Social Death and the Destruction of the Jewish Family by National Socialist Germany

Karin Doerr© 2010
Dept. of Classics, Modern Languages & Linguistics
and Simone de Beauvoir Institute.
Concordia University, Montreal, QC, Canada
1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. West, Rm H-663
Montreal, QC, Canada, H3G 1M8

This article is intended to provide an introductory overview to students of the Holocaust. It is to encourage further investigation into the meaning of social scorn, persecution, and expulsion of Jews in thepre -Holocaust period. The suffering caused prior to the genocide is usually overshadowed by a focus on the Nazi death camps; yet, personal accounts often include these years. To illustrate, I shall add three brief case studies of Jewish women who experienced the loss of human rights, resulting in violent ruptures on the societal and private level. These studies reveal the lifelong repercussions for such survivors.

In this overview, I illuminate the systematic process towards a state that philosopher Claudia Card calls “social death.” Using her radical “non-care” concept and Daniel Engster’s care theory, I shall demonstrate the steps that led to physical annihilation. In view of these two theories on care practices and feminist ethics, I conclude with considerations that emphasize the responsibility of both individual and state to ensure a society that exercises social justice for all members, as well as the need for vigilance to avoid a path descending to human destruction.

Behold, I cry out “Violence!” but I am not heard:
I cry aloud but there is no justice (Job 19:7).

A glimpse of landmark National Socialist measures reveals outlines of a process leading to loss of family and community viability for German (and other) Jews. Using a feminist outlook based on ethical considerations and care practices, I shall investigate systemic victimization and its social and personal cost at a time when a country’s moral values did not apply to Jews. In the three case studies, Jewish women experienced the effacement of care on the political and private level and witnessed the “social death” of the Jewish community in their country. Yet, against all odds, they survived the destruction of family and the systemic attempts to take their lives. I will show how post facto ethical dilemmas, psychological and identity problems, and societal disintegration impacted them as survivors long afterwards. These life stories also reveal what it takes to overcome, to live with, or to surrender to this loss of family connection, heritage, and language. This approach may even shed some light on the debate of “intentionalist” versus “functionalist” interpretations, leaning towards an evolving rather than preconceived path to genocide.

Instead of a focus on the industrialized killings in the death camps, what still needs emphasis is Nazi Germany’s early infringement on rights and freedoms. Social inequality and discrimination disrupted social existence and dislocated the people under attack. Daniel Engster’s care theory advocates “virtues of caring” (Engster, 2005: 54), an approach that aims at individual and collective care for every member of society. With other (feminist) care theorists, his model calls for society’s “obligation to care” and to provide “protection from harm.” This is in addition to fulfillment of the “basic biological needs” (Engster, 2005: 51). By contrast, feminist philosopher Claudia Card looks at a country’s society, whose policies includes withdrawing rights from a particular group, and her analysis of “social death” provides a suitable framework to be applied to Nazi Germany’s intention to first disentitle and then exclude and demoralize German Jews, years before their annihilation. Card states: “The very idea of selecting victims by social group identity suggests that … the social vitality behind that identity” is targeted (Card, 2003: 76). All members experienced the increasing curtailment of Jewish individual and community life, including “hidden children who survived,” as well as those who eventually died (Card, 2003: 65).

Based on institutionalized antisemitism, Nazi Germany first started disenfranchising and uprooting Jewish families, which signaled the beginning of the process towards “social death” for Jews. During the war (1939-1945), its harmful practices became more and more aggressive and deadly and reached a murderous peak in the occupied countries. Although not all of these families experienced these years in the same way, we can nevertheless draw a general picture of the measures enforced to hasten their ruin. I use “family” here with the inclusion of the extended family and in the conventional way, i.e., according to the definitions of an established (patriarchal) system. During the Hitler period, the concept of “family” was infused with a racial ideology that placed the German (Aryan) family on a pedestal, fostered its well-being and advocated the procreation of “racially pure” children. It included the privilege to a common German heritage and ancestry and called for fraternal, German, bonding. By contrast, the German Jewish family was devalued, undermined, and eventually excised from the German community. Here we cannot speak of a neglect to care, but rather of a radical “non-care,” later ranging from social persecution to expulsion. Card sees these preliminary actions as “utterly central to the evil of genocide” that was to follow (Card, 2003: 63).

