As the German armies overran Europe, the Jews were
trapped. Even while Hitler was directing the German military forces, he and the
Nazi party were waging another war, the war against the Jews. In each country
the Germans conquered the Nazi propaganda machine spread the lies of racism and
anti-Semitism. In conquered western countries laws were passed that were similar
or identical to those that had either driven out the Jews of Germany or
condemned them to poverty. As far as the Nazis were concerned, France, Britain,
and especially Russia, were merely political enemies. The Jews were far worse;
they were "natural enemies" of the Germans.
To combat this enemy, the Nazis used the tactics of
modern anti-Semitism. But they also borrowed tactics from the past: isolation
and separation from the community.
Ghetto and Shtetl
To make their spiritual lives richer, Jews had usually
chosen to live in Jewish communities, close by a synagogue. Nevertheless, these
were voluntary settlements, and there were always some Jews who lived outside of
them for one reason or another. During the fourteenth century in Spain and
Portugal, however, Jews were compelled for the first time to live apart from
non-Jews. Then in 1516, in Venice, Italy, the Catholic Church ordered that walls
be built around the Jewish quarter. Venice gave this walled-in compound the name
ghetto, which may come from borghetto ("little borough")
or from the Italian word for a nearby iron foundry, gettare ("to
cast in metal"). At night the ghetto gates were sealed and guards were
posted to make sure that the Jews would not come out until daybreak.
In part, the Catholic Church created the ghetto to
protect the Jews from attack. Ignorant peasants believed not only that the Jews
were guilty of having killed Jesus, but also that the Jews brought bad luck or
practiced evil magic. So when things went wrong, or life became difficult, they
blamed the Jews, and often did them bodily harm. But in part the Church built
the ghetto in order to separate Jews from Christians, and this isolation only
served to make matters worse, for it heightened the superstitions of the
In a short time--and for like reasons--ghettos appeared
throughout Europe. Jews were sometimes forced to wear badges on their clothing
to show they were Jewish (this was another idea that the Nazis would later
borrow). By generally accepted practice, often written into Church law, Jews
were not allowed to own land and were forbidden to participate in many
In eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Lithuania,
there were fewer ghettos. Instead, Jews lived in small private towns called shtetls.
The government often protected shtetls, and the government would sometimes use
taxes collected from the Jews living in these small communities to support the
local rabbi or even a town council. But the shtetl had much the same effect as
the ghetto: it singled out the Jews and separated them from the non-Jewish
The ultimate aim of the Church was to convert the Jews
to Christianity. To achieve this, the Church did its utmost to make Jewish life
uncomfortable. Jewish holy books were sometimes burned, and Jews were often
forced to sit through long sermons promising hell to those who died Jewish.
This, of course, marked a great difference between the anti-Jewish behavior of
the Church and the anti-Semitic behavior of the Nazis: the Church wished to
destroy Judaism by converting the Jews, and Hitler wished to destroy the Jews
In the ghetto and the shtetl a Jewish way of life grew
up based on the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, a book of law and
legend compiled by the rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia and completed in the
sixth century. In the Jewish world, education was valued over riches. Outside,
illiteracy and ignorance were common. Within the Jewish world schools were
supported by the community; and most Jews--men and women--could read and write
in as many as three languages.
At the center of the community the synagogue, the house
of worship, was the most frequent gathering place for the Jews. There the rabbis
and the teachers were the most respected citizens. Typically, Jewish time was
spent in the study of holy books, in prayer, and in small trades. Each community
had its own government, collected its own taxes, and had its own courts of law.
Partly because they were kept somewhat isolated from
their non-Jewish neighbors, the Jews learned to rely on one another. Then as
today, every Jew was considered responsible for every other Jew. All Jews
contributed to charity, even the poorest finding something to give. Family and
family life were the core of the community. Within one’s family one found
entertainment and warmth, kindness, and care.
The Jews managed in this way to survive attack after
attack from non-Jews. After each assault life went on. Jewish merchants, bakers,
tailors, and "fixers," (as handymen were called) continued to work and
trade with their non-Jewish neighbors. But they often closed themselves off from
friendships with non-Jews, trusting, instead, in God and one another.
The Jews in the West
The way of life established in the shtetls of eastern
Europe continued right down to the time of Hitler. But the ghettos in the west
were torn down at the end of the eighteenth century when the armies of Napoleon
Bonaparte swept across Europe. Bonaparte believed that the Jews would be loyal
to him if he freed them from their walled towns, and he was correct. In time,
the Jews of western Europe told legends about the great Napoleon, even making
him a part of their folklore.
When Napoleon was defeated, many of the things he had
done were reversed, and a few ghettos were rebuilt. But for the most part, Jews
were allowed to enter the mainstream of European life for the first time in
hundreds of years. In fact, in Germany in the early years of the twentieth
century, Jews were German citizens and, according to the law, fully equal with
non-Jews. Some German Jews steadfastly maintained that they were "Germans
first, Jews second."
Before Hitler came to power, German Jews had gained
status as lawyers, physicians, business people, writers, and professors.
Although the Jews were only about one percent of the population, the majority of
the leading German scientists were Jewish, a great number of them Nobel Prize
winners. Two of Germany’s greatest composers were Jewish--Gustav Mahler and
Arnold Schonberg. And Germany had produced great Jewish writers; one, still
called the "Shakespeare of the German language," was Heinrich Heine.
In places like Germany, where it was possible, many Jews
stopped practicing Judaism and became "assimilated," or absorbed, into
the general population. For these Jews it seemed that the ideals of Germany and
those of Judaism were much the same. Judaism taught the equality of all human
beings, and so did German law. Judaism taught love of justice, and so did
Germany's greatest thinkers. Judaism believed in fairness and respect for
others, and so did Germany's writers and philosophers. The position of Jews in
Germany before Hitler was much like the position of American Jews today. Germany
took pride in the achievements of her Jewish minority.
A New Time of Separation
But the mere fact that the Jews were outstanding in
many fields made them noticeable. They were a choice target for Hitler's hatred.
Hitler started out with a verbal campaign, but anti-Semitism developed into a
dangerous and destructive social weapon.
Using new means
of communication, fascist groups have perfected the weapon of [anti Semitism].
In its early stages, a fascist movement uses verbal violence as the pre cursor
for the physical violence that will come later. [Carey McWilliams, A Mask for
As his verbal propaganda campaign against the Jews took
effect, Hitler turned to physical harassment. Separation became the first act in
a large drama of destruction. The Jews found themselves trapped and held as in a
vise. A Jewish Dutch girl, Anne Frank, was thirteen years old when she wrote in
After May 1940
good times rapidly fled: first the war, then the capitulation [the surrender of
Holland to the Nazis], followed by the arrival of the Germans, which is when the
suffering of the Jews really began. Anti Jewish decrees followed each other in
quick succession. Jews must wear a yellow star, Jews must hand in their
bicycles, Jews are banned from trains and are forbidden to drive, Jews are only
allowed to do their shop ping between three and five o'clock and then only in
shops which bear the placard "Jewish shop." Jews must be indoors by
eight o'clock and cannot even sit in their own gardens after that hour. Jews are
forbidden to visit theaters, cinemas, and other places of entertainment. Jews
may not take part in public sports. Swimming baths, tennis courts, hockey
fields, and other sports grounds are all prohibited to them. Jews may not visit
Christians. Jews must go to Jewish schools, and many more restrictions of a
similar kind. ... So we could not do this and were forbidden to do that. [Anne
Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl]