against Great Britain and the United States by turning the Tripartite Pact into a “Quadripartite” one, the Nazi leader had probably already made up his mind. In any case Molotov steadily brought the discussions back to concrete issues: the full implementation of the 1939 agreement about the Soviet “sphere of interest,” mainly in the Balkans (Bulgaria) and regarding Finland.

Molotov’s adamant stand reflected Stalin’s belief in the possibility of a German attack and thus in the necessity of a westward expansion of Soviet strategic defenses, particularly after the unforeseen collapse of France. Soviet determination could but confirm Hitler in his own decision to eliminate the Eastern colossus. On December 18, 1940, the Nazi leader signed directive no. 21 and changed the previous code name of the attack on the Soviet Union from Fritz to Barbarossa. The assault was to start on May 15, 1941.

There was, in Berlin, another reason for acting rapidly. In November Roosevelt had been reelected for a third term. On December 14, in a press conference, the president used the garden hose metaphor: If a neighbor’s house is on fire, the man who owns a hose does not say: “My garden hose costs fifteen dollars and you must pay me this sum before you can have it.” He simply lends his hose, helps to put out the fire, and then takes the hose back. America, Roosevelt said, would in the future lend some nations the equipment they needed for defending their lives and their freedom.5 On December 17, on the eve of signing directive no. 21, Hitler told Gen. Alfred Jodl, deputy chief of staff of the OKW, that Germany should solve all continental problems in 1941, “because in 1942 the United States will be ready to intervene.”6 And, more than ever, in the Nazi leader’s view, the policy of the American president was dictated by the Jews.

Unexpected events modified the schedule set for the eastern campaign. On March 27, 1941, two days after Yugoslavia had adhered to the Tripartite Pact, a military coup unseated the pro-German government in Belgrade. Hitler ordered immediate retaliation: Belgrade was bombed to rubble, and the Wehrmacht rolled south. Yugoslavia and Greece were occupied, Bulgaria joined the Axis, and the British forces that had landed in Greece were driven from the Continent and from the island of Crete. However, the attack against the Soviet Union had to be postponed by several weeks. The date now set was June 22, the longest day of the year.

Murderous steps were planned against the Jews on Soviet territory during the preparatory stage of the campaign, yet these steps appear at first as additional ways of destroying Soviet resistance and accelerating the collapse of the Soviet system as a whole, in line with the Nazi identification of Bolshevism, its elites, and its structures with the omnipresence of Jews in power positions. Otherwise Hitler’s public declarations during the first half of 1941 do not indicate that the anti-Jewish dimension of the campaign was a goal in itself.

In his annual Reichstag speech of January 30, 1941, the Nazi leader had returned to his dire prophecy of January 1939 regarding the ultimate fate of the Jews of Europe. But this time—whether the change of vocabulary was intentional or not—instead of explicitly mentioning extermination, he prophesied that the war would “put an end to Jewry’s role in Europe.”7 His words could have meant complete segregation, deportation—or indeed total extermination. In Hitler’s meetings with foreign statesmen or in speeches made throughout the last months of 1940 and during the military buildup period preceding June 22, 1941, his allusions to the Jews appeared to be rather perfunctory and generally remained very brief.

Nonetheless, on March 3, 1941, Hitler sent back a first draft of the campaign guidelines prepared by the OKW, adding, among other points, that “the Jewish Bolshevik intelligentsia, as the oppressor of the past, had to be liquidated.”8 The gist of the Nazi leader’s notorious speech to his most senior generals, on March 30, was basically identical, but the Jews were not mentioned as such. “Struggle of two worldviews” [emphasis in original], Halder, the chief of staff of the army, summed up: “Devastating judgment about Bolshevism: Nothing else but asocial criminality. Communism, enormous danger for the future. We have to abandon the notion of soldiery camaraderie. The Communist is no comrade before [the battle] and no comrade afterward. This is a war of extermination. If we don’t consider it as such, we will achieve victory over the enemy now, but in thirty years the Communist enemy will again stand against us. We do not wage the war to spare the enemy…. The Bolshevik commissars and the Bolshevik intelligentsia have to be exterminated…. The struggle must be aimed at the poison of disintegration. It is not a matter for military courts. The officers must know what is at stake…. The soldiers must defend themselves with the means utilized to attack them…. The fighting will be very different from that in the West.”9

Hitler’s address demonstrated to anyone who had been fooled by the 1939 treaty with the Soviet Union that his anti-Bolshevik fervor remained uncompromising. In its scale and ruthlessness, the forthcoming “war of extermination” represented, above and beyond its strategic goals, an ideological crusade and a “Volkstumskampf,” unprecedented in the annals of modern Europe. Moreover, for Hitler the destruction of Soviet power could not but mean the destruction of Jewish power; the struggle was one and the same.

In 1923 Dietrich Eckart, Hitler’s ideological mentor in many ways, had stressed the inherent link between Bolshevism (in its various guises) and the Jews in a pamphlet titled “Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin: A Dialogue Between Hitler and Myself.”10 In Mein Kampf, in his “Second Book” (an untitled Hitler manuscript, written in the late 1920s and published only after the war), and in countless speeches, Hitler had rehashed the same theme: The Slav populations of the Soviet Union were an inferior mass that, before the revolution, had been led by a Germanic elite; Jewish Bolsheviks exterminated this traditional ruling class and became the masters of the huge country as a first stage on the road to world revolution and domination.11 For the Nazi leader the murder of the “Soviet intelligentsia” and of the political commissars meant the extermination of this Jewish ruling elite; without its grip the Soviet system would unravel and collapse.12

Hitler’s anti-Bolshevik creed quite naturally merged, let us recall, with a no less cardinal theme inherited from pan-Germanism: the need for the Volk to control as vast an eastern Lebensraum (vital space) as racially and strategically necessary, possibly all the way to the Urals. The conquered space would be open to Germanic colonization and would supply the Reich with all the raw materials and food it needed. As for native populations, they would be enslaved, partly decimated, or deported into Siberia (this was the Volkstumskampf part of the campaign). With victory over the Soviet Union, huge eastern colonization projects could be launched.

Hitler, as we saw, decided to change the code name of the campaign from Fritz (presumably referring to the king of Prussia, Frederick the Great) to Barbarossa (the common appellation of the twelfth-century Emperor Frederick I of the Hohenstaufen dynasty); the Nazi leader probably wished to evoke Barbarossa’s history and legend.13 The Hohenstaufen emperor had embarked on a crusade in the East against the infidels; and, over time, the Germans had turned Barbarossa into a mythic figure: He was the secret savior, asleep in the Kyffhäuser mountain range in Thuringia, who would arise at the time of his people’s greatest need and lead them to victory and redemption.

Thus, the change of code name pointed to the quasi-mythic dimension of the forthcoming campaign in Hitler’s mind, and to his own saviorlike role at this dramatic juncture in the history of Germany. Why Hitler chose the name of an emperor whose crusade failed when he drowned in the Saleph River in Asia Minor is as mysterious as his predilection for Wagner’s opera Rienzi, telling the story of a late-medieval Roman tribune whose rebellion in the name of the people was crushed and who died a violent death in a fire set to his palace.

On March 26, 1941, at Hitler’s command, Heydrich and the quartermaster general of the armed forces, Gen. Eduard Wagner, drafted an agreement (issued as an order by Keitel on April 28), granting the SS full autonomy for maintaining the security behind the front, in the newly occupied territories.14 On May 13 Keitel signed the order limiting the jurisdiction of military courts over means used by the troops in their fight against the enemy. The execution of suspects thereafter depended on decisions taken by units in the field.15 On May 19 the OKW chief issued guidelines regarding the behavior of the troops in Russia [sic] that ordered officers and soldiers to take “ruthless action” against the carriers of Judeo-Bolshevik ideology.16 The Jews were twice mentioned in the guidelines as political targets of these “ruthless” measures; the instructions were distributed to divisional level on June 4 and to all units as the attack started.17 Finally, on June 6, “the guidelines for the treatment of political commissars” (the “commissar order”) were issued under the signature of General Alfred Jodl, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the OKW: The commissars were to be shot.18

To these guidelines the army added high doses of propaganda that left nothing to the soldiers’ imagination. In the June 1941 issue of Mitteilungen für die Truppe (Information for the Troops), for example, the soldiers were told: “What the Bolsheviks are must be clear to anybody who ever set sight upon the face of a Red Commissar. Here no theoretical explanations are necessary anymore. To call beastly the traits of these people, a high percentage of whom are Jews, would be an insult to animals…. In these Commissars we see the uprising of subhumans against noble blood.”19These Mitteilungen were produced by the propaganda section of the OKW; they were part of standard troop indoctrination in preparation for the war of extermination.20

All the terror operations and the ideologically dictated tasks would be in the hands of Hitler’s chief party henchmen: Himmler, Göring, and, to a certain degree, Rosenberg. By granting the responsibility for the security of the occupied Soviet territories behind the front to the SS Reichsführer, Hitler was putting him in charge of the complete subjugation of the local populations, the struggle against ideological and partisanlike enemies, and the implementation of whatever decisions would be taken in regard to the Jews. But, as already indicated, not much is recorded about what Hitler may have eventually mentioned concerning specific anti-Jewish measures.

The orders regarding the Jews that we know of were issued by Heydrich to the Einsatzgruppen during these same weeks, on two different occasions: at a meeting in Berlin with the unit commanders, probably on June 17, and at another meeting, shortly thereafter, in the small town of Pretzsch, the staging area of the Einsatzgruppen. Here again we do not know exactly what was said. For a long time it remained unclear whether Heydrich had given the order to exterminate the Jewish population of the USSR or whether the initial orders were more restrictive. As we shall see in the next chapter, Heydrich himself summed up the orders he had given to the Einsatzgruppen in a message of July 2 to the Höhere SS und Polizeiführer (Higher SS and Police leaders); further orders were directly conveyed to the SS units on July 17. These various instructions indeed seem to have targeted only specific categories of Jewish men, but they were also open-ended enough in their formulation to have allowed for a rapid expansion of the murder campaign.21

Simultaneously, as preparations for the attack went ahead full force, a new “territorial plan” regarding the Jews surfaced as a potential outcome. In his address to the Gauleiter and Reichsleiter on December 10, 1940 (alluded to in the previous chapter), Himmler had remained vague about the final destination of the two million Jews who, according to him, would be evacuated from the General Government.22 In the meantime, however, Nazi plans in this regard had become more concrete. On March 26, 1941, Heydrich met with Göring (immediately after signing the agreement with Wagner): “In regard to the solution of the Jewish Question,” Heydrich noted on that same day, “I briefly reported to the Reichsmarschall [Göring] and submitted my proposal to him; he agreed after making a change regarding Rosenberg’s responsibilities and ordered its [the proposal’s] resubmission.”23

By the end of March 1941 Rosenberg had already been chosen as “special adviser” for the occupied territories in the East. Thus, in view of Göring’s mention of Rosenberg, the RSHA chief ’s proposal was clearly related to Russia and meant the deportation of the Jews of Europe to the conquered Soviet territories, probably to the Russian Far North, instead of Madagascar. Rosenberg himself mentioned as much in a speech on March 28, in which he alluded to the deportation of the Jews of Europe “under police surveillance” to a territory outside Europe “that could not be mentioned for the time being.”24

On June 20, two days before the attack, an entry in Goebbels’s diary confirmed these plans in a somewhat cryptic way. The propaganda minister reported a meeting with Hitler regarding the coming campaign, also attended by Hans Frank: “Dr. Franck [sic] tells about the General Government. One already rejoices there that the Jews will be packed off. Polish Jewry will gradually disintegrate [Das Judentum in Polen verkommt allmählich].” For Goebbels it was a just punishment for Jewish warmongering; the Führer had prophesied that this would be Jewry’s fate.25

After the beginning of the campaign, Hitler repeatedly mentioned the new territorial plan.26 Yet beforehand, on June 2, 1941, during a meeting with Mussolini at the Brenner Pass, the Nazi leader, after excluding the possibility of a Lublin reservation (“they [the Jews] could not remain there for hygienic reasons, as, due to their dirtiness, they became a source of disease”) again mentioned Madagascar as a concrete option.27 It appears almost certain that Hitler was awaiting the completion of the eastern campaign before making a final decision. In the meantime emigration of Jews from the Reich was still allowed, but, on May 20, 1941, the RSHA, following an order from Göring, forbade any such emigration from Belgium and France “in view of the undoubtedly forthcoming final solution of the Jewish question.”28

Rosenberg was Hitler’s candidate for heading the civilian administration of the newly conquered areas. In April and May the Reichsleiter produced a series of “plans” regarding the future of the eastern territories. In the latest of these outlines, on May 7, 1941, the chief ideologue stated that “after the customary removal of Jews from all public offices, the Jewish question will have to undergo a decisive solution through the institution of ghettos or labor battalions. Forced labor is to be introduced.”29

The future minister for the occupied eastern territories may have believed for a while that as Hitler had decisively taken up the anti-Bolshevik policy he, Rosenberg, had preached from the earliest days of the party, he would now come into his own. However, the chief ideologue was underestimating Hitler’s craftiness or overestimating the Führer’s assessment of his own (Rosenberg’s) ability. In a letter to Martin Bormann, dated May 25, 1941, Himmler informed the Reichsleiter that before departing for his headquarters, Hitler had confirmed to him that, regarding his tasks, he would not be subordinated to Rosenberg. The SS chief added: “Working with or under Rosenberg was certainly the most difficult thing there was in the NSDAP.”30

Himmler’s sarcastic comment to Bormann points to the tacit alliance between two masters of intrigue (who were both highly capable organizers) in their quest for ever greater power. Bormann had just been appointed head of the party chancellery, following Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland, and a Himmler-Bormann front could withstand any possible interference from state agencies or from the military. Both Himmler and Bormann were subservient only to one higher authority, that of Adolf Hitler.

Apart from the authority of the military commanders over the future combat zones and the millions of men who would soon be moving eastward, that of the SS Reichsführer over his own SS and police units (including local auxiliary forces), and that of Rosenberg’s civilian administration, a fourth agency would come to play an essential role in the intricate and increasingly chaotic system established to dominate the conquered territories: Economic Staff East. Although subject to Göring’s supreme authority, the Economic Staff East was de facto headed by Gen. Georg Thomas, chief of the War Economy and Armaments Bureau (Wehrwirtschafts-und Rüstungsamt, or WiRüAmt), whose function would be the seizure and exploitation of Soviet war industries and raw materials. Strongly supported by Hitler, whose own strategic conception did put particular emphasis on the control of economic resources, Thomas planned his economic exploitation and looting campaign in cooperation with Quartermaster General Wagner and State Secretary Herbert Backe, the strongman in the Ministry for Food Supply.31 It was Backe who added the final touch to economic planning of Barbarossa: the “hunger plans.”

