Fall 1939–Summer 1941

The sadistic machine simply rolls over us.

—Victor Klemperer, December 9, 1939


September 1939–May 1940

“On Friday morning, September 1, the young butcher’s lad came and told us: There has been a radio announcement, we already held Danzig and the Corridor, the war with Poland was under way, England and France remained neutral,” Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary on September 3. “I said to Eva [that] a morphine injection or something similar was the best thing for us; our life was over.”1

Klemperer was of Jewish origin; in his youth he converted to Protestantism and later on married a Protestant “Aryan.” In 1935 he was dismissed from the Technical University in Dresden, where he taught Romance languages and literature; yet he went on living in the city, painstakingly recording what happened to him and around him. The British and French responses to the German attack remained uncertain for two days. “Annemarie brought two bottles of sparkling wine for Eva’s birthday,” Klemperer reported on September 4. “We drank one and decided to save the other for the day of the English declaration of war. So today it’s the turn of the second one.”2

In Warsaw, Chaim Kaplan, the director of a Hebrew school, was confident that this time Britain and France would not betray their ally as they had betrayed Czechoslovakia in 1938. On the first day of the war Kaplan sensed the apocalyptic nature of the new conflict: “We are witnessing the dawn of a new era in the history of the world. This war will indeed bring destruction upon human civilization. But this is a civilization that merits annihilation and destruction.”3 Kaplan was convinced that ultimately Nazism would be defeated but that the struggle would entail enormous losses for all.

The Hebrew school director also grasped the peculiar threat that the outbreak of the war represented for the Jews. In that same September 1 entry, he added, “As for the Jews, their danger is seven times greater. Wherever Hitler’s foot treads there is no hope for the Jewish people.” Kaplan quoted Hitler’s notorious speech of January 30, 1939, in which the Nazi leader threatened the Jews with extermination in case of world war. The Jews were thus more eager than most to take a hand at common defense: “When the order was issued that all the inhabitants of the city must dig shelter trenches for protection from air raids, the Jews came in numbers. I, too, was among them.”4

On September 8 the Wehrmacht occupied Lodz, the second largest Polish city: “All of a sudden the terrifying news: Lodz has been surrendered!” Dawid Sierakowiak, a Jewish youngster, barely fifteen, recorded. “All conversation stops; the streets grow deserted; faces and hearts are covered with gloom, cold severity and hostility. Mr. Grabinski comes back from downtown and tells how the local Germans greeted their countrymen. The Grand Hotel where the General Staff is expected to stay is bedecked with garlands of flowers: [Ethnic German] civilians—boys, girls—jump into the passing military cars with happy cries of Heil Hitler! Loud German conversations in the streets. Everything patriotically and nationalistically [German] that was hidden in the past now shows its true face.”5

And in Warsaw again, Adam Czerniaków, an employee of the Polish foreign trade clearinghouse and an active member of the Jewish community, was organizing a Jewish Citizens Committee to work with the Polish authorities: “The Jewish Citizens Committee of the capital city of Warsaw,” he wrote on September 13, “received legal recognition and was established in the Community building.”6 On September 23 he further noted: “Mayor Starzynski named me Chairman of the Jewish Community in Warsaw. A historic role in a besieged city. I will try to live up to it.”7Four days later Poland surrendered.


The voices of many Jewish chroniclers will be heard in this volume, and yet all of them, as different as they may be, offer but a faint glimpse of the extraordinary diversity that was the world of European Jewry on the edge of destruction. After a steady decline of religious observance and an increase in the uncertainties of cultural-ethnic Jewishness, no obvious common denominator fitted the maze of parties, associations, groups, and some nine million individuals, spread all over the Continent, who nonetheless considered themselves Jews (or were considered as such). This diversity resulted from the impact of distinct national histories, the dynamics of large-scale migrations, a predominantly urban-centered life, a constant economic and social mobility driven by any number of individual strategies in the face of surrounding hostility and prejudice or, obversely, by the opportunities offered in liberal surroundings. These constant changes contributed to ever-greater fragmentation within the Diaspora, mainly during the chaotic decades that separated the late nineteenth century from the eve of World War II.

Where, for example, should one locate young Sierakowiak, the Lodz diarist? In his diary entries, started just before the beginning of the war, we discover an artisan family steeped in Jewish tradition, Dawid’s own easy familiarity with this tradition and yet, at the same time, a strong commitment to communism (“The most important things are school work and studying Marxist theory,” he wrote somewhat later).8 Sierakowiak’s divided world was not untypical of the multiple and at times contradictory allegiances coexisting in various segments in Jewish society on the eve of the war: Liberals of various nuances, Social Democrats, Bundists, Trotskyites, Stalinists, Zionists of all possible stripes and factions, religious Jews sparring in endless dogmatic or “tribal” feuds, and, until the end of 1938, a few thousand members of fascist parties, particularly in Mussolini’s Italy.9 Yet for many Jews, mainly in Western Europe, the main goal was social and cultural assimilation into surrounding society, while maintaining some elements of “Jewish identity,” whatever that meant.

All these trends and movements should be multiplied by any number of national or regional idiosyncrasies and internecine struggles, and, of course, by a high count of sometimes notorious individual oddities. Thus the old and terminally ill Sigmund Freud, who had fled from Vienna to London after the Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria), still managed, shortly before the outbreak of the war, to witness the publication of his last work, Moses and Monotheism. On the eve of uncommon dangers sensed by all, the founder of psychoanalysis, who often had emphasized his own Jewishness, was depriving his people of a cherished belief: For him Moses was not a Jew.

Notwithstanding graver threats, Jews in many countries reacted with bitterness: “I read in the local press your statement that Moses was not a Jew,” an anonymous writer thundered from Boston. “It is to be regretted that you would not go to your grave without disgracing yourself, you old nitwit…. It is to be regretted that the gangsters in Germany did not put you into a concentration camp, that’s where you belong.”10

Some basic distinctions nonetheless structured the European Jewish scene between the two world wars. The main dividing line ran between Eastern European and Western Jewries; though geographic to a point, its manifest expression was cultural. Eastern European Jewry (excluding after 1918 the Jews of Soviet Russia, who were developing according to the rules and opportunities offered by the new regime) encompassed in principle the communities of the Baltic countries, Poland, the eastern part of Czechoslovakia, Hungary (except for the large cities), and the eastern provinces of post-1918 Romania. The largely “Spanish” (Sephardi) Jews of Bulgaria, Greece, and parts of Yugoslavia represented a distinct world of their own. East European Jewry was less integrated into surrounding society, more religiously observant—at times still strictly Orthodox—often Yiddish-speaking, occasionally fluent in Hebrew. In short, it was more traditionally “Jewish” than its Western counterpart (although many Jews in Vilna, Warsaw, Lodz, and Iasi were no less “Western” than the Jews of Vienna, Berlin, Prague, and Paris). Economically the majority of Eastern Jewry often hovered on the edge of poverty, but nonetheless it nurtured a distinct, vibrant, and multifaceted Jewish life.11

In spite of such specific aspects, the Jews of Eastern Europe also underwent an accelerated process of acculturation and secularization during the interwar period. Yet, as historian Ezra Mendelsohn noted, “The process of acculturation did not contribute to the improvement of Jewish-gentile relations, thus giving the lie to the old accusation that the cultural separateness of East European Jewry was largely responsible for anti-semitism…. Such prejudices were particularly strong in Hungary, whose Jewish community was the most acculturated in East Central Europe, and they were relatively weak in Lithuania, where the Jewish community was the most unacculturated.”12 This perplexing situation may in fact be explained in a wider context.

In Poland, Romania, and Hungary the Jews were numerically important minorities whose collective rights had been ensured, in principle, by the peace treaties following World War I and the “minority treaties” that, again in principle, had to be enforced by the League of Nations. International guarantees meant little to the exacerbated nationalism of the Poles, the Romanians, and the Hungarians, however: The Jews, like other minorities, were seen as obstacles to the full and unbridled national self-expression of the native population. Moreover, as the Jews represented a high percentage of the urban middle class, particularly in business and in the liberal professions but also among small artisans, the indigenous economic and social aspirations to middle-class status and professions forced a growing number of Jews out of these sectors of the economy, often with the help of various state measures. This trend, in turn, brought about a growing pauperization of these Jewish communities and created, mainly in Poland, a “surplus Jewish population” without any major outlets as the world economic crisis spread and most immigration doors closed.13Such negative evolution for the Jews as such and in terms of their relations with the environment was of course more intense in countries (or areas) of Eastern and East Central Europe undergoing rapid economic modernization (Poland, Romania, Hungary) than in those still deeply ensconced in a rural economy and traditional social structure (the Baltic countries, among others)—a distinction that may in fact explain the apparently paradoxical impact of acculturation on anti-Jewish feelings.14

Despite growing difficulties, however, mainly from the early 1930s onward, Jewish emigration from Eastern and Central Europe to the West went on. By dint of deep-seated cultural and social differences, estrangement between Western and Eastern Jews grew in both directions. For Eastern Jews the Westerners lacked Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), while for the Westerners, some idealization of an “authentic” Jewish life notwithstanding, the Eastern European Jews appeared “backward,” “primitive,” and increasingly a source of embarrassment and shame.15

The migration from Eastern Europe in the 1930s was compounded, mainly for the French, British, or Dutch communities, by the arrival of Jewish refugees from Central Europe following Hitler’s rise to power, first from Germany, then from Austria, and finally, after 1938, from the so-called German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Cultural antagonism was reinforced by the stark difference in economic status: The new immigrants and the refugees were usually bereft of financial means and economically marginalized in countries that had not yet recovered from the Depression. Native Jews, on the other hand, belonged, for the most part, to the middle class and even, not insignificantly, to the haute bourgeoisie; furthermore, increasingly frequent intermarriage had brought them closer to complete assimilation. As a result, throughout Western Europe many native Jews were ready to defend their own position in the face of growing anti-Semitism by sacrificing the interests of their newly arrived “brethren.” The widespread urge was to send the immigrants on their way to some other country.

Whatever the degree of estrangement between Western and Eastern Jews on the eve of the war, there is little doubt that the stream of Jewish immigrants and refugees contributed to the surge of anti-Semitism in various Western European countries. But, as we shall see in the next chapters, Jewish immigration—those “hordes of Ashkenazim,” as Jean Giraudoux, the well-known French playwright and minister of information at the outset of the war, dubbed the Jewish newcomers in his notorious Pleins Pouvoirs—was but one aspect of the darkening scene. In the most general terms the crisis of Jewry in the Western world was the direct outcome and expression of the crisis of liberal society as such and the rise of antidemocratic forces throughout the West. Needless to say, Nazi propaganda had found an ideal terrain for its anti-Semitic invective: The Jews were profiteers, plutocrats, and basically warmongers intent on dragging the European nations into another world conflict to further their own interests and eventually achieve world domination.

Actually, at the very time it was accused of the most heinous plots and political maneuvers, European Jewry—Jews wherever they lived, in fact—whatever the political, economic, or cultural achievement of some individuals, was without any significant collective political influence. This powerlessness was not recognized by the environment, and individual success was often interpreted as symptomatic of a collective Jewish drive to undermine and dominate surrounding society.

German Jewry, for example, financially significant, politically sophisticated, with some of its members wielding considerable influence on the mainstream liberal and the left-wing press, was effortlessly swept aside, together with its natural political allies—liberalism and social democracy—by the rise of Nazism.16 In France, where a Jew, the Socialist Léon Blum, was elected prime minister in 1936, the anti-Semitic backlash had a far greater impact on the existence of the community than did Blum’s short-term presence at the national helm. In stable democracies such as Great Britain and the United States, some Jews had access to centers of power; however, aware of the rise of anti-Semitism in their own countries and of the very limited scope of what could be achieved, they became reluctant to intervene in favor of the threatened communities of continental Europe, particularly in matters of immigration.

No less blatant than their powerlessness was the inability of most European Jews to assess the seriousness of the threats that they faced. During the first five years of Hitler’s regime, barely one-third of German Jewry emigrated, even with the persecution and the indignities that descended on it month after month, year after year, starting in January 1933. The massive violence unleashed by the Nazis during the pogrom of November 9 and 10, 1938 (the so-called Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht), became the very late moment of real awakening and led to desperate attempts to flee. Tens of thousands of Jews still managed to leave; for many, however, obtaining a visa or scraping together the necessary financial means for departure had become impossible. Hardly any Jews left Austria before the Anschluss in March 1938; nor did the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia before the German occupation in March 1939. Again, notwithstanding all starkly visible warning signals, notwithstanding Hitler’s furious anti-Jewish threats and the steep increase of local hostility, the trickle of Jewish emigration from East Central Europe did not grow significantly, nor did almost any Jews leave Western Europe, before the German onslaught.

This apparent passivity in the face of mounting danger seems hard to understand in retrospect, although, as mentioned, the growing difficulties faced by Jewish emigrants explain it in part; a deeper reason may have come into play during the immediate prewar period and also in the weeks and months that followed. In the East, and mainly in the West (apart from Germany), most Jews entirely misjudged the degree of support they could expect from surrounding society and from national or local authorities in the face of a common enemy. In Warsaw in September 1939, let us recall, Kaplan and Czerniaków were proud participants in the common struggle.

In the West the misperception was more extreme, as we shall see. Moreover, mainly in Western Europe, the Jews believed in the validity of abstract principles and universal values, “in a world inhabited by civilized Cartesian phantoms”;17 in other words they believed in the rule of law, even in the rule of German law. Law offered a stable framework for facing ordeals and planning everyday life and long-term survival, in other words—the future. Thus the Jews were unaware that “the Jew” was outside the domain of natural and contractual ties and obligations, a situation that the German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt defined in her wartime essay “The Jew as Pariah” by borrowing a sentence from Franz Kafka’s The Castle: “You are not of the castle, you are not of the village, you are nothing.”18

Zionism, although growing in strength in the wake of German and European anti-Semitism, still remained a comparatively minor factor on the Jewish scene on the eve of the war. In May 1939, after the failure of the St. James Conference among the British, the Arabs, and the Zionists, London published a white paper that limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 75,000 immigrants over the next five years and practically put an end to Zionist efforts to buy land in Eretz Israel. Zionist policy had never seemed so far from achieving its goals since the Balfour Declaration.

