"...to bury the Jews"
THE1930s. NOW THE TENOR of my father's stories changes. Now there is Hitler, the National Socialist Party, and arguments with friends he has known from boyhood. One friend -- Hans --is a Communist; another friend -- Karl-- is drawn to the National Socialists. Karl tells my father that he should read a book called Mein Kampf, "by a guy named Adolf Hitler."
In November of 1930, Hitler comes to Mannheim to speak -- and Karl invites Dad to go with him to the rally. "I must have been the only Jew there," Dad recalls.
MY FATHER, AGE 22, IN GERMANY in 1933 -- the year Hitler came to power.
"HE HAD EVERYBODY SPELLBOUND AGAINST THE JEWS. They were the evil of everything that was wrong with Germany. We didn't have the other side of the Rhineland. That's the fault of the Jews. The Jews brought us into the war. Then afterwards we lost all our money in inflation. The Jewish bankers, the Jewish businessmen -- they're the ones behind it. And on and on and on. Raving.
"And of course everyone says "Sieg Heil!!"
"Well, I said, 'He's nuts.'"
Karl, it seemed, was constantly warning my father of the dangers. "Get out of Germany, get out!" Karl insisted. The Nazis, he said, were going to "bury the Jews."
Despite-- or perhaps because of -- these warnings, my father always referred to Karl as a friend. From the great distance of time, I wondered about that description. How could he be both a friend and a Nazi sympathizer? Or was he?
GRADUALLY, THOUGH I WAS UNAWARE OF IT, throughout my childhood and teen years I was learning the terms, names and dates of the Nazi era that affected my father so profoundly. For example, Aryan.
I understood this was something my father and his family were not and could not be. To put it another way, an Aryan was someone who had no Jewish parents or grandparents. And Aryanization was the process of ensuring that businesses and institutions in Nazi Germany were owned and run by Aryans. When my father's friends were subjected to Aryanization and compelled to sell their business, the price was determined with the threat of a loaded gun at the negotiation table.
FORBIDDEN. The sign reads, "Jews are not allowed to use city swimming pools."
MY FATHER JOINED a festive gathering of leaders of the German-Jewish Youth League. in 1934. (photo, above).
THE HITLER JUGEND, OR HITLER YOUTH, was a Nazi organization that stressed sports and physical conditioning, Young people--more than two million by the end of 1933--wore military-style uniforms and spouted Nazi ideology, including antiSemitic ideology. Only Aryans could join. Yet, Jewish youth were able to join the Bund Deutsch-Jüdischer Jugend, the German-Jewish Youth League.
Yes, there really was such a group, Dad tells me, and he was chairman of the Mannheim chapter. "I got in the mail a passport issued by the leader of Hitler Youth, that Erich Sonnemann is a qualified leader of the Jewish youth movement. And all police, SA and SS personnel are hereby directed to afford safe passage to him and anybody under his care."
DESPITE MY FATHER'S SANCTIONED ROLE as a leader of the German-Jewish Youth League, the forces of Aryanization were closing in. In his early twenties, he had been training as a pharmacist's apprenticed with a pharmaceutical company, Andreae Noris-Zahn. He liked his boss, a Mr. Goodman, who told him he would have a job as long as he didn't take drugs or come to work sick. But after Hitler came to power and Aryanization was established, Mr. Goodman was unable to keep his promise. He had orders from headquarters, he told my father. "All Jews have to be let go. I feel very bad about it, but I have no alternative."
My father's job loss was a blow to the family's already restricted income. After Hitler's rise to power in 1933, his father, (my grandfather), a freelance arts critic, had been barred from any publication other than Jewish newspapers. My grandmother joined her sister Frieda selling sewing machines on commission to help support the family. My father found another job in 1935, but once again he was soon fired because of Aryanization.
By May of 1936, my father wrote to the national leader of the Jewish Youth movement expressing dismay that members had to be younger than 23 to participate in an emigration training program. "I can conceive no future, none at all, for the majority of my friends here..." he wrote.*
"I WAS FULLY AWARE OF THE DANGERS," Dad tells me, many times.** "You have to realize the pressure we were under, with all that was happening." Jews banned from parks and swimming pools. An economic boycott of Jewish businesses beginning in 1933. "Stores being closed, store windows marked 'Jew' -- Don't buy there!"
"I kept telling my parents, 'We've got to do something, we've got to do something.' But my father was so apolitical, he just didn't believe it. Just like many others who still had hopes that all was going to pass."
*in Jewish Responses to Persecution, 1933-1938, By Jürgen Matthäus, Mark Roseman, p. 228
** Many of my father's experiences were recorded on cassette tapes, which I later had digitized and then donated to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can listen to a two-part audio-only oral history (about one hour) here.