The World Before: Jews and Jewish Life Before the Holocaust

Michael Berenbaum

Why Study Jewish Life Before the Holocaust?

First and foremost, because before they were victims, they were people.


To study the Holocaust, one must confront all forms of dehumanization and destruction. One must view images of skeletal bodies piled high like cords of firewood. One must see emaciated starved survivors clinging desperately to life, with eyes are glazed over; men, women and children whom the allies encountered on liberation day. We must recognize and remind ourselves that this was the end-product of destruction, not its beginning.


Behind each body was a real human being, a person who had a family, a home, and a community. Imagine if you visited a hospital and saw a patient in a coma hooked up to machines, struggling for every breath and that was the only thing you knew about them. You might understand their medical conditions, but you would not understand them. We must remember that these were real people; to understand what happened to them, we must begin at the beginning. We owe that to them and to ourselves.

Why the Jews?

Why were the Jews the targets of Nazi animus? Why would Germany undertake what they called “The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 2022), the title that the Nazis gave to the events we now call the Holocaust? To answer this question, it is essential to explore the history of Judaism and the antisemitism that has attended it since biblical times.

The fate of the Jews differed country by country.

In Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia nine out of 10 Jews were murdered while in Denmark more than 90% of the Jews survived (Berenbaum 1993/2006, 159). The Nazi’s intent was amplified with the support they received from their allies and the native populations of the countries they conquered. The values of each of these places were tested as the various governments struggled to define its stance on democratic norms, human rights, and the obligations of citizenship, especially that of their Jewish populations.


In German-occupied Western Poland, Jews were ghettoized for two to four years before being deported to death camps. In Eastern Polish territories occupied by the Soviet Union between 1939-1941 and subsequently by Germany, Jews were murdered by bullets closer to their homes as they had not yet been “resettled.” Of those who survived the first rounds of killing by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile death units), some were sent to the ghettos and then on to the killing centers (death camps) while others faced a second round of mass shootings. There were no ghettos in Western Europe, instead Jews were marked with a yellow star or armband. This self-identifying marker was mandatory everywhere, except for Denmark, where Jews continued to live among non-Jews because as the Germans knew, the Danes refused to tolerate such a separation of their citizens. They still faced a confiscation of their property and abridgement of their civil rights, segregation, and persecution, but they were protected by their country more than most.


Immediately after they came to power, the Nazis set up camps in which they imprisoned those whom they considered opponents to their regime and treated them with great brutality. The Nazis did not call all of their camps “concentration camps;” some were designated as labor or hard-labor camps, others as transit camps, and others as exchange camps (Yad Vashem 2022). Transit camps were established in Western Europe to confine Jews until they were deported to the death camps. The amount of time the process of ghettoization took varied by country. In Poland, it took two to four years while in Hungary it happened in just over one month, and in Macedonia, Jews were confined within ghetto walls within weeks.


If German policy was the same, why so many differences? In short, the conditions, native populations, and relationships to their Jewish communities varied vastly in each of these countries that had come under Nazi rule.

Who Were/Are the Jews?

Jews trace their history to the Biblical Israelites, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their wives Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. Abraham was called to leave the place of his birth, and journey to an unknown land, the land of Cannan. In the Biblical account, Jacob was renamed Israel after wrestling through the night with the angel of God. Jacob and his sons, a tribe numbering 70 persons, left their home and to avoid famine went to Egypt, where they were eventually enslaved.


In slavery, the Israelites became a people, and the Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses became one of the two formative events of the Jewish story. Later as the Bible became an essential part of world culture, this Exodus tale of enslavement, liberation, and the journey through the desert to the Promised Land served as a shared narrative of oppressed people across diverse cultures.


The other formative event in the story of the Jewish people was what happened on Mt. Sinai. In the Biblical narrative, Moses ascended the mountain and heard the word of the Lord, who speaking to the people through Moses, instructed them with Ten Commandments, four of which embodied their relationship to God and six that formed the ethical code for all civilizations: honoring one’s father and mother, forbidding murder, adultery, and stealing; bearing false witnesses, and coveting. The Ten Commandments became the foundation of Judaism, the genesis of ethical monotheism.


From the desert the Israelites entered the Promised Land, where they lived as a nation of tribes with charismatic leaders. Only later was a monarchy established, with King David moving the capital to Jerusalem, where his son Solomon erected the Holy Temple.


