Why are Nazi Camps Different from Other Camps? Part III

PART III OF A SIX-DAY SERIES

ALL TALK AND ZERO ACTION: THIRTY TWO NATIONS MEET AT THE 1938 EVIAN CONFERENCE AND FAIL TO PREVENT THE HOLOCAUST.

Even as violence against Jews in Nazi Germany before WWII escalated to extermination from street riots, boycotts of businesses, removal of Jews from professions, and racial Nuremberg Laws, it did not provoke the Jewish exodus that Hitler expected. Securing refuge in foreign lands was hindered by the apathy of nations to accept Jewish refugees. Many countries allied to or dependent on Germany even enacted their own versions of the Nuremberg Laws. By 1941, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Vichy France, and Croatia had all issued anti-Jewish legislation similar to the Nuremberg Laws in Germany. While Germany and allies were perfecting the system of executing Jews by building and expanding concentration camps throughout Europe, the nations at war with Germany were just meeting, talking, discussing, and giving the impression of concern for the Jewish plight.

The Evian Conference in July 1938 to address this refugee problem stands as a historically shameful display of self-interest for failing to prevent the imminent Holocaust. It was set up by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt after Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, bringing an additional 185,000 Jewish victims to the Nazi regime. About 32 nations, along with multiple Jewish and humanitarian organizations came together to show concern and discuss but not to solve the issue. The only exception was the Dominican Republic which deserves a special mention for opening its doors to 100,000 Jewish refugees. The United States who had limited immigration quotas since the 1920s did not change its laws, neither did the British Empire which instead of absorbing German Jews issued the White Paper in 1939 which limited Jewish immigration in Palestine to 75,000 Jews for five years to calm Arab anxiety over Zionism and fears of a potential Arab alliance with Nazis. Even Hitler gloated that “it is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people but remains hard-hearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them.”

In 1943, after word of the concentration camps went out into the world, the outcry from Jewish organizations, parliaments, churches, and humanitarian groups pressured the US and Britain for a solution. As a result, the two powers met in Bermuda from April 19 to April 30 in 1943 concocting a decision to reactivate a dormant organization —Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees — created during the Evian Conference of 1938 to organize emigration and resettlement. The vain results can be assessed in the continued extermination of Jews for two more years until the end of the war in 1945. The Bermuda Conference indecisiveness further shocked Jews who hoped world powers would finally take forceful action. However, its lackluster results drove many to despair and suicide, as in the case of a Polish Jew, Bund leader and Nazi hostage, Shmuel Zygelboym. After escaping from Poland, he went to Brussels, London, and the US to report the Nazi atrocities to leaders but found deaf ears. As a protest to the world’s apathy to the Jewish suffering and depression over the failure of the Bermuda Conference, he committed suicide, leaving a letter where he addresses the US President and the British Prime Minister with the last wish to save Jews from the extermination fields. This is an excerpt of that letter: “The responsibility of the crime of murdering all the Jewish population in Poland falls in the first instance on the perpetrators, but indirectly also it weighs on the whole of humanity, the peoples, and the governments of the Allied States which so far had made no effort toward a concrete action for the purpose of curtailing the crime. By my death, I wish to express my strongest protest against the inactivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of Jewish people.”

After the Holocaust, the term for apathetic people and nations was “Bystanders.” They earned it with their inaction and indifference towards millions of Nazi victims. Bystanders had a voice, but they were silent. Bystanders had the means to help, but they avoided its cost. Bystanders had personal or political power but they refused to use it. The one thing Bystanders had in common was excused for their lack of action: worldwide depression, economic hardship, isolationism policies, fixed immigration quotas, and political uncompromising. Bystanders’ indifference had its deep roots in underlying anti-semitic sentiments that made Jews the scapegoats for the wrongs of their societies that created negative stereotypes of Jews.

NAZIS ENACT LAWS FOR THE MAKING OF A DICTATOR

A series of new laws designed to give Hitler and his accomplices in the entire government absolute power sealed the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany.The Enabling Act gave Hitler full powers to enact new laws without the approval of the parliament which at the time consisted of a minority of Communists and a majority of Social Democrats. Both groups were intimidated and detained in Nazi camps to prevent them from voting against the Enabling Act. With this law, Hitler removed jurisdiction for political crimes from the Supreme Court and established the People’s Court in Berlin, appointing Nazi judges to ensure the outcome of his enemies’ trials. The Law Against the Founding of New Parties ensured that there will not be another party to challenge the Nazi party, prompting existing party members to flee the country, go underground, or dissolve. The Decree for the Protection of the People and the State restricted the right to assembly and freedom of speech and removed restraints on police investigations. It gave the Nazi government the authority to overrule state and local laws. The Preventive Police Action gave the Gestapo (Secret State Police) the right to incarcerate political opponents and the Kripo (Criminal Police) was created to investigate non-political opponents. This new Nazi police-state began incarcerating perceived or real enemies, dissolving political organizations, and suppressing publications. These were the laws that transitioned Germany from the Weimer Republic democracy (1918-1933) to a Nazi dictatorship (1933-1945).