On August 16, 1939, the Twenty-first Zionist Congress convened in Geneva but was cut short by the impending outbreak of war. In his concluding address to the assembled delegates, on August 22, Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, spoke simply, in Yiddish: “There is darkness all around us, and we cannot see through the clouds. It is with a heavy heart that I take my leave…. If, as I hope, we are spared in life and our work continues, who knows—perhaps a new light will shine upon us from the thick black gloom…. We shall meet again. We shall meet again in common labor for our land and people…. There are some things that cannot fail to come to pass, things without which the world cannot be imagined. The remnant shall work on, fight on, live on until the dawn of better days. Toward that dawn I greet you. May we meet again in peace.”19


Hitler’s views about the newly conquered populations and territories in the East were tentatively outlined on September 29, in a conversation with one of his earliest companions, party chief ideologue Alfred Rosenberg: “The Poles” the Nazi leader declared “a thin Germanic layer, underneath frightful material. The Jews, the most appalling people one can imagine. The towns thick with dirt. He [Hitler] had learnt a lot in these past weeks…. What was needed now was a determined and masterful hand to rule. He wanted to split the territory into three strips: (1) Between the Vistula and the Bug: this would be for the whole of Jewry (including the Reich) as well as all other unreliable elements. Build an insuperable wall on the Vistula—even stronger than the one in the West [the Siegfried Line, which faced France]. (2) Create a broad cordon of territory along the previous frontier to be Germanized and colonized. This would be a major task for the nation: to create a German granary, a strong peasantry, to resettle good Germans from all over the world. (3) In between, a form of Polish state. The future would show whether after a few decades the cordon of settlement would have to be pushed farther forward.”20

At this stage Hitler’s plans included only half of former Poland, up to the Vistula and the Bug Rivers; the eastern part of the country had been invaded by the Soviet Union on September 17 in accordance with one of the main provisions of the secret protocol added to the German-Soviet pact of August 23, 1939. Moreover, the Germans had recognized Soviet “special interests” in the Baltic countries, Finland, and Bulgaria, and with regard to two Romanian provinces. For both sides the August treaty and a further secret arrangement signed on September 27 were tactical moves. Both Hitler and Stalin knew that a confrontation would ultimately come.21 How long, though, the “truce” between National Socialism and Bolshevism would last was something that in September 1939 nobody could tell.

In a so-called peace offer during a festive Reichstag speech on October 6, Hitler indeed spoke of a territorial reorganization of those areas of Eastern Europe lying between the German border and the Soviet-German demarcation line. His settlement idea was to be based on the principle of nationalities and solve the problem of national minorities, including “in this context, the attempt to solve the Jewish problem.”22

Reestablishing a Polish state was mentioned as a possibility. By then, however, Great Britain and France had become familiar with Hitler’s tactics; the “peace offer” was rejected. The idea of some form of Polish sovereignty disappeared, and German-occupied Poland was further divided. The Reich annexed several areas along its eastern borders: a large region along the river Warthe (Reichsgau Wartheland, or Warthegau23), Eastern Upper Silesia (eventually part of Gau Upper Silesia), the Polish corridor with the city of Danzig (Gau Danzig–West Prussia) and a small stretch of territory south of East Prussia. A population of 16 million people was thus added to Germany, around 7.5 million of whom were Germans. After a brief interim plan to establish an autonomous “Rest-Polen” (rump Poland), the remaining Polish territory, which included the cities of Warsaw, Kraków, and Lublin, became the “General Government,” an administrative unit of around 12 million people, governed by German officials and occupied by German troops. The General Government itself was subdivided into four districts: Warsaw, Radom, Kraków, and Lublin. The district of Galicia would be added in August 1941, after the German attack on the Soviet Union.

On October 17, freed from the peace proposal gimmick, the Nazi leader was back on track. One of the officers present at a meeting between Hitler and a group of military commanders and some high-ranking party members recorded his remarks about what was to be achieved in Poland: “The hard struggle of nationalities (Volkstumskampf ) does not allow for any legal constraints. The methods will be incompatible with our principles…. Prevent Polish intelligentsia from becoming a leadership group…the old and the new territory should be cleansed of Jews, Polacks and rabble.”24

The core notion was that of Volkstumskampf, the ethnic-racial struggle. It would be unhampered by “legal constraints,” and the methods used would be “incompatible with our principles.” On that essential point Hitler’s policy departed radically from the goals of pan-German expansionism, widely accepted during the later years of the Wilhelmine empire. Volkstumskampf did not mean mere military victory and political domination; it aimed at the destruction of the vital sinews of the enemy national-racial community; in other words it implied mass murder.25 Murder of well-defined groups for the sake of the racial supremacy of Germandom became a legitimate instrument of policy. In occupied Poland two groups in particular would be targeted: Jews and “Polish elites”: The murder of Jews was haphazard at this stage, that of Polish elites more systematic.

Some sixty thousand Poles whose names had been collected over the prewar years were to be eliminated;26 the operation was partly camouflaged under directives for ensuring the security of the troops and, more generally, of the occupied territory. SS chief Heinrich Himmler chose the code name Tannenberg for the terror campaign; it evoked the victory of the German armies over the Russian forces at Tannenberg in East Prussia in 1914, and represented a symbolic retaliation against the Poles for the resounding defeat they had inflicted upon the Teutonic Knights at that same place in the early fifteenth century.27

Of course the basic order stemmed from Hitler. In July 1940 Reinhard Heydrich, since mid-September 1939 chief of the SS Main Office for the Security of the Reich (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA), wrote to his SS colleague Kurt Daluege, the chief of the Order Police (Ordnungspolizei, or ORPO), that at the onset of the Polish campaign Hitler had given him an “extraordinarily radical…order for the liquidation of various circles of the Polish leadership, [killings] that ran into the thousands.”28 The same order was well known to the supreme command of the Wehrmacht (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW), as confirmed by its chief, Gen. Wilhelm Keitel, to the head of military intelligence, Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, on September 12: “The matter [of the executions of Polish elites] had already been decided by the Führer; the commander of the Army [meant as “ground force”] had been informed that if the Wehrmacht refused to be involved, it had to accept the pressure of the SS and the Gestapo. Therefore, in each military district, civilian commanders would be appointed who would carry the responsibility for ethnic extermination” [added in pencil: political cleansing].29

In concrete terms Heydrich was in charge of Tannenberg, although several SS “Death’s Head” units, under the command of the inspector of concentration camps, Theodor Eicke, independently took part in the “antiterror” campaign. Initially Heydrich had set up five “operational groups” (Einsatzgruppen) and one “special purpose operational group” for the murder campaign; ultimately seven Einsatzgruppen were involved. Some basic briefings took place on the eve of the attack. Then, on two occasions following the beginning of the campaign, Heydrich clearly defined the goals of the operation. “The leading strata of the population should be rendered harmless,” he declared to his unit commanders, on September 7.30 In another meeting, on September 27, he stated that merely 3 percent of the Polish elite still remained and that “they too should be rendered harmless.”31 Sometimes authorization for specific murder operations was requested in Berlin. Thus, at the end of 1939, for example, SS Brigadeführer Dr. Dr. Otto Rasch, commander of the Security Police and Security Service in Königsberg, inquired whether the Poles concentrated in the East Prussian camp of Soldau—mainly academics, businesspeople, teachers, and priests—could be “liquidated” on the spot instead of being deported. Heydrich agreed.32

On-the-spot executions were the most common practice, in retaliation against Polish civilians for attacks against German troops and as a revenge for Polish murders of Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) in the initial stages of the war—in Bromberg, for example; for the elimination of the local elites, however, other methods were also used. Thus, on November 3, 1939, 183 faculty members of the Jagellonian University in Kraków were summoned by the Gestapo, arrested, and deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. A few months later the older scholars were released and the younger ones sent to Dachau. By that time 13 of the imprisoned scholars had already died; none of the Jews was set free.33


Victory in the Volkstumskampf would be achieved by unbridled ruthlessness against non-Germanic races mainly in the East, and simultaneously, by an equally ruthless cleansing of the Volksgemeinschaft (racial community) inside the Germanic space. In line for eradication were the mentally ill, the Gypsies, and various other “racially foreign” elements still mingling with the Volk, although many of them had already been shipped to concentration camps.

Thousands of mental patients from asylums in Pomerania, East Prussia, and the Posen region in the Warthegau were eliminated soon after the German attack on Poland.34 They were murdered without any medical coverup, independent of the “euthanasia” operation. On orders from Himmler these patients were to be killed so that the buildings they lived in could be used for billeting Waffen SS soldiers and accommodating military casualties, possibly also in order to help in the resettlement of ethnic Germans from neighboring Eastern countries.35

Brought by train to Danzig-Neustadt, the Pomeranian patients were delivered to the Eimann SS Commando (named after its chief, Kurt Eimann), led to the surrounding woods, and shot. The bodies were thrown into graves previously dug by prisoners from the Stutthof concentration camp. Day in, day out, one batch of victims followed another; by midafternoon the “work” was over and the trucks that had brought the patients returned empty to the train station, except for the victims’ clothes. Soon thereafter the concentration camp inmates who had dug the graves were themselves liquidated. The number of patients killed by Kurt Eimann’s unit is not known precisely but in January 1941 its own report mentioned more than three thousand victims.36

Newborn children with serious defects had already been targeted by the eve of the war. The “euthanasia” program as such (identified by its code name, T4, in fact an acronym of Tiergartenstrasse 4, the address of the operation’s headquarters in Berlin), which also extended to the adult population, secretly started in October 1939 on Hitler’s order. It was established under the direct authority of “the Chancellory of the Führer of the National Socialist Party” (Kanzlei des Führers der NSDAP, or KdF), headed by Philipp Bouhler. Bouhler appointed the chief of Office II in the KdF, Viktor Brack, to be directly in charge of the killing operations. Under T4, some seventy thousand mental patients were assembled and murdered in six mental institutions between the beginning of the war and August 1941, when the framework of the extermination system changed.

From the end of the nineteenth century, eugenics had preached racial improvement by ways of various social and medical measures meant to bolster the biological health of the national community. Such theories and measures were as fashionable in the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries as they were in Germany. After the end of World War I, the view increasingly held in Weimar Germany argued that the biological depletion incurred by the Reich as a result of the war, and the economic difficulties that precluded any large-scale social policies to foster “positive” eugenic measures, reinforced the need for excluding the weak, the nonadapted, and diseased individuals from the biological pool of the Volk. Such notions became tenets of Nazi ideology during the “years of struggle.”

Within months of his accession to the chancellorship, Hitler initiated a new law that ordered compulsory sterilization of individuals suffering from certain hereditary diseases. Yet, as late as September 1935, the Nazi leader refused to take the next “logical” step: murdering those individuals “unworthy of living.” Negative reactions from the population and the churches could have been expected—a risk that Hitler was not yet prepared to take. At the end of 1938 and mainly in 1939, the Nazi leader’s readiness to move ahead in this domain—as in that of foreign aggression—grew and, once the war started, the final authorization was given;37 the crucial move from sterilization to straightforward group extermination was made.

In each of the medical institutions turned into killing centers, physicians and police officers were jointly in charge. The exterminations followed a standardized routine: The chief physician checked the paperwork; photos of the victims were taken; the inmates were then led to a gas chamber fed by containers of carbon monoxide and asphyxiated. Gold teeth were torn out and the bodies cremated.38

The killing of Jewish patients started in June 1940; they had previously been moved to a few institutions designated only for them.39 They were killed without any formalities; their medical records were of no interest. Their death was camouflaged nonetheless: The Reichsvereinigung (the representative body of Jews in Germany) had to pay the costs of the victims’ hospitalization in a fictitious institution: the “Cholm State Hospital,” near Lublin. In August 1940 identical letters were sent from Cholm to the families of the patients, informing them of the sudden death of their relatives, all on the same date. The cause of death was left unspecified.40


As we saw in the introduction, in Hitler’s view the Jews were first and foremost an active (eventually deadly) threat. Yet, in the wake of the Polish campaign, the first German reactions to the sight of the Ostjuden (Eastern Jews) were more immediately dominated by disgust and utter contempt. On September 10 Hitler toured the Jewish quarter of Kielce; his press chief (Reichspressechef ), Otto Dietrich, described the impression of the visit in a pamphlet published at the end of that year: “If we had once believed we knew the Jews, we were quickly taught otherwise here…. The appearance of these human beings is unimaginable…. Physical repulsion hindered us from carrying out our journalistic research…. The Jews in Poland are in no way poor, but they live in such inconceivable dirt, in huts in which no vagrant in Germany would spend the night.”41

On October 7, referring to Hitler’s description of his impressions from Poland, Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, added: “The Jewish problem will be the most difficult to solve. These Jews are not human beings anymore. [They are] predators equipped with a cold intellect which have to be rendered harmless.”42 On November 2 Goebbels reported to Hitler about his own trip to Poland. “Above all,” Goebbels recorded in his diary, “my description of the Jewish problem gets his [Hitler’s] full approval. The Jew is a waste product. It is a clinical issue more than a social one.”43

In Nazi parlance “to render harmless” meant killing. There was no such concrete plan in the fall of 1939, but murderous thoughts regarding the Jews were certainly swirling around. The harshest measures were not necessarily backed by all members of the Nazi elite, however: “Frick [the minister of the interior] reports about the Jewish question in Poland,” Goebbels recorded on November 8. “He is in favor of somewhat milder methods. I protest and so does Ley” [Robert Ley, the labor minister and head of the “German Labor Front”].44 At times Hitler’s musings about Jewry took off, as they did from the outset of his career, into loftier spheres: “We touch again upon religious issues,” Goebbels noted on December 29. “The Führer is profoundly religious but totally antichristian. He considers Christianity as a symptom of decline. Rightly so. It is a deposit [Ablagerung] of the Jewish race. One also notices it in the similarity of religious rituals. Both have no relation to animals and this will destroy them in the end.”45

While Hitler’s anti-Semitic harangues went on unabated in his conversations with Goebbels, Rosenberg, and other party subordinates, his only public anti-Jewish outbursts throughout a period of several months came at the beginning of the war, on the day Great Britain and France joined the conflict. On September 3, in the afternoon, German radio broadcast four proclamations by Adolf Hitler: the first to the German people, the second and third to the armed forces on the Eastern and Western Fronts, the last and most important one to the National Socialist Party. In the first proclamation the Nazi leader lashed out at those who had initiated this war; it was not the British people who were responsible, but “that Jewish-plutocratic and democratic ruling class that wanted to turn all the nations of the earth into its obedient slaves.”46 Whereas in the proclamation to the German people the attack against “Jewish plutocracy” came only in the middle of the address, it opened the proclamation to the party: “Our Jewish-democratic world enemy has succeeded in pulling the English people into a state of war with Germany.”47 The real “world enemy” was clearly identified once again: party and state would have to act. “This time,” Hitler warned darkly, “those who hoped to sabotage the common effort would be exterminated without any pity.”48

Whether these dire threats were signals of steps to come or, at this point, merely ritualized outbursts remains an open question. Hitler’s subsequent public restraint derived from obvious political reasons (first the hope of an arrangement with France and Great Britain, then with Great Britain alone). Nothing was said about the Jews either in the annual address to the party “Old Fighters” on November 8, 1939, or in the official announcement that followed an attempt by a single assassin on Hitler’s life that same evening.

In his 1940 New Year’s message to the party, Hitler merely hinted that the Jews had not been forgotten: “Jewish-international capitalism, in alliance with reactionary forces, incited the democracies against Germany”; the same “Jewish-capitalist world enemy” had only one goal, “to destroy the German people,” but, Hitler announced, “the Jewish capitalist world would not survive the twentieth century.”49 And, in the annual speech commemorating the Machtergreifung, on January 30, that restraint would be even more noticeable. A year earlier, on the same occasion, Hitler had proclaimed that a world war would bring about the extermination of the Jews of Europe, and a year later, on January 30, 1941, he would renew his threat. On January 30, 1940, however, the Jews were not mentioned at all.

