This series of blog posts highlights stories of Jewish responses to the Holocaust as it unfolded. These stories are some of those told in the Museum’s past exhibition Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust.
Exhibition text edited for online use by Noa Gutow-Ellis, Collections and Exhibitions Assistant and Treva Walsh, Collections Project Manager
During the 1930s, German Jews fought Nazism in the political arena and reinforced Jewish identity within their own communities. When Nazi propaganda accused Jews of disloyalty to Germany, Jewish veterans of World War I fought back with advertisements and posters describing their sacrifices for Germany. Franz Bernheim took the German government to the court of world opinion at the League of Nations, accusing Germany of discriminating against the Jewish citizens of Silesia – and he won that decision. Other German Jews distributed anti-Nazi flyers and published anti-Nazi newsletters.
When Jews were excluded from schools, youth groups and sports organizations, they formed their own. The strong social fabric of the Jewish community is evidenced by artifacts representing the work of Jewish social welfare organizations. These organizations supplied Jews who were impoverished by Nazi decrees with clothing, shelter and food, and organized transports of Jewish children to safe havens, primarily in England or Palestine. More than 15,000 children were rescued in this way.
By establishing centralized leadership representing all Jewish communities in Germany, Jews were able to negotiate for their rights and try to mitigate discriminatory laws. Rabbi Leo Baeck, who represented German Jewry to the Nazi government, said, “The Nazis could take our property but not our spirit.” Jews continued to pray and observe holidays and life cycle events in their synagogues, kosher meat was slaughtered abroad and imported for religious Jews, and Jewish education continued for adults and children.
Yet, German Jews faced deepening dilemmas. For example, parents anguished over the question: Is it better to raise children in an environment of hate, or to endure the horror of sending one’s children away? Many wondered whether to stay or to go, exploring the alternative frameworks required to endure either option.
When it became clear that there was no future for Jews in Germany, the centralized Jewish community helped Jews negotiate huge financial and political obstacles to emigration. The community organized vocational and language training for emigrants, to provide them with the tools for a meaningful future.
A scene from the Kindertransport highlights the emotional theme of parents sending their children to safety amid uncertainty about their own fate. A child’s suitcase is used as a carrier for artifacts that parents packed for their children: a little girl’s lace collar, a holiday prayer book, a pattern knife used by a teenager who had trained in the textile trade. These artifacts reflect the desire of parents to send their children into the unknown with a strong Jewish identity and skills to become self-supporting. They sought to maintain dignity in their children’s lives, even from afar.