Coping Strategies of the German Jews

As there were different phases of “Jewish policy” within the “Third Reich”, the situation of the Jewish population was by no means always and everywhere the same. Thus, the individual reactions, the opportunities to take action and the resulting behaviour and strategies of Jews and their organisations depended on the respective implementation of Nazi Jewish policy, the attitude taken by the surrounding society and offers of help from outside sources. In their political work and activities within Germany, Jewish organisations initially pursued very divergent goals in the period immediately following the Nazis accession to power. However, already months before the November pogrom of 1938, they had put emigration high on the priority list – provided of course that the respective organisations still existed and had not in the meantime been banned or disbanded.

The individual Jewish reactions in the German Reich between 1933 and 1938 to having their economic existence destroyed, the mounting social exclusion and the waves of violence marking the year 1938 can be summarised as follows:

  1. Considerable numbers of Jews first of all left rural areas and small towns to move to large cities (internal migration).
  2. In a first wave after 1933 and then a second after 1935, 112,500 and 101,400 persons respectively emigrated abroad. [Document B01]
  3. Many Jews (re-) established closer ties with the Jewish community and the Jewish religion, drawing strength from the cohesion they felt and benefiting from material help and the solidarity offered. [Document B02]
  4. For as long as they lived in Germany, almost all tried to exhaust the still existing (legal) possibilities open to them: they continued to send their children to state schools, to maintain their employment opportunities in “Aryan” businesses or keep offering their services as freelancers. [Document B03] Above all else, they tried to save their assets. Because the Reich Citizenship Law permitted petitions to be (in part) treated equally with persons of “German blood”, these were submitted in an effort to be exempted from single anti-Jewish measures. Others sought the formal or informal protection of high-ranking Nazis or tried to hide their Jewish descent.


From 1938 on, there was another wave of refugees, so that between 1939 and October 1941 a further 101,000 persons emigrated, although the costs of passages had often risen dramatically and considerably fewer countries were willing to accept Jewish refugees. After not wanting to split up their families during the first years of Nazi rule, many persecuted Jews now accepted separation: frequently the men left the country as a kind of “advance party” and arranged for the family to follow once everything for their life abroad was in place. Many families decided to ensure the safety of their children, initially sending them to Palestine with the help of Youth Aliyah [Document B04]. From 1938/39 on, they also made use of the child transport initative (Kindertransporte), mainly to the United Kingdom; smaller groups of children were accepted in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Sweden and Switzerland. Anyone ill or disabled who was not permitted to enter designated countries or could not have coped with the exertions of emigration, had to remain in the German Reich, where they were then taken in by the Jewish communities. [Document B05] Many of the older generation, particularly those no longer actively involved in working life, hoped to be able to avoid emigration because they were no longer affected by the various prohibitions placed on education, training and employment, and assumed that they could live on their private assets or pension entitlements.

Whoever could or did not want to emigrate faced an increasingly difficult situation at the end of the 1930s and the beginning 1940s: the room to manoeuvre was dwindling with the imposition of forced labour, concentration into confined living spaces, financial plundering, public marking with badges etc., which for the majority meant the end of their economic existence. Moreover, emigration opportunities decreased dramatically. At the same time, future prospects for the younger generation became increasingly grim, for education and training had been almost completely closed off to them in the meantime. Only the Reich Association of Jews in Germany (Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland) offered some qualification courses, for example for kindergarten teachers. Those affected undertook all they could to flee, even if the destinations were unsuitable or indeed uncertain and the journeys frequently – particularly after the outbreak of the war – fraught with danger.

Individual reactions were not always in accord with the solidarity propagated by the Jewish religious communities and organisations. Whoever fled or – as in the second half of war– went into hiding was leaving a community relying on young members capable of work; often friends and relatives were left behind uncared for. A minority even sought to save their own skins at the expense of others. A closer look often calls into question the image of a community fused together by solidarity in the face of grave danger, an image fostered by both contemporaries and in retrospect; what emerges instead of self-sacrificing solidarity are desperate efforts to save oneself and survive in any way possible.