The hunger plans (drafted by Backe), intended to facilitate the food supply for the Ostheer (Eastern Army) and even for the German population, had been endorsed by Hitler and Göring as early as January 1941; they were then elaborated by the Wehrmacht from February 1941 on. These plans envisioned the possibility of starving the urban population of the western Soviet Union and the Ukraine, including first and foremost the Jews.32

The mass starvation idea was also leisurely discussed among Himmler and his top lieutenants during the Reichsführer’s stay at his castle in Saxony, the Wewelsburg, between June 12 and 15.33 On this occasion Himmler hosted SS lieutenant generals Kurt Daluege, Bach (Erich von dem Bach-Zalewski), Karl Wolff, Heydrich, Rudolf Brandt, Werner Lorenz, Friedrich Jeckeln, Hans Adolf Prützmann, and probably also the writer Hanns Johst. In the evenings, they sat by the fireside (am Kamin gesessen) and, according to Bach’s Nuremberg testimony, the Reichsführer held forth about his vision of the future. The Russian campaign would determine Germany’s fate: a great power for all time or annihilation. A leader of Hitler’s stature appeared in history only once in a thousand years; the challenge had to be met by this generation. After the conquest of the European part of the Soviet Union, all the Jews of the Continent would be in German hands: They would be removed from Europe. As for the Slav population, it would have to be reduced by some twenty to thirty million people.34


While at the center of the regime, long-range anti-Jewish plans had not yet been finalized in the spring of 1941, more limited initiatives kept swirling. In January 1941 Heydrich again took up formerly stalled projects and informed Hans Frank that about one million Poles and Jews would have to be moved from the annexed territories into the General Government, in order to resettle ethnic Germans and vacate training areas for the Wehrmacht.35

It is probably during a conversation with Hitler on March 17 that Frank managed once more to deflect the new deportation plans. On the same occasion the Nazi leader fantasized about the germanization of the General Government within the next fifteen to twenty years and promised that after the end of the war Frank’s kingdom would be the first occupied area to be emptied of its Jewish population.36

Yet, “small-scale” deportations into the General Government could not, in the meantime, be avoided. The Nazi leadership in Vienna had repeatedly tried to get hold of as many remaining Jewish homes as possible (some 12,000 to 14,000 out of 70,000 in March 1938), either by systematically forcing their inhabitants to move into Jews’ houses or by having most of the 60,000 elderly and impoverished Jews still living in the city deported. On October 2, 1940, Vienna’s Gauleiter, Reichsleiter Baldur von Schirach, personally presented the request to Hitler.37

Three months later, Hans-Heinrich Lammers, the chief of the Reich Chancellery, informed Schirach of the decision: “The Führer decided that the deportation of the 60,000 Jews still living in Vienna into the General Government should be accelerated and take place even during the war, because of the housing crisis. I have informed the General Governor in Kraków, as well as the SS Reichsführer, of the Führer’s decision, and I hereby wish to inform you about it as well.”38 The deportations started at the beginning of February 1941, and within two months some 7,000 Viennese Jews were shipped off to the General Government, mainly to the Lublin district. By mid-March 1941, however, growing military traffic linked to the buildup for Barbarossa put an end to these deportations, as had already been the case in October 1939.

A simpler method of confiscating Jewish homes was developed in the Bavarian capital; it originated in the Munich Gauleiter’s “Aryanization office,” in coordination with the municipal authorities. In the spring of 1941 a barracks camp was built by the city’s Jews, at their own expense, in the Milbertshofen suburb. Some eleven hundred Jews were relocated to the camp, where, from then until their deportation to the East in November of that year, they lived under the guard of the local police. Their former houses were allocated to party members and other “deserving” Germans.39

In February 1941 the Klemperers were ordered to sell the car they had managed to acquire in the midthirties, although they had not been permitted to drive it since the end of 1938 (in December of that year the drivers’ licenses of Jews had been revoked). “The next blow to be expected,” Klemperer wrote, “is the confiscation of the typewriter. There is one way of safeguarding it. It would have to be lent to me by an Aryan owner.” There were some possible “lenders,” but they were afraid. “Everyone is afraid of arousing the least suspicion of being friendly to Jews, the fear seems to grow all the time.”40

At all levels of the system the stream of deliberations, meetings, and decisions regarding the Jews never stopped. While several ministries were involved in an endless debate about which categories of foreign Jews should be reimbursed for war related damages, while, at the same level, an eleventh ordinance to the citizenship law was being drafted and redrafted, some more down-to-earth measures were decided upon without too many hesitations: In Berlin in January 1941, Jews were excluded from the clients’ lists of all shoemakers, with the exception of one company and its local branches: Alsi-Schuhreparaturen (Alsi-Cobblers).41 In February and March, 1,000 out of 2,700 employees belonging to the Berlin Jewish community and to the Reichsvereinigung were transferred to compulsory labor.42 At the end of March, on orders of General Construction Inspector Albert Speer, Jewish tenants had to vacate their homes to be replaced by Aryans whose own homes were being torn down as a result of the major construction projects started in the capital.43 In April the Jewish community of Berlin had to change its name to “Jewish Religious Association in Berlin.”44

A decree ordered all Aryanized firms and businesses to de-Judaize their names (Entjudung von Firmennamen). Usually such a measure caused no problems. However, in the case of the world-famous Rosenthal-Porzellan, the new Aryan owners demurred: A lengthy exchange ensued involving the company, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Propaganda, and the Party Chancellery. On June 7, 1941, the company could prove that the number of Jews on its board had steadily diminished (in 1931 there had been three Jews on a seven-members board; in 1932, two out of five; in 1933, one out of eight). The Propaganda Ministry saw the importance of keeping the name “Rosenthal,” the Justice Ministry concurred, and so did the Party Chancellery: In August 1941 the matter was settled.45

The most intricate issues remained those regarding mixed breeds, and not only in the Wehrmacht. Frequently Hitler intervened. At times, however, he gave instructions that he later postponed for reasons that remain unclear. Thus, on May 7, Hans Pfundtner, state secretary at the Ministry of the Interior, informed various agencies that the Führer wished to forbid sexual intercourse (ausserehelicher Verkehr) between Mischlinge of the first degree and full Germans, or among Mischlinge of the first degree themselves. But on September 25, 1941, Lammers advised Frick that Hitler wanted the matter to be deferred.46 No explanation was offered.

Some of the mixed-breeds issues that the Nazi leader had to decide about, on the eve of the campaign in the East, were straightforward: In April 1941, Lammers informed the minister of Agriculture, Walther Darré, that Hitler did not object to Mischlinge of the second degree owning racehorses or stud farms; therefore the stud belonging to the quarter-Jewish Oppenheim brothers, a horse called Schlenderhan, could be sold to the Reich studs’ administration.47

The most frequent issues relating to mixed breeds of the first degree were petitions for admission to universities, usually after army service followed by discharge (as mixed breeds). Those decorated for bravery were mostly accepted—in line with a Hitler decree of October 1940—the others mostly rejected—even if they boasted of particularly famous ancestry. On February 1, 1941, the Office of the Führer’s Deputy had to decide on the petition of one Jürgen von Schwerin, whose ancestors on his father’s side belonged to the foremost Prussian aristocracy. The trouble came from the mother’s side: Schwerin’s maternal grandfather was a Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a banker who had worked closely with Bismarck. Of course the name also indicated some relation to the famous Jewish composer, and although his grandparents had converted, Schwerin carried the burden of the name Mendelssohn. He was accepted only after lengthy efforts.48

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s descendant was a relatively easy case compared with that of a professor at the University of Munich, Dr. Karl Ritter von Frisch, a Mischling of the second degree (his maternal grandmother was “fully Jewish”). According to paragraph 72 of the Civil Service Law, Frisch had to retire and on March 8, 1941; the Minister of Education informed his colleague Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick and the ubiquitous Martin Bormann of his decision to implement the law. Frisch, it should be added, was the head of the zoological institute of the university and a world-renowned bee specialist. Not only were bees essential for food production, but according to a newspaper article included in the file, in the spring of 1941 a disease decimated hundreds of thousands of bees in the Reich and the specialist who was supposed to devise the appropriate countermeasure was none other than Frisch.

For Bormann there was no problem. On July 11, 1941, he informed the education minister that Frisch was to retire, according to paragraph 72, the more imperatively so because even after 1933 he was known to have maintained many contacts with Jews, to have declared that German science was harmed by the departure of Jews, and to have attempted to remove from his institute scientists who were known for their anti-Semitic views. In a further letter, on January 31, 1942, Bormann added that Frisch could continue his research even in retirement.49 It remains unclear what compelled the all-powerful chief of the party chancellery to change his mind. On April 27, 1942, however, after lamely referring to new information indicating that retirement would harm Frisch’s research, Bormann instructed the minister of education to postpone it until after the end of the war.50

No matter of any importance in the ongoing anti-Jewish harassment could be settled without Hitler’s consent. In August 1940, as we saw, it was Hitler who gave the green light for implementing the anti-Jewish measures in occupied France. During the same month the Nazi leader authorized Gauleiter Gustav Simon to introduce anti-Jewish legislation in occupied Luxembourg.51 In October he ordered the deportation of the Jews of Baden and the Saar-Palatinate into the Vichy zone, and in January 1941, he agreed to the deportations from Vienna. At approximately the same time Hitler authorized the beginning of the “Aryanizations” in Holland: “Following a presentation by the Reich Commissar” (Seyss-Inquart), the head of the Economic Department of the Wilhelmstrasse wrote on March 1, “the Führer had in principle decided three months ago that the Aryanization plan could be carried out. Reichsleiter Bormann is aware of the current status of the matter.”52 Even more telling in this respect was an issue discussed at lower levels since 1938 and brought up again in 1940: the marking of the Jews living in the Reich with a special sign.

In April and May 1941 the matter resurfaced (probably in view of the forthcoming campaign in the East) on Heydrich and Goebbels’s initiative. Both turned to Göring for an answer, to no avail.53 A few days after the onset of the attack, the Reichsmarschall informed the minister and the chief of the RSHA that the matter had to be submitted to Hitler, whereupon Heydrich asked Bormann for a meeting with the Nazi leader to present the case. Goebbels, on his part, sent a message to the Reichsleiter, emphasizing that he considered the matter “exceptionally urgent and necessary [ausserordentlich dringlich und notwendig].” After expostulating on the manifold difficulties in implementing the anti-Jewish measures as long as the Jews were not outwardly identified, the memorandum, which sums up Goebbels’s view, continued: “As a departure of the Jews [from the Reich] is not to be expected in the near future [da eine baldige Abwanderung der Juden nicht zu erwarten ist] it is essential to mark the Jews…in order to avoid their attempts to influence the morale of the Volksgenossen.”54 As we shall see, in August Hitler agreed to Goebbels’s entreaty—and soon thereafter ordered the “departure” of the Jews.

Throughout the Reich the Jews cowered under the increasing incitement surrounding them and the relentless drive of the authorities to harm and humiliate them by an endless accumulation of new measures. “We live here in such troubled times,” Hertha Feiner wrote to her daughters on March 11, 1941, “that notwithstanding all my longing, I am glad that you have escaped this and can quietly work…. Many teachers have been dismissed: of the 230 teachers, only 100 remain and as many of these have a permanent position [they had worked for the community before 1928]; you can imagine how limited my prospects are [to continue teaching]. It will be decided by April 1. These worries and many more don’t leave me the peace of mind to read.”55

For the time being she was allowed to stay. “Work at the school is very tiring,” she reported on June 1, 1941, “as, due to the dismissal of teachers, the number of our students increases while our salaries decrease. But, the community is in bad shape and nothing can be done about it.”56 A week later Feiner continued to describe the everyday life unfolding around her: “I am glad when nothing special happens, because it’s rarely something good. Aunt Irma works in a factory. She likes it, even if she earns little, because she and her mother have to live somehow…. They have received an affidavit from ‘Amerika’ and hope to emigrate, possibly in half a year. I spoke with the Goldsteins…their daughter is in Palestine but they hear nothing from her.”57

In December 1940 Jochen Klepper had been drafted into the Wehrmacht; his diary was interrupted for the next ten months.


Although the creation of ghettos was an uneven process in the General Government, the concentration of Jews in separate town areas progressed apace throughout early 1941. “At ten o’clock a Jew dropped in from Kielce,” Dawid Rubinowicz noted on April 1. “The same day Jews who have relatives outside the Jewish quarter already left Kielce to go to their families…. Uncle came from Kielce to consider what he should do. Papa told him he should join us for the time being; he’ll do as we do. So he went to order a cart for tomorrow.”58 The first uncle arrived at the Rubinowiczes’ in the early hours of April 3; then, during the day, another uncle arrived: “I wondered where on earth they could find room to stay in our house,” Dawid noted on the third.59 But, to everbody’s surprise the second uncle “thought things over and drove back to the Jewish quarter. We were worried because we know very well he would get nothing to eat there.”60

Indeed, during these same months, hundreds of thousands of Jews lived on the edge of starvation, mainly in the largest ghettos of the Warthegau and the General Government. Among German officials two contrary approaches to the crisis were envisioned. On the one hand the new chief administrator of the Lodz ghetto, Hans Biebow, favored a level of economic activity that would grant at least minimum subsistence to its population; on the other Biebow’s own deputy did not mind letting the Jews starve to death. Greiser opted for Biebow’s policy; Biebow’s deputy, Alexander Palfinger, was transferred to Warsaw.61

The path of reorganization was not clear, however, even after the Gauleiter’s decision to support a “productionist” policy, in Christopher Browning’s terms. Greiser himself displayed an unusual talent for extortion: He levied a 65 percent tax on all Jewish wages. Moreover, local German agencies and businesses withheld raw materials or food from the ghetto (or delivered substandard products and pocketed the difference). It was only in the late spring of 1941 that Biebow was able to impose the regulations he had been demanding: “For working Jews, ‘Polish rations’ were to be a minimum; non-working Jews were to receive the long-promised ‘prison fare.’”62

Rumkowski’s mistakes sometimes added to the chronic starvation. According to a ghetto survivor interviewed immediately after the war, the population was particularly incensed by the potato affair. “A lot of potatoes were brought into the ghetto,” Israel U. told the American psychologist David Boder in a 1946 interview. “When Rumkowski was asked why he didn’t distribute them, he answered: ‘you have no business to meddle in my affairs. I will distribute the potatoes when I want.’ Frosts came and the potatoes became rotten and they had to be thrown away. They were buried. And afterwards for three years people still searched for potatoes at this spot where they lay buried. Moreover, the people talked themselves into believing that they tasted better that way, because the water had evaporated from the potatoes.”63

Yet the witness also recognized that over time some order was introduced into the food distribution system by the same dictatorial chairman: “In the beginning a committee was organized in every [apartment] house; it received the allotment for the entire house, and distributed it to all the people. This was very bad. They stole. But Rumkowski remedied this. There were forty-three district warehouses arranged according to streets. And everybody had a card for bread, a card for vegetables, and so forth. Today, for instance, bread comes out for such and such numbers. One went to the warehouse, the card was clipped, [and the transaction was] entered in the book.”64

Rumkowski’s “rationalization” of the ghetto food distribution system was effective only insofar as supply from the outside was authorized by the Germans; yet, despite a wave of strikes and protests by ghetto workers in the spring of 1941, the chairman did impose a measure of equality among the inhabitants that, as already mentioned, contrasted with the situation in Warsaw. Even the “Elder’s” most adamant ideological opponents noted his initiatives with a derision tempered by acquiescence: “Rumkowski is leaving for Warsaw to bring doctors, and is reorganizing the food-distribution system in the ghetto,” Sierakowiak wrote down on May 13. “The number of food cooperatives is increasing; separate vegetable units are being created, while the bread and other food units are being combined. Creation of new squares, lawns, and even cobblestone and construction works completes the “Spring Program” in the ghetto, marching in ‘glory on the road of ascent and highest achievement.’”65

Even with all the “productivization” efforts—which in Lodz reached a significant scale—the food supply situation never improved beyond chronic starvation for much of the population. We have some knowledge of everyday life from individual records but mainly from the detailed “Chronicle” in which, from January 1941 to July 1944, a group of “official” diarists (in other works, diarists appointed by Rumkowski) regularly wrote down what they considered of significance for “future historians.” At first the writers were Lodz Jews; then, after the deportation from the Reich and the Protectorate in late 1941, Jews from Vienna and Prague were added to the initial group. The chroniclers reported the events of everyday life and used documents assembled in the ghetto archives, a vast and ongoing collection of all available information pertinent to the ghetto, and to the life and work of the megalomaniac Rumkowski. Although they avoided comments on the material they thus kept for history, the chroniclers—by their very presentation of the evidence—told a story whose implications the reader could not miss.66

In the first entry of the “Chronicle,” on January 12, 1941, the authors noted two minor but telling incidents: “Appearing at one of the precincts of the Order Service, an eight-year-old boy filed a report against his own parents, whom he charged with not giving him the bread ration due to him. The boy demanded that an investigation be conducted and that the guilty parties be punished.” And immediately following this entry, the chroniclers recorded another strange occurrence: “The residents of a building found themselves in a very disconcerting situation when, after waking up, they discovered that in the course of the night unknown culprits had stolen…their stairs as well as their handrail and banister.”67

In Warsaw the lack of food also became catastrophic in March 1941. Like his counterpart in the Warthegau, Frank had to make a decision; and he made the same choice as Greiser. A decree of April 19 reorganized the German administration of the ghetto: District Governor Ludwig Fischer appointed the young attorney Heinz Auerswald (a former official in the Department of Internal Affairs of the General Government) as “Commissar for the Jewish district of Warsaw,” directly under his own orders. Moreover, a “Transferstelle for overseeing the ghetto’s economic relations to the exterior” was set up as an independent institution under the management of the banker Max Bischoff.68 Needless to say the new authorities had very little control over the demands and initiatives of the ever-present Security Police and SD.69

It was in this administrative context that Bischoff launched his new economic policy, with some measure of success. According to Raul Hilberg and Stanislaw Staron, the value of exports from the ghetto increased from 400,000 zlotys in June 1941 to 15 million in July 1942, when the deportations started. Most of this production came from Jewish firms and not from German firms in the ghetto employing Jews. The same computation indicates that the number of productively employed Jews in the ghetto rose from 34,000 in September 1941 to more than 95,000 in July 1942.

