The Nazi Period, World War II and the Holocaust

How did the Nazis, within a short time, destroy general conventions of the modern world pertaining to humanity, law and culture?

During the twelve years between 1933 and 1945, a series of developments and vicissitudes completely altered the face of the country. The changes that Germany underwent during these years illustrate to this day that a high level of culture cannot necessarily prevent a takeover by barbaric forces, the likes of which may exist in any society. The persecution of the Jews, the silencing of pluralist views, and the conquest and devastating destruction of considerable parts of Europe in World War II superseded Germany’s image as a “land of the poets and thinkers” (Land der Dichter und Denker) and gave credence to the saying of the playwright Karl Kraus, that Germany had become the “land of judges and hangmen” (Land der Richter und Henker).

Even today, 70 years after the end of this terrible chapter in world history, this period remains a center of attention for many historians, sociologists, psychologists, artists, writers, and others. At the core of their interest is the question: How was this possible? How did the Nazis, within a short time, destroy general conventions of the modern world pertaining to humanity, law and culture? How can it be that a significant portion of the population supported this process, or at least, did not oppose it? There is no other period in German history that has been studied so intensively as the Third Reich, and there is no other period that has served as the basis for so many literary and cinematic works as the years of terror under Nazi rule.

The list of events that took place and the atrocities during these years is long and uncompromisingly horrifying. Adolf Hitler’s National-Socialist Party, though founded in the early 1920s, became significant towards the end of the decade. In the two elections of 1932 – in the shadow of mass unemployment and a deep economic crisis – the party received a majority of votes, but not an absolute majority. Following the party’s success, German president Paul von Hindenburg believed that there was no choice but to appoint Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, which he did at the end of January 1933. Immediately following the Nazi rise to power, they invested great effort in silencing democratic voices in Germany’s public sphere. In the March 1933 elections – the last to be held for many years – Hitler’s party again improved its lot, ultimately outlawing the existence of all competing parties and ideologies. Democrats and left-wingers were arrested and sometimes even murdered. Just a few months after the political ascendance of the Nazis, anti-Semitic persecution began: the firing of many Jewish state workers, the dismantling of Jewish businesses, the arrests of outstanding German Jewish figures, and other types of terror against the Jews. In response, approximately two-thirds of Germany’s Jewish population left the country for America, Palestine and other countries. German emigration to Palestine is known as the Fifth Aliyah. In Palestine, there was an immediate public response in the form of a ban on German goods, reflected in placards and demonstrations at that time.

During the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II, the Nazi Party succeeded in strengthening its status and buttressing its hold on the general population. Almost all realms of society were under centralized oversight. In autumn of 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws were passed. These laws determined who was a Jew and who was considered to be of Jewish extraction. Based on these definitions, civil rights were denied to all people who met the criteria, any connections with “Aryan” families were prohibited, and in effect, the lives of Jews thus became impossible. In 1936 the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, and the Nazis seized the opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the “new Germany” and to convince the nations of the world that Germany was “striving for peace”.

Two years later, Adolf Hitler decided to annex Austria to the Third Reich and from that time on Germany became known as “Greater Germany” (Großdeutschland). Most of the Austrian population excitedly welcomed German rule, as Austrians remembered well that Hitler was of Austrian descent. Austria’s Jews immediately began suffering from the Nazi oppression. In September 1938, Hitler received the approval of France and Germany to also annex Sudetenland (most of whose population was German), which until then had been part of Czechoslovakia. Forces from the West thus hoped to satisfy Hitler’s aspirations and to preserve world peace, the end of which had already been decided upon in Berlin long before. The annexation of all of Bohemia in March 1939 was just another step towards another world war, which came in September 1939 with the Germany’s invasion of Poland.

The history of the war is well-known: The Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) conquered and destroyed large parts of the world; more than 50 million people paid with their lives, including six million Jews who were victims of the Holocaust. Ultimately, for the second time in 27 years, Germany was unconditionally defeated. After almost six years of brutal war, the Allies had defeated the Axis armies, liberating conquered areas, and ultimately taking control of Germany itself, which had, once again, been devastated and destroyed.

The Aliyah of Central European Jews (the “Yekkim”) and the “German Immigrants’ Association News”

In the great frenzy that ensued, many Jews who lived on German territory understood that their lives and property were in imminent danger, and that they had to find alternatives to carry on living

German Immigrants’ Association News

​Until the Nazi rise to power, some half a million Jews lived in Germany, over 150,000 of them in Berlin alone. Most found their place in society-at-large and took part in economy, politics, science, and of course German culture, both as producers of culture (authors, journalists, musicians, artists, etc.) and consumers of culture of all types. The Zionist movement found it difficult to penetrate German-Jewish society, since most of it was well established; and Zionist groups in Germany never became mass movements.

