Conflict and Community
Before the Holocaust touched their lives, it was common for Jewish youth in Europe to grow up playing and learning alongside their non-Jewish classmates and neighbours. Sometimes these relationships were peaceful, but this was not always the case.
Judy Cohen (back row, fourth from the left) with her middle-school class. Debrecen, Hungary, circa 1940. Azrieli Foundation, courtesy of Judy Cohen.
Throughout history, Jews have often been seen as outsiders and targeted and attacked just for being Jewish. This form of discrimination is called antisemitism.
Even before they experienced the Holocaust, many Jewish students had to deal with antisemitism — from their peers and teachers, and from the governments of the countries they lived in. It took the form of teasing, acts of violence, and sometimes, laws and policies that excluded Jews.
How did the attitudes of their non-Jewish friends, neighbours and classmates affect the school lives of Jewish youth? The following stories demonstrate experiences of belonging and experiences of discrimination — and sometimes both.
“The village consisted of different communities, each with their traditions, that lived in relative harmony until the Germans arrived. Kortelisy accommodated a church and a synagogue, as well as the passing Roma who had no permanent address. And even though the communities did not often mix or have nice things to say about each other, they usually dealt peacefully with each other.”
“I made friends with some of the children who lived in my neighbourhood. Some were Polish, some were Ukrainian. We all played nicely together outside our houses and did not think about the differences between us. We were too young for that. I also remember going to a nursery school several times a week because my mother was working. The school day was filled with games and songs and the recitation of verses, but nothing religious. And although children of all nationalities attended, most of the children were Polish and we all spoke Polish.”
A Diverse Community
“I felt like our Jewish community was entirely integrated, accepted and respected in town. However, there were times that I was on my way to or from school when a child, who might have been angry with me, called me a ‘dirty Jew.’ It was unpleasant, but it didn’t go any further than that.”
Antisemitism on the Way to School
“I endured my first ordeals passing by the Catholic school to get to my school and to return home. On my way home from school each and every day, three or four Catholic boys would be waiting for me. They would jeer at me: Jude Itzig Nase spitzig! This well-known rhyme among Germans meant ‘Izzie the pointed-nose Jew.’ They would also beat me and pelt me with stones. No classmate ever rallied to help me.”
Stereotypes of Jews
“At school, I liked my teacher and the principal, and they thought well of me. But the nurse decided that the Jewish children were spreading contagious diseases, and for several weeks, I had to go with my sister Sarah to a distant clinic where they sprayed our throats with an irritating solution and made us gargle with it. I felt fine and didn’t understand why we couldn't go to school. One day, instead of the usual doctor, a nice young doctor examined us. He exclaimed, ‘But these children are in good health! What are they doing here? There’s nothing wrong with them. They should go back to school.’ He was the first resister I met. I was happy to go back to school.”
Historical Jewish Presence in Europe
Before World War II, Jewish communities had been part of the fabric of Europe for centuries. Click on “Learn more” to explore a map of pre-war Europe, and hover over the pins to view how long Jews had been living in each country.