Illuminating the (perhaps familiar) chronology of fascist Germany’s desire for a monolithic and homogeneous nation will help to explain the process towards the exclusion of others, particularly the Jews. As soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, Nazi Germany began withdrawing human and legal rights and freedoms in general. It imprisoned thousands of communists, socialists, and anyone else who disagreed with the new National Socialist regime. Imprisoned in concentration camps, they were punished or “reeducated” to think according to the new political doctrine. The Sinti in Germany without permanent abode were categorized as “asocial” and held in special work camps. Only the German Jews, unlike any other group (counting only for 0.76 per cent of Germany’s population and fully integrated in German life and culture), were treated differently (Gilbert, 2006). Germany’s propaganda turned them into scapegoats and saddled them with the responsibility for all of the country’s political or social problems, past and present. Jews were perceived as both left- and right-wing enemies, i.e., politically as Bolsheviks and economically as capitalists. There were also the revived charges of a Jewish “world conspiracy” and, most importantly, the Jews were seen in racial terms and accused of polluting the German national body (Volkskörper) through intermarriage and miscegenation (Michael, Doerr, 2004). 

National socialist broadcasting helped to disseminate these false allegations and provided justification for the anti-Jewish laws to come. But in order not to shock its German citizens with drastic measures against fellow (German) citizens, the government carried out its antisemitic agenda step-by-step. For example, early on, the Aryan Clause (Arierparagraph) of 1933 banned Jews, as “non-Aryans,” from civil-service positions in government and education. These measures disrupted or halted the source of income for many Jewish families; legal recourse was denied them. 1933 was also the year of the autodafés, the German book-burning rituals organized by university students. In many German cities, works by Jews, communists, and (other) authors deemed “persona non grata” were publicly thrown into the flames. The images and slogans accompanying these symbolic events foreshadowed what was to follow a decade later: the actual burning of people during the Holocaust. We often hear Heinrich Heine’s famous words, written a century before the National Socialists (and in a different context), “Where one burns books, one may end up burning people too.”[1]

Under Nazi Germany’s false construct of “survival of the fittest,” i.e., the racist application of Social Darwinism, only Germans had the right to good life and protection. According to the Weltanschauung of “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden), the Jews were deemed outsiders and thus not part of the (German) community of people (Volksgemeinschaft). This was despite the fact that they had been raised in the German cultural milieu and had espoused its values. Nevertheless, or because of it, the National Socialists saw them as the “anti-race,” and their removal became a “mission.” Since their larger plan aimed also at the death of Judaism, Jewish religious practices were outlawed. At the expense of their Jewish neighbours, colleagues, or friends, even ordinary Germans benefited from being on the side of privilege and power. Many Jewish families, affected by the intent to destroy their social and domestic life, left Germany at that point.

The infamous Nuremberg Race Laws (Nürnberger Rassengesetze) of 1935 provided the legal ground for expelling non-German Jews, for demoting German Jews to an official “Jewish” status, and stripping them of their citizenship.
[2]  In short, “no Jew, and no person with ‘Jewish ancestry,’ could be a German citizen” (Gilbert, 2006: 122). Matters that were once private had now become public when Jews were forbidden to interact with Germans (called Aryans), from marriage to business. The law for the “protection of German blood and German honor” (Gesetz zum Schutze des deutschen Blutes und der deutschen Ehre), signed personally by Hitler, was the “most draconian” of the twenty-nine discriminatory laws enacted in 1935 (Gilbert, 2006: 122). It also shows the fuzziness of Germany’s notion of race that came with “inert” qualities.