For the Jews, sacred scripture is called the Tanach, composed of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), the Prophets, and the Writings (called the Old Testament by Christians whereas for Jews, it is the sole Testament). The prophets of ancient Israel were men and, on occasion, women who provided spiritual leadership, rebuking kings, princes, and priests in the name of justice and mercy, and for the sake of God.

A Crossroads of Culture: Independence and Assimilation

Living at a crossroads amid three major powers Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia, the Biblical Israelites could sustain independence only if there was a balance that checked the might of one of the major powers. Biblical Israelites experienced numerous attacks overwhelming powerful enemies, all but certain defeats. Such was the case in 586 BCE (Before the Common Era), when the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, sending the Israelites into exile. Decades later, Persia’s King Cyrus permitted the return to Jerusalem that was followed by the rebuilding of the Second Temple.


For five centuries, the Israelites navigated the dangerous terrain on which they lived, finding a niche among the major powers that kept them relatively safe and allowed them to maintain their faith and traditions. In a world dominated by Greek civilization and later the Roman Empire, they practiced their religion, absorbing the surrounding culture, yet resisting when the ruling ideologies conflicted with their own faith. During this time, the third segment of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings, took form, including books as diverse as Psalms and Proverbs, the Scroll of Esther and Lamentation, Job, The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. At this point, Hellenism, the principles and ideals associated with classical Greek civilization, was having a tremendous impact on Jewish life. Some Jews were attracted to Hellenic thought to the point of thorough assimilation; others incorporated it into their own tradition, while still others were committed to limiting, if not eliminating its influence.

Jews and Jesus, Christianity

By the 1st century, Jews were living under Roman domination, with four competing religious perspectives: The Sadducees sought accommodation with Rome, the Pharisees sought spiritual independence, the Essenes sought a life of the spirit and disengagement from history, and the Zealots pursued political independence. It was into this world that Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, and taught.


Jesus of Nazareth lived as a Jew, died as a Jew, and was crucified by Rome, a view shared not only by historians but by the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations. Simply put, the Jews of his time lacked the power to inflict capital punishment. Crucifixion was a common form of Roman death, most especially under Pontius Pilate, and alien to Jewish practice. And Jesus was probably regarded as an anti-Roman agitator. The account in the Book of Matthew written well after the crucifixion assigns blame to the Jews for the crucifixion is not regarded by scholars as an eyewitness account of the event.


In the year 67 CE, a war broke out between the Jews and Rome, during which the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. This incident left the Jews as a defeated people who would live without political independence under Roman domination and well beyond.


Challenged to survive without a homeland or Temple, the Jewish leader Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai made the center of Jewish life the synagogue, which could relocate from place to place. All that was required for worship was a quorum of at least 10 Jews and a Torah scroll. Religious worship and study of sacred texts would replace Temple worship, and sacred time would substitute for the sacred land. In this context, the Jewish people endured exile, with synagogue and Torah study the centerpieces of Jewish life.


To Christians, the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction in 70 CE symbolized that God had abandoned the Jewish people, who had refused to accept the teaching of Jesus. Sometime later, the Jews stood accused of crucifying Jesus.


Originally a form of Judaism, Christianity became its rival, making different claims about faith and God. Later, with Christianity’s transformation into the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Persecution, and economic, social, cultural and political discrimination followed (Berenbaum 1993/2006, 8-10).


Three issues became central to the divisions between the two religions and still hold true today:

  • For Christians, Jesus is the Messiah. Jews believe the Messiah is yet to come.
  • Some Christians believe the New Testament superseded the Old Testament. For Jews the Hebrew Bible remains God’s sacred word, which all Jews seek to apply to human life.
  • In Christianity, Jesus is a divine figure, God incarnate. For Jews, Jesus was a human figure whose teachings had strong roots in Judaic Scripture, most especially the Prophets. His teachings are echoed in the Rabbinic tradition developed in his time.

Unique in the Jewish-Christian confrontation was the charge that Jews had killed the Christian God. The Gospel of Matthew, written after Jesus lived and after the destruction of the Temple, alleges that Jews accepted that responsibility on themselves and on their children. However, the Second Vatican Council of 1964 absolved the Jews of blame for the crucifixion and rejected the centuries-old slanderous “Teaching of Contempt.”