Yet, despite this “economic upswing,” as in Lodz the minimum food level for the entire ghetto population was never assured.70 The Information Bulletin of the Polish underground published a leading article, on May 23, 1941, that seems to give a faithful description of the situation as seen from the “outside.” “Further crowding has resulted in conditions of ill-health, hunger and monstrous poverty that defy description. Groups of pale and emaciated people wander aimlessly through the overcrowded streets. Beggars sit and lie along the walls and the sight of people collapsing from starvation is common. The refuge for abandoned children takes in a dozen infants every day; every day a few more people die on the street. Contagious diseases are spreading, particularly tuberculosis. Meanwhile the Germans continue to plunder the wealthy Jews. Their treatment of the Jews is always exceptionally inhuman. They torment them and subject them constantly to their wild and bestial amusements.”71

Under such circumstances the natural reaction of most individual members of a group on the scale of a large ghetto would be to concentrate solely on personal survival and that of family members or close friends. This indeed was the common behavior of the average ghetto inhabitant in Warsaw (and anywhere else in Jewish communities under the occupation), according to a keen observer, the Bund leader and ghetto fighter Marek Edelman, among many others.72 Yet these basic reactions were countered by considerable efforts at assistance from the outside, self-help in various guises, the indirectly useful effects of self-interest, and mainly collective attempts to withstand the challenge for the sake of the weakest members of the group, children and youngsters, or for those closest in ideological (political or religious) terms.

Outside help, massively provided by the Joint Distribution Committee (or JDC) allowed for the internal organization of welfare on a significant scale.73 Thus the “Jewish Social Self-Help”—Jüdische Soziale Selbsthilfe, or JSS—started coordinating the efforts of previously independent Jewish welfare agencies throughout Poland. The task of the JSS was overwhelming, although it tried to set priorities, beginning with the neediest: children and the elderly; in its first year of activity it helped some 160,000 people in Warsaw alone by distributing food and other basic necessities.

Tension soon arose between the council and the Warsaw JSS; the latter had to fight every inch of the way to avoid coming under the authority of the Judenrat. Whereas the JSS dealt with ghetto populations in general, the “House Committees,” as their name indicates, organized self-help at the tenement level.74 While the “Joint” was the main funding source of the JSS, the House Committees’ activities were supported by both the JSS and the dues of those tenants who could afford it.75 Moreover some welfare organizations established before the war, such as CENTOS, assisting orphanages, and ORT, concentrating on vocational training, maintained their own activities. In Warsaw none of this, however, would have sufficed without large-scale smuggling as an essential part of “self-help.”

“Heard marvelous stories of the smuggling that goes on via the Jewish graveyard. In one night they transported twenty-six cows by that route,” Ringelblum noted on January 11, 1941.76 A few weeks later Kaplan added his observations: “Smuggling was carried out through all the holes and cracks in the walls, through connecting tunnels in the cellars of buildings on the border, and through all the hidden places unfamiliar to the conqueror’s foreign eyes. The conductors on the Aryan trolleys in particular made fortunes…. Aryan trolleys make no stops inside the ghetto, but that’s not a handicap. The smuggled sack is thrown out at an appointed spot and caught by trustworthy hands. This is the way they smuggle in pork fat, in particular, which the religious leaders have permitted us to use in this time of destruction.”77 The smugglers, or rather the ringleaders, were the first to benefit from these operations. German and Polish guards pocketed substantial bribes—and so, on a lesser scale, did members of the Jewish ghetto police.

On the face of it the German administration fought the smuggling and the ghetto commissar took some measures to make the illegal traffic more difficult.78 Yet “for the most part, smuggling was tolerated, and the measures taken against it were meant only to restrict its magnitude.”79 As for the Jewish Council, it understood perfectly that given the food supply situation, smuggling could not and should not be stopped.80

The smuggling and profiteering of all sorts created a new class: Warsaw’s nouveaux riches thrived—for a while. They had their restaurants and cabarets where, sheltered from the surrounding misery, they enjoyed their ephemeral wealth and mixed with Poles and Germans, often their associates. “At Number 2, Leszno Street,” the Bundist Jacob Celemenski reminisced, “there was now a cabaret called Sztuka [Art]…. When we reached the nightclub the street was dark. My escort suddenly said to me: ‘Be careful not to step on a corpse.’ When I opened the door the light blinded me. Gas lamps were burning in every corner of the crowded cabaret. Every table was covered by a white tablecloth. Fat characters sat at them eating chicken, duck, or fowl. All these foods would be drowned in wine and liquor. The orchestra, in the middle of the nightclub, sat on a small platform. Next to it, a singer performed. These were people who once played before Polish crowds…. The audience crowding the tables was made up of the aristocracy of the ghetto—big-time smugglers, high Polish officers, and all sorts of big shots. Germans who had business dealings with the Jews also came here, dressed in civilian clothes…. The audience ate, drank, and laughed as if it had no worries.”81

Of course the ghetto’s “new class” represented just a minute segment of the population. The majority went hungry, despite smuggling, self-help, House Committees, and packages which—until June 1941—mostly arrived from the Soviet Union or Soviet-occupied Poland, and the like. Increasingly so, potatoes became the basic staple, as in Lodz. “It seems to me,” Hersch Wasser, the secretary and coordinator of Oneg Shabat, recorded on January 3, 1941, “there’s a sound economic basis underlying the plethora of new latke-shops [latkes are potato pancakes, usually prepared for Chanukah]…the public eats one or two latkes instead of breakfast, lunch or supper, and thereby stills its hunger. Bread is becoming a dream, and a hot lunch belongs to the world of fantasy. Things are certainly grave if potato latkes are becoming a national dish.”82

Starvation spread, mainly among refugees from the provinces. The number of deaths from starvation and disease between the closing of the ghetto in November 1940 and the beginning of the deportations in July 1942 may have been as high as 100,000 (at the same time the population was “replenished” by waves of refugees from the provinces and, in the spring of 1942, also by deportees from the Reich). Yet despite the overall misery, maintaining education for children and youngsters remained a constant and partly successful endeavor.

Until 1941 Jewish schools were forbidden in the General Government. After Frank’s agreement to the resumption of Jewish education, schooling became official, and the councils took over, bit by bit, according to local German orders. In Lodz schools reopened in the spring of 1941; in Warsaw, only in November 1941. During the two years or so in which schooling had been prohibited in Warsaw, clandestine schools, run by teachers belonging to all prewar educational institutions, working in common, spread throughout the ghetto.

With younger children the educational and play-center activities faced the formidable obstacle of hunger. The Ringelblum archives include abundant material sent in by teachers and social workers confronted with this insoluble problem. “How do you make an apathetic, hungry child, who is all the time thinking about a piece of bread, interested in something else?” asked one; another wrote that a meal “was a point of departure for any activities in which we would like the children to participate.”83 Yet another volunteer teacher stated after the war: “I tried to give tuition to children living in the same courtyard as myself but my attempt failed because they were hungry.”84

Nonetheless high school and even grade school activity was intense and clandestine libraries in the three languages of the ghetto attracted a vast readership. Children and youngsters had their preferences: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy and Edmondo De Amici’s The Heart.85 To many of these children, though, much of the “normal” world was unknown. According to a survivor’s testimony, “Children confined to the ghetto did not know anything about animals and plants. They didn’t even know what a cow looked like.”86

It seems that one of the favorite books of the adult ghetto population was Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel set during the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks in World War I, telling of the heroism and endurance of a group of Armenians—and of their ultimate rescue.87 In more general terms cultural activities, ideological debates, and any expression of the “life of the mind” became both an instinctive and a willed reaction in the face of daily degradation and an ephemeral refuge from utter misery.

Music played a special role in the larger ghettos, mainly in Warsaw and Lodz. Orchestras were established, and a relatively rich and intense musical life developed. Thus in Warsaw, the initiative of setting up a symphony orchestra came from a few musicians; but, was it their intention “to serve the noble art,” in Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s words, “or to provide joy and pleasure to others? Nothing of the sort—they wanted to earn some money in order to assuage their hunger.”88 An additional reminder of what counted most in ghetto life.

Reich-Ranicki, who enthusiastically and expertly went on to describe the accomplishments of the ghetto musicians, did, at the time, try his hand at occasional pieces of criticism for the German-licensed Gazeta Zydowska, under the pen name Wiktor Hart.89Twenty-one years old in 1941, he came from a Jewish family from Wloclawek but had attended high school in Berlin before being sent back to Poland, in the fall of 1938, during the Nazi expulsion of Polish Jews from the Reich. The family moved to Warsaw, where, after the setting up of the council, Reich-Ranicki, fluent in German, soon found a position as chief of the “Translation and Correspondence Bureau.”90

His comments regarding the avid attendance at the symphony concerts shed further light on what could be surmised about cultural life in the ghetto in general. “It was not defiance that brought the hungry and the wretched into the concert halls, but a longing for solace and elevation—however hackneyed these words, they are appropriate. Those who were ceaselessly fearing for their lives, those who were vegetating in the ghetto, were seeking shelter and refuge for an hour or two, searching for some form of security and perhaps even happiness. They needed a counter-world.”91

In Lodz, too, musical life was intense. During the first three weeks of March 1941, for example, the ghetto “Chronicle” mentions concerts on the first, the fifth, the eighth, the eleventh and the thirteenth: “On the 13th, which was Purim,” the “Chronicle” recorded, “there was a violin performance by Miss Bronislawa Rotsztat, as well as a symphony concert conducted by Dawid Bajgelman in which Hazomir [“the nightingale,” in Hebrew] chorus participated. On Saturday, March 15, that program was repeated in a performance for invited guests, the chairman chief among them. This performance had a special ceremonial quality and lasted until ten o’clock in the evening. On March 17, the School Department organized a performance of music and vocals for schoolchildren. On the 18th, the 20th and the 22nd of March there were symphony concerts for factory workers and, finally, on the 22nd, there was a symphony concert dedicated to classical music and conducted by Theodor Ryder.”92

Grassroots intellectual (ideological) activity was probably even more intense than public cultural manifestations. On May 8, 1941, Sierakowiak recorded his intention to meet on that same day with three other high school members of the [communist] “all youth unit of lecturers” to “discuss Lenin’s famous work, State and Revolution, and then…lecture on it to all other active youth units in the ghetto.”93 On May 10, “Comrade Ziula Krengiel lectured on the significance of the first of May holiday…. In the afternoon,” Sierakowiak added, “we had a meeting with girls, during which our most active members (Niutek, Jerzyk and I) had a difficult time explaining the concept of surplus value.”94

Among the young Lodz ghetto Marxists, intellectual instruction went along with organized action and action itself was induced by misery: “A student from the same grade as ours died from hunger and exhaustion yesterday,” Sierakowiak recorded on May 13. “He is the third victim of the class.”95 Sierakowiak led the action against his school’s authorities to get additional food. He won, in principle at least.96 On the sixteenth he was examined by the school doctor: “She was terrified at how thin I am. She immediately gave me a referral for X-rays. Perhaps I will now be able to get a double portion of soup in school. In fact, five such soups would be even better, but the two will do me some good, too. In any case, one soup is nothing.”97

It was among the politically organized “youth movements” that ideological and general educational activities naturally were the most widespread and systematic. From the beginning of the occupation to the end of 1941, these activities were hardly interfered with; they were of no interest to the Germans. And thus, in the larger ghettos, the youth movements created a distinct subculture: The anti-Zionist Bund youth movement Zukunft (Future), the Zionist-Revisionist Betar, and the Center-Left and mainly left-wing “pioneering” Zionist youth, each created a world of its own.98

Organized Jewish youth had been left to its own devices following the hasty departure of the envoys from Eretz Israel and of much of the senior political or communal leadership, at the beginning of the war. Whereas Bundist youth stayed in close contact with a senior leadership that remained in occupied Poland (or, for a while, in the Soviet Union), the Zionist youth movements gradually lost touch with party headquarters in Palestine, despite their own entreaties that they keep in contact and receive help. The ideological fervor of this Zionist youth did not falter—it was possibly even heightened by the surrounding circumstances; the response from Eretz Israel, however, soon dwindled to increasingly unrealistic and perfunctory advice and instructions, and often, as we already saw from Zivia Lubetkin’s letter, it lapsed into silence.99 Such indifference created a growing rift and soon turned into a desperate sense of independence among the local youth leaders, the oldest of whom were in their early twenties at most.100

While the ongoing and intense debates that divided movements sharing, for example, the same Zionist-socialist outlook (like Hashomer Hatzair, Gordonia, or Dror) appear incomprehensible from hindsight, the considerable effort invested in these ideological-cultural activities and the publication of a large number of underground newspapers and periodicals (also geared toward the general Jewish population)—either in Polish, Yiddish, or Hebrew—became a form of resistance and, possibly, a psychologically necessary preparation for the armed resistance of later days.101

The council remained at the center of ghetto life. By mid-1941, the Warsaw Judenrat, for example, had become a tentacular bureaucracy employing some 6,000 people in a whole array of departments (almost thirty at some point); its achievements were real given the dearth of means, and yet, as already mentioned, it encountered intense hostility among most of the Jewish population, a hostility that grew as time went by. “The Community Council is an abomination in the eyes of the Warsaw community,” the acerbic Kaplan noted on April 23, 1941. “When the Council is so much as mentioned, everyone’s blood begins to boil. If it were not for fear of the Authorities there would be bloodshed…. According to rumor, the President is a decent man. But the people around him are the dregs of humanity. There are two or three exceptions who have no influence…. All the rest are the scum of the [Jewish] public…. They are known as scoundrels and corrupt persons, who did not avoid ugly dealings even in the period before the war…. Everything is done in the name of the President. But in truth, everything is done without his knowledge and even without his consent, and perhaps also against his decisions and wishes.”102 A ghetto joke noted by Shimon Huberband expressed the gist of the populace’s attitude: “A contemporary Jewish prayer—O Lord, help me become a chairman or a vice-chairman, so that I can allocate funds to myself.”103 Above and beyond the anger triggered by widespread corruption, popular resentment focused particularly on forced-labor conscription, taxation, and the brutality of the Jewish police.

