A CRUEL EDUCATION Growing Up Jewish in Hitler’s Germany
The nerve-wracking account of one family’s efforts to stay a step ahead of the Nazi death machine, A Drastic Turn of Destiny is also the captivating story of a boy’s coming of age in the chaos of war. Tracing his family’s flight around the world from Nazi Germany, this story brings to light the experience of a resourceful teenage boy who is forced to grow up too fast. Successful as he is in helping his family in their desperate determination to survive, Fred Mann’s story is at the same time a lament for a lost childhood. In the excerpts below from his memoir — published in the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs — Fred experiences the aggression and alienation violently thrust upon so many Jewish Europeans.
I was only six years old when my destiny took a drastic turn on January 30, 1933. It was a wintry day in Leipzig, and my father was in bed with the flu. He asked me to go downstairs to the newsstand and fetch the daily newspaper — there was no home delivery in those days. When he read the headline pronouncing the news of the day, he just shrugged. Little did he know that this shrug was probably the most significant gesture of his entire life — that was the infamous day that Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, president of Germany, appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor.
A few days later my father received news that the Sturmabteilung, the SA Brown Shirts, were looking for him. One of his old school friends who had been very active in the Nazi party since the late 1920s and who later became a major player in the Gestapo, telephoned my father to tell him that his name was prominently featured on the pickup list for a manual labour assignment. He was to be escorted to the so-called Brown House, the Brown Shirts’ headquarters on Eisenbahnstrasse, to carry coal from the basement to the top floor of the building. They were going to teach this chauffeur-driven, fur-coated Jew a lesson. As soon as he received this information, my father immediately drove his car to Berlin, where he stayed until his old schoolmate could get the order rescinded. This took about a week.
My mother, assisted by a neighbour in our apartment house who was an old-time Nazi, very courageously made a personal representation to some of these SA leaders.
Those who were not as fortunate as my father were forced to scrub toilets with toothbrushes, clean floors with their own shirts, wipe urinals with their hands, all under the supervision of the Brown Shirts standing there with their whips, ever ready to apply a few strokes to a laggard. They were the lucky ones — they at least were doing their work indoors, unlike people who were forced to scrub walls outside in the winter cold, whitewashing remnants of political graffiti like the hammer and sickle or slogans besmirching the German National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), the Nazis. Most were not allowed to wear their overcoats or gloves, and some were even deprived of their jackets. If they were not lucky enough to get something to scrape with, they had to use their fingernails, although some of them were handed toothbrushes.
For some German Jewish citizens, these events were their first introduction to the new regime, but still most Jews didn’t believe that what they were witnessing was the beginning of a well-defined campaign against them.
The evidence was there, though — a considerable part of Hitler’s Mein Kampf explains the “necessity” of making Germany judenrein, purified of Jews.
Assimilated German Jews argued that they had fought in World War I for their “Fatherland” and many proudly displayed their military medals, including Germany’s famous Iron Cross, even after Hitler came to power. Although my father had served in the Austro-Hungarian army and could not match the German medals, he long maintained his belief, as did many of his friends, that Hitler’s era world be short-lived.
* * *
It is interesting to note that the persecution of Jews manifested itself differently in various parts of Germany. After this first skirmish with the Nazi party in February 1933 until the end of 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were published, Leipzig experienced almost a laissez-faire attitude and the Jewish population was left in relative peace. Our city didn’t experience the book burning that took place in Berlin that May, when university students fuelled huge bonfires with the books of writers who were declared to be enemies of the people. This broad category encompassed such writers as Lion Feuchtwanger, Jakob Wassermann, Arnold and Stefan Zweig, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, all towering figures of twentieth-century literature and science.
A century earlier Heinrich Heine wrote in his play Almansor: A Tragedy, “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (Where they burn books, in the end they will end up burning human beings.)
When Rabbi Dr. Felix Goldmann, chief Reform rabbi in Leipzig, died in 1934, Leipzig’s lord mayor, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, and the chief of police attended his funeral. The Jewish Boy Scouts stood honour guard for the last kilometre on the road to the Jewish cemetery, starting from the Bar Kochba Platz, a Jewish outdoor sports facility. Even after 1935, the Bar Kochba Platz was allowed to operate and sports festivals and competitions took place regularly. We had our soccer and handball competitions there, as well as the annual races with Jewish athletes coming from all over Germany. In 1937 I was a member of the main soccer team and we played many of the other Jewish teams visiting Leipzig.
Ours was not the experience elsewhere in the country. To create an acceptable scapegoat for the German populace and divert attention from their existing misery, Hitler cleverly promoted the idea of a Jewish “cult” that was harming the public. Not only did he promulgate propaganda that Jews were responsible for all of Germany’s economic problems, but he promoted a newspaper that was entirely devoted to this subject, the infamous antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer, founded by Julius Streicher in 1923. By 1938 the weekly paid subscriptions numbered 500,000; by 1939 it had a national distribution and became one of the most widely read papers in Germany. The newspaper specialized in Jew-baiting and printed photographs that depicted “Jewish atrocities” against the German public. It spoke of a “Jewish conspiracy” to control German economic life and society. Nobody was spared, including statesmen like Rathenau and scientists such as Einstein.
Even Thomas Mann, though not Jewish, was attacked for his written condemnation of the Hitler crowd.
In addition to individuals, Der Stürmer’s smear campaign extended to all the aspects of Jewish life, art, science and culture. Jews had earned their place in the arts and sciences of Germany, which made them easy targets. According to the newspaper there were no “average” income Jews, only wealthy ones who profited from the ignorance and gullibility of the German public. The stereotypical Jew was caricatured as having a hooked nose — anybody who looked like that was declared Jewish and was an open target. In Berlin, an Italian man who looked “Jewish” was almost killed by a crowd in a department store because he dared, as a “Jew,” to question the Aryan saleslady about the change he received after a purchase. A logical mistake considering that about 170,000 Jews lived in Berlin.
* * *
The German Pfadfinderbund (Boy Scouts) were dissolved and replaced by the creation of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) and Bund Deutscher Mädel (Organization of German Girls) or bdm — better known to some as “Bubi Drück Mich” (Laddie, Squeeze Me). This left a void for Jewish youth and brought about the formation of the Jüdischer Pfadfinder Bund (Jewish Boy Scouts). This organization was very Zionist oriented and promoted the idea of aliyah, emigration to Palestine. We wore the traditional Boy Scout uniform — minus the hat since that attracted too much attention — but had to hide it under our jackets or overcoats so the Hitler Youth wouldn’t attack us. There were some glorious fights in the forest since the Jewish Boy Scouts owned a club house there that the Hitler Youth coveted. After many broken noses and limbs, the Hitler Youth came accompanied by the dreaded SA, making withdrawal the wiser choice.
While the older boys had boxing and kicking fights, we were very much aware that the SA wouldn’t be averse to setting an example by killing a few Jewish boys.