In the 5th century, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion and Jews often lived as a despised minority, facing religious antagonism, and enduring the social and economic discrimination that resulted. Internally however, Judaism flourished. Jews compiled sacred literature such as the Babylonian Talmud (composed between the 2nd and 6th centuries) and developed codes of law, philosophy and liturgy, religious practices, and tradition.

The Jewish Community: Holidays and Education

Holidays set the rhythm of the Jewish community. Weekly Sabbath observances begin on sunset each Friday and last until darkness on Saturday, lending structure and stability from year to year, generation to generation. Jews worship in synagogues, with the Torah as the central symbol, placed in an ark facing Jerusalem. One portion is read each Sabbath to the congregation from a handwritten, parchment scroll. On the Sabbath, religious Jews refrain from labor, they do not travel, light fires, or do physical labor.


The most sacred days on the Jewish calendar are the High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), whose themes are sin and repentance, justice, and mercy. Tradition teaches that on Rosh Hashanah, God sits in judgment; on Yom Kippur, the observant fast and pray as an act of atonement, in hopes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Unlike the frivolity that marks the secular New Year, these holy days are sacred and somber, a time when many Jews flock to the synagogue.


Three Jewish pilgrimage festivals are both seasonal and historical, reflecting roots in the land of Israel, with its annual agricultural cycle and holiday pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Passover, the spring festival, commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. Families eat matzah (unleavened bread), gather for the Seder, and retell the liberation story. The final words of the Seder elaborate on the dream of freedom, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which for centuries was recited in the depth of exile and even in death camps. Shavuot (Pentecost) in early summer commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai. During Succot (Tabernacles), the joyous fall harvest festival, Jews build temporary booths to commemorate the sojourn in the dessert.


Other holidays are post-Biblical and derive from Jewish history. The most widely known, though not the most religiously significant, is Hanukkah, when candles are lit to recall the successful Maccabean revolt against the ancient Greeks in 165 BCE and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Purim, in late winter or early spring, retells the story of Esther the Queen saving her people from destruction by the wicked Haman. Elaborate costumes are worn as the scroll is reread. Days of fasting mark Jewish tragedies or defeats in centuries of history.


Traditionally, the Jewish home was kosher: Two sets of dishes were required, milk and meat were not eaten together, and only certain meats were allowed. Pork and shellfish were prohibited. Animals had to be slaughtered according to a prescribed ritual, an act performed by a well-trained shochet (ritual slaughterer).


Jews mark the major milestones of life with a rich tapestry of traditions and rituals, varying with geography. Jewish boys are circumcised on the eighth day of life as was Isaac, their biblical ancestor, entering into the covenant of Israel with an indelible sign of the covenant on their flesh as they are given their name. Jewish girls traditionally are named in synagogue.


At age 13, a Jewish boy comes of age, becoming bar mitzvah; literally, one obligated to observe the commandments. Since 1922 in the United States, and now in liberal and even many Orthodox traditions worldwide, Jewish girls become bat mitzvahs.


During weddings, held under a chuppah, a canopy symbolizing the home, a glass is broken; for even at the height of joy, Jews remember the destruction of Jerusalem. Blessings are recited, and a ketubah, a marriage contract, is signed and read.


A Jewish funeral is simple, usually within a day or sometimes two after death, with burial traditionally in a plain pine box with pegs not nails. Mourners sit shiva, not leaving the home for seven days except for Sabbath, receiving guests who bring comfort. The mourner recites the Kaddish at prayer services for 11 months following the death of a parent.


Jews embrace their religious traditions in diverse ways, from ardent traditionalists (known now as Orthodox) to liberals, paying heed to both tradition and modernity. Some Jews are distant from tradition, either estranged or uninformed, but still acknowledge–or embrace–their identity as Jews. Some choose to observe some teachings and disregard others, much as what some sociologists call “cafeteria Catholics,” choosing their religious observances selectively. In contemporary studies of Jews, a not insignificant percentage of Jews identity as Jews but without a religion, feeling themselves part of the Jewish people but not believers or practitioners of Judaism.


Through the centuries, Jews remained self-reliant, preserving a strong identity as a distinct people. Generally excluded from the society around them, they established their own schools, hospitals, charities, and clubs. Even as Jews increasingly participated in the surrounding culture, Jewish organizations endured, often serving the general community as well.


At the heart of each community is a rabbi and synagogue. And observant Jews, no matter where they live, need a shohet (person who properly prepares the animal for the kosher butcher), mohel (circumciser), and mikveh (ritual bath).