While Jewish workers were increasingly employed by ghetto workshops, “labor battalions,” set up by the councils, were daily marched to work. Moreover, let us remember, in Upper Silesia tens of thousands of local Jews were toiling in the special labor camps of “Organization Schmelt,” and Jewish slave laborers were ruthlessly driven by the SS in the eastern part of the General Government, mainly in Globocnik’s Lublin district. There the laborers were kept digging antitank trenches and constructing a defense line for no clear military purpose. The OKH had agreed to the enterprise, but its implementation was left entirely in the hands of Himmler’s henchmen.104

The forced laborers in eastern Poland, like the others, had at first been snatched off the streets of the Jewish quarters or ghettos, then subjected to compulsory draft by Frank’s decree of October 26, 1939, and, as we saw, later recruited by the councils. Many would be shipped off to the Lublin labor camps for periods that could stretch for weeks or even months. According to the report of a medical commission that visited the Belzec work camp in the Lublin district in September 1940, “The barracks are totally unfit to hold so many people. They are dark, filthy and overrun with lice. About thirty percent of the workers have no shoes, pants, or shirts. All of them sleep on the ground, without straw. The roofs leak everywhere, and the windows have no panes. Space is terribly lacking: for example, within a space of five by six meters, some seventy-five people sleep on the ground on top of each other…. Soap is lacking, and even water is hard to get. The sick lie and sleep together with the healthy. At night, it is forbidden to leave the barracks so that all needs have to be fulfilled on the spot. Thus, it is no wonder that sickness spreads. Yet it is extremely difficult to be excused from work, even for a day. Everybody, including the sick, has to report for work.”105

Czerniaków was well aware of the situation in the labor camps. The Lublin district was the worst, but conditions in the Warsaw area were not much better. On May 10, 1941, after receiving a report from two council members who had just been allowed a short visit, he noted: “The camp huts have spoiled straw to sleep on and the wind is blowing through the walls. The workers are shivering at night. There are no showers and restrooms. The workers’ boots were ruined in wet sand and clay. There are no drugs or bandages. Treatment of the workers by the Lagerschutz [camp guards] in many localities is bad. Meissner [the commander of the camp guards in the area in which the visit took place—the Kampinos barracks] did issue orders forbidding the beatings of the workers.” And yet, the ghetto poor kept volunteering, in the hope of receiving some money and some food. In the same entry, Czerniaków added: “Wages are not paid…. Everything depends on nutrition.” Barely a fraction of the promised food was distributed.106

Money would protect you from the labor camps. “If you have not appeared before the [mustering] commission yet,” Wasser noted on April 28, 1941, “you can go to one of the doctors, pay down 150 zl. [zlotys] on the fee, and he will find some medical reason for requesting your release…. And for an additional 200 zl., a work card is miraculously whisked into your home without toil or trouble. And if, God forbid, you have already undergone the medical examination and—o, woe!—been found ‘tauglich’ [capable], the procedure costs around 500 zl. for a certificate of being immune, inviolable.”107

As for taxes, particularly in Warsaw, they were blatantly unjust. The council had opted for indirect taxation of the ghetto’s most basic commodities and services, instead of direct taxation of the wealthy inhabitants; it meant that the poorest segments of the population (the immense majority) were carrying most of the tax burden. The wealthy inhabitants, the big smugglers, the profiteers of various ilks, practically avoided all direct levies on their assets.108

Possibly the most common target of popular anger was the Jewish police, the Jewish uniformed “order service,” which in principle was under the orders of the council and of the Germans. In Warsaw, the ghetto police was some 2,000 men strong and headed by a convert, a former lieutenant colonel in the Polish police, Józef Szerynski.

The policemen were mainly young men from the “better” class, from the “intelligentsia” at times. They had the necessary connections to get the coveted jobs, and once in uniform, they did not hesitate to enforce the most unpopular orders issued by the councils (tax collection, escorting men to forced labor, guarding the inner fence of the ghetto, confiscations of property and the like) or by the Germans, often brutally so. Although, the policemen argued at the time—and after the war—that things would have been much worse if their jobs had been solely implemented by Germans or Poles, there is no doubt that “considerable segments of the ghetto police were morally and materially corrupt, that they enriched themselves on account of the oppressed and persecuted inmates when carrying out their assignments.”109

Nothing of this stigma is apparent in the memoir that Calel Perechodnik, a Jewish policeman from Ottwock, near Warsaw, wrote in 1944, shortly before his death on the “Aryan” side of the city. More precisely, nothing is apparent as long as the memoir deals with the predeportation period (before the summer of 1942). “In February 1941,” Perechodnik recorded, “seeing that the war was not coming to an end and in order to be free from the roundup for labor camps, I entered the ranks of the Ghetto Polizei.”110 The Ottwock Jewish policeman had little to report about his daily activities: “And what did I do during this time? Truthfully speaking, nothing. I didn’t go out to seize people because I found it unbecoming. I was afraid of what people would say. In any case, I did not have the ‘sporting instinct’ for that…I collected the bread quota at the Jewish bakery and…distributed it at the command post or for the functionaries of the Ghetto Polizei.”111 Too tame to be entirely trustworthy? Probably.

For the Germans, Jewish policemen were as contemptible as any other Jews. Mary Berg, a Jewish girl who lived in the ghetto with her American mother (and was allowed to emigrate in 1941), noted on January 4, 1941: “Yesterday, I myself saw a Nazi gendarme ‘exercise’ a Jewish policeman near the passage from the little to the big ghetto on Chlodna street. The young man finally lost his breath but the Nazi still forced him to fall and rise until he collapsed in a pool of blood.”112

The Germans also bypassed the Warsaw council and the Jewish police, and supported their own Jewish agents, variously involved with the Gestapo. Such, for example, were the “Thirteen” (the name derived from the address of their headquarters on 13 Leszno Street), a group of some three hundred shady characters, under the command of one Abraham Ganzweich, whose official job was to fight price hiking and other forms of corruption. Ganzweich was an informer, and so were the owners of the horse-drawn tram service, Kohn and Heller. Although Ganzweich did attempt to achieve some legitimacy in the community by supporting “social work” and “cultural activities,”113 he was considered with much suspicion by Czerniaków and many others.114 Most informers, big or small, did not report on political life in the ghetto; they denounced the inhabitants who had hidden some jewelry or cash and usually received a “compensation” from the Germans for their services.115

The threat of disease and starvation never disappeared. Two reports on the food and health situation in the Warsaw ghetto, one German and the other Jewish, were written at approximately the same time, in September 1941. The German report, signed by Commissar Auerswald, covered the first eight months of the year and tallied almost exactly with the figures established by the ghetto statisticians.116 The monthly number of deaths grew approximately sixfold from January (898) to August 1941 (5,560). In both reports stabilization was noted in August and September.

The Jewish statisticians meant essentially to compare the mortality of children under fifteen with that of adults. According to the results collected from January to September 1941, while the death of children grew at a slower rate at first, it overtook that of the general population in the last four months. According to the ghetto statisticians’ interpretation, at the outset parents were still able to protect their children from starvation; soon, however, the worsening overall food situation made any such efforts impossible.117

The dramatic deterioration of the children’s situation at the beginning of the summer of 1941 found an immediate expression in the diarists’ entries. “A special class of beggars,” Ringelblum recorded on July 11, 1941, “consists of those who beg after nine o’clock at night. You stand at your window, and suddenly see new faces, beggars you haven’t seen all day. They walk out right in the middle of the street, begging for bread. Most of them are children. In the surrounding silence of night, the cries of hungry beggar children are terribly insistent and, however hard your heart, eventually you have to throw a piece of bread down to them—or else leave the house. Those beggars are completely unconcerned about curfews and you can hear their voices late at night at eleven or even at twelve. They are afraid of nothing and of no one…. It is a common thing for beggar children like these to die on the sidewalk at night. I was told about such a horrible scene…where a six-year-old beggar boy lay gasping all night, too weak to roll over to the piece of bread that had been thrown down to him from the balcony.”118

Given the conditions prevailing in the Warsaw ghetto during the summer of 1941, however, death—of children or of adults—was increasingly becoming a matter of indifference. Typhus was spreading, and there was little the hospitals—“places of execution” according to the director of the ghetto health department—could do: Either the patients died from the epidemics or from the lack of food at the hospital.119

“In front of 16 Krochmalna Street,” Czerniaków recorded on July 24, 1941, “I was stopped by a commander of a military sanitary column and shown the corpse of a child in an advanced stage of decay. According to information obtained on the site, the corpse, already decomposed, was abandoned there yesterday. On the basis of subsequent investigation it was established that the body was left behind by its own mother, Chudesa Borensztajn…and that the child’s name was Moszek, age 6. In the same apartment there was the body of Molka Ruda, age 43, in which rigor mortis had not yet set in, and in the courtyard of the same house lay the body of Chindel Gersztenzang…. The sanitary column stopped a passing funeral cart belonging to the funeral firm ‘Eternity’ and ordered the removal of the remains.”120

Because increasing numbers of Wehrmacht units were once again moving to Poland in the early stages of Aufbau Ost from the summer of 1940 onward, soldiers’ descriptions of their encounters with the Jewish population streamed steadily back to the Reich. On September 11 Private HN described, in the usual terms, the “disgusting look” of the thousands of Jews he was encountering. The mostly Orthodox Jews he described apparently provided quite a show for the amusement of throngs of soldiers standing around (zum Gaudium der Zuschauer), mainly when these Jews had to perform some heavy work.121 For Private E his observation of the Jews led to some radical conclusions: “When one looks at these people,” he wrote on November 17, “one gets the impression that they really have no justification for living on God’s earth” (dass die wirklich keine Berechtigung haben, überhaupt auf Gottes Erdboden zu leben).122 The more extreme opinions were apparently quite widespread, as indicated in a letter written by Cpl. WH, on May 28, 1941: “As I was still having dinner, the conversation moved to the Jewish question in the General Government and in the world; for me, listening to such conversations is very interesting. To my amazement, everybody agreed in the end that the Jews have to disappear completely from the world” (Zu meinem Erstaunen waren sich schliesslich doch alle einig, dass die Juden ganz von der Welt verschwinden müssen).123

On September 9, 1940, Dr. Zygmunt Klukowski recorded an event that took place in front of his hospital. An elderly Jew was standing across the street, talking to some Jewish women. A group of German soldiers came by: “Suddenly one of the soldiers grabbed the old man and threw him headfirst into the cellar [of a burned-out house in front of which the Jews were standing]…. The soldiers calmly walked away. I was puzzled by this incident, but a few minutes later the man was brought to me for treatment. I was told that he forgot to take his hat off when the Germans passed by…. During the last few days the Germans have again begun beating Jews on the streets.”124

The situation in the large ghettos was not different from that in the “provinces.” On February 14, 1941, Kaplan noted an incident on Karmelicka Street. Suddenly the street was empty of the crowds that had filled it throughout the day. Two Germans had appeared, one of them with a whip in hand: They discovered a peddler who had not managed to flee in time. “The unfortunate peddler became a target for the blows of the murdering beasts. He fell to the ground at once, and one of them left him and went away. But not so his companion. The very physical weakness of his victim inflamed the soldier. As soon as the peddler fell, he began stamping on him and beating him mercilessly with his whip…. The beaten man lay flat, without a breath of life. But the tormentor would not let him alone. It would be no exaggeration to say that he beat him without stopping, without pity, for about twenty minutes. It was hard to comprehend the secret of this sadistic phenomenon.”125

In an unrelated entry on May 10, 1941, Ringelblum described, as already alluded to, how dead Jews were becoming a sight not to be missed by German tourists: “The dead are buried at night between 1 and 5 a.m., without shrouds—in white paper which is later removed—and in mass graves,” Ringelblum recorded on May 10, 1941. “Various groups of [German] excursionists—military men, private citizens—keep visiting the graveyard. Most of them show no sympathy at all for the Jews. On the contrary some of them maintain that the mortality among the Jews is too low. Others take all kinds of photographs. The shed where dozens of corpses lie during the day awaiting burial at night is particularly popular.”126


While the Germans were still searching for some way of expelling the Jews from the Continent, the struggle against “the Jew” developed apace. Anti-Semitic propaganda and major channels of anti-Jewish political agitation were mainly in Goebbels’s hands, although, as we saw, Rosenberg, Himmler, and Ribbentrop never abandoned the field to the tireless propaganda minister. Apart from his major anti-Semitic films, it may be remembered that one of Goebbels’s most effective channels for reaching millions of Germans were the weekly UFA newsreels. During the first half of 1941, as the onslaught against the Soviet Union was approaching, the OKW propaganda units were particularly active in gathering material throughout occupied Poland (the Lodz ghetto seems to have been a favorite of PK film crews). The material would be of major use after the beginning of the campaign.127 It is altogether hard to assess whether the deluge of press attacks against the Jews was more or less effective than the ongoing barrage of sickening images, and whether both had the same effect as the constant anti-Jewish radio propaganda, but—directly or indirectly—the overall orchestration of the campaign followed the instructions of the Propaganda Ministry.

At times, of course, the propaganda minister had to assert his presence. Thus, when Das Reich was launched in May 1940, as Germany’s highbrow, even modestly independent political-cultural weekly, Goebbels had no direct say regarding the decisions of Editor in Chief Rolf Reinhardt. Before long, though, the minister was signing a weekly editorial in the most successful of the regime’s publications and these editorials carried his major written anti-Jewish attacks (usually read on the same day on the radio).128Not that Das Reich suffered from a paucity of its own independent contributions to anti-Jewish incitement. In the spring of 1941 a journalist, Elisabeth Noelle, published an article on the Jewish-dominated American press, and her colleague Erich-Peter Neumann, offered a very “evocative” description of the Warsaw ghetto;129 the two, connected by many bonds, were to become the luminaries of public opinion research in postwar West Germany. The average tone of these in-depth studies of the ghetto Jews can be surmised from a report by Hubert Neun about scenes from the Warsaw ghetto published in Das Reich on March 9, 1941: “There surely cannot be a place on the continent,” Neun told his German readers, “that offers such a graphic cross-section of the chaos and degeneracy of the Semitic mass. At a glance one can take in the enormous, repellent variety of all the Jewish types of the East: a gathering of the asocial, it floods out of dirty houses and greasy shops, up and down the streets, and behind the windows the series of bearded, spectacled rabbinical faces continues—a dreadful panorama.”130

Actually Goebbels’s tentacles extended well beyond his obvious sphere of activity. Among other forays into domains not his, the minister supported Grundmann’s institute in its campaign to “de-Judaize” Christian teaching. While the propaganda chief was vilifying the Jews in the political sphere, another luminary of the Jena theological faculty and a colleague of Grundmann’s at the institute, Wolf Meyer-Erlach, was touring occupied Europe to demonstrate that Judaism had poisoned England by way of the English Reformation: It explained the English war against Germany. The lectures were published by Goebbels’s ministry.131

Of course the regime’s ongoing struggle against “the Jew” demanded constant research about its object—and research there was. It encompassed every imaginable domain, from physics and mathematics to musicology, from theology to history, from genetics and anthropology to philosophy and literature. It drew on a formidable amount of “scholarship” accumulated mainly since the late nineteenth century, which grew into a torrent during the Weimar period and a boundless flood in the prewar years of Hitler’s regime.132Part of this work became affiliated with one of two major and mutually hostile institutions: Each had its party patronage, its bureaucratic supporters, and its foreign ties.

