On November 23, 1939, Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor-General of occupied Poland, decreed that all Jews in Poland over the age of 10 were required to designate themselves as Jewish by wearing a white arm badge with a blue Star of David whenever they went out in public. It was the first time that the Nazi government had legally required Jews to distinguish themselves in appearance from the rest of the population. This requirement, later implemented across Nazi-occupied Europe, became one of the most widely applied, visible, and infamous methods that the Nazis used to alienate Jews as “the other.”
Frank’s order was only the beginning. On September 1, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich ordered all Jews over six years old in the Reich, Alsace, Bohemia-Moravia, and the German–annexed territory of western Poland, to wear a yellow Star of David in public. Heydrich’s command extended the public marking of Jews with the Star of David into virtually every part of Nazi-controlled Europe. Denmark and Southern France were the only exceptions.
The star was worn both on the left side of Jews’ outer clothing, and on their backs, so that anybody in front of or behind them could easily identify them as Jewish. Each badge was supposed to be four inches long. The word Jude (Jew) on the badges, sometimes written in a local language instead, imitated the appearance of Hebraic type.
The yellow star that belonged to Kurt Hamel in Germany bears the characteristic marks: black hand stitching along the edge of the fabric, and the word Jude in a font that looks like Hebraic type. The star, which is 3 3/4 x 3 inches long, now resides in the Permanent Collection of the Museum. Gift of Joel R. Hamel.
Badges differed by country, in language, style, and material, though the yellow Star of David with black lettering was the most common. This broad range of languages and styles on the badges worn by Jews across Europe allude to the ubiquitous discrimination they faced in every country under Nazi control.
Another star in the Permanent Collection from the Netherlands bears the word “Jood,” the Dutch word for Jew. A Holocaust survivor gave it to the sailor Seymour Frank, who sailed to Amsterdam with the Merchant Marines, who subsequently donated it to the Museum.
As the practice of forcing Jews to label themselves spread across Europe, Jews scrambled to comply with Nazi laws using whatever materials and resources on hand. Some stars were made by machine, some were handstitched carefully, and some were hewn from non-fabric materials.
Rosette Bakish’s star, worn in Bulgaria circa 1944, is one example. The star, made of Bakelite and pigment, functioned as a button. It is one of the smallest in the Permanent Collection at 1 1/4 x 1 1/4 x 1/16 inches.
The machine-made star worn by Judith Aklipi nee Berkowitz in 1940 and 1941 is formed from two interweaving triangles. Aklipi was deported from Saveni, Moldavia, then Romania, with her eight children to Transnistria. She wore this star on the train when she was transported.
Every Jewish badge that has survived the Holocaust once functioned as a tool to dehumanize a Jewish individual and strip them of their dignity. The diversity of these stars, which now reside with families and in museums around the world, is a poignant representation of how many countries and communities across Nazi Europe ultimately participated in this practice.