Education has always played a central role in the Jewish community. Before the modern era, private schools for boys (heders, or meldar (Ladino) among Sephardic Jews) helped establish universal Jewish literacy, especially among males. (Until the 20th century, most girls in Eastern Europe did not study formally; many learned to recite the prayers and read Yiddish translations of the Bible.)


Promising students or those from privileged homes continued their religious studies with an advanced teacher (melamed), or in the local synagogue’s study hall (beit midrash). The most capable studied at the famous Talmudic academies (yeshivot) throughout Europe; the most renowned of these were in Poland and Lithuania.


With the mid-19th century came new types of secular Jewish schools. Various Jewish political movements formed schools that helped boys and girls preserve their Jewish identity while gaining a broad, general education. Zionist schools taught Hebrew as a modern language renewing a language used in prayer and study as they taught it; socialist schools taught in Yiddish expressing secular Jewish working-class values of justice and equity. In the Sephardic community, the Alliance Israelite Universelle sponsored schools throughout North Africa and the Middle East that emphasized French language and culture.

Emancipation and the Choice to Live as a Jew

Before the French Revolution in 1789, European Jews were denied equality and had limited social contact with the surrounding society. Hence, they generally lived as a community apart from the state, separate from society.


The decisive moment in modern Jewish history came with the Emancipation following the French Revolution with its emphasis on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, when Jews were granted the rights of citizenship in the nation, and the Jewish community ceased to be the governing entity of Jewish life. Jews received the rights of citizenship as individuals; their status in society no longer being defined by the separate entity of the Jewish community and thereafter Jewish life was a matter of choice.


The French Revolution began a century-long process of Jewish Emancipation throughout Western Europe. Jews gained rights of citizenship and participation in the countries in which they lived. When emancipation worked as it should, Jews became part of the countries in which they dwelled, legal and loyal citizens. However, social and political integration did not necessarily keep pace with legal equality or the cessation of antisemitism. Emancipation was actively opposed by segments of each society, Jews and non-Jews alike. Non-Jews opposed it because they feared that it was designed to treat Jews equally who would no longer be set apart by law and social ostracism while Jews were concerned about having to navigate the challenges of communal survival along with the opportunities of assimilation and participation.


The process of Emancipation proceeded at different paces in different countries and had different levels of support from the general public. The United States, which was established 13 years before the French Revolution, never emancipated its Jews. Male Jews were citizens from the nation’s inception. Women could not vote until the 19th amendment past in the second decade of the 20th century.

Modern Judaism: Acceptance and Acculturation

How did Jews respond to the challenges of modernity? A series of strategies developed, some embracing the challenges while others rejected the changes and the temptations it included, worried that modernism would transform the Jewish condition itself. These strategies can roughly be categorized as follows:

  • Orthodoxy
  • Assimilation
  • Zionism
  • Acculturation
  • Religious Reform or Less Radical Transformation
  • Bundism
  • Socialism

Religion had been central to Jewish identity. Some felt that religious life must remain unchanged under conditions of emancipation. Two forms of Orthodoxy developed, one which rejected modernity and sought to insulate itself from its consequences and the temptations of an open world. Another form of Orthodoxy pursued a strategy of accommodation, strict adherence to Jewish law coupled with participation in the modern world when such actions did not conflict or conflict too greatly with religious precepts.


Other religious leaders sought a more intense form of accommodation, moderating and reforming religious practice to make it more compatible both in terms of its teaching and lifestyle with the modern world. The Reform movement affirmed Jewish identity, emphasizing the ethical dimensions of religious teaching while moving away from the restrictions of Jewish ritualistic law. Conservative Judaism sought to embrace tradition and change had its roots in Europe but reached is fruition in the United States.


Once the barriers to Jewish participation in the general society were lowered, many Jews eagerly embraced its values and its culture, reveling in their newfound freedom. They wanted to assimilate, to become part of the countries in which they lived. However, some went so far as to convert to Christianity often not as a matter of faith but to rid themselves of the handicap of being Jewish while most others retained their Jewish identity whether attenuated or strong, some as a matter of choice and others remained Jews because the non-Jewish society kept reminding them that they were Jews. Jean Paul Sartre, the great 20th century French existentialist asked: “does it take the anti-Semite to make the Jew?”