The establishment of Walter Frank’s “Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany” in 1935 in Berlin, under the aegis of the education minister, did not initially create any problem, nor did that of its Munich branch, which was entirely devoted to the Jewish question and led by the young and ambitious Dr. Wilhelm Grau. In 1938 however, Frank, probably annoyed by Grau’s self-importance and growing independence, dismissed him. Grau soon found his way to a new center that was about to start its activities in Frankfurt, Rosenberg’s “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question,” actively supported by the city’s mayor, Fritz Krebs.133 The Frankfurt institute was to be the first unit of the “Hohe Schule,” the party university, Rosenberg’s pet project.

The institute was inaugurated on March 25, 1941, and its acting director was none other than Wilhelm Grau. On the opening evening a veritable who’s who of European anti-Semitism (Alexander Cuza from Romania, Sano Mach from Slovakia, Vidkun Quisling from Norway, and Anton Mussert from Holland, among others) and party dignitaries, albeit no first-rank figure, congregated in the Römersaal to listen to Rosenberg’s diatribe against the “Jewish poison,” which was now being rigorously analyzed by German science. Rosenberg stressed that the victories of the Wehrmacht had allowed the establishment in Frankfurt of the “largest library on Jewish matters in the world.” In his closing address, two days later, the Reichsleiter described the political goal sought by Germany in regard to the Jews: their complete expulsion from Europe. The scientific part of the inauguration ceremonies took place on March 26 and 27.134

Together with Heinz-Peter Seraphim, the main Nazi specialist on Eastern European Jewry, Grau had taken over a party periodical specializing in the “anti-Jewish struggle,” Weltkampf [The World Struggle], and made it into the official publication of the new institute. The periodical, which had undergone a series of changes since its founding in 1924, now became “academic”; but its subtitle, Die Judenfrage in Geschichte und Gegenwart (The Jewish Question in History and in the Present), indicated that its guidelines remained the same. “Weltkampf,” Grau wrote in his first editorial, “is going to be the mouthpiece of German and European scholarship…. Scholarship, too, today more than at any other time, looks upon this [anti-Jewish] work as a ‘world struggle’, a war that is inevitable for the peoples that are aware of their own unique characteristics.”135

In his speech at the inaugural conference, Seraphim did not leave any doubts in the minds of his audience: Neither ghettoization nor a Jewish “reservation” in the East could be considered a solution: The city ghetto could not supply itself with either manufactured goods, raw materials, fuel, or food. Consequently the entire supply would have to be imported. These imports could be small per capita and not exceed the subsistence minimum, and yet in their totality they represented a major burden; the Jews, in short, would be fed and supported by the non-Jews.

Such difficulties might be met by assigning a larger territory to the Jews; the Lublin reservation, for example. “This plan,” Seraphim conceded, “looked fascinating at first glance, but there were also difficulties to be reckoned with. The territory could not become self-supporting. Furthermore, 5,000,000 Jews would have to be moved into this reservation and 2,700,000 non-Jews would have to be removed. But in Europe, there is no place for them. This means,” he exclaimed indignantly, “that non-Jews would have to be compelled to emigrate from Europe in order to settle Jews in Europe.” Moreover, guarding the frontiers of such a giant ghetto would involve colossal expenditures. Seraphim finally emphasized: “Through legislation and administrative measures, the Jews in the cities are to be replaced by non-Jews to the degree in which qualified non-Jews are available for this substitutionthe Jew must yield wherever an equally qualified non-Jew is available.”136

The other speakers were more explicit. “The dangerous Jewish influence in Europe,” Walter Gross, head of the racial policy office of the NSDAP, explained, “could be fought only by way of total geographical removal.”137 And, for Wilhelm Grau, “The twentieth century, which at its beginning saw the Jew at the summit of his power, will at its end not see Israel anymore because the Jews will have disappeared from Europe.”138

From the outset the Frankfurt institute looked for alliances with other kindred institutions beyond the Reich’s borders. Thus Grau openly welcomed the development of research about Eastern European Jewry at the Institute for German Study of the East (Institut für Deutsche Ostarbeit) in Krakow, set up in one of the buildings of the Jagellonian University under the direction of Fritz Arlt and Heinrich Gottong.139

In the face of the massive Rosenberg offensive, Walter Frank did not concede defeat easily. Volumes 5 and 6 of the Reich institute’s Forschungen zur Judenfrage (Research Studies on the Jewish Question) were hastily readied and publicly presented to Keitel just ahead of the official inauguration of Rosenberg’s institute.140 Rosenberg tried to have Frank boycotted by the German press; in the meantime, however, Goebbels had opened the pages of Das Reich to Frank for an article on “The Jews and the War.”141

In December 1940 Frankfurt mayor Krebs, Rosenberg’s ally, sent two of his main museum directors to Paris on a scouting expedition. The envoys were given clear instructions: They had to make sure that art “which belonged to Frankfurt should not get into other hands.”142 With money allocated by the city, the Frankfurt emissaries started buying in France, Belgium, and Holland; they knew that in Germany this art would fetch five- or sixfold higher prices.

In the spring of 1941 the potential benefits became even greater, and Krebs’s delegates were back in Paris in February, March, and April.143 The mayor explained the buying spree to the city council on March 31: “In my visits to France and Belgium, I heard from various agencies that art dealers make pilgrimages to Paris in droves and buy whatever can be bought. What is cheap for the dealers is right for the city administrations. That is why we have also gone for these art treasures. Such favorable conditions must be taken advantage of by Frankfurt…. I know that other city administrations are buying whatever they can get…the acquisitions we made up to now have been a profitable business for us. These are unique occasions. One has to be clever and be the first on the market.”144 The mayor did not need to explain the circumstances that facilitated such easy cleverness: The market was replete with art objects sold by Jews, fleeing for their lives.

Krebs was following in the steps of much greater collectors than German city administrations. On June 30, 1940, five days after the armistice with France, General Keitel had informed the military commander of Paris that “the Führer ordered the safe-keeping of all art objects and historical documents belonging to individuals, and Jews in particular.”145 Such an order had indeed been given by Hitler to Ribbentrop, who conveyed it to the newly appointed German ambassador to France, Otto Abetz. Within weeks Abetz’s men pounced on art collections (which the French had moved to Loire castles to protect them) and confiscated whatever belonged to Jewish owners, particularly the Rothschilds. Before the summer was over, some 1,500 Jewish-owned paintings had been transferred to a depot belonging to the embassy and a curator arrived from Berlin to start the inventory of the booty.146 On September 17, 1940, the authority to impound “ownerless property” was delegated by Hitler to Rosenberg and his “Kommando.”147

By March 1941, Rosenberg could report to his master that a special train put at his disposal by Göring and carrying art objects having belonged to Jews in France had arrived at Neuschwanstein (in Bavaria). The twenty-five freight cars contained some four thousand pieces “of the highest artistic value.” Moreover, the Reichsmarschall had already sent two “special freight cars” to Munich with some of the main pieces that had belonged to the Rothschilds.148 Some of Hitler’s acquisitions were earmarked for the supermuseum he planned to set up in Linz; others were handed out as gifts to his German and foreign devotees; some of the best pieces he kept for himself.

The plunder was unconcealed. On May 18, 1941, Ulrich von Hassell mentioned that Elsa Bruckmann (one of Hitler’s earliest supporters) noticed that sizable amounts of French antique furniture were being loaded onto trucks in front of the Prinz-Karl Palast in Munich. The owner of the moving company, whom she knew, told her that the furniture was being sent to Obersalzberg (Hitler’s mountain retreat). Had it been bought? she asked; “So to say bought,” he replied, “but if you were to give me 100RM for this Louis XVI desk, it would be a good price.149

For ordinary Wehrmacht members the booty may have been less grand, yet being an occupier had its advantages: “We live here in a house that had belonged to a Jewish emigrant,” Sgt. HH wrote from France on August 13, 1940. A great amount of silver tableware will no doubt find a new owner. I think that, slowly, the pieces will reach the homeland. That’s war.”150

The SS Reichsführer did not collect art or silverware. His looting was more directly related to his professional activities: At the end of 1940 he had the entire skull collection of eighteenth-century scientist Franz Joseph Gall transferred from Paris to the racial-biological institute of Tübingen University.151


In his January 30, 1941, speech, Hitler concluded his prophecy of anti-Jewish retribution by expressing the hope that an increasing number of Europeans would follow the German anti-Semitic lead: “Already now,” he declared, “our racial awareness penetrates one people after the other and I hope that also those who today stand in enmity against us, will recognize one day their greater internal enemy and then join in a common front with us: the front against the international Jewish exploitation and corruption of nations.”152 As he mentioned the growth of anti-Semitism, the Nazi leader probably had in mind the events that had occurred in Bucharest just a few days beforehand.

On January 21, 1941, the Romanian capital had been shaken by a brief and abortive attempt by the SS-supported Iron Guard to wrest power from its ally, the dictatorial head of state, Marshal Ion Antonescu. During their three-day rampage, Horia Sima’s “legionnaries” first and foremost vented their rage upon the Jews of the city. “The stunning thing about the Bucharest bloodbath,” Mihail Sebastian recorded a few days after the events, “is the quite bestial ferocity of it, apparent even in the dry official statement that ninety-three persons (person being the latest euphemism for Jew) were killed on the night of Tuesday the 21st in Jilava forest. But what people say is much more devastating. It is now considered absolutely certain that the Jews butchered at Straulesti abattoir were hanged by the neck on hooks normally used for beef carcasses. A sheet of paper was stuck to each corpse: ‘Kosher Meat.’ As for those killed in Jilava Forest, they were first undressed (it would have been a pity for clothes to remain there), then shot and thrown on top of one another.”153 The guard was crushed, and its leaders fled to Germany, but their anti-Jewish rage was deeply anchored in Romanian society.

In great part Romanian anti-Semitism shared the basic aspects of anti-Jewish agitation throughout the eastern part of the Continent (except for the USSR), with, as mentioned, some differences between countries or areas of growing modernization and those that remained essentially traditional peasant societies. Whereas in Romania the “Old Kingdom” (the Regat) belonged to the first category, the “lost provinces” of Bukovina and Bessarabia belonged to the second. In that sense Romanian anti-Semitism reached some of its most vitriolic manifestations and expressions in the more developed parts of the country, among the incipient native middle class, among students and intellectuals, and in the ultranationalist military establishment.

It was widely believed that the 375,000 Jews living in Romania in early 1941 were guilty of the loss of Bessarabia and Bukovina to the Soviet Union in July 1940 and of northern Transylvania to Hungary. These territorial changes, needless to say, had been arranged by Germany in its secret agreement with the USSR and in its arbitration between Hungary and Romania in the summer of 1940. In any case, these latest accusations were but the tip of the iceberg of Romanian anti-Jewish hatred.

As in other East European countries, the very foundation of Romanian attitudes toward the Jews was nurtured by virulent religious anti-Judaism, spewed, in this case, by the Romanian Orthodox Church. This brand of religious hostility had first flourished among the peasantry before spreading to the new urban middle classes, where it acquired its economic and mainly nationalist dimensions.154 “Romanianism” mainly targeted ethnic and cultural minorities in its struggle for domination of the borderland provinces, which were considered as rightfully belonging to Greater Romania: The Jews were deemed foreign and hostile both ethnically and culturally, and in the struggle for Romanianism they were accused of siding with the Hungarians or the Russians.

Even before World War I the National Christian Party of Alexander Cuza and Nicolae Jorga, both highly respected intellectuals, demanded the exclusion of Jews from Romanian society. On the morrow of the war, after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and Béla Kun’s short-lived Communist regime in Hungary, Judeo-communism was added as a major element to the already explosive anti-Jewish mix. In the words of Andrei Petre, a Romanian sociologist writing in 1928: “Our young people confine nationalism particularly to anti-Semitism,…they attribute more of a destructive than a creative, constructive note to it…. They demand the settlement of the Jewish question even by violent means and put forward as immediate legal measures the removal of Jews from the army and administration…and the numerus clausus in order to limit the number of Jews in the universities, where the country’s ruling class is being trained.”155

Shortly before Petre wrote his analysis, a movement born among the most extreme anti-Semitic students and baptized by its leader, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, the “Legion of the Archangel Michael,” gave a new and radical political framework to the most extreme expression of anti-Jewish hatred. The “Iron Guard,” as the legionary movement became known, soon expanded its constituency to wide segments of Rumanian society, from the peasantry to the urban intelligentsia. One of the peculiar characteristics of Iron Guard ideology was its fanatical, quasimystical identification with Romanian Orthodox Christianity, including of course the most virulent Christian hatred of Jews. Thus, in September 1941, the journalist Mihai Mirescu wrote an editorial significantly titled “The Student Church,” in which he emphasized: “The anti-Semitism of the young generation was not only racial struggle. It asserted the necessity of spiritual war, the Jews representing in their spirit amoral materialism, and the only salvation being embodied in Christianity.”156

The accession of the Nazis to power had buoyed Codreanu’s troops. The appointment by the Romanian monarch, King Carol II, of an openly anti-Semitic right-wing government (the Goga-Cuza government, headed by Alexander Cuza and Octavian Goga) in the mid-thirties did not outmaneuver the “legionnaries,” notwithstanding a spate of anti-Jewish decrees. The king then decided to crush his radical opponents: Codreanu was assassinated at the end of 1938 and mass executions of guardists followed.157

The turn to dictatorial measures did not save Carol’s regime. The loss of Bessarabia and Bukovina to the Soviet Union in July 1940 accelerated the monarch’s downfall, and his use of anti-Semitic measures to placate his right-wing enemies also petered out: “There is reason to believe,” the U.S. minister in Bucharest, Franklin Mott Gunther, commented on July 2, 1940, that regarding measures against the Jews “more serious leaders are counseling calm and caution…while other Government officials are pursuing the traditional policy in Southeastern Europe of using anti-Semitic agitation to cloak from the people at large Government inefficiency and ineptitude. Very strict instructions are being issued by the Government however, to avoid provocative acts.”158

On September 6, 1940, a coup engineered by the army and by the Iron Guard expelled the King and put the commander in chief of the army, Ion Antonescu, and the Iron Guard’s new leader, Horia Sima, in power in a so-called legionary regime. On October 1 Gunther reported about a conversation with the Iron Guard chief, now vice president of the Council of Ministers: “Our conversation turned briefly to the subject of the Jews. After asserting, to my surprise, that the legionaries had swung to the support of the Axis because it is anti-Jewish, he went on to say that he personally was anti-Jewish because the Jews had succeeded in obtaining a strangle-hold upon every branch of Rumanian life. He warned me that they probably were trying to do the same thing in America and would not be convinced that a serious Jewish problem does not exist in the United States.” Horia Sima assured Gunther that any anti-Jewish measures would be carried out by “pacific means.”159

After the January 1941 massacres, Gunther could not help to vent his indignation, even in an official dispatch: “It makes one sick at heart,” he wrote to the secretary of state on January 30, “to be accredited to a country where such things can happen even though the real faults of inspiration and encouragement lie elsewhere” [Germany].160

The anti-Semitic violence in Romania in early 1941 was but an indication of what was about to happen on local initiative in much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans with the beginning of the war against the Soviet Union. In various stages and diverse political and strategic circumstances, local hatred of Jews and German murder policies were soon to mix in a particularly lethal brew.


A Hitler-Pétain meeting took place in the little town of Montoire, on October 24, 1940: “Collaboration” between Vichy France and the Reich was officially proclaimed. Yet on December 13 Laval was dismissed by the elderly marshal. The turmoil was brief. German pressure and internal constraints set Vichy back on track: In early 1941, Darlan replaced the moderate Pierre-Étienne Flandin as the head of government, and the collaboration with Germany tightened. Anti-Jewish measures spread.