Possibly no less significant was the fact that in his speech of February 24, 1940, the twentieth anniversary of the proclamation of the party program (a program in which the “Jewish question” had loomed large), Hitler referred specifically to the Jews only once, telling the party members assembled in the Hofbraühaus in Munich that when the Jews insulted him, he considered it an honor. Furthermore, in the same speech, he alluded to the people whom everyone knew, the people who had lived among them up to the last eight years, a group whose jargon no German could understand and whose presence no German could bear, a people who knew only how to lie. Even the dumbest party member understood whom Hitler meant, but, contrary to the Nazi leader’s rhetorical habits, the word “Jews” was not mentioned.50


Although at this stage most Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda was aimed at the German public, Goebbels never forgot its potential impact beyond the Reich’s borders, mainly among Germany’s enemies. By endlessly repeating that the war was a “Jewish war,” prepared and instigated by the Jews for their own profit and their ultimate goal, world domination, Goebbels hoped to weaken enemy resolve and foster a growing demand for an arrangement with Germany.

On November 2, during the conversation in which the propaganda minister told Hitler of his Polish trip and described the Jews as a “waste product,” as a “clinical issue more than a social one,” both concluded that anti-Jewish propaganda aimed toward the outside world ought to be substantially reinforced: “We consider,” the minister noted, “whether we shouldn’t stress the Zionist Protocols [sic] (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) in our propaganda in France.”51 The use of the “Protocols” was to reappear in Goebbels’s plans throughout the war, mainly toward the end. More than once he would discuss the issue with his Führer. Incidentally, the dual and contradictory aspect of the Nazi myth of the Jew was strikingly illustrated on this occasion: the Jews were “a waste product” and “a clinical issue” on the one hand and, on the other, Aryan humanity faced the mortal danger of a Jewish domination of the world….

Immediately after the beginning of the war, Goebbels ordered the production of three major anti-Jewish films: Die Rothschilds (The Rothschilds), Jud Süss ( Jew Süss) and Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). The Rothschild project was submitted to the minister by the board of UFA film studios in September 1939; he gave his permission to go ahead with the production.52Der Ewige Jude was Goebbels’s own idea and between October 1939 and September 1940, it became his most consuming anti-Jewish propaganda project. In October, Fritz Hippler, the head of the film section of the propaganda Ministry, was put in charge of the film; in November, Veit Harlan was chosen as director of Jud Süss.

The three Nazi film projects had a strange prehistory. All three topics—all three titles, in fact—had probably been chosen by Goebbels to offer violently anti-Semitic versions of identically named films produced in 1933 and 1934 in Great Britain and in the United States, each of which carried a message stigmatizing the persecution of the Jews through history. Of course in the three films of the early 1930s the Jewish figures were presented in a highly favorable light.53The House of Rothschild was produced by Twentieth-Century Pictures in 1933; The Eternal Jew came from the studios of Gaumont-Twickenham in 1934 and, in the same year Gaumont-British produced Jew Süss with the German refugee actor Conrad Veidt in the main role (Veidt had left Germany in 1933; his wife was half Jewish).54 Both The House of Rothschild and Jew Süss were relatively successful in the United States, in Great Britain, and in several European countries. Needless to say, neither film was shown in Germany, and Jew Süss was banned in Austria after a brief run in Vienna.55 In Britain itself Jew Süss received mostly positive reviews, although it garnered some strongly anti-Semitic articles as well. Punch, for example, warned the Tivoli theater (where the film had opened): “It must begin to Aryanize itself or it will be too much thought of as the abode of Hebraic eminence and idiosyncrasy…. A little Gentile leaven in the Tivoli pogroms—I mean programme—would not be unwelcome.”56 I will return to Goebbels’s Jud Süss.

In its 1934 British version, The Eternal Jew denounced the persecution of the Jews during the Inquisition. At approximately the same time, a first Nazi version of a film carrying the same title was put together by one Walter Böttcher for the Munich anti-Jewish exhibition (also titled Der Ewige Jude), which opened in the fall of 1937. Goebbels, who had nothing to do with this party production, disliked it and even mentioned, on November 5, 1937, that it had been done against his instructions.57 And yet Juden ohne Maske (Jews Unmasked), as the 1937 film was titled, already used the method that would be applied with much greater skill in the Goebbels production: images of Jews “as they outwardly appeared” juxtaposed with images of Jews “as they really were.”58

The second source of Der Ewige Jude was the material for an anti-Semitic documentary that was being shot in Poland, literally days after the end of the campaign. On October 6, Goebbels noted: “Discussed a ghetto film with Hippler and Taubert; the material for it is now being shot in Poland. It should become a first-rate propaganda film…. In 3–4 weeks it must be ready.”59 Little did Goebbels know that it would take another year before the release of this quintessential anti-Jewish production.

Throughout the end of 1939 and the beginning of 1940, the minister devoted constant attention to the “Judenfilm”—the “Jew film,” as he called Der Ewige Jude.60 On October 16 he mentioned it to Hitler, who “showed great interest.”61 The next day he returned to the topic in his diary: “Film tests…. Pictures from the ghetto film. Never existed before. Descriptions so dreadful and brutal in their details that one’s blood freezes. One pulls back in horror at so much brutality. This Jewry must be exterminated.”62 October 24: “Further tests for our Jew film. Pictures of synagogue scenes of extraordinary significance. At this time we work on this, in order to make a propaganda masterpiece of all of it.”63 October 28: “Shot tests for our Jew film. Shocking. This film will be our big hit.”64

On November 2 Goebbels flew to Poland, first to Lodz: “We travel through the ghetto. We get out and observe everything in detail. It cannot be described. These are no longer human beings, these are animals. Therefore, it is no humanitarian task, but a surgical one. One must cut here, in a radical way. Otherwise Europe will perish of the Jewish disease.”65 November 19: “I tell the Führer about our Jew film. He makes a few suggestions.”66 And so it went through the end of 1939.

The “pictures of synagogue scenes” had been filmed at the Vilker shul in Lodz. The Germans assembled the congregation, ordered it to put on taleysim and tefillin and to stage a full-scale service. Shimon Huberband later recorded the details of the event for the underground historical archives kept in Warsaw (to which we will return). “A large number of high-ranking German officers came,” Huberband noted, “and filmed the entire course of the service, immortalizing it on film!!” Then the order was given to take out the Torah scroll and read from it: “The Torah scroll was filmed in various poses—with the mantle covering it, with its belt on and off, open and closed. The Torah reader, a clever Jew, called out in Hebrew before beginning to read the scroll: ‘Today is Tuesday.’ This was meant as a statement for posterity that they were forced to read the Torah, since the Torah is usually not read on Tuesday.”67

The Germans repeated the operation at the Jewish slaughterhouse: “The kosher meat slaughterers, dressed in yarmulkes [skullcaps] and gartlekh [sashes], were ordered to slaughter a number of cattle and recite the blessings, while squeezing their eyes shut and rocking with religious fervor. They were also required to examine the animals’ lungs and remove the adhesions to the lungs.”68 Incidentally, over the following days the Germans burned down one synagogue and then another, announcing that it was Polish revenge for the destruction by the Jews of the monument to the national hero and anti-Russian freedom fighter Kosciuszko.69

The delays in the completion of Der Ewige Jude did not mean that the German population was kept waiting for visual material about “the Jew.” From the outset of the Polish campaign, the Wehrmacht propaganda units (Propagandakompanien, or PK), under the jurisdiction of the OKW but often staffed by personnel chosen from the Propaganda Ministry, started filming Jews for the weekly UFA newsreels. On October 2, the PKs received urgent instructions from Goebbels’s ministry: “Of high priority is film footage showing all sorts of Jewish types. We need more than before, from Warsaw and all the occupied territories. What we want are portraits and images of Jews at work. This material is to be used to reinforce our anti-Semitic propaganda at home and abroad.”70Footage about Jews was shown in newsreels as early as September 14, then on October 4 and 18.71 Some of this material was later incorporated into Der Ewige Jude.

Instructions to newspapers were mostly under Goebbels’s control, although there was some competition from Rosenberg, and from the Reich press chief Otto Dietrich. A state secretary in Goebbels’s ministry, Dietrich was also Hitler’s press officer and a Reichsleiter (party equivalent of “minister”); thus he was both Goebbels’s subordinate and his equal. In January 1940 Dietrich gave confidential instructions to his charges. “It is to be observed,” he complained, “that, with few exceptions, the press did not yet understand how to underscore in their daily journalistic work the propagandistic ‘Parole’ [theme] of the Führer’s New Year’s message, that addressed the battle against the Jewish and reactionary war mongers in the capitalist democracies. Anti-Semitic themes are a part of the daily press material as a clear exposition of the social backwardness of the moneybag democracies who wish to salvage their exploitation methods through this war…. Only with closest attention on the part of the editors to stressing Jewish-capitalist themes, will the necessary long-term propagandistic effect be achieved.”72

At times the Propaganda Ministry guidelines reprimanded newspapers for not respecting the most elementary rules of the profession: painstakingly checking all details to keep as close as possible to the truth. (Such admonishments turned, of course, into an unintended caricature of fact-finding, that would, in another context, be quite comical.) Thus, instruction number 53 of January 9, 1940, “deplored” the major space given by the Völkischer Beobachter to the Jewish origins of British statesmen: “The details provided are mostly false. The claim that after the dismissal of [the Jew] Hore-Belisha, [the Jew] Sir Philip Sassoun [sic] remained the head of war industries is false. Sassoun has died. Duff Cooper’s wife is not Jewish, contrarily to what the VB asserts. She is the most Aryan (das arischste) that can be found among Scottish aristocracy. Also the claim that Mrs. Daladier is Jewish is false. For a long time now Daladier is widowed. The Propaganda ministry will probably have to publish new material about the Jewish origins of some British statesmen.”73 Incidentally the Völkischer Beobachter’s chief editor was Goebbels’s archenemy, Alfred Rosenberg.

In fact, whatever the motives for Hitler’s own tactical restraint during this early phase of the war, “the Jew” was omnipresent in the flood of publications, speeches, orders and prohibitions that permeated everyday life in Germany. Any party leader of some standing had his own individual style in handling the “Jewish question,” and any such leader had a vast constituency that was the instant target and the willing or captive audience of these tirades. Take Robert Ley, for example; his speeches and publications reached millions of workers, as well as the future leadership of the party trained in the centers, which he established and controlled since 1934. Thus, in 1940, when Ley published Unser Sozialismus: Der Hass der Welt (Our Socialism: The Hate of the World), his voice echoed in many German minds. For him plutocracy was, in the words of his biographer, “one tentacle of the Jewish enemy,” and Jewish plutocracy was “the dominance of money and gold, the repression and enslavement of people, the reversal of all natural values and exclusion of reason and insight, the mystical darkness of superstition…. The meanness of human carnality and brutality.” No common ground existed between this evil and the good that was the National Socialist Volksgemeinschaft: Between the two worlds “there is no compromise and no settlement. Whoever wants one, must hate the other. Who gives himself to one, must destroy the other.”74

On occasion, however, it was necessary not to push the “logical” follow-up of anti-Jewish incitement beyond a given limit, as some measures could lead to negative reactions among the population. Thus, on March 6, 1940, Goebbels, Rosenberg, and their Führer reached the conclusion that some parts of church liturgy should not be forbidden, even if they praised the Jews: “We can’t push this matter now.”75 In Dresden, for example, the Church of Zion—which also gave its name to the surrounding area, “the Zion Colony”—was not renamed throughout the war.76


Only a small fraction of the approximately 2.2 million Polish Jews who fell into German hands by the end of September 1939 belonged to the bourgeoisie. The great majority, whether living in cities or in small towns, belonged to the lower middle class of shopkeepers and artisans; as mentioned, they were increasingly pauperized due to the persistent economic crisis and growing ambient hostility. In Lodz, for example, in the early 1930s, 70 percent of Jewish working-class families (comprising on average five to eight persons) lived in a single room; almost 20 percent of these rooms were either in attics or in cellars; part were both workshops and living quarters. The Jews of Warsaw, Vilna, and Bialystok were not much better off than those of Lodz.77 More than a quarter of the entire Jewish population of Poland was in need of assistance in 1934, and the trend was on the rise in the late thirties.78 In Ezra Mendelsohn’s words, Polish Jewry, on the eve of the war, “was an impoverished community with no hope of reversing its rapid economic decline.”79

An important—albeit decreasing—part of this population, let us recall, had been and remained self-consciously Jewish in terms of culture—including language (Yiddish or Hebrew)—and various degrees of religious practice.80 During the interwar period the cultural separatism of the Jews—not different from that of other minorities living in the new Polish state—exacerbated the already deep-rooted native anti-Semitism. This hostile attitude was nurtured by traditional Catholic anti-Judaism, by an increasingly fierce Polish economic drive to force the Jews out of their trades and professions, as well as by mythical stories of Jewish subversive activities against Polish national claims and rights.81

In this fervently Catholic country, the role of the church was decisive. A study of the Catholic press between the wars opened with a resolutely unambiguous statement: “All Catholic journalists agreed…that there was indeed a ‘Jewish question’ and that the Jewish minority in Poland posed a threat to the identity of the Polish nation and the independence of the Polish state.” The general tenor of the articles published in the Catholic press was that all attempts to ease the conflict between Poles and Jews were unrealistic. There were even proposals to abandon the existing policy that recognized Jews as equal citizens, with the same rights as Poles. The Catholic press warned against treating the situation lightly: “There could not be two masters (gospodarze) on Polish soil, especially since the Jewish community contributed to the demoralization of the Poles, took jobs and income away from Poles, and was destroying the national culture.”82 Once such a premise was accepted, the only diverging views dealt with the methods to be used in the anti-Jewish struggle. While part of the Catholic press (and hierarchy) advocated fighting “Jewish ideas,” rather than the Jews as human beings, others went further and advocated “self-defense” even if it resulted in Jewish loss of life.83

The press incitement was but the reflection of the church hierarchy’s attitudes during the interwar period (and before). Even if one disregards the most extreme anti-Jewish attacks stemming from the Polish clergy, those of one Father Stanislaw Trzeciak, for example, the episcopate’s voice was threatening enough. Thus, in 1920, during the Polish-Soviet war, a group of Polish bishops issued the following statement in regard to the Jewish role in world events: “The race which has the leadership of Bolshevism in its hands has already in the past subjugated the whole world by means of gold and the banks, and now, driven by the everlasting imperialist greed that flows in its veins, is already aiming at the final subjugation of the nations under the yoke of its rule.”84

In a pastoral letter issued on February 29, 1936, Cardinal August Hlond, the highest authority in the Catholic Church in Poland, tried to restrain the growing wave of anti-Jewish violence: “It is a fact,” the cardinal stated, “that Jews are waging war against the Catholic Church, that they are steeped in free-thinking and constitute the vanguard of atheism, the Bolshevik movement and revolutionary activity. It is a fact that the Jews have a corrupting influence on morals, and that their publishing houses are spreading pornography. It is true that the Jews are perpetrating fraud, practicing usury, and dealing in prostitution…. But let us be fair. Not all Jews are this way…. One may love one’s nation more, but one may not hate anyone. Not even Jews…. One should stay away from the harmful moral influence of Jews, keep away from their anti-Christian culture, and especially boycott the Jewish press and demoralizing Jewish publications. But it is forbidden to assault, beat up, maim, or slander Jews.”85