These few examples of the country’s unjust laws and their consequences illustrate how a nation gradually but systematically withdrew legal and societal protection from citizens who had been part of the body politic. And this was just two years into the mandate of the Nazi regime. In 1938 occurred the only government-sanctioned and publicly-visual mass violence against Jews inside of Germany.  During this pogrom, ironically named “Crystal Night” (Kristallnacht), thousands of Jewish stores and houses were wrecked and most synagogues desecrated and torched. Thorah scrolls (Jewish scriptures) and ritual objects were burned. Police and firemen only protected adjacent non-Jewish property. Some Germans considered such open antisemitic aggression and vandalism “distasteful” and wrong; others benefited from it. An estimated hundred Jewish men were killed and thousands were arrested. Weeks later, broken in spirit and often physically injured or ill, they were released under the promise to leave Germany. It had become clear that Germany denied Jews the fundamental requirements to “develop or sustain their basic capabilities” and of course did nothing to “alleviate or avoid pain or suffering” (Engster, 2005: 55). How could the affected (Jewish) men, traditionally the providers, protect their family? And how could they, stripped of this vital role, maintain their dignity and inspire confidence? In this fundamental way, Jewish family life was destroyed from the outside and from within. Driven by desperation and their inability to defend themselves and their families, quite a number of Jewish men committed suicide.

1938 seems like the nadir of social vitality for German Jews. But we know it was only the beginning of the worst. The regime continued to target those Jews who could not leave the country, mainly women, children, the sick and elderly.  Among many things, they were prohibited from using public transportation and even from owning pets.
[3]  At the same time, all Jewish cultural activities were suspended “indefinitely”[4] (Gilbert, 2006: 26).  Children, their status changed from German to “Jew,” were dismissed from public schools. They attended Jewish schools, where, for a brief time only, they found relief from antisemitic harassment. As families wanted to bring the children to safety, some sent them abroad on special trains. With these Kindertransports, organized with the help of Jewish agencies and the British government, these children literally ended up in “the arms of strangers.”[5]  Some came to Canada and very few saw their parents again. One of these children was a six-year old boy:

His mother took him to the main station, put him on the train, and waved goodbye as the train pulled out. “This vision of the train pulling out and my mother waving goodbye haunts me to this day,” he wrote more than half a century later. “What must she have felt at that time knowing that she may never see me again. And so it was! I never saw my mother or brothers again. They perished in concentration camps.”[6]

Abruptly for him and for all of these children, home and family ceased to exist, and hopes for a “normal” future came to naught. They had been severed from the family circle and their familiar environment. This traumatic experience was compounded by the silencing of their sorrow, for their foster families, many with good intentions, simply wanted them to forget their previous life (as Jews). In this way, Jewish families suffered the instant loss of their children before Germany dealt them their fatal blow.

All Jewish individuals remaining in Germany (and Austria) after 1938 had become outcasts in their homeland and were treated as “non-persons” (Card, 2003: 75). Many tried desperately to find a country that would accept them.
[7]  The outbreak of the war in September 1939 made leaving virtually impossible, and, by 1941, Germany forbade their exile altogether. These individuals became trapped, and life outside the sanctuary of the still extant but truncated (Jewish) households was perilous and unbearable. They were mandated to wear yellow Star badges, the infamous Judenstern. Victor Klemperer, a professor from Dresden (to which he returned after the war and which belonged to East Germany until 1989), could never forget the “worst day … in the twelve years of hell.“ It was September 24, 1941, when he was forced to wear “the yellow rag with the black imprint: ‘Jew.’”[8]  Jude (Jew) was spelled out in mocking imitation of the Hebrew script, as if the yellow star alone did not suffice. Life for these individuals then was reduced to desperate attempts to shelter, feed and help loved-ones, and to hide from authorities and informers.

In the cities—the Jews had already been (viciously) expelled from the rural areas
[9] —they were crowded into so-called Jew-houses (Judenhäuser).[10]  Jewish adults were conscripted to work for the German war effort, as is known, without pay and of course without the protection of labor laws. Jews were not allowed refuge during air attacks and forbidden to possess firearms. There was the constant fear of assault, arrest, and deportation. Jewish community leaders had to provide the GESTAPO (The [German] Secret State Police) with information that helped deporting their members to concentration camps in Poland. It was “a kind of one-sided war.” In ethical terms, Claudia Card calls such deliberately inflicted harm “an evil” (Card, 2003: 65). During these years, helpful Germans not withstanding, they had to experience their fellow (German) citizens turning a blind eye to their plight, worse, to watch them benefiting with material gains in the form of apartments, furniture, household and personal items, and businesses, from the regime’s anti-Jewish actions.

