For awhile, Fred Mann and his family led a lifestyle that attempted to be simultaneously German and Jewish. Then, as the National Socialist Workers’ Party rose to power, they were pushed out of German society through racist propaganda, fear-mongering rhetoric, and discriminatory laws.
Nazi policies forced the family to become more Jewish, purposely excluding them from what it meant to be truly German. They received the compulsory middle names “Israel” and “Sara” and had to dismiss their Christian employees and were estranged from family friends. Fred and his brother Heinz were then expelled from the public school system and compelled to associate only with Jews.
Fred Mann’s account of life in Germany in the mid-to-late thirties before the outbreak of war, brings to life the oppressive circumstances which he, his family and his fellow Jews had to endure as German society became more and more openly hostile to Jews.
As the pace of anti-Jewish policy and practice accelerated and the trend became impossible to overlook, the Jewish community ofLeipzig became increasingly attenuated. Some members were deported; others fled. The situation in Leipzig was more complicated than in many other cities because two-thirds of the community were not German citizens. By 1938 the “non-German” Jews were excluded from holding positions within the Jewish community, depriving them of income and the community of their services. Then came the deportation order for Jews with Polish passports in October 1938 (the so-called Polenaktion), in the course of which Fred’s paternal grandmother Fannie (Feige) Mann died. And finally there was the November pogrom that has come to be known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) and the resulting violence to places and persons.
By 1939 the Jewish population of Leipzig had fallen from over 11,000 in 1933 to just under 4,500.
Below, Fred Mann recounts the persecution and discrimination that preceded and enabled the eventual destruction of European Jewry:
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.
...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.
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.
It was not the supposed assurances of “peace for our time” uttered by Chamberlain but the fact the world chose to ignore the cruelties perpetrated on Jews and others by Hitler and his cronies that convinced the German and Austrian Jewish communities that there would be no help forthcoming from outside. It must also have convinced the Nazis that the world didn’t care what happened to the Jews. This was demonstrated when the Nazis decreed that all Jews in Germany would have to carry specially marked identity cards beginning on January 1, 1939. Jewish passports would be marked with a red letter J and it would become compulsory for all Jews whose first names were not recognizably “Jewish” to add the names “Israel” for men or “Sara” for women. The decree had been issued on July 23, 1938, just days after the Evian meeting. By then the majority of the Germans citizenry was solidly behind Hitler. In my eyes, he had catered to their love of uniforms, parades and military formations, and they were only too willing to submit to this style of absolute authority.
Since the end of 1936 he had begun to think that our days were numbered if we didn’t leave Germany very soon. He made arrangements for my grandfather to move into an old folks’ home in Leipzig since, at eighty-two years of age, he was too old and weak to travel. Leaving him there was very hard on my father, knowing he may never see him again, but it was the only solution. My grandfather died in that old folks’ home in 1942 and was spared the gruesome hardship of concentration camps or freight-train transports.
German and Polish Jews were increasingly deprived of their civil rights. Nazi decrees required the declaration of all Jewish property worth more than five thousand Reichmarks and made it illegal for Jews to place a non-Jewish figurehead at the head of a company to camouflage the fact that it was a Jewish corporation. Next came the Asozialen-Aktion (actions against antisocials) – the arrest of all “previously convicted” Jews, even including those who were prosecuted for minor traffic violations, and their detention in concentration camps. Lists of wealthy Jews were drawn up at treasury offices and police districts. Board certification of all Jewish physicians was revoked and Jewish physicians were only allowed to function as nurses to Jewish patients. All Jewish lawyers were confined to acting as “Jewish consultants for Jews.”
German passports held by Jews were confiscated and, when available, reissued with the J stamped inside to designate Jewish ownership. Rumour had it that this was done at the behest of the Swiss government who had no legal restrictions on Germans entering the country. After this measure, however, people with a J in their passports were refused admission to Switzerland – the Swiss welcomed the Jews’ monetary assets but not their physical presence. German Jews were now forbidden to attend any public cultural events, prohibited from attending movies and concerts. Driver’s licenses were confiscated and restrictions were imposed on freedom of movement and travel. Jews with industrial enterprises and businesses were forced to relinquish their ownership.
Many German Jews didn’t have the financial means to leave Germany and were consequently condemned to the fate that eventually befell them. Jewish individuals and institutions with the financial means to have helped their coreligionists to leave bear some of the responsibility for the deaths of those who could not get out. In the early days of the Third Reich, Hitler only wanted a Germany that was free of Jews; if help had been forthcoming then, a great number of Jews living in Germany could have been saved.
The persecutions continued with Jews being rounded up. The elderly were most affected – in Leipzig the SS dragged them to a rivulet near the zoological garden and made them jump from one side to the other while the officers whipped the old people ferociously.27 Many of them couldn’t make it across and fell into the icy-cold water. Onlookers,mainly youngsters, stood on the bridge off Humboldtstrasse laughing, encouraging the SS as if this were a display of trained animals. Witnessing this was one of the most sickening memories that is indelibly engraved in my mind. Even today, I can still see this picture as vividly as if it happened yesterday. It was probably the first real exposure I had to seeing man’s cruelty to man. As Boy Scouts we had had fist and kicking fights with the Hitler Youth and during the last years of my attendance at the public school, we had been singled out by teachers and ridiculed, but I had never seen this type of barbarism displayed by fellow human beings.
After the Nazi occupation of Poland on September 1, 1939, Rabbi Hirschprung’s peaceful shtetl of Dukla, in the eastern Polish region of Galicia, almost immediately changed into a town marked by fear, insecurity and uncertainty. Rabbi Hirschprung, as a leader of the community, was specifically targeted and persecuted by the Nazis, as was his grandfather Rabbi David Tsvi Sehmann, the esteemed rabbi of Dukla and one of the most prominent rabbis in Galicia at that time.