Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany

Article excerpt

by Marion A. Kaplan. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 290 pp. $30.00.

The number of publications on the subject of Jews and Jewish persecution could fill countless shelves. Thus one has to wonder why yet another book on this topic has now come out. The answer is that this book, despite the abundance of published scholarly literature, autobiographies, and personal accounts, fulfills an important function. It presents a view of the well-known historical events from an angle that until now has been completely overlooked: the perspective of women who personally experienced the events. The questions examined and the portrayal of persecution -- feelings of abandonment, efforts to emigrate, daily hardships -- will be quite familiar to the interested reader, but each of these facets acquires a different, at times even new, interpretive context when, as Marion A. Kaplan has impressively demonstrated here, they are presented from the viewpoint of women.

The author has already published a number of books addressing the subject of Jewish women in Germany in various historical epochs, but this one, she says, "was the hardest book to write." The reason for this "of course, has everything to do with its topic, the genocide of the Jewish people," and also with the fact that Marion Kaplan reflects on her own family background -- her parents managed to flee Germany in time.

This book does not tell the story of persecution from the perspective of Jewish associations, political factions, or perpetrators. The small episodes of daily life, the human tragedies between neighbors, married couples, playmates, schoolmates and fellow students, the countless autobiographical accounts, reflect a history "from below," and effectively show how the ring around the Jewish population in Germany became righter and tighter and the distance to the majority population, which was indoctrinated by National Socialism, grew wider with each day. The increased deprivation of the rights of Jews ended with their deportation, when their attempts to leave Germany for safety abroad proved unsuccessful.

Kaplan describes the individual phases of Jewish life under National Socialist rule, but she repeatedly allows the witnesses -- primarily women -- to speak for themselves. In the first chapter the author shows how the Jews in Germany are gradually reduced to second-class citizens and ultimately become lepers, but are nonetheless able to organize a number of remarkably diverse Jewish self-help initiatives. The next chapter examines the impact of these changes on private life, in particular the "duties" of Jewish women and the transformation of their role in the family through life under National Socialist rule. In addressing "Mischehen" and divorce in the following chapter, Kaplan touches on a problem that has only been treated peripherally, if at all, in publications on Jewish life in Germany from 1933 to 1945, despite the fact that it is an extremely important and little-researched facet of the insidious deprivation of rights.

In the chapter titled "Daily Lives of Jewish Children and Youth," the differences between the feelings of fathers and mothers becomes distinctly clear when they are compelled to leave their children on their own, sending them off on one of the children transports to safety in England. …