In every culture and every society in which Jews lived, some assimilate, but most acculturate, adopting from the larger culture elements that could strengthen Jewish life, whether in dress, architecture, music, practice, or thought.


At the turn of the 20th a new movement was introduced in the Jewish world as a response to antisemitism. Zionism was a political movement spearheaded by Viennese journalist and playwright Theodore Herzl who developed a distinct strategy for Jewish survival in the modern world. Writing from Paris during aftermath of the trial of Alfred Dreyfuss, a French Jew working in the French Army who was falsely accused of leaking sensitive documents to Germans, Herzl covered his trial and understood how Dreyfuss was framed. Disappointed with emancipation’s failure to curtail antisemitism, he believed that Jews must become a people like any other people, with their own country, army, anthem, and flag. Jews should return to Zion, the land of Israel and establish a Jewish homeland. The idea excited the young and attracted an ardent but minority following who found secular Judaism a means of reaffirming Jewish identity and peoplehood in an age of fervent nationalism, even if they were not prepared to immigrate to the then undeveloped land. Some religious Jews embraced Zionism as the return of the Jews to their historic homeland and sought a religious return to God and tradition as well. Other religious Jews rejected Zionism as presumptuous as they awaited a Messianic return.


Throughout the 19th century, the rise of capitalism, urbanization, and industrialization created opportunities for Jews but also new pressures. In Germany, it gave rise to two great migrations, an internal migration to the cities away from the rural countryside and an external migration to the New World. The Jewish population of the United States increased 100-fold between 1820-1880 primarily with immigrants from Central Europe.

Emergence of the “Jewish Problem”

In the late 1800s, many Jewish refugees fled violent persecution in Russia, many to the United States where the Jewish population increased more than ten-fold between 1881 and 1920. A smaller, more ideological group migrated to Palestine with the dream of establishing a Jewish homeland while other Jews moved into Western European countries seeking greater freedom and opportunity. The arrival of these immigrants in other European countries created an anxiety about the nature of nationhood; it led to the idea that a country’s identity is tied to a shared ethnicity. Political ideologues argued, falsely, that Jews were a separate race and therefore could not be citizens. As this new racial concept of nationhood took hold, so too did the idea of a “Jewish problem” that required a “solution.”


Some Jews also were avid participants in the movements for Social Justice. In Poland, Jews formed the Bundist movement, arguing for social equality and minority rights in a more just society. There and elsewhere Jews joined general movements for social justice including Socialism and Communism, where they became leading thinkers and activists and not just followers.


One must not regard these diverse identities as separate camps or necessarily distinct movement. Parents might have children who migrated to the United States or to Palestine (pre-State Israel), another child who chose to go to the University, while another who pursued religious studies at a Yeshiva or became a disciple of a Hasidic Master, while another child or her cousin might be an ardent Bundist or Socialist as still another child became a major capitalist or industrialist.


Several of the greatest leaders of Orthodox Judaism in the post-war 20th century were students at German Universities in Berlin before the rise of Hitler. They include Menachem Mendl Schneerson, the Rebbe, the 7th master of Chabad; Joseph Dov Baer Soloveitchik, the Rav, who for decades ordained all Rabbis at Yeshiva University, Isaac Hutner. Rav Hutner, known as the Warsaw illui (protégé), was at the Slobodka Yeshiva in Hebron before returning to Warsaw and then studied philosophy at the University of Berlin. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading neo-Orthodox thinker who was saved in 1939 on the eve World War II by the Reform, Hebrew Union College and later moved to the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary where he became not only a distinguished Jewish theologian but a major leader in the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, and Soviet Jewry movement.


The Holocaust occurred in more than 22 countries but space will not permit us to detail the many diverse Jewish communities so we will focus on three Ashkenazic and one Sephardic Jewish community.


German Jews were active and often welcome participants in the dynamics of German society. They dressed and spoke like their countrymen. For most, German, rather than Yiddish, was their mother tongue. About 15% of German Jews were Orthodox and the remaining 85% spanned the spectrum of Judaism outside of Orthodox practice and belief. Liberal Judaism had a long tradition in Germany. Its rabbis were known and respected figures in German society, foremost among them Rabbi Leo Baeck. Synagogues were often located in the center of cities, near other religious institutions, symbols of the prominence and acceptance of Jews in Germany.