The most extreme and militant Polish anti-Jewish political organization, the National Democratic Party (the Endeks), established in the 1890s by Roman Dmowski (who led it until the late 1930s), first and foremost demanded the exclusion of Jews from key positions in Polish political, cultural, and economic life. It rejected the possibility of Jewish assimilation (arguing that such assimilation was not real or “in depth”); it identified Jews with communism (coining the term Zydokomuna—Jewish communism) and, eventually came to consider mass emigration (or expulsion) of the Jews from Poland as the only solution of the Jewish question.86

During the 1920s, apart from pogroms in the immediate postwar period, anti-Jewish attacks were kept under control first by the postwar democratic governments and then by Marshal Józef Pilsudski’s autocratic regime.87 But, after Pilsudski’s death, mainly from 1936 on, anti-Jewish aggression grew in all domains. Widespread physical violence, economic boycott, numerous clashes in the universities, and church incitement were encouraged by successive right-wing governments. Thus, as the war started, the largest Jewish community in Europe, already badly bruised by surrounding hostility, was caught in the Nazi net.88

The SS Einsatzgruppen I, IV, V, and mainly Obergruppenführer Udo von Woyrsch’s “Special Purpose Operational Group” were in charge of terrorizing the Jewish populations. The wanton murder and destruction campaign launched against the Jews did not have the systematic goal of liquidating a specific segment of the Jewish population, as was the case with the Polish elites, but it was both a manifestation of generalized Nazi anti-Jewish hatred and a show of violence that would incite the Jewish populations to flee from some of the regions about to be incorporated into the Reich, such as eastern Upper Silesia.89 More generally the Einsatzgruppen had probably received instructions to drive as many Jews as possible beyond the San River to what was to become the Soviet-occupied area of Poland.90

The men of Woyrsch’s mixed Einsatzgruppe of SD and Order Police excelled. In Dynow, near the San, Order Police detachments belonging to the group burned a dozen Jews in the local synagogue, then shot another sixty of them in the nearby forest. Such murder operations were repeated in several neighboring villages and towns (on September 19, more than one hundred Jewish men were killed in Przekopana). Overall, the unit had murdered some five hundred to six hundred Jews by September 20.91

For the Wehrmacht, Woyrsch had transgressed all tolerable limits. Fourteenth Army commanding officers demanded the withdrawal of the Einsatzgruppe and, atypically, Gestapo headquarters immediately complied. On September 22 the group was pulled back to Katowice.92 Woyrsch’s case, however, was extreme, and more generally the tension between the Wehrmacht and the SS did not lead to any measures against the SS units as such but rather to army complaints about the lack of discipline of Heydrich’s men: “An SS artillery unit of the armored corps has herded Jews into a church and massacred them,” Gen. Franz Halder, chief of the Army (OKH) General Staff, noted in his service diary. “The court-martial has sentenced them to one year in jail. Küchler [Gen. Georg von, commander in chief of Armies Three and Eighteen] has not confirmed the sentence, because more severe punishment is due.”93 Again, on October 10: “Massacres of Jews—discipline!”94

The Wehrmacht may have considered massacring Jews as something demanding disciplinary action, but torturing them offered welcome enjoyment to both soldiers and SS personnel. The choice victims were Orthodox Jews, given their distinctive looks and attire. They were shot at; they were compelled to smear feces on each other; they had to jump, crawl, sing, clean excrement with prayer shawls, dance around the bonfires of burning Torah scrolls. They were whipped, forced to eat pork, or had Jewish stars carved on their foreheads. The “beard game” was the most popular entertainment of all: Beards and sidelocks were shorn, plucked, torn, set afire, hacked off with or without parts of skin, cheeks, or jaws, to the amusement of a usually large audience of cheering soldiers. On Yom Kippur 1939 such entertainment for the troops was particularly lively.

Part of the invasion army was strongly ideologized, even at that early stage of the war. In a “Leaflet for the Conduct of German Soldiers in the Occupied Territory of Poland,” issued by the commander-in-chief of the army, General Walther von Brauchitsch, on September 19, 1939, the soldiers were warned of the “inner enmity” of “all civilians that were not ‘members of the German race.’” Furthermore, Brauchitsch’s “leaflet” stated: “The behavior toward Jews needs no special mention for the soldiers of the National-Socialist Reich.”95 It was therefore within the range of accepted thinking that a soldier noted in his diary, during these same days: “Here we recognize the necessity for a radical solution to the Jewish question. Here one sees houses occupied by beasts in human form. In their beards and kaftans, with their devilishly grotesque faces, they make a dreadful impression. Anyone who was not yet a radical opponent of the Jews must become one here.”96

More commonly soldiers and officers, like their Führer, regarded the Jews with bottomless disgust and contempt: “When you see such people,” Pvt. FP wrote to his wife on September 21, “you can’t believe that this is still possible in the 20th century. The Jews want to kiss our hands, but—we grab our pistol and hear ‘God protect me,’—and they run as fast as they can.”97 Back in Vienna First Cpl. JE recorded some of his impressions from the campaign in a letter of December 30: “And the Jews—I rarely saw such neglected people walking around, covered in tatters, dirty, greasy. To us they looked like a pest. The mean appearances, the cunning questions and behavior have often led us to draw our pistols in order…to remind them of reality.”98 Such impressions and reactions constantly recurred, and the line separating this sort of visceral hatred from brutality and murder was very faint.

Looting, however, did not demand any ideological passion: “They knock at eleven in the morning,” Sierakowiak noted on October 22, “…a German army officer, two policemen and the superintendent come in. The officer asks how many persons are in the apartment, looks at the beds, asks about the bedbugs, and if we have a radio. He doesn’t find anything worthy of taking and finally leaves disappointed. At the neighbors’ (naturally they go only to Jews), he took away radios, mattresses, comforters, carpets, etc. They took away the Grabinskis’ only down quilt.”99

On October 13, 1939, the Polish physician and longtime director of the hospital in Szczebrzeszyn, near Zamóść, Dr. Zygmunt Klukowski, recorded in his diary: “The Germans posted several new regulations. I am noting only a few: ‘All men of Jewish religion between the ages of fifteen and sixty must report at 8 a.m. on the morning of October 14, at city hall with brooms, shovels, and buckets. They will be cleaning city streets.” On the next day he added: “The Germans are treating the Jews very brutally. They cut their beards; sometimes they pull the hair out.”100 On the fifteenth the Germans added more of the same, yet with a slightly different—and certainly inventive—slant: “A German major, now town commandant, told the new ‘police’ [an auxiliary Polish police unit, organized by the Germans] that all brutalities against Jews have to be tolerated since it is in line with German anti-Semitic policies and that this brutality has been ordered from above. The Germans are always trying to find new work for the Jews. They order the Jews to take at least a half hour of exhausting gymnastics before any work, which can be fatal, particularly for older people. When the Jews are marched to any assignment, they must loudly sing Polish national songs.”101 And, on the next day, Klukowski’s entry encapsulated it all: “Persecution of Jews is increasing. The Germans are beating the Jews without any reason, just for fun. Several Jews were brought to the hospital with their buttocks beaten into raw flesh. I was able to administer only first aid, because the hospital has been instructed not to admit Jews.”102 (The same, of course, was happening everywhere else.) “In the afternoon,” Sierakowiak wrote on December 3, “I went outside for a while and visited Ela Waldman. She had been chucked out of school, as they do to all the Jews. They also beat Jews terribly in the streets of the city. They usually come up to the Jews who walk by and slap them in the face, kick, spit, etc.” And at that point the young diarist added a puzzling question: “Is this evidence that the end for the Germans will probably come soon?”103

Such brutal behavior by the Wehrmacht demonstrates a measure of continuity between the attitudes and actions of German troops at the very outset of the war and their murderous behavior after the attack on the Soviet Union.104 Yet, during the Polish campaign, at top echelons of the army the inroads of Hitler’s exhortations were still neutralized in part by traditional rules of military behavior and discipline, as well as, in some cases, by moral qualms. Thus, Gen. Johannes Blaskowitz, the army commander in Poland (Oberbefehlshaber Ost), addressed a protest directly to Hitler. Blaskowitz was shocked by the behavior of Heydrich’s units and by the brutalization of the army. “It is wholly misguided,” he wrote on February 6, 1940, “to slaughter some 10,000 Jews and Poles, as it is happening at the moment; such methods will eradicate neither Polish nationalism, nor the Jews from the mass of the population.”105 Hitler shrugged off the complaint. By mid-October the Wehrmacht was divested of its authority over civilian matters in occupied Poland.

Heydrich had grasped the thrust of the changes taking place within the Wehrmacht. In his already mentioned letter to Daluege of July 1940, he alluded to his difficulties with “the upper-level commanders of the army” but indicated that “cooperation with troops below staff level, and in many cases with the different staffs of the army themselves, was generally good.” He added: “If one compares [the number of] physical assaults, incidents of looting, and atrocities committed by the army and the SS, the SS and police do not come away looking bad.”106


On September 21, 1939, Heydrich had issued the following guidelines to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen: Their tasks included (1) the rounding up and concentration of Jews in large communities in cities close to railway lines, “in view of the end goal”; (2) the establishment of Jewish Councils in each Jewish community to serve as administrative links between the German authorities and the Jewish population; and (3) cooperation with the military command and the civil administration in all matters relating to the Jewish population.107

The “end goal” in this context probably meant the deportation of the Jewish population of the Warthegau and later of the western and central parts of former Poland to the easternmost area of the General Government, the Lublin district, along the lines of Hitler’s vague indications at that same time. A few days later, on September 27, in a conference with heads of the RSHA departments and the Einsatzgruppen chiefs, Heydrich added an element unmentioned until then: the expulsion of Jews over the demarcation line [between German occupied Poland and the Soviet occupation area] had been authorized by the Führer (“Abschiebung über die Demarkationslinie ist vom Führer genehmigt”).108 Such an authorization meant that at this early stage the Germans had no clear plans. Their policy regarding the Jews of former Poland seemed to be in line with the measures they had elaborated before the war, mainly from 1938 on, regarding the Jews of the Reich—now applied with much greater violence, of course: identification, segregation, expropriation, concentration, and emigration or expulsion (emigration was allowed until early 1940, as far as the Jews of Poland were concerned).

In this context the significance of a September 29 letter from Heydrich to Daluege seems as hazy as the “end goal” he had mentioned a few days before. “Finally,” Heydrich wrote, “the Jewish problem will, as you already know, be settled in a special way (Schliesslich, soll das Judenproblem, wie Du ja schon weisst, einer besonderen Regelung unterworfen werden).”109

By then, however, a new element had become part of the picture and considerably influenced the measures taken against Jews and Poles (particularly in the areas annexed to the Reich): the mass ingathering of ethnic Germans from Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Jews and Poles would be expelled and Volksdeutsche would move in. On October 7 Himmler was appointed head of the new agency in charge of these population transfers, the Reichskommissariat für die Festigung des deutschen Volkstums, or RKFDV (Reich Commissariat for the Strengthening of Germandom).

This ethnic-racial reshuffling of vast populations in Eastern Europe after September 1939 was but one further step in the initiatives already launched before the war to bring “home into the Reich” the Germans of Austria, the Sudetenland, Memel, Danzig, and the like. In Nazi phantasms the reshuffling planned at the end of 1939 would eventually lead to entirely new and far-flung Germanic colonization much farther east, if a new political and military situation were to allow it.

Over recent years many historians have sought a link between these plans and the onset of the “Final Solution.” Yet, as we shall see further on, these operations appear to have been distinct and to have stemmed from separate motives and plans. Nonetheless, between 1939 and 1942, Himmler’s population transfers led directly to the expulsions and deportations of hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews, mainly from the Warthegau into the General Government.

German projects for the East did not originate in academic research, but German academia volunteered historical justification and professional advice to enhance the exalting new vistas for the expansion of the Volk. In fact some of these expansion plans had been part and parcel of ongoing “research on the East” (Ostforschung) since the late 1920s. In other words this Ostforschung was a major nationalist, völkisch, and increasingly Nazi-tainted but self-initiated scholarly effort to bolster German expansion plans and, eventually, to suggest various practical options.110 A particularly influential role in terms of the historical legitimation of this endeavor was played by a Jewish luminary at the University of Königsberg, the historian Hans Rothfels; of course none of his vocal nationalism protected him from dismissal and forced emigration in the late thirties.111

Two of Rothfels’s students, the already well-established Werner Conze and his colleague Theodor Schieder (both destined to become pillars of the historians’ guild in West Germany after 1945), came to play an important advisory role after the beginning of the war—with drastic anti-Jewish steps added for good measure. In a paper he had prepared for the International Congress of Sociology, scheduled to open on August 29, 1939, in Bucharest, Conze dwelled at length on the overpopulation problem in Eastern Europe; it could be alleviated, he suggested, by the “de-Judaization (Entjudung) of cities and marketplaces, to allow the integration of peasant offspring in commerce and crafts.”112 Schieder’s proposals became more immediately applicable once Poland fell into German hands.

In the fall of 1939 Schieder, then a member of the “Königsberg Circle” affiliated with the North and East German Research Association (Nord-und Ostdeutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, or NODFG), was asked by his colleagues in the association to draft a memorandum about “the German national and racial border in the East” for the benefit of the political and administrative authorities in the newly occupied territories. The text was submitted to Himmler on October 7.

In the memorandum Schieder recommended the confiscation of the land and the transfer of parts of the Polish population from the annexed territories to the eastern part of the country in order to open the way to German settlement. And in order to facilitate the transfer of the Poles, the young Königsberg scholar pleaded for the evacuation of the Jews from Polish cities (die Herauslösung des Judentums aus polnischen Städten) and, as a further step, even more radically than Conze, the “total de-Judaization of remaining Poland.” The evicted Jewish population could be sent overseas. Thus, whereas Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich were still considering the deportation of the Jews of Poland into a reservation in the Lublin area or even their expulsion over the demarcation line into Soviet-occupied territory, Schieder and his colleagues were already suggesting an overseas territorial solution that would indeed become the next Nazi territorial plan a few months later.113

The NODFG was functionally linked to the older Berlin Publikationsstelle (PuSte), whose own leading specialists volunteered from day one: “We must make use of our experience, which we have developed over many long years of effort,” Hermann Aubin wrote to Alfred Brackmann, the director of PuSte, on September 18, 1939. “Scholarship cannot simply wait until it is called upon, but must make itself heard.”114 Aubin had no reason to worry. On September 23 Brackmann wrote to his colleague Metz: “It is in fact a great satisfaction for us to see that the NODFG with its PuSte offices has now become the central institution for scientific advice to the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of the Interior, the OKH, and partly also the Propaganda Ministry and a series of SS agencies. We are certain now that we shall be thoroughly consulted on the future drawing of borders.”115

From the outset PuSte and NOFDG scholars worked on various aspects of the Jewish question in occupied Poland. Statistician Klostermann, for example, calculated the proportion of Jews in Polish towns with populations of ten thousand inhabitants or more; this study was prepared for the Gestapo.116 Professor Otto Reche prepared a detailed memorandum titled “Main Theses for a Population Policy Aimed at Securing the German East.” The study was transmitted by Brackmann to high SS officials, who, it seems, passed it on to Himmler.117 The main ideas were not fundamentally different from those submitted by Schieder, except that they delved into details that the Königsberg historian had not emphasized. In matters of mass expulsion of Poles and Jews, for example, Reche suggested that the Poles be allowed to take their belongings: “With the Jews however one may act with less generosity” (bei Juden wird man weniger weitherzig verfahren dürfen).118 And, beyond these early studies, another scholar—a specialist in planning the demographic organization of large-scale space—Professor Konrad Meyer-Hetling, was launching his own research for Himmler’s colonization projects; it was to become “General Plan East.”