In February 1941, out of the 47,000 foreigners imprisoned in French concentration camps, 40,000 were Jews.161 Aryanization progressed apace. Jewish businesses were increasingly put under the control of “French” supervisors (commissaires-gérants) who had, in fact, full power to decide the businesses’ fate. Once the commissaires-gérants had taken over, yellow signs were replaced by red ones. This, of course, encouraged scoundrels of all hues to buy all remaining wares (or the businesses themselves) from the Jewish owners at a fraction of the price. Simultaneously the largest French banks took steps on their own to interpret German ordinances as extensively as possible. Thus, in the occupied zone, the Germans allowed for the cancellation of agreements dealing with Jewish property (paragraph 4 of the ordinance of October 18, 1940) but did not allude to bank accounts held by Jews. Crédit Lyonnais made sure that the silence of the ordinance would not allow unwanted freedom of action to Jewish depositors. On November 21, 1940, a first internal directive was issued:

“On the basis of the order [of October 18, 1940], assets held by Israelites, which have not been frozen, may be governed by special measures and thus must lead us to exercise caution in our relations with them. We do not believe that withdrawals of French securities or capital as such will be affected by paragraph 4 of the order, but it should be ensured that accounts do not show debit balances if we have not received a regular security before 23 May 1940. However, other operations, such as discounts, advances, security sales, appointments of representatives, etc., should be examined very carefully before being implemented.”

In February 1941 Crédit Lyonnais tightened the vise: “As far as cash is concerned, Israelite assets are in principle not restricted. However, large sums should not be withdrawn…. Other operations…must in principle be refused if they involve significant amounts and may therefore constitute flight of fortune unless, of course, they are authorized by the German authorities.”162

Aryanization proceeded apace, but not without some strange twists. Thus, one of the largest French perfume enterprises belonged to François Coty. In the 1920s Coty financed a fascist movement, Solidarité Française, and its periodical, L’Ami du Peuple, which preached militant anti-Semitism. In 1929 Coty divorced, but when he died, in 1934, his estate still owed a substantial sum to his ex-wife; it was paid in “Coty” shares. The former Mrs. Coty thus became the main shareholder and owner of the company. She married again, this time a converted Romanian Jew, León Cotnareanu. For the Aryanization bureaucracy Parfums Coty was under Jewish influence, the more so because two Jews sat on the board of directors. Complicated transactions and transfers of ownership started, involving subsidiaries in several European countries and the United States, in order to eliminate any trace of Jewish participation. In August 1941 the Germans agreed that Parfums Coty had undergone the necessary purification and in October it officially became an Aryan enterprise again.163 François Coty could rest in peace.

In April 1941 the Jews were forbidden to fill any position—from selling lottery tickets to any form of teaching—that would put them in contact with the public. Only a few “particularly deserving intellectuals” were exempted from this total professional segregation. As for the vast majority of the French population, it did not react. Anti-Jewish propaganda intensified, as did the number of acts of anti-Jewish violence. Individual expressions of sympathy were not rare, but they were volunteered in private, far from any public notice.

Protecting the French population by eliminating any professional contact with Jews belonged to Vichy. Protecting members of the Wehrmacht in the occupied zone from Jewish presence in the bars they patronized turned into a problem on New Year’s Eve 1940. At the Boeuf sur le Toit and at Carrère, Jews were present as German warriors toasted the coming year. Worse, at the Trois Valses, a favorite Wehrmacht hangout, a German song taken up by the band was booed by the French revelers, among whom there were Jews. The informers’ reports about these mishaps suggested that all bars patronized by the Wehrmacht should put up signs excluding Jews.164 Whether the recommendation was followed at the time is not known.

At the beginning of 1941 the Germans decided that further coordination of the anti-Jewish measures throughout both French zones was necessary. In a January 30 meeting at military headquarters in Paris under the chairmanship of Werner Best, Kurt Lischka, Knochen’s representative and Theodor Dannecker informed the participants that a central office for Jewish affairs had to be set up in France to implement the measures decided on to solve the Jewish problem in Europe. The functions of the office would be to deal with all police matters regarding the arrest, surveillance, and registration of Jews; to exercise economic control (exclusion of Jews from economic life and participation in the “restitution” of Jewish businesses into Aryan hands); to organize propaganda activities (dissemination of anti-Jewish propaganda among the French population), and to set up an anti-Jewish research institute. In the meantime the Paris Préfecture de Police was ready to assume these functions. The establishment of the new office should be left to the French authorities to avoid opposition to a German initiative; the Germans should limit themselves to “suggestions.” Everyone agreed.165

The Germans were confident that even if the new office turned out to be less forceful than they wished (mainly in its dealings with native Jews), they would be able in due time to ensnare it in the full scope of their own policies. In reporting to Berlin on March 6, 1941, about a conversation with Darlan regarding the new office and Pétain’s wish to protect native Jews, Abetz indicated how any French reservations would be overcome: “It would be advisable,” the ambassador wrote, “to have the French Government establish this office…. It would thus have a valid legal foundation and its activity could then be stimulated through German influence in the occupied territory to such an extent that the unoccupied territory would be forced to join in the measures taken.”166

On March 29, 1941, the Vichy government established the Central Office for Jewish Affairs (Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives, or CGQJ); its first chief was Xavier Vallat.167 Vallat belonged to the nationalist anti-Jewish tradition of the Action Française, and did not share the racial anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Nonetheless the CGQJ soon became the hub of rapidly expanding anti-Jewish activity.168 Its main immediate “achievement” was the reworking of the Jewish statute of October 3, 1940. The new Statut des Juifs was accepted by the government and became law on June 2, 1941.169 Strangely enough, for the staunchly Catholic Vallat, baptism seemed inconsequential and, implicitly, inherited cultural-racial elements were at the core of his conception of the Jew.

The new statute aimed at filling the many gaps discovered in the October 1940 edict. In the case of French “mixed breeds,” for example, with two Jewish grandparents who had converted to another religion, the cut-off date validating the conversion in terms of the decree was June 25, 1940, the official date of the armistice between Germany and France. Moreover, conversion was considered valid only if the convert had chosen to join a denomination recognized before the separation of church and state of December 1905. Only the CGQJ would be entitled to issue certificates of nonmembership of the Jewish race.170

Like the statute of October 1940, that of June 1941 did not establish any distinction between native and foreign Jews. When Vallat called on Abetz on April 3, the ambassador did in fact suggest that in the forthcoming legislation those long-established Jews “who would have acted contrary to the social and natural interests of the French nation” should also be declared “foreign.” Such a law, which would have meant the cancellation of citizenship of segments of French Jewry or the denaturalization of recently naturalized French Jews, was not included in the batch of new decrees. On the other hand, loopholes favoring French Jews, about which Abetz was concerned, did not appear either.171

While the French authorities were issuing their new decrees, Dannecker decided, in early 1941, to use a small group of rabid French anti-Semites, La Communauté Française, to establish an “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Questions” (Institut d’Étude des Questions Juives), under the direction of a capitaine Paul Sézille. The so-called institute, whose main aim was to spread Nazi-type anti-Semitic propaganda under the cover of a French identity, was not affiliated with Vallat’s CGQJ and remained throughout an instrument of Dannecker’s agency and of the German embassy in Paris.172

Either as a result of the institute’s activities or upon an initiative of the German embassy, in the spring of 1941 anti-Jewish posters decorated the streets of Paris: One portrayed the Unknown Soldier surging from his tomb to slit the throats of Jewry and Freemasonry: another displayed a crooked hand stretched out to snatch the scepter and the crown, a direct reference to Jud Süss, then playing at two of the largest movie theaters in the city.173

It seems that French film critics tended to emphasize the artistic quality of Harlan’s production and to downplay its ideological significance.174 Of course, in the collaborationist press, the film’s message got its share of enthusiastic comments: “This is a film full of true statements that it would be infinitely useful to disseminate after all the lies that were fed to us over the years,” Rebatet (under the pseudonym Vinneuil) wrote in Le Petit Parisien on March 2. “Everyone can draw lessons from its message for the study of a question the solution of which had become not only France’s concern, but that of all of Europe.”175

Left-wing Catholics, particularly those linked to Mounier’s Esprit, reacted differently. We have seen Mounier’s previous hesitations. By mid-1941 his position had become clear; his own review of the film, in the July issue of Esprit, concluded as follows: “The prewar French production has accustomed us to less heaviness, to a sounder judgment, less unhealthy…more specifically French.176 In French provincial towns the film even provoked some protests and incidents.177

On May 14, 1941, on Dannecker’s orders, French police arrested 3,733 Jewish immigrants. The raid was probably meant to bring more pressure on the Coordination Committee to establish an Executive Council in which French and foreign Jews would be equally represented, a move the native French Jews stubbornly opposed.178 The next day the collaborationist paper Paris Midi hailed the disappearance of “five thousand parasites from greater Paris.” No other paper (apart from the Jewish press) deemed the event worth mentioning.179

Jean Guéhenno, a voice from the Left, reacted in his diary: “Yesterday,” he noted, “in the name of the French law, five thousand Jews have been taken to concentration camps. Poor Jews that came from Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, penniless people living from lowly trades that must have greatly threatened the State. This is called ‘cleansing.’ In rue Compans, several men were taken away. Their wives, their children begged the policemen, shouted, wept…. The ordinary Parisians [le petit peuple parisien] who were witnessing these heart-rending scenes were filled with disgust and shame.”180 Yet despite the reactions mentioned by Guéhenno, no protest was openly voiced, and the commissariat received only a single outraged letter.181

Perhaps the petit peuple parisien expressed the compassion described by Guéhenno. Biélinky, standing in a food line, received much the same impression, according to a diary entry of June 17: “You know, Célestine,” one housewife was telling another, “the little Pole who is my son’s friend, they were together at school, so he is very sad to-day—Why is that?—Because his brother was arrested and apparently sent to a concentration camp. Though they are all so nice and honest. But what did he do, the poor one?…—Nothing at all, it’s because he is a Jew…—Poor people [les pauvres], says the other one, melancholically, and the line moves slowly toward the potatoes stall.”182

It has occasionally been argued that Vichy’s anti-Jewish measures and its ready cooperation with the Germans were a “rational” maneuver within the general framework of collaboration in order to maintain as much control as possible over developments in the occupied zone and to obtain a favorable bargaining position for the future status of France in Hitler’s new Europe. In other words, Vichy supposedly displayed a nonideological acceptance of Nazi goals (a “collaboration d’État” as opposed to some wild “collaborationism”) in the hope of harvesting some tangible benefits in return.183

Political calculation was undoubtedly part of the overall picture, but Vichy’s policy was also determined by the right-wing anti-Semitic tradition that was part and parcel of the “Révolution nationale.” Moreover, collaboration d’État does not account for the fact that, as we saw, the French episcopate welcomed the exclusion of Jews from public life as early as August 1940, and that mainly among the rural population and the provincial Catholic middle classes, anti-Semitism was not limited to a tiny minority but widespread. Thus, although the Vichy legislation was not dictated by the passions of French “collaborationists,” it was nonetheless a calculated response both to a public mood and to ideological-institutional interests, such as those of the church.

In general anti-Semitism may well have been outweighed by sheer indifference, but not to the point of forgoing tangible advantages. As Helmut Knochen put it in January 1941, “It is almost impossible to cultivate among the French an anti-Jewish sentiment that rests on an ideological foundation, while the offer of economic advantages much more easily excites sympathy for the anti-Jewish struggle.”184

There was a striking (yet possibly unperceived at the time) relation between French attitudes toward the Jews and the behavior of representatives of native Jewry toward the foreign or recently naturalized Jews living in the country. While native Jews affiliated to the community were represented by the Consistoire and its local branches, foreign Jews—and the recently naturalized ones—were loosely affiliated to an umbrella organization, the Fédération des Sociétés Juives de France, comprising various political associations and their related network of welfare organizations. Part of the umbrella organization came to be known as “Rue Amelot” (the Paris address of the main office of its leading committee).

After the Rothschilds had fled the country. Jacques Helbronner, the acting vice-president of the Consistoire, became the de facto leader of native French Jewry (Rue Amelot was more collectively run by the heads of its various associations). In many ways Helbronner was a typical representative of the old-stock French Jewish elite: a brilliant officer during World War I, a sharp legal mind who at a young age was appointed to the Conseil d’État (the highest civil service institution in France), Helbronner married into old (and substantial) French Jewish money. He belonged, quintessentially, to the French Jewish haute bourgeoisie, a group considered almost French by its non-Jewish surroundings. And despite his own genuine interest in Jewish matters—which led him to become active in the Consistoire—Helbronner, like all his peers, saw himself first and foremost as French. Typically enough he was close to Philippe Pétain, since the day during World War I when, as head of the personal staff (chef de cabinet) of the minister of war, he was sent to inform Pétain of his appointment as généralissime (commander in chief of all French forces). Another friend of Helbronner’s was Jules-Marie Cardinal Gerlier, cardinal-archbishop of Lyon and head of the French episcopate. In March 1941 Helbronner was appointed president of the Consistoire.185

Few native French Jews achieved the exalted status of a Helbronner, but the great majority felt as deeply integrated in French society as he did and were to share the positions he adopted: France was their only conceivable national and cultural home, notwithstanding the injustice of the new laws. The growing anti-Semitism of the thirties and its most violent outbursts following the defeat were, in their opinion, caused in large part by the influx of foreign Jews; the situation thus created could be mitigated by a strict distinction between native French “separation” Jews and the foreign Jews living in the country. The Vichy authorities had to be convinced of this basic tenet.

It was precisely this difference that Helbronner attempted to convey to Pétain in a memorandum he sent him in November 1940, after the first statute and its corollaries had sunk in. In this statement, titled Note sur la question juive, the future president of the Consistoire argued that the Jews were not a race and did not descend from the Jews who had lived in Palestine two thousand years before. Rather, they were a community composed of many races and, as far as France was concerned, a community entirely integrated in its homeland. The problems began with the arrival of foreign Jews “who started to invade our soil.” The open-door policies of the postwar governments had been a mistake, and they resulted “in a normal anti-Semitism the victims of which were now the old French Israelite families.” Helbronner then suggested a series of measures that would free the native Jews from the limitations of the statute but not the foreign or recently naturalized Jews186 Helbronner’s message went unanswered.

Over the following months the head of the Consistoire and a number of his colleagues pursued their futile and demeaning entreaties. The messages and visits to Vichy pointedly continued to ignore the fate of the foreign Jews and to plead for the French Israelites only. The epitome of this course of action was probably the solemn petition sent to the maréchal by the entire leadership of the Consistoire, including the chief rabbi of France. The closing paragraph was unambiguous in its omission of any reference to the non-French Jews:

“Jewish Frenchmen still wish to believe that the persecutions of which they are the object are entirely imposed on the French State by the occupying authorities and that the representatives of France have tried their best to attenuate their rigors…Jewish Frenchmen, if they cannot safeguard the future and perhaps even the life of their children and grandchildren, but seeking above all to leave them honorable names, demand of the head of state who, as a great soldier and a fervent Christian, incarnates in their eyes the fatherland in all its purity, that he should recognize this solemn protest, which is their only weapon in their weakness. Jewish Frenchmen, more than ever attached to their faith, keep intact their hope and their confidence in France and its destiny.”187 The second Jewish statute was to be Vichy’s answer to the petitions.

Time and again some of the most prestigious names of French Jewry confirmed that, in their view, the fate of the foreign Jews was none of their concern. Thus, when, during the spring of 1941, Dannecker started using pressure for the establishment of a unified Jewish Council, René Mayer, also a prominent member of the Consistoire (he would become a postwar French prime minister), asked Vallat to encourage the foreign Jews to emigrate.188 So did Marc Bloch, one of the most eminent historians of his time.

