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Anti-Semitism had long been part of life for the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews of Europe, but it was far less so in Western Europe by the dawn of the twentieth century. In Germany, those of Jewish ancestry – religious or not – had assimilated into German culture and society much in the way they have in the U.S. today. They held important positions in government, business, education, science; many had fought in the German Army during the First World War. They were Germans first, Jews second.
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All of this began to change when Hitler came to power in 1933. The changes came slowly; so gradually that they weren’t really noticed until for many, it was too late. The rise of fascism and the fatal anti-Semitism that accompanied it has been compared to the frog that is placed in a pot of water; put it in when the water is boiling and it will jump out quickly, but place it in a pot of cool water then start heating it, the frog will simply stay there until it dies. In My German Question, this is essentially the explanation author Peter Gay gives as to why his family – typical of the prosperous urban German middle-class – was reluctant to leave their homeland until it was almost too late.
Born Peter Joachim Fröhlich in 1923, Peter Gay and his family lived in Berlin. His mother is described as an “invalid,” his father as a proud Prussian who was nonetheless a patient father, assertive without being overbearing or demanding, and encouraging of his son’s intellectual independence as well as his English language studies and his interest in sports. The members of the family were blond and blue-eyed; culturally and socially, they were no different from any other German citizen. Despite the economic upheavals of the Weimar years, young Peter was raised in relative comfort and received a good education from professors who “were on the whole, free of bigotry” (Gay, 1998).
In 1933, Hitler came to power, and the Fröhlich family “became Jews overnight.” Today, it is difficult to remember that during his early political career and initial years in power, Hitler was not taken seriously. Short, ugly, dumpy-looking and resembling Anglo-American actor Charlie Chaplin (who later satirized Hitler in the 1940 film The Great Dictator), he was often an object of ridicule. It was difficult for the Fröhlichs to believe that Hitler and his cadre were anything more than an aberration – a group of “madmen” who would soon be out of power.
Even during his adolescence however, young Peter’s life was, to outward appearances, “normal.” On page 66, Gay states: “My years in the Goethe Gymnasium [high school] attested to surviving pockets of decency…even of quiet resistance,” adding “…this further complicated our assessment of what we had to expect.”
Things changed in subtle, almost undetectable ways: a poem by Jewish-German author Heinrich Heine was listed as “author unknown” after 1933. One day in 1934, young Peter and some fellow youths showed up for a scheduled hike one day to have their troop leader tell them to go home quietly, as there was to be “trouble.” The trouble turned out to be a “purge” of Hitler’s real and imagined political enemies; Gay estimates over 150 were executed that day on charges of homosexuality – a term with which the young Peter was unfamiliar. It was only the first outward sign that something was terribly wrong.
Yet as late as 1935 and ’36, the Fröhlichs and Jewish families like them were completely convinced that basic German decency would soon reassert itself. Gay writes: “The gangsters who had taken control of the country were not Germany - we were.”
In Chapter Four, Gay - who as a boy was infatuated with all things American – describes the occasion upon which young Peter and his father attended the 1936 Olympics. While secretly thrilled to see American schwartzer Jesse Owens win the gold medal, they were still just as proud to be among the crowd that Chancellor Hitler had so carefully assembled for the occasion. Yet, he says “one of the greatest moments of my life” was when the German women’s relay team dropped a baton. Even at this stage, Father Fröhlich had come to the realization that the family would, in all likelihood be forced to leave Germany.
In the years between 1933 and 1938, the Fröhlich’s comfortable world had gradually been shrinking around them. As the case with African-Americans in the U.S., Jews in Germany were subject to one “Jim Crow”-type law after another, except that there was no pretense at equality; not only could Jews not go certain places nor associate with certain people nor engage in certain professions, the propaganda machine had gone into full productions, letting Germans know that the Jew was an “inferior” creature with whom “true Aryans” should have no dealings with whatsoever. Despite this, as late as 1936, the Fröhlich family – despite having to release their non-Jewish maid from their service – was able to move into an apartment in one of Berlin’s better neighborhoods.
Unlike many Jewish families in Germany, the Fröhlichs were fortunate in having having living in the U.S.; his uncle Alfred had married an American citizen years earlier and was living in Florida. The decision to leave finally came after the infamous Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht , during which in November of 1938 most Jewish-owned businesses as well as a fair number of homes and synagogues were vandalized and destroyed. At the end of April, 1939 – one week after Hitler’s fifty-fourth birthday – the Fröhlich family escaped, forced to leave behind most of what they had.
Even their escape was achieved with a bit of skullduggery; while awaiting departure, Father Fröhlich altered the family’s documents in order to allow them to escape. Because of immigration quotas, they were forced to travel to Cuba, where U.S. entry visas were for sale. Eventually, they booked passage from Havana to Florida aboard the S.S. St. Louis; however, Fröhlich changed the booking to another ship leaving two weeks earlier. The St. Louis was later denied entry to U.S. ports, and most of the refugees aboard were returned to Europe, where most would up in camps.
Gay’s father was unable to achieve the same type of social and economic success in the United States as he had in Germany. In Herr Fröhlich’s mind, Germany was still the homeland, a nation which had produced great writers, scientists, composers, thinkers. And yet they’d had no choice (two other Fröhlich offspring who had not fled Germany met their end in the gas chambers of Auschwitz).
It seems all too easy today to question why the Jews of Germany did not simply leave when it became obvious they were danger. Peter Gay provides one lucid answer: denial. These people considered themselves good Germans above all. It was difficult to understand and accept what was happening, and how the country in which they were born and raised and to which they were loyal could turn on them. It is the same denial one could see in the United States between 2001 and 2006, as its people continued to support an unelected president setting himself above domestic and international law, supporting torture and pre-emptive war as he set about to shredding the Bill of Rights.
The difference is that Americans have had 230 years of experience with democracy, and ultimately, could not be fooled. Germany on the other hand was a young nation. In its brief 63-year history prior to Hitler’s rise to power, it had only been a democracy for the last ten – and that had been during a period of economic and social upheaval.
In view of this historical, cultural and social context, it is more apparent as to why the Jews of Germany were reluctant to leave their homes or even accept the evidence of what was happening all around them.
Gay, P.J. My German Question: Growing Up In Nazi Berlin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)
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