Schematically the Germanization of the annexed eastern territories (and later colonization of further space in the East) demanded the liquidation of the Polish elites, the transfer of ethnic Germans or the migration of Reich Germans to the new territories, and of course the expulsion of the local racially alien inhabitants: the Poles and the Jews. The Poles who could not be expelled would be strictly separated from the German colonists, and a “happy few,” mainly children, would be mustered as belonging to Germanic stock, included in the Volksliste, and integrated into the Volksgemeinschaft.

Himmler’s RKFdV and the RSHA were in charge of the operations, as we saw, and the general expulsion plan regarding the ex-Polish areas was subdivided by Heydrich in a series of short-term plans (Nahpläne) mainly to be launched from the end of 1939 on. There was, however, one exception to the expulsion plans regarding Jews. In heavily industrialized Upper Silesia, the Jews living east of the “police line,” which divided the Kattowitz district into two separate administrative regions, were to stay. They would be moved, in the course of 1940, into forced-labor camps and employed in local industries or building projects. The SS officer whom Himmler put in charge of this forced-labor operation, which within a few months was to employ some seventeen thousand Jewish workers, was the former police chief of Breslau, SS Oberführer Albrecht Schmelt.119

Except for “Schmelt Jews,” the expulsion plans included not only Jewish populations from the annexed Polish territories but also Jews from the Reich and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. These deportations, which took place between the fall of 1939 and the spring of 1940, ended in failure.

In October 1939 the deportations of Jews from Vienna, Mährisch Ostrau, and Kattowitz to Nisko (a small town on the San River, near Lublin) started. These deportations, agreed to by Hitler, had been demanded by local Gauleiter mainly to seize Jewish homes. Moreover, as far as Vienna was concerned, the city would thus recover its pristine Aryan nature.120 A few thousand Jews were deported, but within days the operation came to a halt, as the Wehrmacht needed the railway lines for transferring troops from Poland to the West.121

The two other transfers were simultaneous and identical in their goals. One, small in scale (by Nazi standards), was the deportation in February 1940 of some eighteen hundred Jews from the German towns Stettin and Schneidemühl on the coast of the Baltic to Lublin. The second operation was a formidable exercise in utter brutality: It aimed at the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles from the annexed Warthegau into the General Government, over a period of several months. The abandoned homes and farms of the deportees were meant to be distributed to ethnic Germans from the Baltic countries and Volhynia, and Bukovina, whose departure and “ingathering into the Reich” the Germans had negotiated with the USSR.

Nothing was ready for the Jews of Stettin and Schneidemühl in the snow-covered Lublin area, and they were either housed in temporary barracks or taken in by local Jewish communities. For the newly appointed SS and police leader (SSPF) of the Lublin District, Odilo Globocnik, there was no particular problem. On February 16, 1940, he declared that “the evacuated Jews should feed themselves and be supported by their countrymen, as these Jews had enough [food]. If this did not succeed, one should let them starve.”122

The deportations from the Warthegau soon became mired in total chaos, with overfilled trains stalled for days in freezing weather or maneuvering aimlessly to and fro. The ruthlessness of these deportations, organized mainly by Adolf Eichmann, the RSHA specialist on the emigration and evacuation of Jews, in coordination with the newly established RKFDV, did not compensate for the complete lack of planning and of even minimal preparation of reception areas for the deportees.

During the first weeks of the transfers the governor-general, Hans Frank, who had barely settled down in his capital, Kraków, in the castle of the centuries-old Jagellonian dynasty, seemed rather unconcerned about the sudden influx. Regarding the Jews he even displayed high spirits in a speech given in Radom on November 25, 1939: “It is a pleasure to finally have a chance to get physically at the Jewish race. The more of them die, the better; to hit him [sic] is a victory for our Reich. The Jews should feel that we are here. We want to have about one-half to three-quarters of all the Jews east of the Vistula…the Jews from the Reich, from Vienna, from everywhere; we have no use for the Jews in the Reich. Probably the Vistula line; behind this line, no more.”123

But Frank’s elation did not last. In early February 1940, after some two hundred thousand new arrivals into the General Government had been counted, he traveled to Berlin and extracted from Göring an order to halt the transfers.124 Encouraged by this success, Frank took an initiative of his own: On April 12, 1940, he announced his intention to empty Kraków of most of its 66,000 Jews. The governor-general was eloquent: “If we want to maintain the authority of the National Socialist Reich, the representatives of this Reich cannot have to encounter Jews when they enter or leave their houses, they cannot be endangered by contagious diseases.” The city would be freed of most of its Jews by November 1, 1940, except for some five thousand to ten thousand “urgently necessary artisans…. Cracow must become the city in the General Government that is the most cleansed of Jews. Only thus does it make sense to build it as the German capital.” He was ready to allow Jews who would have left voluntarily by August 15 to take along all their possessions, of course “with the exception of those objects they had stolen.” The ghetto would then be cleaned, and it would become possible to set up clean German living quarters, where one would breathe German air.125

By the beginning of 1941, some 45,000 Jewish inhabitants of the city had left voluntarily or been expelled, and those who remained were concentrated in the district of Podgorce, the ghetto. As for the Jews that had been ousted, they could not go very far. They settled mostly in the surroundings of Frank’s capital, to the law of the local German administrators.126 At least the governor-general and the German civil and military administration in Kraków had chased most of the Jews out of their sight. More or less at the same time, the Jews of Radom and Lublin suffered the same fate as those of Kraków.127

After the establishment of the General Government on October 12, 1939, and the appointment of Hans Frank as governor-general fourteen days later, a German administrative apparatus was set up in the heart of Poland, to lord it, as mentioned, over 12 million inhabitants before June 1941 and 17 million after the attack on the USSR and the incorporation of eastern Galicia.

Although Frank was directly subordinate only to Hitler himself, his own authority and that of his administration were constantly undermined by Himmler and his appointees. The SS Reichsführer was of course in charge of all internal security matters in the General Government, as concretely demonstrated by the terror campaign unleashed from day one of the German onslaught. As his delegate Himmler appointed Higher SS and Police Leader [Höhere SS und Polizeiführer, or HSSPF] Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger, who consulted with Frank but was under the Reichsführer’s sole authority. On a regional level, in each of the four districts of the General Government, SS and police leaders followed Krüger’s—that is, Himmler’s—orders. Moreover, Himmler as chief of the RKFDV took over the dumping of Poles and Jews into the General Government until the operation was temporarily stopped, as we saw. Thus the local SS commanders represented Himmler both in security and in deportation and/or “resettlement” matters. A de facto dual administration was being put in place as 1940 began: Frank’s civilian administration and Himmler’s security and population transfer SS administration. The tension between the two grew rapidly, mainly at district level and particularly in the Lublin district, where Himmler’s appointee and protégé, the notorious Globocnik, established a quasi-independent domain in direct defiance of the authority of District Governor Ernst Zörner.128

Unexpectedly the first round in this ongoing power struggle was won by Frank. Not only did the governor-general succeed in halting the deportations into his domain, but, in the Lublin District, he compelled Globocnik to disband his private police, recruited among local ethnic Germans: the Selbstschutz (self-protection). Within weeks Globocnik’s units had displayed a level of lawlessness that even Krüger and Himmler could then not countenance. The Selbstschutz disappeared, and Frank took its recruits into his own new police, the Sonderdienst (special service). This, however, was but round one, and soon enough Globocnik would resume his terror activities on a far wider scale.129


“In the morning, I proceeded through the streets with an armband,” Czerniaków, the newly appointed chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Council, noted on December 3, 1939. “In view of the rumors about the postponement of the wearing of armbands such a demonstration is necessary.”130 As of December 1 all Jews in the General Government above age ten had to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David on their right arm. And although the definition of “Jew” was applied de facto according to the Nuremberg laws with the German occupation of Poland, it was formally so decreed first in the Warthegau at the end of 1939, and then in Frank’s kingdom, on July 27, 1940.131

The armband was rapidly followed by a prohibition from changing residence, the exclusion from a long list of professions, being banned from the use of public transportation and barred from restaurants, parks, and the like. But, although the Jews were increasingly concentrated in specific areas of cities and towns, neither Heydrich nor Frank gave an overall order to establish closed ghettos. The ghettoization stemmed from different circumstances from place to place. It extended from October 1939 (Piotrkow Trybunalski) to March 1941 (Lublin and Kraków) to 1942, even 1943 (Upper Silesia), and in some cases, no ghettos were established before the beginning of deportations to the extermination camps. The Lodz ghetto was established in April 1940 and the Warsaw ghetto in November 1940. Whereas in Warsaw the pretext for sealing the ghetto was mainly sanitary (the Germans’ fear of epidemics), in Lodz it was linked to the resettlement of ethnic Germans from the Baltic countries in the homes vacated by Jews.132

From the outset the ghettos were considered temporary means of segregating the Jewish population before its expulsion. Once they acquired a measure of permanence, however, one of their functions became the ruthless and systematic exploitation of part of the imprisoned Jewish population for the benefit of the Reich (mainly for the needs of the Wehrmacht) at as low a cost as possible. Moreover, by squeezing the food supply and, in Lodz, by replacing regular money with a special ghetto currency, the Germans put their hands on most of the cash and valuables the Jews had taken along when driven into their miserable quarters.133

The ghettos also fulfilled a useful psychological and “educational” function in the Nazi order of things: They rapidly became the showplace of Jewish misery and destitution, offering German viewers newsreel sequences that fed existing repulsion and hatred; a constant procession of German tourists (soldiers and some civilians) were presented with the same heady mix.

“What you see,” Fräulein Greiser, the Warthegau Gauleiter’s daughter, wrote after touring the Lodz ghetto in mid-April 1940, “is mainly rabble, all of which is just hanging around…. Epidemics are spreading and the air smells disgustingly, as everything is poured into the drain-pipes. There is no water either, and the Jews have to buy it for 10 Pfennigs the bucket; they surely wash themselves even less than usually…. You know, one can really feel no pity for these people; I think that their feelings are completely different from ours and therefore they do not feel this humiliation and everything else…. They surely also hate us, although for other reasons.” In the evening the young lady was back in the city, where she attended a big rally. “This contrast, in the afternoon the ghetto and in the evening the rally, which could not have been more German anywhere else, in one and the same city, that was absolutely unreal…. You know, I was again really happy and terribly proud of being a German.”134

Eduard Koenekamp, an official of the Stuttgart Auslandsinstitut, had visited several Jewish quarters in December 1939. In a letter to a friend, Koenekamp showed less restraint than Fraulein Greiser: “The extermination of this subhumanity would be in the interest of the whole world. However, such an extermination is one of the most difficult problems. Shooting would not suffice [Mit Erschiessung kommt man nicht durch]. Also, one cannot allow the shooting of women and children. Here and there, one expects losses during the deportations; thus in a transport of 1,000 Jews from Lublin, 450 perished [Koenekamp probably meant to Lublin]. All agencies which deal with the Jewish Question are aware of the insufficiency of all these measures. A solution of this complicated problem has not yet been found.”135

The Jewish Council ( Judenrat) was the most effective instrument of German control of the Jewish population. The English term “Jewish Council” is a misnomer, however. Heydrich’s order of September 21, 1939, demanded the creation of “Jewish Elders’ Councils” ( Jüdische Ältestenräte), which rapidly became, in most places, the contemptuous Judenrat, or “Jews’ Council,” in line with the appellation introduced on November 28 by Hans Frank’s decree. These councils were soon established in all Jewish population centers, large and small.136

Of course the councils were established by the Germans for their own purposes, but even during the early days of the war, communal activities were organized by the Jews themselves according to various patterns, to cater to the basic needs of the population. Thus, as pointed out by historian Aharon Weiss, “This combination of German pressure and interest in the establishment of a Jewish representation, on the one hand, and the need and wish of the Jews for a representative body of their own, forms one of the major aspects of the convoluted question of the Judenräte.137

As far as German policies were concerned, the two sets of founding decrees (Heydrich and Frank) indicated that from the outset both the Security Police and the General Government’s civil administration fought for control over the councils. In May 1940, Heydrich’s delegate in Kraków, SS Brigadeführer Bruno Streckenbach, openly argued for the Security Police’s primacy.138 Frank did not give in, but in fact, whether formally or not, the SS apparatus increasingly dominated the appointments and the structure of the councils while Frank’s appointees were mostly involved in the administrative and economic life of the ghettos, until the beginning of the deportations.139 Then the SS apparatus would completely take over.

In principle the twelve or twenty-four council members (according to the size of the community) were to be chosen from the traditional Jewish elites, the recognized community leadership.140 Heydrich’s orders, issued as the decimation of the Polish elites was taking place, were probably based on two assumptions: first, that Jewish elites would not be instigators and leaders of rebellion and self-affirmation but rather agents of compliance; and additionally that the Jewish elites—as represented in the councils—would be accepted and, all in all, obeyed by the population. In other words the Polish elites were murdered because they could incite against the Germans; the Jewish elites were kept because they would submit and ensure submission.

In fact in many instances the council members did not belong to the foremost leadership of their communities, but many had previously been active in public life.141 The Judenrat as such was a replica—distorted of course, but a replica nonetheless—of self-government within the framework of the traditional kehilla, the centuries-old communal organization of the Jews. And many of those who joined the councils did believe that their participation would benefit the community.142

Some of the councils’ earliest German-ordered tasks took on an ominous significance only when considered in hindsight; the potentially most fateful one was the census. The entries in Czerniaków’s diary show that the census ordered by Heydrich looked like any other administrative measure, fraught with difficulties but not particularly threatening. “From 12 until 2, in the Statistical Office,” the chairman recorded on October 21. “Between 3 and 6 p.m., at the SS…. I point out that the first [of November] is “All Saints Day” and the second “All Souls Day”; hence the Jewish census should be postponed until the 3rd…. A long and difficult conference. It is decided that the census will take place on [October] 28th…. The census forms were discussed and approved. I have to see to it that this German announcement is posted on the walls throughout the city.”143

Actually the Judenrat itself needed the census for identifying the pool of laborers at its disposal and for housing, welfare, food distribution, and the like; the immediate needs seemed by far more demanding and urgent than any long-term consequences. Nonetheless Kaplan, usually more farsighted than any other diarist and suspicious on principle of German intentions, sensed that the registration carried threatening possibilities: “Today, notices inform the Jewish population of Warsaw,” he wrote on October 25, “that next Saturday [October 29] there will be a census of the Jewish inhabitants. The Judenrat under the leadership of Engineer Czerniaków is required to carry it out. Our hearts tell us evil—some catastrophe for the Jews of Warsaw lies in this census. Otherwise there would be no need for it.”144

On January 24, 1940, Jewish enterprises in the General Government were placed under “trusteeship”; they could also be confiscated if “public interest” demanded it. On the same day Frank ordered the registration of all Jewish property: Nonregistered property would be confiscated as “ownerless.” Further expropriation measures followed, and finally, on September 17, 1940, Göring ordered the confiscation of all Jewish property and assets except for personal belongings and one thousand reichsmarks in cash.145

The expropriation decrees opened the way to profiteering and enrichment on an enormous scale at all levels of the German administration in the annexed Polish provinces and within the General Government. The corruption that had spread throughout all segments of society in the Reich, in annexed Austria, and in the Protectorate was reaching new proportions in occupied Poland and would keep growing throughout the war.146 On January 1, 1940, diarist Emanuel Ringelblum—to whom we will return at length—noted: “The Lords and Masters not too bad. If you grease the right palms, you can get along.”147 Throughout the second half of November 1939, Czerniaków spent days trying to raise three hundred thousand zlotys to ransom a group of hostages from the Warsaw SS.148

Bribery became an integral part of the relations between the Germans and their victims. “The Councils constantly had to satisfy all kinds of demands to remodel and equip German office premises, casinos, and private apartments for various functionaries, as well as to provide expensive gifts, etc. In dealing with a ghetto, each functionary considered himself entitled to be rewarded by its Council. On the other hand, the Councils themselves implemented an intricate system of bribes in an effort to try and ‘soften the hearts’ of the ghetto bosses or to win favors for the ghetto inmates from the ‘good Germans.’ This in turn enhanced the pauperization of the Jews.”149 The bribes may have delayed briefly some threats or saved some individuals; but, as the coming months would show, they never changed German policies or, in most cases, major implementation steps. In addition, bribing the Germans or their auxiliaries led to the spreading of corruption among the victims: A “new class” of Jewish profiteers and black marketeers was rising above the miserable majority of the population.

