It occurs to me from a recent exchange in the comments section that it might be a good idea to visit the topic of the reaction of the Jews of Germany to Hitler.
First I’d like to clear up one thing: the question of what percentage of the German population was Jewish back then. I wrote a post about the topic in September of 2005. Here’s an except:
…[I]n the course of doing some research on World War II and the Holocaust, I came across a statistic that absolutely stunned me: the percentage of Jews in the population of Germany prior to World War II and Hitler’s rise.
Since then, every so often I will ask people if they can guess what it might have been, and no one’s ever gotten it right off the top of their heads, or even come close.
So, what percentage of the population of pre-WWII Germany do you suppose was Jewish? Take a moment and think about it. Then guess.
You can do that now.
Here’s the answer, and it will almost undoubtedly surprise you (unless, of course, you were reading neo-neocon eight years ago and remember that previous post):
According to the census of June 1933, the Jewish population of Germany consisted of about 500,000 people. Jews represented less than one percent of the total German population of about 67 million people.
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s go to the larger topic: did the great majority of these Jews naively and hopefully fail to see the Nazi menace, and did they stay in Germany too long?
The answer to that is: it doesn’t seem that way. Actually, the majority of them left rather than wait it out. And many who waited it out did so because they could not leave—either because they were old and ill, and/or poor, and/or because all avenues of escape were closed to them.
Here are the statistics:
Increasing antisemitism prompted a wave of a Jewish mass emigration from Germany throughout the 1930s. Soon after their rise to power in 1933, the Nazis negotiated the Haavara Agreement between Zionist authorities in Palestine, which was signed on August 25, 1933. Under its terms, 60,000 German Jews were allowed to emigrate to Palestine and take $100 million in assets with them. Between 1929 and 1939, a total of 250,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine, mostly from Germany. Of these, 174,000 arrived between 1933 and 1936. After that, the British Mandatory authorities imposed limits on Jewish immigration, which led to clandestine illegal immigration. This wave of immigration was part of the Fifth Aliyah, and saw many Jewish doctors, lawyers, professionals, and professors leave the country.
The United States was another destination for German Jews seeking to leave the country, though the number allowed to immigrate was restricted due to the Immigration Act of 1924. Between 1933 and 1939, more than 300,000 Germans, some 90% of them Jews, applied for immigration visas to the United States. By 1940, only 90,000 German Jews had been granted visas and allowed to settle in the United States…
Overall, of the 522,000 Jews living in Germany in January 1933, only 214,000 were left by the eve of World War II.
It was probably easier to leave earlier in the 1930s as opposed to later. But from the above numbers you can see that a lot of people were trying—and even succeeding—during the mid-30s. For example, by my calculations, one-third of the entire German Jewish population managed to get to Palestine by 1936, before things tightened up and it became much more difficult to emigrate there (but even before that, numbers were limited by law).
What’s more, some who did leave Germany early on got trapped in their supposed places of refuge as time went on:
Some 100,000 German Jews also moved to Western European countries, especially France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. However, these countries would later be occupied by Germany, and many of them would still fall victim to the Holocaust.
In most cases emigration required cunning, connections, and money, and even then it often failed. The German Jews were generally more well-off and assimilated than Jews in countries where the Jewish population was much larger, such as Poland. I’ve talked mostly about Germany so far, but as is evident from the statistics, the Jews of Germany constituted a very small minority compared to the Jews of Europe. However, German Jews were more directly affected early on by Hitler and the Nazis and their restrictive laws. In other parts of Europe, the Jews would have been alerted to the dangers only later. But they were subject to all the restrictions mentioned, and it’s actually quite amazing that many made it out at all.
For every person who managed to leave, I would guess (although I have no way of knowing for sure) there were many many more who tried very hard and yet failed. A personal anecdote: I have read the translation of a series of letters written by a Polish Jew who was the brother of one of my ex-husband’s uncles. These documents are utterly heartbreaking and chilling. They begin in 1936 and continue to 1939, although there is one very brief one written in the early 1940′s. They consist of reports of what’s happening in Poland and requests for help in order to emigrate to America, where my ex-husband’s uncle (the recipient of the letters) was living at the time.
The writer was eventually trapped in Poland and murdered in the Holocaust. He was an ordinary man in the sense of having no particular wealth—as I recall, he had a small textile business—and he even had a brother in the US willing to help and pull every string he could find, including promising the US government that he would take financial responsibility for him. All to no avail.
