Special to the JTA Recollections of a Time of Infamy
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Special to the JTA Recollections of a Time of Infamy

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Even after Hitler’s coming to power opinions among German Jews varied a great deal. Only a small part really understood that the Nazi rule constituted a decisive and irreversible turning point in German history.

The tragedy was that many of them did not comprehend the ruthless and fanatical character of the new regime which aimed at world domination, not recognizing any ethical or moral limits to its action and whose only valid principle was “right is what is beneficial to the German people” as they understood it.

Many Jews, and many non-Jews, thought that the regime could not last and hoped that the German nationalists would restrict Hitler’s appetite. In short, they did not understand the fundamental change that had taken place.

Of course, nobody foresaw or could foresee in 1933 Auschwitz and the policy of total extermination as it was practiced during the war. But those who had read “Mein Kampf,” who had studied the party program, who had listened to the party leaders, could not have any doubt that the new leaders meant what they said and that there was no future for Jews in Germany.


I remember vividly the evening before my departure from Germany in the middle of May 1933. We were celebrating the 50th birthday of a friend of my family. It was the last time I saw all our friends together and I pleaded the whole evening with a good number of them: “Do you not see what is happening? Do you not see that this is the end of German Jewry? Let at least your children leave the country and try to build a new existence abroad”. But I preached mostly to deaf ears.

From Germany I went to Paris, where I acquired a French law degree, and then to Geneva to work at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, specializing in international law.

It was there that Dr. Nahum Goldmann discovered me and invited me in 1936 to join the staff of the World Jewish Congress. I felt I could not refuse to take part in the fight against Hitler in which the newly created Congress had a leading role. I intended to remain with the Congress for only a few years but in fact have been with it ever since.


My attitude towards the Germany of today is that of a distant but watchful observer. I have not forgotten what Germany had done to us and I cannot forget it. I know that two-thirds of the German citizens of today were born after World War II or were small children at the time of the destruction of European Jewry and I know they had no part in what happened.

But they are the heirs of German history and as such they have to assume the heritage, good and bad, of their people. They should do this in good faith and without grudges. They should understand that it will take several generations before a fully normal relationship can be established between Germans and Jews.

They should understand that most Jews of the present generation are still living with the trauma and still feel their wounds. This does not detract from the importance of the German effort for indemnification and reparation which is fully recognized. I believe that some of the foremost leaders of Germany, like Chancellor Kohl and Social Democrat leader Vogel, are fully conscious of this situation.


What are the lessons to be drawn for 1983 from the events of 50 years ago?

Firstly, never to underestimate our enemy as German Jews did in the thirties and never to believe that deep irrational trends and tendencies which prevail in a specific historical situation within a people can be cured by logical arguments. Our “damned Jewish optimism,” as (German idealist philosopher Arthur) Schopenhauer called it, which had helped us to survive many situations, is no sure guide in the brutal power struggles of the 20th century.

Secondly, one should combat false theories and hostile ideas from the start and not wait until they have powerful support. The renewal of idealogies which preach the inequality of races and draw from it political consequences is as dangerous as the growing movement of pseudo-historians who deny the Holocaust. We have learned that no lie is too big not to be believed in certain political and social circumstances.

The third lesson is to recognize and analyze the specific political, economic and social conditions under which Hitler came to power. While history does not repeat itself generally, we should recognize that without a three-fold crisis the Nazis would never have formed a government.

A national crisis born out of a rebellion against injustices done to the German people in the settlement of Versailles;

An economic crisis brought about by the financial crash of 1929 and which produced more than seven million unemployed in Germany;

And a social crisis of deep dimensions which was characterized by the rebellion of the pauperized masses of the German middle classes who fought desperately against their proletarianization. A combination of these three factors was responsible for Hitler’s accession to power.


Today the world is quite different from that of the thirties. But some factors in the economic and social field bear astonishing resemblances. When hundreds of thousands of young people are without work in the streets, they become not only desperate but are attracted by romantic movements, some of which preach and use violence.

And if groups of young people assemble in wild bands with Nazi signs and beat up Turks — “Our Jews of today” as the West German magazine “Spiegel” reported recently — it is high time to check these developments and to act.

Finally, we have to support the State of Israel, so that it will always be capable of receiving Jews in need of asylum if somewhere a catastrophe occurs. This is the decisive difference between 1933 and 1983. Today there is a Jewish State. We have to watch over its safety.

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