At this point, Nazi Germany turned its policy of  “Jews out” (“Juden raus!”), into a clandestine decision of annihilation, taken at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942. There, the most important government offices adopted the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” with slave labor as part of the genocidal plot.
[11]  It called for collecting of the Jews in urban centers to dispatch them to death camps on Polish soil. In order to minimize unrest and disruption of German life, the authorities talked of resettlement in the east. This term indicated only a spatial transfer and masked the hidden meaning, which was the intended destruction of the deportees in the East. Germany’s Jews were thus expelled from their country, cut off from their culture, mother tongue, and home. This tearing of the “life-sustaining web” had spiraled downward to the crucial point where social viability, family and community life ceased to exist. As Card explains, “social death” may not be “an end in itself but simply a consequence of means taken to make mass murder [or genocide] easier” (Card, 2003: 76).

Outside of the country, the Germans tried to hide their genocidal intentions behind the curtain of war. There, the round-ups (Aktionen) of Jews happened with greater speed and the force of the conquering (German) enemy. On the eastern front, entire Jewish communities were instantly wiped out by mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) without prior warning or incarceration.
[12]  For these Jews, social death coincided with biological death. Hearing these shocking facts and numbers makes us forget that the victims “were robbed of control of their vital interests and of opportunities to mourn,” although, as Card states, “most did not experience those deprivations for very long” (Card, 2003: 77). The minuscule number of survivors was later unable to piece together this part of “family history.” It had been instantly lost with few or no traces due to the actions of Germany’s lawful barbarism.

Those who were taken to concentration camps continued to suffer debasement, starvation, and violent abuse. These victims, even though large in number and with few exceptions, had no recourse to resistance as their last realization was having no country, no family, no strength, and no clothes. In other words, they were utterly helpless and abjectly vulnerable. We are usually more familiar with this part of Holocaust history. Yet, we may not always stop to think that the inhumane conditions “aggravate[d] physical death by making it indecent, removing all respectful and caring ritual, social connections, and social contexts that are capable of making dying bearable and even of making one's death meaningful” (Card, 2003:  73). Hence, in addition to all of the inflicted harms, the Germans robbed those whom those they wanted to eradicate of the dignity of individual dying. The murderers determined the hour of their anonymous mass death that was without future graves and people to mourn them.

Millions perished in this way, and, as we know, relatively few survived. Those who did, similarly found themselves devoid of family, community, and country, and of course, outside a familiar social support system. In the chaotic postwar period, Jewish survivors were held again in camps, this time benevolent ones, the D.P. (Displaced Persons) camps. There they were in the care of the Allied Forces who tried to fulfill their physical needs. But for these survivors of the genocide, “social vitality” had become but “the memory of it,” and the knowledge of a heritage or personal life by itself is not “sufficient to produce vital connections to it” (Card, 2003: 75, 77). Access to their known social, cultural, and religious institutions was denied because they were wiped out.

Looking at their situation from this perspective, survivors were thrown into a social “void”; they had only their bare existence. Many of them were physically ill, often close to death, and emotionally numb as they faced their ruined lives and tried to cope with extreme psychological pain and suffering. Gone forever was their own former communal life with meaningful social practices. Outsiders often see survival as a sufficient “happy ending” and reason enough to start a meaningful life, to turn the proverbial “new leaf.” The truth is that survivors never completely recovered from the tremendous loss because “mending the self” after such rupture is an almost insurmountable task (Nowak, 1999: 33). The Holocaust experience, comprising the years of persecution before, haunted these individuals all their lives.

Perhaps to forget the murder of loved-ones and of all relatives—something that is very difficult for anyone to imagine—those physically and psychologically capable, created new families. In this way, they arrived, at least outwardly, at a (new) societal structure. This was the small family unit, based on immediate and fundamental human care and protection. They could do this only if they felt safe, that is to say, if the respective countries permitted them a sanctuary of peace after destruction (e.g. Canada did; Poland did not).