With all the powers Hitler invested in himself as a dictator, he first proceeded to legalize his abominations in the boycott of Jewish employees in public services and various professions (April 1, 1933). He later escalated Jewish restrictions with the Nuremberg Laws, written and promoted by Wilhelm Stuckart — a Nazi lawyer and undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior — and enacted by Hitler on September 15, 1935. The laws which Hitler promoted at a Nazi rally in Nuremberg — hence the name —, were followed by a state-organized pogrom (November 9, 1938) known as Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass. This racial legislation distributed over five years not only stripped Jews of their civil rights and segregated them from society, but also served as the foundation of the racial institutions built to annihilate them: prison, labor, transit, concentration, and extermination camps. In them, six million Jews —more than any other minority —, were humiliated, starved, beaten, overworked, sterilized, experimented on, and gassed to death with a barbarism unlike any other the world had ever seen. As a result, the first Nuremberg Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, forbade marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Aryans; and the second Reich Citizenship Law declared that only Germans by blood were eligible to be Reich citizens. Briefly, the Reich Citizenship Law which denies citizenship to non-Aryans, defined who is a Jew by racial standards. A Jew is anyone who is descended from at least three full Jewish grandparents; a mishling or a Jew with mixed descent; he belonged to a Jewish community; he was married to a Jew; he is the offspring of intermarriage with a Jew; he is the product of extra-marital affairs with a Jew. The next Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, forbade marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Aryans. Overall, some four hundred more laws and decrees were enacted, leading to striping Jews of any citizenship rights and criminalizing their race, which eventually made it legal for the Nazi regime to convict, incarcerate, and exterminate Jews for defiling the “pure Aryan” blood.

This Nuremberg Laws became the Nazi benchmark for racial definitions. At the heart of the Laws was Hitler’s own theory of racial purity which he outlined in Mein Kampf: “Blood sin and desecration of the race are the original sins in this world and the end of a humanity which surrenders to it. A folkish state must therefore begin by raising marriage from the level of a continuous defilement of the race, and give it the consecration of an institution which is called upon to produce images of the Lord and not monstrosities halfway between man and ape.”

Following the Nuremberg Laws, the anti-semitic animus among ordinary citizens and the government turned into mob violence with state-sponsored repression known as Kristallnacht — the Night of the Broken Glass — on November 10, 1938. Nazis set on fire hundreds of synagogues, businesses, and Jewish institutions; windows were smashed by the thousands. About 100 Jews were killed, and 30,000 were arrested and interned in concentration camps.  Herman Goring, President of Prussia, said on the day after the pogroms: “I would not like to be a Jew in Germany.” In the aftermath, thousands of German and Austrian Jews left their homes in search of refuge somewhere in the world. But the nations did not open their gates to German Jews and they remained subject to Nazi torture.

The Nuremberg Laws undermined and erased German Jews’ efforts to become Germanized for the past two centuries after the Emancipation and the Enlightenment gave them individual rights, taking them out of the ghettoes and opening the doors to German society. Seeking acculturation, Jews gave up their religious practices, intermarried and converted to Christianity; they learned the language, translated religious books, into German, reformed Judaism to make it more Christian-like, created their version of the Enlightenment — Jewish Haskalah — and developed Wissenschaft des Judentums, the academic criticism of the Torah. Jews changed, but the Germans did not. Under the rise of Nazism, the pent up anti-semitic attitudes turned into a bloody frenzy of persecution and oppression. Kristallnacht shook the Jewish conscience and “an estimated five hundred thousand Jews left Germany during the prewar years, despite the uncertainties of life abroad, the Nazi levies on emigration, and the difficulties of securing visas. The remaining Jews —impoverished, isolated, and deprived — faced a desperate future trapped inside the Third Reich.”

About the Author
Hadassah Levinson is a Judaic Studies teacher at Jewish Day Schools and instructor for young adults at Jewish centers in Manhattan. She is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University's M.A. in Modern Jewish History and she is currently enrolled in graduate studies in American Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Touro College. She is an iFellows at the iCenter for Israel Education. She has prior graduate degrees in Communications (NYU '95); and Journalism and International Affairs (Columbia University 2000).
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