Contrary to Nazi accusations that Jews did not fight for Germany in World War I, one in six Jews did. Twelve thousand German Jews lost their lives in service to the fatherland and many earned medals of valor including the Iron Cross, which they mistakenly later presumed would save them from Nazi persecution. Jews were prominent in industry and publishing as well as in the arts and sciences. Albert Einstein was only the first among ten German Jews who, between 1905 and 1931, earned the Nobel Prize in a variety of scientific fields.


Despite their contributions to German society, Jews faced social and cultural restrictions. Germany had been attracting immigrants for generations who sought to come to the center Western culture. A highly urbanized population, many German Jews thought of themselves primarily as Germans. Even Orthodox Jews developed a unique German style of religiosity, participating in German cultural life and viewing themselves as loyal Germans. Assimilation was widespread; the intermarriage rate was as high as one in four and conversion was an option to rid oneself of the “stigma” of being Jews for many, for reasons of faith for others. If anytime in the first quarter century of 20th century an observer would say that within two decades one country would be responsible for the annihilation of the Jews, no outside observer or non-Jewish German would not have imagined that Germany, where Jews felt accepted and respected, would be that country.


By the end of World War I, an independent Poland emerged after years of being divided up between Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Russia. There were more than 3.3 million Jews in Poland, which included parts of Lithuania including Vilna. They comprised 10% of the overall population. Polish Jews were one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. In many towns and villages Jews were the majority of the population. In certain cities, Jews constituted between one-third and one half of the general population.

What was Jewish life like?

Generally, there was limited acculturation to the larger society as opposed to Western Europe and a strongly identified Jewish community. It was largely Yiddish speaking (80 percent according to 1931 census), religiously Orthodox—particularly among the older generation and predominantly lower-middle and working class. There was little intermarriage. Jews made up one-third of the country’s urban population—one in four Jews lived in shtetls (towns of 10,000 or less with a significant Jewish population). Jews were highly visible in local economic life like small shop keepers, tailors, bakers, and shoemakers but also doctors and pharmacists.


Polish nationalism was and is directly linked to Roman Catholicism; therefore, it was common to hear people in ordinary conversation distinguishing between Poles and Jews. Even though Jews had lived in Poland for centuries, the Jewish community dwelled there living alongside non-Jewish Poles, sometimes in “parallel universes” and less with them.


The years from 1918-1939 were paradoxical for Polish Jews. Antisemitism was prevalent and their economic situation grew worse as the world-wide Depression took hold, leaving one in three Jews on welfare. However, Jewish life and culture remained vibrant. Jews had their own political parties and youth groups. Yiddish newspapers, theatre, literature, and education all flourished. Warsaw had more Jews than any other city in Europe. There were some 80 Jewish periodicals, most in Yiddish but some also in Hebrew and Polish. Yiddish theater thrived with famous actors travelling between Warsaw and New York where New York’s Second Avenue was the Yiddish Broadway. Some Yiddish actors made their transition from Warsaw to New York and then from Second Avenue to Broadway. Yiddish movies were exported to Yiddish speaking Jews and some stars who got their start in Yiddish movies made their way to Hollywood where they joined other native Yiddish speaking actors who, after changing their name, became major American stars.


Jewish life in Poland was intense. The pious were religiously devout, the secular ardently secular. Many secular Jews were drawn to Bundism, which advocated social justice and minority rights of diaspora Jews. Others joined Zionist movements of the right and the left. Poland and Lithuania were the home of some of the great Yeshivot, where Torah study was paramount.


The debates among Jews whether Zionists or Bundist, secularist, or Orthodox were most often conducted in Yiddish even while there was also an identifiable movement of Polanization. Jewish assimilation into Polish society, linguistically and culturally, often centered at the Universities. There were limits to assimilation and many within Polish society were against it. In the post-World War I period when an independent Polish state that included part of Lithuania was formed, most particularly under the leadership of Marshall Pilsudski (1926-1935) there were gestures toward cultural pluralism required by the expanded map of Poland. Pilsudski understood that an expanded Poland had to make room for non-Polish citizens of Poland, With Pilsudski’s death, right wing nativist forces came to power and Poland looked inward toward a more homogenous society of Polish Catholics.