The following are examples of three women who did start a new life after their devastating ordeal. But they also demonstrate, each in her own way, how they have been impacted up to this day by the cataclysmic event of the Holocaust. Ruth Elias, after decades, finally began to record her story because she could not contain it any longer. She wrote it in her mother tongue, German. Hence, Germans were the first to read her words and the fact that she had lived with the horrendous memories of Auschwitz: “I killed my own child …. I could hear the death rattle in the baby’s throat, and I took her in my arms and pressed her tightly against me for the short time that we still had together. …  Soon they will start collecting the corpses… they will take you away, too. Where to?” In her text, she also poses the grave question, “How can I possibly go on living with this burden of guilt?” (Elias, 1998: 151). Here, her grammatical tense suddenly switches to the present in her narrative, thus stressing the immediacy of this memory and its continuation. Yet, it is understandable that in retrospect, she justifies the murder of her daughter as the horrible choice she had to make for her own possible (but not guaranteed) survival as a young woman. In her case, the bargain worked in her favour but at a high moral and emotional cost. Although she created a postwar family and now lives in a benevolent social environment, her immoral (or criminal) deed can never be erased from her conscience. This is despite the fact that, in light of the hunger, the terror, and mass death in the camps, the persecuted desperately searched for ways to continue to live and survive the moment, no matter by what means. Under those wretched conditions, therefore, individuals found themselves confronted with “choiceless choices” (Langer, 1982: 72). This fact naturally posed a moral dilemma as it would for all who have been raised on ethical premises.

But in the death camps, “The moral fiber and spiritual resilience of countless women, men and children were eroded, if not destroyed, by conditions that are beyond the comprehension of those who did not experience ‘the kingdom of night.’”
[13]  “Negative” behaviour became “normative.” Especially when women are involved, the destruction of what we may traditionally view as the natural mother-child bond becomes a “symbol of its opposite, a paradigm of evil and cruelty” and “the end of hope.” This is because “the image of ‘woman’ evokes images of maternal nurturing, self-sacrifice, and unconditional love,” the moral courage of some notwithstanding (Nowak, 1999: 36). Survivor Primo Levi warns us not to judge the victims. In his important definition of the “grey zone” he says, “the burden of guilt” was shifted “onto others—specifically, the victims … so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence” (Levi, 1986: 53). The “odious” behaviour of the disempowered reveals how violence and oppression violate moral relations. Claudia Card reiterates this important fact: the weight of the responsibility for the victims’ perhaps immoral behaviour rests on the instigators of such insidious actions, for they made “‘offers’ intended to be unrefusable” (Card, 2002: 212). Although the choice was between starvation and death or food and survival, survivors experienced persistent guilt for what they perceived as their immoral deeds if they had opted for betrayal, theft, or even murder, as was the case with Ruth Elias.[14]  But it is not easy for these individuals to shift the blame entirely onto the perpetrators where it indeed belongs.

A different situation is that of a survivor from Poland, Batya Piechotka-Faktor. Her loss of family was sudden as she was thrown into a community of strangers, a Catholic convent. Having been too young to remember a Jewish life, she recalls after sixty years, the love and care she received from a Polish nun who had sheltered her during the war. Batya wanted to remain with her but instead was taken away with other orphaned Jewish children. For her, the loss of the nun’s mothering is central to her good memories of the past instead of her mother’s love and foresight to place her in the convent before she herself perished. Ironically, the Polish government refused Batya’s return to her homeland on the grounds that she could not provide a Polish birth certificate—the very thing that would have cost her her life during the Holocaust. Today, her sad blue eyes still have the look of an abandoned child. Fittingly, she chose a photo of her as a child for the cover page of her recent book, thus alluding to what she experienced and to her feeling, then and now.
[15]  After decades, she still yearns for Poland and has been back to visit. Hers is a case of a Holocaust survivor bearing the mental scars of initial loss of all family as well as surrogate mother. Her lasting sense of displacement is the result of her expulsion from her home and homeland. It caused persistent uncertainty of both identity and sense of belonging. Perhaps for these reasons she still adds her Polish name to her legal one, as her (business) card reveals.[16]