One of the immediate advantages that money could buy was exemption from forced labor. From mid-October 1939 on, the councils, mainly in Warsaw and Lodz, took it upon themselves to deliver the required numbers of laborers to the Germans in order to put an end to the brutal manhunt and the constant roundups that had been the usual procedure. As could have been expected, the poorest part of the population bore the brunt of the new arrangement; the wealthier segments of the community either paid the councils or bribed the Germans. In Warsaw in April 1940, according to statistics found in the Ringelblum archives, “some 107,000 men were forced laborers while during the six months that followed, 33,000 persons payed for the exemption.”150

How did the “Jewish masses” respond to the hail of physical and psychological blows that descended on them from day one of the German occupation? Of course each individual response was different, but if we look for a common denominator among a substantial majority, the prevalent reaction was a belief in rumors, even the most absurd, as long as they offered hope: Germany had suffered grievous losses at the hands of the French, Hamburg had been occupied by British forces, Hitler was dead, German soldiers were abandoning their units at a growing rate, and so on and on. Bottomless despair gave way to frantic expectations, sometimes in recurring sequences on one and the same day. “The Jews have reached the stage of messianic prophecies,” Sierakowiak noted on December 9, 1939. “A rabbi from Gora Kalwarii supposedly announced that a liberation miracle will happen on the sixth day of Chanukah. My uncle says that very few soldiers and Germans can be seen in the streets. This tendency to take comfort from nothing irritates me. It’s better not to say anything. In the evening a rumor spread about an armistice,” and so it went.151


While the German grip on the Jewish population of the Warthegau and the General Government was tightening, in the Soviet-occupied zone of Poland, the 1.2 million local Jews and the approximately 300,000 to 350,000 Jewish refugees from the western part of the country were getting acquainted with the heavy hand of Stalinism. A muddled Polish military announcement calling on men to reassemble in the east of the country, broadcast on September 7, had triggered an eastward exodus, accelerated by the rapid German advance. On the seventeenth, both the refugees and the local population suddenly discovered that they were under Soviet rule. Jews, albeit in much smaller numbers, continued to escape to the Soviet zone until early December, and a trickle of refugees managed to cross the new border until June 1941.152 The elite of Polish Jewry—intellectuals, religious leaders, Zionists, and Bundists among others—fled the Germans but did not feel safe from communist persecution either: They moved on from eastern Poland to independent Lithuania, particularly to Vilna.

There is little doubt that many local and refugee Jews in eastern Poland, threatened by the Germans and long-suffering victims of the Poles, welcomed the Soviet troops. So did many Ukrainians. Moshe Kleinbaum (later known as Moshe Sneh, a commander of the Jewish underground army in Palestine [the Haganah] and ultimately, although he had started as right-of-center liberal, the leader of the Israeli Communist Party) reported on March 12, 1940, that the Jewish population of Luck, where he was at the time, watched the rolling in of the Red Army with curiosity, like everybody else. The young Jewish communists, not particularly numerous, represented the unpleasant exception: “Their behavior on that day was conspicuous for its vociferousness, which was greater than that of other groups. In this fashion it was possible to obtain the erroneous impression that the Jews were the most festive guests at this celebration.”153

The sense of relief among Jews was certainly more widespread than Kleinbaum admitted, and their initial attitude to Soviet presence more enthusiastic than he reported. We shall see further on how the Poles perceived the issue. In the late 1970s historian Isaiah Trunk went further than Kleinbaum in his severe assessment of Jewish communists. According to Trunk, these Jewish communists were both tactless and treacherous: Their enthusiasm had a triumphant tinge; they penetrated the local Soviet apparatus and did not hesitate to denounce Poles and Jews (“bourgeois” or “socialist”) to the NKVD [the Soviet secret police, precursor of the KGB].154 Trunk’s harsh judgment was probably influenced by his own Bundist hatred for communism and thus may also be in need of some revision.

The difficulty in assessing Jewish reactions to Soviet occupation, at least during the first weeks and months, derives in part from the temporary convergence of gut feelings of relief probably felt by all Jews who came under Soviet rule and the quite differently motivated enthusiasm of Jewish communists. When, for example, the news spread among the Warsaw Jews that they would possibly be in the Soviet zone, their enthusiasm knew no bounds, according to a somewhat later entry in Kaplan’s diary. Kaplan was politically conservative and an Orthodox Jew who detested the Soviet regime. Nonetheless, his description of Jewish reactions, on October 13, 1939, is telling: “There are no signs of Jewishness at all in Russia. Yet nevertheless, when the news reached us that the Bolsheviks were coming closer to Warsaw, our joy was limitless. We dreamed about it; we thought ourselves lucky. Thousands of young people went to Bolshevik Russia on foot; that is to say, to the areas conquered by Russia. They looked upon the Bolsheviks as redeeming Messiahs. Even the wealthy, who would become poor under Bolshevism, preferred the Russians to the Germans. There is plunder on the one hand and plunder on the other, but the Russians plunder one as a citizen and a man, while the Nazis plunder one as a Jew. The former Polish government never spoiled us, but at the same time never overtly singled us for torture. The Nazi is a sadist, however. His hatred of the Jews is a psychosis. He flogs and derives pleasure from it. The torment of the victim is a balm to his soul, especially if the victim is a Jew.”155

Kaplan touched on the most fundamental motivations of the Jewish populace. The role of Jewish communists is more complex; the degree of their participation in the Soviet repression system has been variously assessed. According to historian Jan T. Gross, questionnaires filled by Polish refugees from the formerly Soviet-occupied zone, who fled after the German attack of June 1941, do not seem to confirm this common accusation. “Among other things,” Gross writes, “we know scores of names of members of village committees and personnel of rural militias that served all over the area—and Jews are only infrequently mentioned among them [emphasis in the original]. We know also that higher echelons of the local Soviet administration—on county, or city level—were staffed by functionaries brought in from the east and while there were Jews among them, of course, they were not any more numerous than in the administration apparatus in the Soviet interior.”156 On the other hand Alexander B. Rossino, quoting research by Yitzhak Arad and Dov Levin, as well as an earlier study by Jan T. Gross and mainly Evgeny Rozenblat’s research about the Pinsk district, near Bialystok, offers a different picture: “In his examination of various sectors of local society, Rozenblat found that, despite the fact that Jews made up only 10 percent of the regional population, they held 49.5 percent of the leading administrative positions in the Pinsk oblast[district], including 41.2 percent of those in the judicial and police administration.”157

Very soon, however, many Jews became disenchanted with the new rulers: Economic hardship spread; Jewish religious, educational, and political institutions were disbanded; NKVD surveillance became allintrusive; and in the spring of 1940, mass deportations, which had already targeted other so-called hostile groups, began to include segments of the Jewish population, such as the wealthier Jews, those who hesitated to accept Soviet citizenship, and those who declared that after the war they wanted to return home.158In view of these worsening conditions in the Soviet zone, thousands of Jews even attempted—and managed—to return to the German-occupied areas. “It is strange,” Hans Frank commented on May 10, 1940, “that also many Jews prefer to come into the Reich [the Reich-controlled territories] than to stay in Russia.”159 Moshe Grossman’s memoirs tell of a train filled with Jews going east, which, at a border station, met a train moving west. When the Jews coming from Brisk [the Soviet zone] saw Jews going there, they shouted: “You are mad, where are you going?” Those coming from Warsaw answered with equal astonishment: “You are mad, where are you going?”160 The story is obviously apocryphal, but it vividly illustrates the plight and the confusion of the Jews in both zones of Poland and, beyond it, the disarray spreading among the Jews of Europe. In the meantime the NKVD, in the new climate of cooperation with the Gestapo, was handing over members of the former German Communist Party (KPD) who had been held in Soviet prisons, including Jews.161

In its great majority, the Polish population under German occupation remained hostile toward the Jews in the German-controlled areas and expressed fury at “Jewish behavior” in the Soviet-occupied part of the country, according to a comprehensive report written for the government-in-exile in February 1940 by a young courier from Poland, Jan Karski.162 The report pointed out that the Germans were striving to gain submission and collaboration from the Polish masses by exploiting anti-Semitism. “And,” Karski added, “it must be admitted that they are succeeding in this. The Jews pay and pay and pay…, and the Polish peasant, laborer, and half-educated, unintelligent, demoralized wretch loudly proclaim, ‘Now, then, they are finally teaching them a lesson.’—‘We should learn from them.’—‘The end has come for the Jews.’—‘Whatever happens, we should thank God that the Germans came and took hold of the Jews,’—etc.”163

Karski’s comments were unusually forthright: “Although the nation loathes them [the Germans] mortally, this question [the Jewish question] is creating something akin to a narrow bridge upon which the Germans and a large portion of Polish society are finding agreement…. The present situation is creating a twofold schism among the Poles, with one group despising and resenting the Germans’ barbaric methods…and the other regarding them (and thus the Germans, too!) with curiosity and often fascination, and condemning the first group for its ‘indifference toward such an important question.’”164

Even more disturbing was the part of Karski’s report that described Polish perceptions of how the Jews reacted to the Soviet occupation of the eastern part of the country: “It is generally believed that the Jews betrayed Poland and the Poles, that they are basically communists, that they crossed over to the Bolsheviks with flags unfurled…. Certainly it is so that Jewish communists adopted an enthusiastic stance towards the Bolsheviks, regardless of the social class from which they came.” Karski did, however, venture the explanation that the widespread satisfaction notable among working-class Jews resulted from the persecution they had suffered at the hands of the Poles. What he found shocking was the lack of loyalty of many Jews, their readiness to denounce Poles to the Soviet police and the like. Karski did not include the Jewish intelligentsia among the disloyal majority: The intellectuals and the wealthier Jews, he stated, would much prefer an independent Poland again.

The concluding lines of his report were ominous: “In principle, however, and in their mass, the Jews have created here a situation in which the Poles regard them as devoted to the Bolsheviks and—one can safely say—wait for the moment when they will be able simply to take revenge upon the Jews. Virtually all Poles are bitter and disappointed in relation to the Jews; the overwhelming majority (first among them of course the youth) literally look forward to an opportunity for ‘repayment in blood.’”165

The Polish government-in-exile was certainly aware of the anti-Jewish attitude of the population even before receiving Karski’s report; it was thus facing a quandary that was to grow with time. On the one hand, Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski’s group knew that it could not denounce anti-Semitism in the home country without losing its influence on the population; on the other hand, abetting Polish hatred of the Jews meant incurring criticism in Paris, London, and particularly in the United States where, the Polish government believed, the Jews were all-powerful. As for the future of Polish-Jewish relations, it seems that in 1940 Sikorski’s men were giving up the hope that the Jews would help them reclaim the territories occupied by the Soviets. Some of them, moreover, hardly rejected the attitudes reported in the Karski memorandum.

In a report sent on December 8, 1939, to the government-in-exile about the situation in eastern Poland, a local member of the underground wrote: “Jews are so horribly persecuting Poles and everything that is connected to Polishness under the Soviet partition…that at the first opportunity all the Poles here, from the elderly to the women and children, will take such a horrible revenge on the Jews as no anti-Semite has ever imagined possible.”166 Sikorski’s government soon appointed the former Polish ambassador in Berlin, Roman Knoll, to a senior position in its political delegation to the underground. Knoll did not hide his own views about the desirable fate of the Jews in Poland: “No longer do we face a choice between Zionism and the former state of affairs; the choice is rather—Zionism or extermination.”167


The approximately 250,000 Jews still living in Germany and annexed Austria at the outbreak of the war were an impoverished, predominantly middle-aged or elderly community.168 Part of the male population had been drafted into compulsory labor, and a growing number of families depended on welfare (mainly handed out by the Reichsvereinigung). Throughout the country the number of “Jews’ houses” [houses inhabited only by Jews, on order of the authorities] was growing, as were the areas off-limits for Jews. The Jews of the Greater Reich were entirely segregated pariahs among some 80 million Germans and Austrians. Emigrating was their ever-present but rapidly dwindling hope.