The following excerpts will give you a flavor of the sentiments and thoughts expressed in these missives. Here’s a quote from the earliest letter that survived (from 1936):
Our situation here grows worse from day to day. A Jew here is worse off than a dog that runs about the streets…The burden of taxes is unbearable. Not a week goes by that there isn’t something new. And it is always on the Jew. It is truly indescribable. You Jew, you have money for everything. And on the other hand, the Jew is persecuted as a Communist. The whole story of the Middle Ages is being repeated.
…Polish Jewry is in a desperate state. Above all, there are no prospects in life for the young people. Very few marriages are taking place among Polish Jews, and so on. The young people see no future for themselves here. They want to emigrate, but unfortunately the world is completed closed to them…Above all, we are very frightened…These days, the people in high places speak openly about how they need to rid Poland of at least 100,000 Jews. Anti-Semitism is growing by leaps and bounds. They send free anti-Semitic newspapers into every village. The Jew is blamed for everything.
Here is one from 1939:
Now, my dear brother, let’s get down to business. You write that you spoke to a “lawyer” [Eng.] and he told you that he would find out everything that needs to be done. My dear brother, you should know that I dwell on this day and night; I simply don’t sleep.
Most importantly, you must understand what I write you. First, the American consulate here is very strict about the papers it receives. First, the papers must indicate that the person submitting them is in a good financial situation –mainly that his income exceeds his expenses, that he can support [the immigrants.]. If so, they grant a visa. I don’t know if you can show this. If your boss [Eng.] can provide certification that you are paid, for example, $70, and that you require only $40, and you can also show that you have a couple of thousand in the bank, that is good. My dear, I would very much like to rescue the children from this fire. I believe that there is sure to be a war in Europe, and you are well aware what the word “war” represents.
They do everything they can to get rid of the Jews. A young person, if only he has the wherewithal, wants to escape, as if from hell. Oh, my dear brother, we must do everything with great care and deliberation, to see that things go well, because in the American consulate in Warsaw they look to see who has better papers, and better guarantees, and those people get a visa sooner. That’s the thing you have to see to. There are people whose papers have been lying in the consulate for three years already, and still nothing has happened. And whoever has papers that show that someone can put up a lot of money as a guarantee, and also makes a good living, then it’s OK. May God help us get this done successfully.
Here is one from later in 1939:
If I had something happy to write, I would write to you twice a week. Unfortunately, such terrible things happen occasionally, they are indescribable. What times we are living in! People were mistaken in their belief that the aristocracy will win, and that courtesy and decency will rule. Instead, we have barbarism, ferocious violence, concentration camps and women buried alive with babies in their arms. This continues, and England still supports it and gives [untranslatable word] and so on.
…And it’s now clear that war is inevitable. Hitler has arms and people; he needs bread. All of world Jewry must be ready to fight all on fronts with strength and money and influence, to make sure that he fails. For he has decreed that Jews are bad and must be stamped out and their possessions taken.
Now, my dear brother, I know you are eager to know what has happened with the papers you sent. It is not a simple matter. Everyone loves the Jews but nobody wants them [as immigrants in their country]. The American consulate is inundated with [illegible word] and it goes with great difficulty.
From two letters late in 1939:
This week I got your letter with the [illegible word] that you wrote to the senator [word is in English]. I see that you are devoted and want to rescue my children from this powder keg. Today it said in the paper that America will be closed for 5 years…
America pities and sends wishes to the Jews. Can’t they let in a couple of million Polish, German, Rumanian and Austrian Jews?
It’s like the rich man who was very charitable. A poor man came begging at his door in winter. It was exceptionally cold. The rich man stood at the door and gave him alms. Shouts the poor man, I don’t want alms. It’s cold and I’m freezing. Let me in so I can warm myself a bit. No answer. The rich man gives him a couple more pennies, but doesn’t let him in.
There was a time when the Spanish and German Jews were chased out and Poland took them in. And now in such developed countries as America and England–they know how to give alms but they won’t allow you to come in and warm yourself.
I’ll stop there, but I’ll add that these represent only a few short excerpts from a much lengthier series of letters that show a man who knows that he and his children are almost certainly trapped and doomed, and yet is fighting with all his might to escape. It is inexpressibly sad to read these letters and know what happened.
How typical this man’s sentiments and knowledge were at the time I do not know. But to me they suggest that a substantial number of the Jews who stayed in Europe in the 30s and died there in the 40s were quite aware of the fate that awaited them, either in general or very specific terms, and had tried their best to escape. But for most of them there was no way to do it and nowhere to go.