The third example that demonstrates the lasting impact of loss of family, community, and country is that of survivor Vera Meisels, now a poet and sculptor. In art, she has recreated the figure from Auschwitz that has haunted her ever since, the Muselman  (German for “Muslim”). It was the camp name for a person too weakened to care to live and at the brink of death. It has remained the symbol of abjection from the Nazi death camps, of veritable dehumanization and nadir of existence. This pathetic human form was the remnant of someone who had been robbed of the most “basic biological … needs of human beings” (Engster, 2005: 56). As Meisels witnessed, “They were skeletons covered with dry yellow skin. The worst was, that they [had] lost any interest of life, became apathetic, and usually died after few days.”
[17]  Such frightening effacement had a profound impact on the other camp inmates and produced fear of their own immediate fate. Very few such individuals survived, and that only because of the selfless and extraordinary care of others. Card emphasizes that, in fact, all survivors received (often unexpected) help from others, despite the conditions; it was the only way they could have survived at all. One prominent example is Imre Kertész, author of Fateless (also turned into a film with the same title) and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature His book, attests to this obvious but not always considered fact.[18]  

Meisels’ wooden Muselman figure, which measures only 60 cm, is now at the Yad va Shem Holocaust Museum and Memorial Site. She used to keep it in a drawer, wrapped in soft cloth like an infant. From time to time, she would take it out and then place it back, thus transferring to her creation the (motherly) care its actual models—the human beings at Auschwitz—had lacked so sorely.
[19]  Years after her witnessing these experiences, she has created, alone, in her home a sanctuary of peace and surrounds herself with objects that, in her mind, reconnect to a life and social status before the Holocaust. She is also using the building’s small safe-room for her artwork. The question is of course, only for her art?

These are the brief life stories of three women who had been violently expelled from the community of people and from the social structures that normally provide security for the individual. They survived the worst, experienced social death in their country of origin, and witnessed the eradication of their people and their heritage. They were slated for murder. For us, the women’s stories give witness to the consequences of the eradication of all human care is taken away, when people are “intentionally deprived of all social vitality before their [calculated] physical murder” (Card, 2003: 76). Yet, in spite of all, they have tried to overcome this vicissitude and to give meaning to their life and look to the future. Their lives show that “[o]ur survival and development depends upon an extensive web of relations that makes caring possible. We additionally depend upon the caring that others provide to others to reproduce society and to make civil life possible” (Engster, 2005: 60).

Needless to say, the National Socialist period represents a reversal of such a care ethic. In an extreme way, it demonstrated an absence of concern and responsibility for others, and an erosion of multiple venues that define a “meaningful life” and, the final point, the extinction of life itself. In view of such human destructiveness as witnessed in these historical events and in the personal stories, a country’s “moral obligation to care” becomes essential.
[20]  For this reason, it is understandable that Engster elevates “caring” to “the most fundamental human values”  (Engster, 2005: 69). We cannot but agree with him. He outlines how social justice and care must espouse a “moral and political theory” or a unique sort of justice theory: ”Caring means more than just meeting needs, developing basic capabilities, and alleviating pain; it means doing so in a manner that is attentive, responsive, and respectful to the individuals in need of care” (Engster, 2005: 70). Such a socially just system implicates both the individual and the state. Only then can it be effective. Simone de Beauvoir stated it clearly, “we are asking each one to confirm existence as a value for all others” (de Beauvoir, 1976: 157). This ethical belief grew out of her having witnessed countless abuses of power, including the deportations of Jews and resisters to concentration camps during the German occupation of France during World War II.[21] 

Canada and today’s Germany, as well as other countries, have human-rights laws and democratic constitutions that make it at least improbable that large-scale violation will occur or occur again, as the case may be. But even in a free country, we need to be alert and safeguard rights and freedoms for all because political situations and views are always liable to change. Claudia Card advocates such vigilance and indicates that we may be able to identify early attempts at social death. They may manifest themselves in “measures that have as part of their reasonably foreseeable consequence, or as part of their aim, the annihilation of a group” in mind (Card, 2003: 76). Card also warns against becoming an indifferent bystander in our time. She cites the “evils of everyday misogyny, racism, homophobia, and antisemitism” that “take shape gradually, over a lifetime or even centuries” and “may inflict social rather than biological death, or permanent deformation, disability, or unremitting pain” (Card, 2002: 233). Hence, it should always be our civic duty to counteract such violations before it is too late and before we find ourselves on the road to human destruction.


Card, Claudia (2003). “Genocide and Social Death.” In Hypatia vol. 18, no 1: 63-79.