In April 1941, in response to a project promoted by the Consistoire envisioning the establishment of a center for Jewish studies, Bloch demanded that all trends within French Jewry be taken into account: but regarding the foreign Jews living in France, his stand was clear: “Their cause is not exactly our own.” Though unable to participate actively in the planning of the center, Bloch suggested that one of the main aims should be to counter the dangerous notion that “all Jews formed a solid homogeneous mass, endowed with identical traits, and subject to the same destiny.” In Bloch’s view the planners of the center should recognize two distinct Jewish communities, the assimilated (French) and the nonassimilated (foreign). While the fate of the former depended on its complete integration and the preservation of its legal guarantees, the survival of the latter might well depend on “some form of emigration.”189


In Holland the population staged a small-scale rebellion in reaction to the German treatment of the hundreds of Jewish men arrested in the streets of Amsterdam on February 22, 1941, after the Koco incident. The communists called for a general strike: On February 25 Amsterdam was paralyzed, and soon the strike spread to nearby cities. The Germans reacted with extreme violence against the demonstrators, using both firearms and hand grenades: Several people were killed, scores wounded, and a number of demonstrators arrested.190 The strike was quashed. The Dutch had learned that the Germans would not hesitate to pursue their anti-Jewish policies with utter ruthlessness; the Germans realized that converting the Dutch to National Socialism would not be an easy task.

During the weeks and months that followed the Amsterdam events, two distinct series of developments reshaped the policies regarding Dutch Jewry, in terms of the German local apparatus and the Dutch enforcers. The nonmilitary German apparatus in Holland was divided in two competing camps, somewhat along the lines that had been noticeable in the General Government. On the one hand Reichskommissar Seyss-Inquart, his main delegate in Amsterdam, D. H. Böhmcker, and General Commissars Friedrich Wimmer (administration and justice), Hans Fischboek (finances and economy), and Fritz Schmidt (party affairs) were intent on keeping full control of Jewish matters; the SS on the other hand, led by Higher SS and Police Leader Albin Rauter and his second in command, the head of the Security Police, Dr. Wilhelm Harster, were eager to take over a domain they considered specifically their own.191

Whether as a result of the Amsterdam events—which could be seen as a failure of Böhmcker’s policy of pushing for the establishment of a ghetto and using the Dutch Nazis as provokers—or as the outcome of prior planning—Heydrich (and Rauter) decided to establish a Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Amsterdam, on the model of the offices set up in Vienna in 1938 and in Berlin and in Prague, in 1939. Usually such offices, controlled by the RSHA and more closely by Eichmann’s section IV B4, took over the registration of the Jewish population, of its property, and of course of its departure (and thus of the impounding of the abandoned property). The setting up of a similar agency in Amsterdam should have allowed Rauter, Harster, and eventually their man in Amsterdam, Willi Lages, to control all significant aspects of Jewish affairs in Holland.

In April 1941 the Zentralstelle was indeed established, but its functions were limited at first. Moreover, Seyss-Inquart did not give in. In early May, at a meeting convened by the Reichskommissar, who in the meantime had received Hitler’s confirmation of his overall authority, all those involved had to agree that he would keep general supervision over Jewish affairs. De facto the situation was to change again in early 1942, when Harster would bring in his school friend Willy Zöpf to establish a IV B4 section in The Hague, and mainly with the beginning of the deportations, in July 1942.192

Aryanization of Jewish property had started. It was fostered by Fischboek’s services and by a large number of German firms intent on acquiring shares in major Dutch companies by acquiring first those that belonged to Jews. Several German banks became prominent intermediaries in these operations, particularly Handelstrust West, a local subsidiary of the Dresdner Bank.193 In order to speed up operations the Zentralstelle would allow for the departure of Jewish owners of major businesses, who would sell their enterprises to the German bidders. Thus the German companies, as legal owners, could claim rights to related foreign assets and avoid any lawsuits, particularly in the United States. The deals ensured unhindered emigration for the lucky few (around thirty families) within weeks of the time of the property transfer. Later on the same racketeering would be applied to Jews in several countries in exchange for large sums in foreign currency.194 Ultimately it would be applied in 1944 to the Manfred Weiss conglomerate in Hungary.

Eventually the German takeover of Jewish property would be much more systematic in Holland than in occupied France, in line with the Nazi master plan for a European economic “new order.” The Dutch economy was destined for complete integration into the German system, whether the Dutch wished it or not. Once more ideological creed and economic greed converged. In August 1941 the Jews of Holland were ordered to register all their assets with the formerly Jewish Lippman-Rosenthal bank; on September 15 real estate was included in the registration.195

Regarding the Dutch “enforcers,” the February 1941 events led to the dismissal of the Amsterdam city council and its replacement by an adequately subservient new group. Mainly a new chief of the Amsterdam police force, a former officer in the colonial army in the Dutch East Indies, Sybren Tulp, was put in command. Tulp could hardly have been shocked by racial discrimination; as a member of Mussert’s NSB, he had the appropriate ideological leanings, the more so that he was a great admirer of German National Socialism and particularly of Adolf Hitler.196

In the meantime, before the Koco incident, the German roundup and the rebellion, as Böhmcker was considering the establishment of a ghetto in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, he conveyed to a few Jewish personalities, including Abraham Asscher, that he required the creation of a unified representation of the Jews of the city.197 It remains unclear whether Seyss-Inquart’s representative mentioned a “Jewish Council” or whether the term was first used by Asscher. The fact is that Asscher volunteered to preside over the new organization and asked for the appointment of David Cohen as copresident. Both Asscher and Cohen then chose the other members, mostly from their own social milieu, Amsterdam’s small and wealthy Jewish haute bourgeoisie. On February 12 the council held its first meeting. On the next day, at Böhmcker’s demand, Asscher spoke to an assembly of Jewish workers requesting the delivery of any weapons in their possession. As historian Bob Moore pointed out, “in effect, the first steps toward Jewish collaboration with the Germans had begun, with the self-appointed elite of the Jewish Council acting as a conduit for Nazi demands.”198

Whatever the assessment of the Dutch council’s early behavior may be, the Germans did not ask for its approval when it came to dispatching the four hundred young Jewish men arrested after the Amsterdam rebellion to their death. At first they were deported to Buchenwald, then to Mauthausen. They arrived in Mauthausen on June 17, 1941. A batch of fifty was immediately killed: “They were chased naked from the bathhouse to the electrified fence.” The others were murdered in the main quarry of the camp, the “Vienna Ditch.” According to the German witness Eugen Kogon, these Jews were not allowed to use the steps leading to the bottom of the quarry. “They had to slide down the loose stones at the side, and even here many died or were severely injured. The survivors then had to shoulder hods, and two prisoners were compelled to load each Jew with an excessively heavy rock. The Jews then had to run up the 186 steps. In some instances the rocks immediately rolled downhill, crushing the feet of those that came behind. Every Jew who lost his rock in that fashion was brutally beaten, and the rock was hoisted onto his shoulders again. Many of the Jews were driven to despair the very first day and committed suicide by jumping into the pit. On the third day the SS opened the so-called ‘death gate,’ and with a fearful barrage of blows drove the Jews across the guard line, the guards on the watchtowers shooting them down in heaps with their machine guns. The next day the Jews no longer jumped into the pit individually. They joined hands and one man would pull nine or twelve of his comrades over the lip with him into a gruesome death. The barracks were ‘cleared’ of Jews, not in six but in barely three weeks. Every one of the 348 prisoners perished by suicide, or by shooting, beating, and other forms of torture.”199 When asked by the local Landrat how the Dutch Jews had adapted to the hard work, Commandant Ziereis answered: “Ah, hardly a one is still alive.”200

As the news of the death of this first group of Amsterdam Jews was trickling back to Holland, an attack on the Luftwaffe telephone exchange at Schiphol Airport on June 3, 1941, seriously wounded one of the soldiers. In retaliation the Germans tricked council members Cohen and Gertrud van Tijn into giving them the addresses of two hundred young German Jewish refugees. These were arrested together with other young Amsterdam Jews, sent to Mauthausen, and murdered.201

What should the council do? In a crisis meeting on June 12 Asscher proposed collective resignation; Cohen, fearing further German reprisals, demurred. If the council resigned, he argued, who would be left to help the community?202 Was there any possibility that behaving differently—disbanding the council, for example—would have hampered the Germans or helped the Jews?

Etty (Esther) Hillesum was still a young woman student in Slavic languages at Amsterdam University during these spring months of 1941. For years Etty’s father had been the headmaster of the municipal gymnasium in Deventer (a midsize city in eastern Holland); her mother, it seems, introduced a tempestuous Russian Jewish personality into the staid Dutch bourgeois environment. Etty’s two brothers were unusually gifted: the older, Mischa, as a brilliant concert pianist from age six, and the younger, Jaap, as a budding biochemist who discovered a new vitamin at age seventeen. As for Etty, she was a born writer and a free spirit. In the Amsterdam house that she rented with several other Jewish friends, she launched into a complicated love life, branching out into several simultaneous directions, and started on an idiosyncratic spiritual path tinged with Christianity and some esoteric and mystical components. And she began keeping a diary.203

“Sometimes when I read the papers or hear reports of what is happening all around,” Etty noted on March 15, 1941, “I am suddenly beside myself with anger, cursing and swearing at the Germans. And I know that I do it deliberately in order to hurt Käthe [the German cook who lived in the house], to work off my anger as best I can…. And all this when I know perfectly well that she finds the new order as dreadful as I do, and is just as bowed down by the excesses of her people. But deep down she is of course one of her people, and while I understand, I sometimes cannot bear it. The whole nation must be destroyed root and branch. And now and then I say nastily, ‘They are all scum,’ and at the same time I feel terribly ashamed and deeply unhappy but cannot stop even though I know that it’s all wrong.”204

The peace of mind that Etty was arduously trying to acquire in the midst of the growing turmoil was badly shaken by the new arrests: “More arrests, more terror, concentration camps, the arbitrary dragging off of fathers, sisters, brothers,” she noted on June 14, “Everything seems so menacing and ominous, and always that feeling of total impotence.”205

The setting up of the Jewish Council, the Aryanization drive, and the two waves of arrests were but one aspect of the German terror campaign; the other aimed, steadily and systematically, at cutting off the Jews from the surrounding Dutch population—at increasingly isolating them—even if publicly marking them was still a year away. At the end of May 1941, as the hot weather was starting, the Germans not only barred all Jews from parks, spas, and hotels but also from public beaches and swimming pools. Shortly afterward Jewish elementary and high school students were ordered to fill out special registration forms. Soon they were excluded from Dutch schools and allowed to attend only Jewish schools.

After fleeing with his parents from The Hague to Brussels, fifteen-year-old Moshe Flinker reminisced, in the opening pages of his diary, about his last term of the school year in Holland: “During the last year I attended [the Jewish school in The Hague] the number of restrictions on us rose greatly. Several months before the end of the school year we had to turn in our bicycles to the police. From that time on, I rode to school by streetcar, but a day or two before vacations started Jews were forbidden to ride on streetcars. I then had to walk to school, which took about an hour and a half. I continued going to school during those last days,” Flinker added, “because I wanted to get my report card and find out whether I had been promoted to the next class. At that time I still thought I would be able to return to school after vacations; but I was wrong. Even so, I must mention that I did get my promotion.”206

Anne Frank; her sister, Margot; her father, Otto; and her mother, Edith, had emigrated from Frankfurt to Amsterdam during the second half of 1933. The father had the franchise for a jelling agent, pectin, from the Pomosin-Werke in Frankfurt. Over time Frank’s modest dealership at 263 Prinsengracht reached a measure of stability, thanks to a small group of devoted Dutch employees.

Commenting on the prohibition to use swimming pools, twelve-year-old Anne Frank wrote to her grandmother, who lived in Basel: “We’re not likely to get sunburned because we can’t go to the swimming pool…too bad, but there is nothing to be done.”207


The official positions of the national Catholic churches throughout the Continent and those of the Vatican were not essentially different regarding the increasingly harsh anti-Jewish measures. In France, as we saw, in August 1940 the assembly of cardinals and bishops welcomed the limitations imposed on the country’s Jews, and no members of the Catholic hierarchy expressed any protest regarding the statutes of October 1940 and June 1941. In neighboring Belgium, Cardinal Joseph-Ernest van Roey, archbishop of Malines, remained equally silent about the anti-Jewish edicts of 1940 and 1941 (in fact van Roey did not speak up until 1943); in so doing the cardinal was in step with the upper echelons of his church and neither able nor willing to oppose the militant Catholic-nationalist anti-Semitism of the Flemish radical Right, mainly active in Antwerp.208

In east central Europe, pride of place has to be granted to the Polish Catholic Church. The anti-Semitism of the great majority of Polish Catholics had been notorious before the war, as we saw; it grew fiercer under German occupation. During the preextermination period, the Polish clergy, more often than not, stoked the anti-Jewish fires.

A report originating with the Polish church itself, covering the six-week period between June 1 and July 15, 1941, was transmitted to the government-in-exile in London by the delegatura. In its own extremism the report did not represent the general attitude of Polish Catholics toward the Jews, yet its quasiofficial nature indicated some measure of concurrence among underground leadership in the opinions expressed: “The need to solve the Jewish Question is urgent,” the report stated. “Nowhere else in the world has that question reached such a climax, because no fewer than four million [sic] of these highly noxious and by all standards dangerous elements live in Poland, or to be more precise, off Poland.”

As quoted and translated by Gutman and Krakowski, the report continued in the same vein: “As far as the Jewish Question is concerned, it must be seen as a singular dispensation of Divine Providence that the Germans have already made a good start, quite irrespective of all the wrongs they have done and continue to do to our country. They have shown that the liberation of Polish society from the Jewish plague is possible. They have blazed the trail for us which now must be followed: With less cruelty and brutality, to be sure, but no flagging, consistently. Clearly, one can see the hand of God in the contribution to the solution of this urgent question being made by the occupiers.” The report then expanded upon the harm done by the Jews to Polish and Christian society. After a lengthy litany of horrendous Jewish deeds, the report turned to the future. First it encouraged the departure of the Jews from the country, but “as long as this cannot be achieved, a far-reaching isolation of the Jews from our society will be mandatory.” Segregation measures were enumerated, yet the authors did not underestimate the difficulty of this challenge: “All this will be very difficult. Friction can be expected on this score between the government-in-exile, which is rather exposed to Freemason and Jewish influence and the people in the country who already today are organizing themselves. But the health of our Fatherland, restored with God’s help, depends to a very great extent on such measures.”209

If one disregards its specific expression of extreme anti-Jewish hatred, the Polish church report had a common denominator with Western Catholicism and with what seems to have been the attitude of the Vatican: The Jews were once more to be partly segregated from Christian society, according to each country’s regulations.

Two documents belonging to the first half of 1941 may add some insight regarding the pope’s own attitude at that time and regarding the views apparently shared by some of the Vatican’s most authoritative personalities about the anti-Jewish measures. “Your Holiness is certainly informed about the situation of the Jews in Germany and in the neighboring countries,” Bishop Preysing of Berlin wrote to Pius XII on January 17, 1941. “Merely wishing to report,” the bishop went on, “I would like to mention that I have been asked by Catholics as well as by Protestants whether the Holy See couldn’t do something in this matter, issue an appeal in favor of these unfortunate people?” [Ob nicht der Heilige Stuhl in dieser Sache etwas tun könnte, einen Appell zugunsten der Unglück-lichen erlassen?]210

On March 19 the pope answered several of Preysing’s letters and particularly praised the Berlin bishop for his denunciation of euthanasia in a March 6 sermon at Saint Hedwig Cathedral. The pontiff also commented at some length about two conversions to Catholicism that Preysing had written about: The church opened its arms to converts. Not a word, however, alluded to Preysing’s unmistakable plea for a papal reaction to the persecution of the Jews.211

The second document was no less telling in many ways; it confirmed that the Vatican and national episcopal assemblies, particularly the French assembly of cardinals and bishops, shared a similar view of the ongoing measures taken against the Jews. In response to an inquiry ordered by Pétain in August 1941, Leon Bérard, Vichy’s ambassador to the Vatican, provided an exhaustive answer on September 2. First the French diplomat informed the maréchal that although there existed a fundamental conflict between racial theories and church doctrine, it did not follow that the church necessarily repudiated every measure taken by particular countries against the Jews. The fundamental principle, Bérard indicated, was that once a Jew was baptized, he ceased to be a Jew. However, the ambassador added, the church recognized that religion was not the only special characteristic of Jews and that there were also certain ethnic—not racial—factors that set them apart. Historically the church’s practice and feeling over the centuries had been that Jews should not have authority over Christians. It was legitimate, therefore, to exclude them from certain public offices and to restrict their access to universities and the professions. He recalled also that ecclesiastical law had required the Jews to wear distinctive garb.