On the first day of the war the Jews of Germany were forbidden to leave their homes after eight o’clock in the evening.169 “All police authorities in the Reich have taken this measure,” a confidential instruction to the press explained, “because it has frequently happened that the Jews used the blackout to harass Aryan women.”170

Yom Kippur, duly remembered by the Einsatzgruppen in Poland, had not been forgotten in the Reich, either. On that day (September 23), the Jews had to hand in their radios.171 On September 12, throughout the Reich, the Jews were ordered to shop only in special stores belonging to “reliable Aryans.”172 Some of the store owners refused to cater to Jews, the SD reported from Cologne on September 29, until they were informed that they would not suffer any disadvantages from doing so.173 In that same city Jews could shop only from 8 to 9:30 a.m.174 “The mere presence of Jews in queues was felt as a provocation,” the Bielefeld Gestapo explained on September 13: “One could not demand of any German to stand in front of a shop together with a Jew.”175 Five days later the Jews were ordered to build their own air raid shelters.176

In October, anyone volunteering to serve as a firefighter had to be instructed “about the notion of the Jew,” and declare that he was not one.177 In November, after it occurred to the RSHA that Jews whose radios were confiscated could simply buy new ones, the names and addresses of all purchasers of new radios had to be registered.178 The radio issue was in and of itself the source of intense bureaucratic turmoil: How did the ruling apply to the non-Jewish spouses in a mixed marriage? What should be done about radios in a house still inhabited by both Jews and non-Jews? And what about the rights of Jewish wives whose Aryan husbands were fighting for the fatherland: Should they keep their radios or not? Finally, in a detailed list of instructions issued on July 1, 1940, Heydrich tried to give definitive answers to the intractable problems created by Jews listening to radios; it is not recorded whether this put everybody’s mind at rest.179 As for the distribution of the confiscated radios, elaborate hierarchies and priorities were established that had to take into account the rights of army units, party authorities, local grandees, and so on. (On October 4, 1939, for example, 1,000 radios were allocated to Army Group C, stationed in Wiesbaden.)180

Equally intricate were the issues raised by shopping restrictions or even by the curfew imposed upon the Jews. In regard to the latter, Heydrich also decided on July 1, 1940, that Jewish women whose husbands or sons were serving in the Wehrmacht were exempted from the curfew, “insofar as there were no negative indications against them, particularly no reasons to believe that they would use the exemption to provoke the German population.”181

Jewish pediatric nurses who still kept an office had to indicate on their doorplates that they were nurses for Jewish infants and children.182 From mid-December 1939 to mid-January 1940, Jews were deprived of the special food allocations for the holidays, receiving less meat and butter and no cocoa or rice.183 On January 3 they were forbidden to buy any meat or vegetables at all until February 4.184 A few weeks beforehand, the Württemberg minister of food and agriculture, soon followed by the food and agriculture ministers of all the other regions, decreed that the Jews were not allowed to purchase any chocolate products or gingerbread.185

Some anti-Jewish measures (or rather safeguards) showed genuine creative thinking. Thus the Reich Ministry of Education and Science announced on October 20, 1939, that, “in doctoral dissertations, Jewish authors may be quoted only when such quoting is unavoidable on scientific grounds; in such a case, however, the fact that the author is Jewish must be mentioned. In the bibliographies, Jewish and German authors are to be listed separately.”186 Yet this major initiative for the cleansing of German science encountered serious obstacles. According to “university sources” alluded to in a SD report of April 10, 1940, students writing their dissertations often did not know whether the author quoted was Jewish or not, and racial identification was at times very difficult. “University sources” therefore suggested that the Ministry of Science should prepare “administrative identification criteria of Jewish scientists which would be used not only for dissertations, but for all other scientific work.”187 On February 17, 1940, a decree of the Ministry of the Interior authorized the training of Jewish female medical technicians or assistants, but only for Jewish institutions. However, they were not allowed to deal with [laboratory] cultures of living bacteria.188

On February 23, 1940, a supplementary decree to the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor” reasserted a provision that actually was already implicit in the law of September 15, 1935: In cases of Rassenschande (“racial disgrace”—that is, sexual relations between an Aryan and a Jew) only the man was held responsible and would be punished. If the woman was Jewish and the man Aryan—which had happened in several prior instances—the woman received a short prison sentence or was sent to a “retraining camp”—that is, to a concentration camp. Thus the immunity was for Aryan women only.

In forwarding the text of the decree to Washington, the American chargé d’affaires in Berlin, Alexander Kirk, probably revealed a major purpose of the decree: “It has also been observed that the absolute immunity granted [German] women in this respect enhances the opportunities for denunciation and extortion which are known to have already been utilized in connection with this anti-Jewish law in particular.”189 For the Gestapo denunciations were of the essence. Otherwise, of course, the notion that, in most cases, Jewish men seduced guileless Aryan women provided the phantasmal basis of the decree.190

Full Jews according to the Nuremberg racial laws of September 1935 were the prime targets of the regime’s persecution policies. More complex was the situation of spouses and children in mixed marriages; as for the array of problems encountered in the case of mixed-breeds, it challenged Nazi ingenuity to the very end. In the “mixed” categories, in fact, the number of potential variations was practically endless. Consider the case of the German writer and pious Protestant, Jochen Klepper. Klepper’s Jewish wife, Johanna Stein, was previously married to a Jew; thus “Hanni’s” two daughters from her first marriage, Brigitte and Renate, were Jewish. The older daughter, Brigitte, had left for England before the war, but Renate (Renerle or Reni) was still living in Berlin with her parents. In principle, while the Aryan Klepper was personally protected from deportation or worse, nothing could ensure Hanni’s or Renerle’s safety.

From the beginning of the war the Kleppers’ main goal was to find a way for Renerle to leave the Reich. “For Hanni and for me,” Klepper wrote in his diary on November 28, 1939, “the recent emigration plan [for their daughters] no longer pains us in any meaningful way, as every single month we are in distress as a result of the government’s Poland project [after the deportations from Vienna in October 1939, rumors spread among Jews in the Reich that the entire Jewish population would be deported to Poland]; and at every distribution of food or Bezugsschein tickets, we worry that Renerle will no longer be included.”191

Once the war started, the guidelines regarding mixed breeds (Mischlinge) of the first and second degrees (half and quarter Jews) became more confusing than ever: These Mischlinge were allowed to serve in the Wehrmacht and could even be decorated for bravery, but they were not allowed to fill positions of authority. As for the Jewish members of their families, they were spared none of the usual indignities, “My sons [three soldiers] are Mischlinge because of me,” Clara von Mettenheim, a converted Jewish woman married into the military aristocracy, wrote in December 1939 to the commander in chief of the army, General Brauchitsch. “During the war, when my sons were fighting in Poland, we were tortured here on the home front as if there were no more important tasks to be done during the war…. Please stop [this mistreatment of half-Jewish soldiers and their parents].” And she added: “I beg you to use your influence to make sure that the party leaves those [Mischlinge] alone…. These men already have it bad enough being treated as second-class soldiers, they shouldn’t also have to worry about their families at home while they are fighting a war.”192

Much less frequent, of course, but intrinsically not entirely different, were the decisions that confronted the already overtaxed SS Reichsführer regarding some of his men. Take the sad case of SS Untersturmführer Küchlin, for example. One of his maternal ancestors, sometime after the Thirty Years’ War, proved to be a Jew, Abraham Reinau. On April 3, 1940, Himmler had to inform Küchlin that such a racial blemish precluded him from staying in the SS.193 There was some hope, however, that further inquiry could allow Küchlin’s reintegration: Reinau’s daughter had married an innkeeper, one Johan Hermann, the owner of At the Wild Man’s (Zum wilden Mann). According to the Reichsführer the inn’s appellation pointed to membership in a secret pagan (old Germanic) and racially aware association. Maybe Reinau had not been a Jew after all.194

Hitler’s constant presence in the shadows of the harassment campaign was unmistakable. In a memorandum of December 6, 1939, one Dr. Hanssen conveyed to a Parteigenosse (party member) called Friedrichs (probably a member of the party chancellery) that regarding several new anti-Jewish steps planned by Goebbels and by the RSHA, “the SS Reichsführer would discuss all measures against the Jews directly with the Führer” (dass der Reichsführer SS alle Massnahmen gegen die Juden direkt mit dem Führer besprechen würde).195


Did the majority of Germans pay much attention to the persecution of the Jews in the Reich and in Poland during the early months of the war? In Germany the anti-Jewish measures were public and “official”; the fate of the Jews in Poland was not kept secret either, and apart from the press reports or the newsreels watched in the home country, a stream of Germans, soldiers and civilians, visited the ghettos as mentioned and photographed any worthy sight or scene: begging children, emaciated Jews with beards and sidelocks, humble Jewish men doffing their caps to their German masters, and, in Warsaw at least, the Jewish graveyard and the shed in which corpses awaiting burial were piled up.196

Various confidential opinion reports (either from the SD or from local authorities) give the impression that, overall, the population was becoming increasingly more hostile toward the Jews, but they also mention occasional acts of kindness or, at times, popular fear of retribution. According to a report of September 6, 1939, from the region of Münster, people were demanding the jailing of Jews or even the shooting of ten Jews for every fallen German.197 In Worms a report from mid-September indicated that the population was upset that Jews had access to food stores on equal footing with Germans.198

In Lahr, on the other hand, during heavily attended church services in early October 1939, older people often interpreted the war as [God’s] punishment for the persecution of the Jews.199 Near Marburg a farmer was arrested at the end of December 1939 for showing friendliness to a Jew who worked for him and for inviting him as well as Polish prisoners to share his meals.200 The same happened in April 1940 to two Germans who expressed a friendly attitude regarding Jews in the region of Würzburg.201 In Potsdam, obversely again, a June 1940 court decision to allow a Jewish woman to be the sole inheritor of a deceased Aryan (according to that person’s will) caused outrage: It went against “healthy popular instinct.”202

For many Volksgenossen, outright greed or the sense of some material injustice (mainly in regard to housing) was the fuel of ongoing anti-Jewish resentment, as shown for example by a vast trove of letters addressed by citizens of Eisenach, the town where Luther grew up, to the local district leader (Kreisleiter), Hermann Köhler. Thus in October 1939, when the Aryan Mrs. Fink was evicted from her apartment, while her neighbor, an eighty-two-year-old Jewish woman named Grünberger, was allowed to remain in hers for three more months [an apartment in which she had lived all her life and in which she was legally allowed to stay to the end of her days], all hell broke loose: “How is it possible,” Fink wrote to Köhler, “that in the Third Reich a Jewess is protected by law while I as a German enjoy no protection?…As a German in the German Reich I should at least be able to lay claim to the same rights as a Jewess!” The owner of the house, Paul Mies, who acquired it from its former Jewish owners in the 1930s, was also eager to evict Grünberger; his lawyer’s argument was “dominant public opinion” (herrschende Volksmeinung):

“Ever since the plaintiff [Mies] became a member of the NSDAP in May 1937, his obligation to get rid of the Jewess has become more urgent…. According to dominant public opinion, which forbids the living in the same house of Aryans and especially party members with Jews, the plaintiffs are no longer obliged to provide asylum to the Jewess. The age of the Jewess and the length of her residence cannot be factors of consideration. Such questions will not be resolved by feelings….”203 It does not seem that Eisenach was an exceptionally anti-Semitic town.

Personal relations between ordinary Jews and Germans often appeared contradictory. In the spring of 1940 the Klemperers had to sell the house they had built in the village of Dölzschen for much less than its real value. “Berger, the shopkeeper who will get our house,” Klemperer wrote on May 8, 1940, “…is here at least once a day. An altogether good-natured man, helps us with ersatz honey, etc., is completely anti-Hitlerist, but is of course pleased at the good exchange.”204

According to a report of the mayor of P., dated November 21, 1939, “Julius Israel Bernheim was the last Jew to own a house on the Adolf-Hitler-Platz. The inhabitants often went on about why the Jew did not leave. The street in front of the house was covered with inscriptions and, at night, the windows were smashed…. B. sold the house, and on October 2, 1939, he moved to a Jewish old people’s home.”205

Details about the murderous violence against Poles and Jews came up frequently in diary entries of opposition members during the first months of the war. Information often stemmed from the highest levels of the Wehrmacht and also from military intelligence officers, some of whom were uncompromising enemies of the regime.206 Plotting against Hitler was active, as several army commanders believed that an immediate attack in the West, as ordered by the Nazi leader on the morrow of the Polish campaign, would end in a military disaster. Thus details about the crimes committed in Poland fell on fertile ground and confirmed the moral abjection of Nazism. “The disastrous character of the regime, mainly in ethical terms, becomes increasingly clear,” Ulrich von Hassell, the former German ambassador to Italy, recorded in his diary on February 17, 1940, on hearing a report from Carl Goerdeler, the former mayor of Leipzig and a major opposition figure, about a trip to Poland. Goerdeler mentioned that “some 1,500 Jews, among them women and children, were moved to and fro in open freight cars [in January or February 1940] until they were all dead. Some two hundred peasants were ordered to dig a mass grave [for the Jews] and were themselves shot afterwards.”207 Hassell mentioned in the same entry that a German widow, whose husband was an officer killed by the Poles, nevertheless protested to Göring about the atrocities against Jews and Poles; Hassell believed that Göring was duly impressed.208

None of this genuine hostility to National Socialism, however, excluded the continued existence of various shades of anti-Semitism. Thus, while, as mentioned, plans for a military coup that would bring down Hitler and his regime were swirling among top echelons of the Wehrmacht during the last months of 1939 and in early 1940, while Goerdeler and other opposition members discussed a constitution for post-Nazi Germany, the conservative enemies of the regime generally agreed that in this future Germany citizenship would be granted only to Jews who could claim a long-established ancestry in the country; the more recent arrivals would have to leave.209 Goerdeler’s anti-Semitism did not change to the end of his life.210

The role of the Christian churches was of course decisive in the permanence and pervasiveness of anti-Jewish beliefs and attitudes in Germany and throughout the Western world. In Germany some 95 percent of the Volksgenossen remained churchgoers in the 1930s and 1940s.211 Although the party elite was generally hostile to Christian beliefs and inimical to organized (political) church activities, religious anti-Judaism remained a useful background for Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda and measures.

Among German Protestants, who generally shared the strong anti-Jewish slant of Lutheranism, the “German Christians,” who aimed at a synthesis between Nazism and their own brand of “Aryan (or Germanic) Christianity,” received two-thirds of the votes in the church elections of 1932.212 In the autumn of 1933 the grip of the German Christians was challenged by the establishment and growth of the oppositional “Confessing Church.” Yet, although the Confessing Church rejected the racial anti-Semitism of the German Christians, and fought to keep the Old Testament (which it often presented, however, as a source of anti-Jewish teaching), it was not exempt from the traditional Lutheran anti-Jewish hostility.

Many German Protestants did not belong to either of the opposing groups, and it is this “neutral” middle ground that came closest to some of the positions of “German Christianity,” also in regard to converted Jews.213 The Confessing Church did, at times, attempt to defend the rights of converts (but not those of Jews as such), except, as we shall see, for some prudent steps at the height of the extermination.

The omnipresence of anti-Semitism in most of the Evangelical Lutheran Church found a telling illustration in the notorious “Godesberg Declaration.” This declaration, intended to establish a common basis for German Christians and the “neutral” majority of the Evangelical Church was officially published on April 4, 1939, and greeted with widespread support by most of the regional churches (Landeskirchen) in the Reich. Point no. 3 (of 5) stated: “The National Socialist worldview has relentlessly fought against the political and spiritual influence of the Jewish race, on our national [völkisch] life. In full obedience to the divine rules of creation, the Evangelical Church affirms its responsibility for the purity of our people [Volkstum]. Over and above that, in the domain of faith there is no sharper opposition than the one existing between the message of Jesus Christ and that of the Jewish religion of laws and political messianic expectations.”214

The Confessing Church issued a response in May 1939, a telling example of its own equivocations: “In the realm of faith, there is a sharp opposition between the message of Jesus Christ and his apostles and the Jewish religion of legalism and political messianic hope, already emphatically criticized in the Old Testament. In the realm of [völkisch] life, the preservation of the purity of our people demands an earnest and responsible racial policy.”215

The Godesberg Declaration was followed in May of that year by the foundation of the “Institute for the Study and Elimination of the Jewish Influence on German Church Life” (Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf das deutsche kirchliche Leben) and the appointment as its scientific director of the professor for New Testament and Völkisch Theology at the University of Jena, Walter Grundmann.216 The Institute attracted a wide membership of theologians and other scholars, and already during the first year of the war it published a de-Judaized New Testament, Die Botschaft Gottes (250,000 copies sold), a de-Judaized hymnal, and, in 1941, a de-Judaized catechism.217 We shall return to the positions taken by a majority of German Protestants and to the later productions of Grundmann’s institute.