Engster, Daniel (2005). “Rethinking Care Theory: The Practice of Caring and the Obligation to Care.” In Hypatia vol. 20, no 3:50-74.

Gilbert, Martin (2006). Kristallnacht; Prelude to Destruction. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Michael, Robert and Karin Doerr (2002). Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi German: An English Lexicon Of The Language Of The Third Reich. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Nowak, Susan E. (1999), “In a World Shorn of Color: Towards a Feminist Theology of Holocaust Testimonies,” in Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation, Esther Fuchs, ed. (New York: University Press of America) 33-46.


1.  Heine referred to similar book burnings in history, e.g. the burning of the Koran during the expulsion of Muslims from Spain in the 15th century, and antisemitic incidents during demonstrations in the poet’s own time, the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Heinrich Heine. Almansor. In Sämtliche Werke (1964). Hans Kaufmann (ed.). Vol. IV (Munich) 153. Trans. from the German by Karin Doerr („... dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen“).  (Back)

2.  These laws established,  for the first time, by proof of ancestry, who was an Aryan, who was a Jew, who was of mixed blood.

3.  Many Jewish-owned pets were put down instead of given to a German family because they were also considered “polluted.”

4.  Already years before, they had been restricted to “their own” forum, led by the Jewish Cultural Federation (der jüdische Kulturbund) and closely watched by the government.

5.  The award-winning documentary by Mark Harris bears this title and reconstructs the story of their rescue and fate.

6.  Quoted in Gilbert, 2006: 220.

7.  Their statelessness and, consequently, their having not a passport and visa, added to the problem.

8.  Trans. from the German by Karin Doerr (“Welches war der schwerste Tag der Juden in den zwölf Höllenjahren? … der 19. September 1941. Von da an war der Judenstern zu tragen, der sechszackige Davidsstern, der Lappen in der gelben Farbe, … der gelbe Lappen mit dem schwarzen Aufdruck: ‘Jude’....”). Viktor Klemperer (1996: 213) L(Lingua) T(Tertii) I(Imperii): Notizbuch eines Philologen (Leipzig: Reclam).

9.  See Mathilda Wertheim Stein (2000), The Way It Was: The Jewish World of Rural Hesse (Atlanta: Frederick Max Publications).

10.  This was after the expropriation of their dwellings and confiscation of all assets.

11.  The Wannsee Protocol and a 1944 Report on Auschwitz by the Office of Strategic Services, in The Holocaust: Selected Documents in Eighteen Volumes (1982: 3-17), John Mendelsohn (ed.), Vol. 11 (New York: Garland).

12.  See Christopher R. Browning (1992), Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 And The Final Solution In Poland (New York: Harper Collins). The book is based on research and post-war interviews of members (Germans) of this battalion].

13.  According to Susan Nowak, “survivor testimony by women evocatively and powerfully illuminates the total rupturing of the ideals and beliefs that guided and informed moral choices, decisions, and actions in the life ‘before’” 36.

14.  Here we can situate the story of Anne Frank’s untimely death in Bergen-Belsen due to another women stealing her food package. Food theft was sometimes punished with death by other women prisoners at Auschwitz to discourage such “immoral” behaviour.

15.  Conversation with Batya Piechotka-Faktor (Acco, Israel, 6 Sep. 2005).

16.  Her card reads both “Batya Piechotka-Faktor” and “Barbara Górska.”

17.  Vera Meisels, email letter to Karin Doerr (17 Mar 2004).

18.  See the account of Imre Kertész (1992), Fateless (1975; Trans. Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press).

19.  Conversation with Vera Meisels (Tel Aviv, Israel, 8 Sep. 2005).

20.  Emphasis in text. Engster: 70, 55).

21.  “The most optimistic ethics have all begun by emphasizing the element of failure involved in the condition of man …” (Simone de Beauvoir (1948, repr.; 1976) The Ethics of Ambiguity New York: Kensington 10). De Beauvoir integrated her observations from the war years into her early novels. Years later, she wrote the Preface to Claude Lanzmann’s film script Shoah and to Jean-Francois Steiner’s Treblinka (1967), trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Simon and Schuster).

This article is re-printed here with the permission of the author.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2009.
All rights reserved.