One of the major problems, the ambassador continued, was that of marriages. The new racial legislation in Italy and elsewhere prohibited marriages between Christians and Jews. The church felt that it had the authority to perform such marriages if the Jewish partner had been baptized or if an ecclesiastical dispensation had been obtained. In France, Bérard believed, there would not be similar problems because the circumstances were different (marriages between Jews and non-Jews had not been prohibited on racial grounds). For Pétain, Bérard’s report must have been reassuring.212

In its main points Bérard’s report was probably reliable. In other words, a few months before the onset of the “Final Solution,” the exclusionary postulates of a conservative tradition dominated the attitudes of European Catholicism toward the Jews, while the rights of converted Jews were to be defended. The decisive issue, however, still lay ahead: How would the Holy See respond to and eventually influence the various national churches and tens of millions of church-going Catholics in the face of the extraordinary challenges that were about to arise?


The violence unleashed by the Germans on the Jews under their domination, mainly in former Poland, may appear, in hindsight, as the beginning of a seamless process leading from the first days of the war to the “Final Solution.” The murderous forays of the Einsatzgruppen at the outset of the Polish campaign and the ongoing terror that followed appear to underscore this sense of continuity.213 Yet simultaneously, as we saw, no clear plan indicating the fate that would befall the Jews under German domination had been outlined, let alone elaborated in its details. In his instructions to the Einsatzgruppen, on September 21, 1939, Heydrich had mentioned a “final goal” but left it undetermined. Almost two years later that final goal still remained elusive, although Hitler made amply clear that the Jews had “to disappear from Europe.”

The first “territorial plans” (Lublin and Madagascar) were too obviously unrealistic to have been considered for any length of time. The third plan—the deportation of the Jews of Europe to northern Russia—seemed more concrete but depended upon the outcome of the campaign in the East. No go-ahead that we know of was given before June 1941, but the “territorial plans” were undoubtedly meant to bring about the extinction of the Jewish populations expelled from European space, after victory.

This absence of any precise plan and the somewhat dampened perception of the Jewish world threat are indirectly reflected in Hitler’s merely sporadic rhetorical outbursts regarding the “Jewish question” during this first phase of the war. It also appears in the concrete measures taken in the occupied and satellite countries. These measures replicated (with somewhat lesser brutality in the West, with utter brutality in the East) the entire gamut of anti-Jewish steps developed in the Reich between the first days of the new regime and the early phase of the war. In other words the “holding pattern” of Nazi anti-Jewish policy throughout the occupied countries did not initiate radically new steps but led, in the meantime, to the extension of the “Reich model” on a European scale.

One of the indications that no precise plan (dealing with all of European Jewry) was already being systematically pursued can be found in the expulsion-emigration policies of these first two years of the war. Emigration and expulsion from the Reich, then from the Greater Reich and the Protectorate, were applied with the same explicit goals to the newly annexed areas of Poland (the Warthegau, and Upper Silesia in particular), to Alsace and Lorraine, and Baden, Westphalia, and the Saar.

Further steps indicating the extension of the “Reich model” included replicating identification measures; registration of the Jews; Aryanization; setting up “councils” either centrally or locally; concentration of Jews in limited urban areas; forced labor and “productivization” in Poland and less brutally so in the Reich, in exchange for some minimal food supply. In and of itself the “productivization” policy indicated that, during this early phase, extermination plans were not yet the obvious and immediate solution: Otherwise induced mass starvation would have eased the way.

As for the murderous operations that were planned for the Soviet campaign, they targeted specific categories of Jewish men. They were meant, as suggested, to hasten the collapse of the Red Army and of the entire Soviet system. No order for the mass extermination of the Jewish population on Soviet territory seems to have been issued to the Einsatzgruppen before the attack, notwithstanding the contrary postwar testimony of some unit commanders, as we shall see in greater detail in the next chapter. Thus, in terms of policy decisions, of administrative measures, and of selective murder plans for the new campaign in the East, the outlines of the “Final Solution of the Jewish question in Europe” were not yet apparent by early June 1941. Jews did still leave the Reich and the Continent, even with some assistance from the RSHA at first, then with its authorization, albeit in ever-smaller numbers.

Yet, in considering the general thrust of the anti-Jewish policies between September 1939 and June 1941, we recognize that the ongoing violence in occupied Poland created a blurred area of murderous permissiveness that, unplanned as it was, would facilitate the transition to more systematic murder policies. The same could be said of the anti-Jewish propaganda campaign and its impact on German and European opinion. An anti-Semitic culture, deeply rooted in Christian and Western civilization, fostered in Germany from the beginnings of the Nazi regime, was increasingly taking hold in the Reich and beyond. In Goebbels’s Der Ewige Jude, let us recall, Jews were turned into pestilence-carrying vermin; in the propaganda minister’s conversations with Hitler, the Jewish cancer demanded radical surgery—imperatively so—to save Aryan humanity from a mortal peril. And, as we saw, Hitler was uncommonly attentive to the production of the 1940 film and aware of the images chosen by Hippler, including his own January 1939 speech prophesying the extermination of the Jews in case of world war. An intimation of deadly anti-Jewish hatred and a wish for mass murder were unmistakable and unmistakably fed into the public sphere. Finally and essentially, even if, as just stated, the outlines of the “Final Solution” were not yet apparent on the eve of Barbarossa, Hitler had “clearly defined” the thrust of the campaign in March 1941: It was to be a war of extermination, and by definition mass murder would expand as long as the enemy was fighting, as long as enemies were still within reach. In other words, the Reich was now set on a path that, at some point, under specific circumstances, within a particular context, would lead to the decision to exterminate all the Jews of Europe.

German policies regarding the Jews did not depend on the level of anti-Semitism in German and European opinion. Yet the very attention given to propaganda (in all domains), the systematic reporting on attitudes of the population, the ongoing attempts—specifically regarding the Jewish issue—to find the “right way” of handling mixed breeds, mixed marriages, or even Jewish soldiers decorated for bravery in frontline fighting, shows that the regime was not indifferent to potential public reactions (this would soon be proved in regard to euthanasia).

It was important, therefore, to reinforce preexisting anti-Semitism and to mobilize it as relentlessly as possible in order to bolster the myth of the archenemy needed by the regime, and to facilitate any further steps, if and when decided. The anti-Jewish fanaticism of ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers, even at the beginning of the war, was sufficient proof of the efficiency of the barrage of words and images endlessly molding the monstrous image of “the Jew.”

In many ways the same strategy applied to occupied or satellite Europe. In Poland, as we saw, native anti-Semitism was exploited by the Germans, and at the outset at least, it created a narrow common ground between masters and slaves. In Holland the earliest anti-Jewish steps were carefully planned to avoid a confrontation with the population. When this confrontation occurred nonetheless, in February 1941, the Germans retaliated brutally and forged ahead. In other words, measures against the Jews would be introduced and expanded wherever German presence or influence played a role. However, at this early stage, potential reactions in the occupied countries were not disregarded if they did not turn into mass opposition (as in Holland). Generally a measure of popular acceptance of anti-Jewish steps could be expected. And such acceptance also extended to Holland after the initial riots were put down. No such qualms existed in France, where the Vichy government had preempted the German measures without any public reaction.

Seen from the vantage point of local authorities and populations in Western Europe, the common denominator of all anti-Jewish measures was probably perceived as the end of equal rights for Jews in all major domains of public life, or, to put it another way, as a process of resegregation. In Germany resegregation was already complete when the war started; the ongoing measures pointed quite openly to the future disappearance of all Jews from the Reich; in former Poland the perception was one of growing exploitation and ruthless violence that could lead to mass death. In other words, nowhere was the situation considered static but rather as a process leading to an ever more ominous outcome. Yet no open protest arose (again with the initial exception of Holland). In fact the opposite became rapidly clear: The anti-Jewish measures were accepted, even approved, by the populations and the spiritual and intellectual elites, most blatantly so by the Christian churches. What was tacitly approved by the French church was explicitly welcomed by the Polish clergy, enthusiastically supported by part of German Protestantism, and more prudently so by the remainder of Christian churches in the Reich. Such religious support for or acceptance of various degrees of anti-Jewish persecution helped of course to still any doubts, particularly at a time when among most Europeans the influence of the churches remained considerable and their guidance was eagerly sought.

The widespread acceptance of resegregation would have an obvious impact on the events to come. If the isolation of the Jews did not provoke any significant protests—and was even welcomed by many—their territorial segregation outside Europe or in some distant part of the Continent would appear as a mere technicality. Some rules would have to be respected: Families, for example, were to be kept together, and undoubtedly the Jews would have to be put to work.

Much attention has been given since the war to the role played by Jewish leadership in the unfolding of the events. It has been argued that Jewish leadership groups on a national or local level did not recognize the total novelty of Nazi persecution, and therefore, as the argument goes, they kept to traditional modes of response instead of adopting entirely new strategies. Yet if one accepts that, during the early phase of the war (the period dealt with here), no radically new Nazi policy had been formulated, and resegregation appeared to the Jews themselves as a historically familiar situation, the councils and similar Jewish leadership groups could respond to the ongoing crisis only by means that were familiar in such apparently similar situations and seemed to be the only rational choices within the existing context.

Moreover, as we saw, in the Reich, the Protectorate, and occupied Western countries, native Jews and long-established immigrants were used to obeying the authorities and “the law,” even if they perceived that the decrees targeting them were totally unjust and meant only to harm them. As already mentioned, most of these Jews believed that the proliferation of laws and ordinances that weighed on their daily existence nonetheless represented a stable system that would allow them to survive. Within this system they interceded with their oppressors, sometimes successfully. Usually they persevered, day in and day out, in the hope that an emigration possibility would materialize somehow or, in the East, that physical survival would remain a possibility for most if Jewish workers produced enough goods for the German war economy.

In the meantime the same councils or their equivalents distributed available assistance to the growing number of Jews reduced to utter poverty. Although under constant control of the Gestapo, these Jewish leaders were not hampered at this stage in their welfare activities, as almost all the assistance they extended came from Jewish funds. Otherwise, as we saw, they dealt with emigration when still allowed to do so and with education where and when public schools were closed to Jewish children.

The disbanding of the councils was not a viable option at that point. It would have meant not only the disruption of all welfare activities, but also German reprisals against any number of hostages and, in no time, the appointment of a new group of Jews to head the community. Of course the constraints limiting the options of the leadership did not apply to individual Jews, at least in the West. They could avoid registration and opt for living illegally from late 1940 or early 1941 on. With hindsight these would have been the right decisions to take, but at the time the risks appeared to the immense majority as disproportionate in comparison to the immediate hardships.

One of the striking aspects of the dramatically changing Jewish condition appears to be the ongoing disintegration of overall Jewish solidarity—insofar as it ever existed. In late 1939 and early 1940, in order to keep all emigration openings for German Jews only, German Jewish leadership attempted to bar endangered Polish Jews from emigrating from the Reich to Palestine; French Jewish leadership never ceased to demand a clear-cut distinction between the status and treatment of native and of foreign Jews. The councils in Poland—particularly in Warsaw—were allowing a whole array of privileges to whomever could pay a bribe, while the poor, the refugees from the provinces, and the mass of those devoid of any influence or resources were increasingly compelled to do slave labor or suffer starvation, eventually leading to the death of the weakest.

Obversely, a strengthening of bonds appeared within small groups sharing a specific political or religious background. Such was typically the case in political youth groups in the ghettos, among Jewish scouts in France, and, of course, among this or that group of orthodox Jews. Such developments should not lead to disregarding the widespread welfare efforts, or the education or cultural activities open to all; yet a trend was becoming apparent: It would greatly intensify with the growth of the external threat.


Given the absence of any significant assistance from the major Christian churches to nonconverted Jews, the role of private institutions and of (sometimes unlikely) individuals grew in importance. The role of Jewish organizations was preeminent, particularly of the JDC, the Organization for Rehabilitation and Training (ORT), and the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), as well as organizations belonging more directly to Jewish political parties (Zionists, Orthodox, Bundists, Communists) or to various Jewish immigrant associations in Western Europe.214 Non-Jewish charitable organizations also extended generous help: the American Friends Service Committee, the YMCA, the Protestant CIMADE, and others.

The initiatives of individuals carried a particular moral significance. Even during this early period, and even outside the Reich, the risks incurred were often considerable, albeit mainly in professional and social terms. The qualified stand taken by the head of the French Protestant community, Pastor Marc Boegner, against Vichy’s anti-Jewish policies could, for example, have endangered his position within his own flock; the smuggling of Jews across the Swiss border, on the eve of the war, put an end to Paul Grüninger’s career in Sankt Gallen’s border police; several Swiss consular officers, mainly in Italy, were reprimanded for disregarding the rules about Jewish immigration. As already mentioned, after the defeat of France, the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, started issuing entry visas to Jews, despite contrary instructions from Lisbon; he was recalled and dismissed from the foreign service. Like Grüninger, he was rehabilitated only several decades after the end of the war. Varian Fry’s smuggling of specially endangered and “valuable” Jews out of Vichy France carried, as we saw, all the risks of illegality and led to his recall and dismissal after one year of activity. One of the most unlikely cases in many ways, however, was that of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in the Lithuanian capital, Kovno.215

Sugihara had been transferred from Helsinki to Kovno in October 1939. When Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, the Japanese consulate had to close down and, on August 31, 1940, Sugihara was posted in Berlin, then Prague, later in Königsberg. From the outset Sugihara’s real mission had been to observe troop movements and related military developments. But, in order to keep up the appearances of his official cover, he performed all the regular functions of a genuine consul; mainly, he issued visas. On August 10, 1940, against instructions of the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo (or, at best, without any clear instructions whatsoever), Sugihara started issuing Japanese transit visas to all the Jews who reached his consulate. Almost none of them had an entrance permit to a country of final destination; many didn’t even have valid passports of any sort.

Within days admonishments from Tokyo reached the wayward consul: “Recently we discovered Lithuanians who possess our transit visas which you issued,” a cable of August 16 read. “They were traveling to America and Canada. Among them there are several people who do not possess enough money and who have not finished their procedure to receive their entry visas to the terminal countries. We cannot give them permission to land. And in regard to these cases, there were several instances that left us confused and we do not know what to do…. You must make sure that they have finished their procedure for their entry visas and also they must posses the travel money or the money that they need during their stay in Japan. Otherwise, you should not give them the transit visa.”216

Sugihara remained undeterred: He continued signing visas even from the window of an already moving train as he and his family were leaving for Berlin. He issued more visas in Prague and possibly in Königsberg. The Germans were certainly not adverse to the illegal departure of Jews from the territory of the Reich.217 Sugihara may have issued up to ten thousand visas, and possibly half the number of Jews who received them managed to survive.218 There is no concrete clue about his thoughts and motives: “I did not pay any attention [to consequences],” he wrote in a postwar memoir, “and just acted according to my sense of human justice, out of love for mankind.”219

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