A report sent on November 22, 1940, by the association of communal administrators to the Evangelical Church Board in Breslau addressed the burial of converted Jews: “During the burial of the urns of baptized Jews in the Johannes cemetery in Breslau, the indignation of visitors was unpleasantly expressed on several occasions. In two cases, due to the reactions of families of [“Aryans” buried in] neighboring graves, the urns of the non-Aryans had to be dug up and reburied in a distant corner…. A Jew from the Paulus congregation who had been baptized decades ago could not be buried in the Lohbrück congregation’s cemetery, due to the opposition of its Aryan members.”218

It is against such a background that individual support for Jews (even if expressed in an indirect way), usually among ordinary pastors and some members of theological faculties, takes on a particular significance. Thus Assistant Preacher Riedesel of Königsberg did not hesitate, in a sermon in October 1939, to tell the story of the Good Samaritan and to choose a Jew as the only passerby ready to offer help to a wounded person lying on the side of the road. The informant’s report added that “the State Police was notified.”219 On December 1, 1939, Pastor Eberle of the Confessing Church in Hundsbach declared in a sermon: “The God of our Church is the God of the Jews, the God of Jacob to whom I profess my faith.” According to the report, there were signs of unrest among soldiers who attended the service.220 Indirectly pro-Jewish statements were also reported at the Theological Faculty of Kiel University, in March 1940, leading to sanctions being put in place by the rector.221

The Catholic Church in Germany was more immune to Nazi theories than its Evangelical counterpart. Nonetheless, like the Protestant churches, the German Catholic community and its clergy were in their vast majority open to traditional religious anti-Judaism.222 Moreover, despite the increasingly hostile stand taken by Pope Pius XI against Hitler’s regime during the last years of his pontificate, the church in Germany remained wary of any major confrontation with the authorities, mindful as it was of its minority position and its political vulnerability since the days of the Kulturkampf, under Bismarck, and constantly on the alert as a result of frequent harassment by party and state.

Sometimes, however, German Catholics took daring initiatives, albeit in a paradoxical way. Throughout the 1930s and up to 1942, radical Nazi enemies of the Catholic Church (of the Rosenberg ilk) abundantly used a well-known nineteenth-century anti-Catholic pamphlet, Otto von Corvin’s Der Pfaffenspiegel. To counter this anticlerical propaganda a host of Catholic writers, theologians, priests, and even bishops argued strenuously over the years that Corvin was Jewish, or part Jewish, or a friend of Jews. As one of these Catholic writers put it, Corvin could well have been of Jewish descent, even if he was not. For the Nazis of course, Corvin was a Protestant Aryan of unimpeachable lineage.223

The election of Pius XII on March 2, 1939, inaugurated a new phase of Catholic appeasement of Hitler’s regime. Thus, although in the Reich and in occupied Europe, the Catholic hierarchy attempted to offer assistance to converted Jews, it did not venture beyond this strict limit.224 A Catholic organization established to help emigrants, Sankt Raphaelsverein, took care of the departures of some “Catholic non-aryans,” while the Paulus Bund, created in the 1930s, catered to their needs in the Reich.225

Old cardinal Adolf Bertram of Breslau, who throughout the war stood at the helm of German Catholicism, displayed unwavering loyalty toward both Führer and fatherland and, as we shall see, kept cordial personal relations with Hitler to the very end. His political stand was that of the majority of the German hierarchy, and, in general terms, it received Pius XII’s approval. Facing Bertram, in increasingly starker opposition, stood Bishop Konrad Count Preysing and, depending on the issues, a small group of bishops and other influential members of the clergy. An internal confrontation about the Jewish question would come, very late; it did not change the passive attitude of the majority or lead to any public stand.226


The leadership chosen by the Jewish community in Germany in the fall of 1933 remained in place as the war started. The Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland (Reich Association of Jews in Germany), which in early 1939 came to replace the loosely federated Reichsvertretung, was a centralized body established on the initiative of the Jewish leadership itself for the sake of greater efficiency.227 From the outset, though, the activities of the association were entirely controlled by the Gestapo, particularly by Eichmann’s Jewish section. For all intents and purposes it was a Jewish Council on a national scale. It was the Reichsvereinigung that had to inform Jewish communities of all Gestapo instructions, usually by way of the only authorized Jewish newspaper, the Jüdisches Nachrichtenblatt.228

In most parts of the Reich, except for Berlin, as the local Jewish community offices and services lost growing numbers of members, they were integrated into the local Reichsvereinigung branches; these branches followed instructions from the main office in Berlin, which in turn had to report every step to the RSHA. In the capital the “Jewish community” was allowed to keep its independent offices and activities, a situation that often created tense relations between the two Jewish organizations.229

Until October 1941 the prime function of the association was to foster and organize the emigration of Jews from Germany. But from the outset it was no less involved in welfare and education. Its Berlin offices in Oranienburgstrasse and the board of the association, presided over (as he had the previous Reichsvertretung since 1933) by the elderly rabbi Leo Baeck, as well as the local offices in all major German cities, were the main lifeline for the remaining Jewish population.

Direct material assistance became a major concern. After the beginning of the war, state welfare allocations for needy Jews dropped sharply, and most of the assistance had to be raised by the Reichsvereinigung.230 The pitiful “wages” paid to the tens of thousands of Jewish forced laborers could not alleviate the growing material distress. At times even the RSHA had to intervene in favor of the Reichsvereinigung against the ruthless exploitation of the laboring Jews by local authorities.231 Furthermore, because Jewish students had been definitively excluded from all German schools since November 1938, the Reichsvereinigung was solely in charge of the education of some 9,500 children and teenagers in the Old Reich.232

While it was facing growing daily burdens, the Reichsvereinigung did not remain immune to bitter internal confrontations with Jewish individuals or groups, sometimes with potentially grievous consequences. In the fall of 1939, approximately 11,500 Polish Jews still lived in the Reich. Some of them had escaped the deportations of October 1938, others had been allowed to return temporarily to wrap up their businesses. On September 8, 1939, the Gestapo ordered their arrest as enemy aliens and their internment in Buchenwald, Oranienburg, and later Sachsenhausen. The Sachsenhausen inmates were soon dying at an alarming rate. It is in this context that an official of the Jewish Agency [the representation of the Jewish community in Palestine] in Berlin, Recha Freier, a woman in charge of youth emigration, tried to save some of the threatened Polish Jews by putting them on priority lists for transports to Palestine. The Reichsvereinigung officials—in particular Otto Hirsch, its administrative director—were determined to keep all emigration slots for German Jews only and insisted that the Polish Jews be sent to the General Government.233Apparently Hirsch even threatened Freier with the Gestapo. She escaped and managed to send one transport on its way to Palestine (using forged documents in the process) but never forgave the Berlin Jewish establishment. Leo Baeck was not spared Freier’s wrath: she longed for the day, she wrote after the war, “when this man celebrated as a hero has his halo removed.”234

On December 9, 1939, Klemperer recorded: “I was in the Jewish Community House [the Dresden office of the Reichsvereinigung], 3 Zeughausstrasse, beside the burned down and leveled synagogue, to pay my tax and Winter Aid. Considerable activity: the coupons for gingerbread and chocolate were being cut from the food ration cards…. The clothing cards had to be surrendered as well: Jews receive clothing only on special application to the community. Those were the kind of small unpleasantnesses that no longer count. Then the Party official present wanted to talk to me:…You must leave your house by April 1; you can sell it, rent it out, leave it empty: that’s your business, only you have to be out; you are entitled to a room. Since your wife is Aryan, you will be allocated two rooms if possible. The man was not at all uncivil, he also completely appreciated the difficulties we shall face, without anyone at all benefiting as a result—the sadistic machine simply rolls over us.”235

While in Germany there was a continuity of Jewish leadership, in former Poland much of the prewar leadership was replaced, as we saw, when the Germans occupied the country and many Jewish community leaders fled. Both Adam Czerniaków in Warsaw and Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz were new to top leadership positions, and both were now appointed chairmen of the councils of their cities.

On the face of it Czerniaków’s ordinariness was his most notable characteristic. Yet his diary shows him to have been anything but an ordinary person. Czerniaków’s basic decency is striking in a time of unbridled ruthlessness. Not only did he devote every single day to his community, but he particularly cared for the humblest and the weakest among his four hundred thousand wards: the children, the beggars, the insane.

An engineer by training (he had studied in Warsaw and in Dresden), Czerniaków filled a variety of rather obscure positions and, over the years, also dabbled in city politics and in the Jewish politics of Warsaw. He was a member of the Warsaw city council and of the Jewish community city council, and when Maurycy Mayzel, the chairman of the community, fled at the outbreak of the war, Mayor Stefan Starzynski nominated Czerniaków in his stead. On October 4, 1939, Einsatzgruppe IV appointed the fifty-nine-year-old Czerniaków head of Warsaw Jewish Council.236

It seems that Czerniaków did some maneuvering to secure this latest appointment.237 Was it sheer ambition? If so, he soon understood the nature of his role and the overwhelming challenge that confronted him. He knew the Germans; soon he also lost many illusions about the Poles: “In the cemetery, not one tree,” he noted on April 28, 1940. “All uprooted. The tombstones shattered. A fence together with its oak posts pillaged. Nearby at Powaski [Christian cemetery] the trees are intact.”238 He reserved some of his harshest comments for his fellow Jews, though never forgetting the growing horror of their common situation.

Czerniaków could have left, but he stayed. In October 1939 he obviously could not foresee what was about to happen less than three years later, yet some of his witticisms have a premonitory tone: “Expulsions from Krakow,” he writes on May 22, 1940. “The optimists, the pessimists and the sophists.”239 In Hebrew soph means “end.” A witness, Apolinary Hartglas, relates that when the council convened for the first time, Czerniaków showed several members a drawer in his desk where he had put “a small bottle with 24 cyanide tablets, one for each of us, and he showed us where the key to the drawer could be found, should the need arise.”240

Czerniaków had his foibles of course, as we shall see, but foibles that bring a smile, nothing more. And yet, during his tenure as enslaved mayor of the largest Jewish urban concentration in the world after New York, this mild administrator was mostly reviled and hated for evil measures that were none of his doing and that he had no way of mitigating.

It is in stark contrast to Czerniaków’s mostly posthumous image of decency and self-sacrifice that any number of diarists, memoirists, and not a few later historians describe the leader of the second largest Jewish community in former Poland: Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the “Elder” of Lodz. Rumkowski’s life to age sixty-two was undistinguished: in business he apparently failed several times, in the Zionist politics of Lodz he did not leave much of an impact and even his stewardship of several orphanages was criticized by some contemporaries.

As in Warsaw, the head of the prewar Lodz community, Leon Minzberg, fled; he was replaced by his deputy, and Rumkowski was elevated to the vice-presidency of the community. It was Rumkowski, however, whom the Germans chose to lead the Jews of Lodz. The new “Elder” appointed a council of thirty-one members. Within less than a month these council members were arrested by the Gestapo and shot. The hatred Rumkowski inspired years after his death finds a telling expression in the ambiguous comments of one of the earliest and most distinguished historians of the Holocaust, Philip Friedman, regarding this episode: “What was Rumkowski’s part in the fate of the original council? Had he complained to the Germans about the intransigence of the council members? If so, did he know what was in store for them? These are grave questions, which we cannot answer on the basis of the evidence at our disposal.”241 A second council was put in place in February 1940.

Czerniaków had no great respect for his Lodz counterpart: “It seems that Rumkowski in Lodz issued his own currency ‘Chaimki’; he has been nicknamed ‘Chaim the Terrible,’” the Warsaw chairman noted on August 29, 1940.242 And on September 7 Ringelblum recorded Rumkowski’s visit to Warsaw: “Today there arrived from Lodz, Chaim, or, as he is called, ‘King Chaim,’ Rumkowski, an old man of seventy, extraordinarily ambitious and pretty nutty. He recited the marvels of his ghetto. He has a Jewish kingdom there with 400 policemen, three jails. He has a foreign ministry and all other ministries too. When asked why, if things were so good there, the mortality is so high, he did not answer. He considers himself God anointed.”243

Most contemporaries agree about Rumkowski’s ambition, his despotic behavior toward his fellow Jews, and his weird megalomania. Yet a keen observer who lived in the Lodz ghetto (and died just before the mass deportations of early 1942), Jacob Szulman, while recognizing and listing some glaringly repulsive aspects of the Elder’s personality, in a memoir written sometime in 1941, nonetheless compared his stewardship favorably to that of his opposite number, Czerniaków.244 Actually the comparison between the Jewish leaders in Lodz and Warsaw should be pushed even further. Rumkowski, historian Yisrael Gutman argues, created a situation of social equality in the ghetto “where a rich man was the one who still had a piece of bread…. Czerniaków, who on the other hand was indisputably a decent man, came to terms with scandalous incidents in the Warsaw ghetto.”245

Jewish diarists—their chronicles, their reflections, their witnessing—will take center stage in this volume. These diarists were a very heterogenous lot. Klemperer was the son of a Reform rabbi. His conversion to Protestantism, his marriage to a Christian wife, clearly demonstrated his goal: total assimilation. Entirely different was Kaplan’s relation to his Jewishness: A Talmudic education at the Yeshiva of Mir (and later, specialized training at the Pedagogical Institute in Vilna) prepared him for his lifelong commitment: Hebrew education. For forty years Kaplan was the principal of the Hebrew elementary school he had established in Warsaw in 1902.246 Whereas Klemperer’s prose had the light ironic touch of his revered Voltaire, Kaplan’s diary writing—which had already begun in 1933—carried something of the emphatic style of biblical Hebrew. Kaplan was a Zionist who, like Czerniaków, refused to leave his Warsaw community when offered a visa to Palestine. Klemperer, on the other hand, fervently hated Zionism and in some of his outbursts compared it to Nazism. Yet this self-centered neurotic scholar wrote with total honesty about others and about himself.

Ringelblum was the only professionally trained historian among these Jewish witnesses. The dissertation that earned him a doctorate from Warsaw University dealt with “The History of the Jews in Warsaw up to the Expulsion of 1527.”247 From 1927 to 1939 he taught history in a Warsaw gymnasium, and during the years before the war he helped to set up the Warsaw branch of the Vilna Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) and a circle of young historians. Ringelblum was an active socialist and a committed left-wing Zionist. From the outset, in line with his political leanings, he was hostile to the Jewish Council—the corrupt “establishment” in his eyes—and a devoted spokesman of the “Jewish masses.”

Jochen Klepper’s diary is different: Suffused with intense Christian religiosity, it should not be read in the same way as the Jewish chroniclers’ recordings. Because of his Jewish wife, Klepper had been dismissed from his job at German radio, then from the Ullstein publishing house. However, the bureaucracy did hesitate for a time about the category to which he belonged, the more so because he was the author of successful novels, even of a nationalist bestseller, Der Vater (The Father), a biography of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia. Thus Klepper’s tortured life turned him into a witness of an unusual kind, one who shared the fate of the victims yet perceived them from outside the pale in a way, as a German and a Christian.

Many more Jewish diarists will add their voices to those encountered so far, from West and East, from diverse walks of life, of different ages. Dawid Sierakowiak, the high school diarist from Lodz, will soon be joined by the youngest chronicler of all, twelve-year-old Dawid Rubinowicz from the neighborhood of Kielce in the General Government; by the high school chronicler Itzhok Rudashevski in Vilna; the adolescent Moshe Flinker in Brussels, and the thirteen-year-old Anne Frank, in Amsterdam. Other adolescents will be heard, more briefly. None of them survived; very few of the adult chroniclers survived either, but hundreds of hidden diaries were found. Tragically the chroniclers had achieved their aim.

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