While one of the main rescue possibilities for Jews, emigration was not the sole reaction to the persecution measures. Under the outside pressure of National Socialism, a change of roles took place in Jewish families and above all women developed strategies for survival or at least to save their children. Even in hostile environments Jews were not only victims, but also active, assessing developments and events, interpreting them and considering how best to deal with the new situation.

After 1933, Jewish organisations had at first continued to pursue their earlier goals. To name but just two examples: the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith (Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens: CV) continued to fight antisemitism and did everything it could legally and journalistically to prevent the dismantling of civil rights of Jews; in contrast, the Zionist Union for Germany (Zionistische Vereinigung für Deutschland) stepped up their efforts to facilitate the emigration of German Jews to Palestine. In September 1933, these and most of the other German-Jewish organisations merged under the umbrella organisation “Reich Federation of German Jews” (“Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden”: RV), which the Nazi state however never officially recognised as a representative body. At first, the committees of the Reich Federation operated within the usual channels of traditional association action: their memorandums, letters and petitions to high-ranking Nazis and the ministerial bureaucracy were dedicated to enabling Jews to continue living in Germany in decent conditions permanently or, at the very least, until they emigrated. They strove to strengthen Jewish identity, to put parallel structures in place and to offset the impact of anti-Jewish measures through internal solidarity. Emigration soon became the focus of their efforts. The Zionists ran Hakhshara camps [Document B06] and actively supported a realigning of professional profiles and training into skilled manual professions, crucial for the development work needed in Palestine. With the Haavara Agreement, which enabled Jewish assets and possessions to be transferred to Palestine as German exports, they gained an important success. This was something the “assimilated” Jews, who supported emigration mainly overseas, could not boast despite all their efforts. They, too, offered young people vocational training with a view to changing the hitherto academic-commercial occupational pattern in the direction of “manual” work. With this reorientation they sought to refute the argument put forward by antisemites that Jews were incapable of physical work while simultaneously enabling younger Jews to earn a livelihood in Germany as well as prepairing them for emigration.

In protest against the Nuremberg Laws, the “Reich Federation of German Jews” [“Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden“] renamed itself into “Reich Federation of Jews in Germany” [“Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland“] in 1935. The Reich Federation responded with a press release emphasising that the laws now clarified the situation and provided a foundation for tolerable relations between Jews and Germans in the future; the Federation hoped that the defamation and boycotts would cease. It thus resigned itself to the new situation and hoped that the Jewish minority could remain in the German Reich with less rights and indirectly demanded that the disenfranchisement process would now come to an end. Internal power struggles and conflicts also weakened the Reich Federation.

The main successor organisation, founded in the summer of 1939, the Reich Association of Jews in Germany (Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland: RVJD), was like its sister organisations in Vienna and Prague subordinate to the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt: RSHA). It had to forcibly administere the remaining Jews in the German Reich and had to do the preliminary work for the newly founded Central Agencies for Jewish Emigration (Zentralstellen für jüdische Auswanderung). These associations took over the tasks of social welfare as well as schooling and training previously in the hands of the state and generally had to prepare the ground for the implementation of anti-Jewish policy. From 1939 to 1941 the Jewish functionaries tried to reduce the impact of the persecution measures while broadening the scope of emigration possibilities. They now also accepted and financed illegal immigration into Palestine (illegal because the British Mandate for Palestine had meanwhile put a stop to it because of Arab uprisings), a move the German Reich Association initially rejected but which the Vienna Jewish Council (Judenrat) had practiced from the outset.