Denmark had a small well-established Jewish community that saw itself as an integral part of Danish society; more importantly they were seen by Danes as fellow citizens, nothing more and nothing less. In large measure this status later accounted for the willingness of the Danes to aid the Jews in their escape in October 1943, and for the openness of neutral Sweden to receive fellow Scandinavians. Contrary to the often-told story, the King of Denmark never wore a Jewish star, in large part because no one did in Denmark. Since Germans respected Danes as fellow Aryans, German occupation of Denmark was light and the Nazis were hesitant to impose such restrictions which they presumed would be resented by Danish population and therefore, unenforceable. Two quotes stand out with give voice to the unique status of Jews. The Danish Foreign Minister told the Germans: “We don’t have a Jewish problem, merely Jewish citizens.” King Christian X said: “There was no Jewish problem in Denmark since the Danes had never had an inferiority complex as far as the Jews are concerned.”


We have considered Denmark not so much for the significance and the size of its Jewish community but for the uniqueness of their acceptance by the Danes as fellow citizens. Throughout the Holocaust citizenship counted and respect for that citizenship was important to the survival of some Jews. Early on, in September 1935 when the Nazis had been in power for just 32 months, the Nuremberg Laws were passed depriving Jews in Germany of their citizenship leading to a vastly different outcome.


The Holocaust is commonly and mistakenly thought of as a catastrophe mainly for Ashkenazic Jews, those who trace their ancestry to Germany and Europe. Yet so total was Nazi German domination that it also enveloped Sephardic Jews, those who trace their origins to the Spanish Jewish community. Jews were expelled in 1492 from Spain and a half decade later from Portugal. Sephardic Jewry made its way to North Africa, Greece, and the Balkans.


In North Africa with its significant Arabic-speaking Jewish community, the fate of Jews was linked to the colonial powers; the French in Morocco and Algeria, and the Italian in Libya. Their policies determined the fate of the Jews under their rule. In the Balkans, the fate of the Jews was dependent on the occupying power whether it be Italy, Germany, Bosnia or Bulgaria. Let us depict Greek Jews before the Holocaust.


Greek Jewish life is ancient, going back as early as the 4th century BCE and has been continuous for some 2500 years. Before the Holocaust most Jews lived in Thessaloniki or in Athens though smaller Jewish community dotted the land.


While under Ottoman rule, Greece was a haven for Jews after the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and therefore most Greek Jews are regarded as Sephardim, of Spanish origin even though the earliest Greek Jews had developed their own Romaniote tradition. Thessaloniki, the largest Jewish community in Greece remained under Ottoman rule until 1912. Jews were so prominent and so numerous – they constituted a majority of the city’s population — that the port of Thessaloniki, essential to commerce in a trading center, was closed on Shabbat until the collapse of Ottoman rule. Jewish Salonika described itself as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans “rich in Jewish tradition and observance, with great scholars and learned contributors to Jewish tradition and culture. Proud of its Spanish heritage, it contrasted significantly with the heterogenous nature of the Jewish community of Athens. Like most Jews in the Balkans, the Jews of Salonika spoke Ladino, unique blend of Ottoman, Balkan and Hispanic influences. Thus, when they arrived in Auschwitz in the spring of 1943, they had no common language with the Yiddish speaking Jews of Eastern Europe and often picked up only visual but not verbal clues form the perpetrators and fellow inmates alike. The Germans took advantage of their limited ability to communicated by assigning some of these Greek Jews to work as Sonderkommando, special units, working in the vicinity of the gas chambers and crematoria.


Contrary to the image that all Jews lived in lavish style like Rothschilds, most Jews lived in very ordinary circumstances. Many were poor. They were stevedores in Salonika, Greece; factory workers in Łódź, Poland; small shopkeepers in Amsterdam; yeshiva students in Kovno, Lithuania; and professors in Berlin. They worked to create a home and sustain their families.

A Devastating Outcome

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, more than nine million Jews lived in the twenty-one European nations later occupied by the Germans in World War II. The 525,000 Jews who lived in Germany itself were less than one percent of the population. Within a dozen years, two out of three of the nine million were dead.


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About the author

Michael Berenbaum is a Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He was the Managing Editor of the Second Edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.  In the past he was Project Director overseeing the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and President and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. He is the author and editor of 23 books and has appeared in more than two dozen documentaries. His work in film has earned Emmy Awards and Museums he has created and developed can be seen in cities throughout the United States, Europe and Mexico.



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The Holocaust:  Remembrance, Respect, and Resilience Copyright © 2023 by Michael Berenbaum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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