This period coincided with National Socialist plans for a territorial solution to the “Jewish question” on Madagascar or in the area around Lublin. The first – still uncoordinated – deportations (Stettin, Pomerania, Nisko, Baden and Saarland-Palatinate) not only spread fear and terror directly, but were also understood as a future threat. The Jewish representatives of the three organisations were prohibited from having unchecked contact with one another. Protests against anti-Jewish measures – for instance the idea that Jews in the Old Reich should fast for a day – were prohibited by the Reich Security Main Office. Julius Seligsohn, who had proposed the day of fasting, paid for this idea with his life, as did his fellow director Otto Hirsch shortly after. On the other hand, isolated proposals put forward by the Reich Association were accepted, for example expanding welfare services because, as a result of emigration and economic plundering, new homes and facilities were required to look after the ill, disabled and needy left behind. The Hakhshara centres and the non-Zionist training camps for youths and young adults remained in operation until 1941, in some cases in expanded form. However, because these enforced organisations had to control and register their members, a gulf soon emerged that quickly widened once the mass deportations began in October 1941: while members tried to evade registration, controls and the payment of fees, the officials made every effort to efficiently carry out orders precisely so that the Nazi state would not directly intervene.

The attitude displayed by the Viennese community reveals just how quickly and fundamentally these changes took place once the preliminary work for the deportations assumed priority and the members realised that their interests were no longer the same as those of “their” organisation. The strategies of the Jewish representatives were cooperative (Leo Baeck: “legal resistance”), conceived to reduce the impact of anti-Jewish measures as much as possible. The Jewish representatives tried to implement the demands of the Nazis in such a way that the specific measures harmed the affected Jews as little as possible. At the same time, they wished to prevent the Nazi authorities from carrying out the persecution measures. The Jewish officials initially refused – as in part did the Vienna religious community – to take on some tasks, but eventually decided to change course, for it soon became clear that the SS would otherwise enforce the measures violently. Until 1941 their actions were always in response to forced emigration and deportations, which up to that point were still organised in parallel: when they helped to prepare the early deportations, they were also able to save other Jews through emigration. After emigration was prohibited, they still agreed to cooperate with the deportations in the hope that they would be informed on plans in the future, which would allow them to intervene into and steer the process, modifying the implementation and leaving them with a remaining community to look after following partial deportations. This hope was only dashed by the expansion of the function of Theresienstadt, first established for Czech Jews, into an “elders” and “model ghetto” for German and Austrian Jews.

Within their widely networked organisation, the German-Jewish representatives employed the means of a traditional bureaucracy in their attempt to slow down the radicalisation process and reduce despotism, violence and corruption. Moreover, they used the possibility of working in Jewish institutions to save thousands temporarily from forced labour in the armaments industry. Nevertheless, these strategies safeguarded no one from deportation and murder. Out of approximately 500 000 German Jews, only a small portion survived in hiding (estimated at between 5 000 and 10 000) and around 12 000 in mixed marriages, while less than 6 000 survivors returned from the ghettos and camps. There were hardly any alternatives towards the end of the war: there were no partisans fighting in Germany who could have offered shelter, while the few conservative and communist resistance groups had not focused their activities on the “Jewish question”. Only a diminishing number of very small groups opposed Nazi Jewish policy and combined this concern with practical help for the persecuted.

The German Jews were exposed to a gradual radicalization from 1933 onwards. There was a relatively long initial stage that could be used for emigration, and in the neighbouring countries the emigrants’ experiences proved useful for aid organisations. Between 1938 and 1941, in both the Old Reich and ‘annexed’ Austria, persecution, emigration and early deportations took place parallel, carefully observed by the Jewish communities in the surrounding countries. Of course, everyone was acting as contemporaries, without knowing that the persecution would end in the Holocaust. By the autumn of 1941, German and Austrian Jews found themselves trapped with barely any more room for manoeuvre: except for the central bodies directly subordinate to the RSHA, their organisations were banned or disbanded, leaving them isolated and cut off from information and overseas help. [Document B07] They could no longer flee to neutral neighbouring countries because these were nearly all already occupied and because both the German-Jewish as well as the Austrian-Jewish leadership acted strictly within the law, thus trying to prevent escape attempts. In contrast, different organisations existed parallel to one another in the occupied territories [Document 08]. While some received financial support from overseas, most of them could above all count on support from the local population, the churches or authorities and maintained contact with underground movements or indeed fought in their ranks. Comparative analysis, based on studies already written on the situation in individual countries, would undoubtedly prove illuminating. The necessary research is, however, only in the early stages.


Beate Meyer