The picture changed in 1933, when the Nazis rose to power. The blatant anti-Semitism and the unbridled Nazi aggression (across large segments of German society) made it clear to German Jews that their integration into the greater society was only a brief episode that was drawing to an end with the political change.

In the great frenzy that ensued, many Jews who lived on German territory understood that their lives and property were in imminent danger, and that they had to find alternatives to carry on living. Approximately one half of Germany’s Jewish population emigrated from Germany to other countries, most to the United States, but many also moved to Israel as part of what is known as “the fifth Aliyah.” It is estimated that some 60,000 German immigrants came to Eretz Israel as part of this wave of immigration, in addition to 30,000 from other German-speaking areas, primarily Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Their situation in Eretz Israel was also quite difficult: the new climate, the language unfamiliar to most of them, the reservations of many locals from German language and culture due to the Nazi acts, and the unsuitable professions of many (a great deal of them were active in the fields of science, the humanities and culture) – all posed severe problems for many of the “Yekkim”, as they were called then and to this day. Their habits, style of dress, precision in all that related to timeliness, and their idiosyncratic humor, attracted much derisive humor. Tragically, while in Germany they were always considered Jews, in Eretz Israel they were considered “Germans.”

The German immigrants in pre-State Israeli society were quite diverse: the majority played a role in the sciences, arts and culture, unsurprisingly, but among them were also industrialists and entrepreneurs (the founders of companies including “Asis”, “Strauss” and others), publishers (e.g. the Schocken family), architects, (Richard Kaufmann and others from the famous Bauhaus movement). In many cases, however, the Yekkim were forced to find their place in the new society in Israel like all of the other immigrants, in professions in which they weren’t trained, while living in crowded housing and facing the large and small cultural difficulties that awaited all of the immigrants in their everyday lives.

The Yekkim settled in a number of cities and other types of localities: around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (many of them in the Rechavia neighborhood), but also in the city of Nahariya, in Kfar Shmaryahu near Herzliya, and in other locations. The Rechavia neighborhood of Jerusalem was planned by the architect Richard Kaufmann beginning in the 1920s. It was inhabited by distinguished academics, including many lecturers from The Hebrew University: Gershom Scholem, Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, Akiva Ernst Simon, the well-known architect Erich Mendelsohn (who lived in the neighborhood for a few years only, in the 1930s) as well as Zalman Schocken, the owner of a successful department store chain in Germany and a publishing house on his name, that exists to this day.

With the aliyah of the “Yekkim,” new newspapers and periodicals in German were established. For example, the newspaper Yediot Hadashot (that later assumed the name Hadashot Yisrael), and the periodical Yediot Hitachdut Olei Germania (Mitteilungsblatt der Hitachduth Olei Germania, known also, simply, as MB). This publication was founded in 1933 and exists to this day, and the initials still appear on the cover, but the name has changed to Yakinton (hyacinth). Beginning with the first edition, it featured texts both in German and in Hebrew, at first with German dominating, while today, with the proportions have reversed. For many years, firms and businesses advertised in Yediot, mainly those owned by German immigrants or relevant to the German immigrant community. It is interesting to note that during the publication’s first years, even the Templar Bank in Palestine saw fit to advertise its services in this periodical, even though the orientation of many Templars – German-Protestant settlers who had no relationship with Judaism – was pro-Nazi. Other companies, some known to this day, already advertised there, in German of course, such as the “Asis” company.

“Transfer Agreement” and the Boycott of German Goods

Jewish organizations appealed to the public to forgo the purchase of goods from Germany

Beginning in the spring of 1933, objections began surfacing against the procurement of German goods. Jewish organizations appealed to the public to forgo the purchase of goods from Germany through declarations and placards, with the goal of striking a blow at the German economy, and in this manner, to the power of the Nazis who had recently taken power. The anti-German boycott was initiated following the Nazi boycott initiated on April 1, 1933, against Jewish businesses in Germany. Following this, the Jewish organizations in various countries called for a boycott of German products available around the world, including in Palestine. The boycott in Palestine itself would have little effect on the German economy, but the joint effort in various countries, including the United States, had an impact, although it did not affect Nazi policy towards German Jewry.

During this same period, German products were considered to be of particularly fine quality. Germany was already at the time a highly industrialized nation and its products were marketed internationally. Importers and retailers in Palestine sought to sell products from German factories and promoted them through ads and placards, some in Hebrew and some in Hebrew and German. The expertise of German factories in the production of machines and technical products guaranteed great success for products, especially in Palestine of the 1930s, where many branches of local industry were just beginning to develop. Despite the boycott, there were some German products sold in stores in Palestine, such as medicines manufactured by Bayer and photographic equipment manufactured by AGFA, that were promoted in the newspapers and other advertising venues (for example, in Purim celebration programming in Tel Aviv).

Following the call for a boycott – mainly instigated by the Revisionist camp – leaders of the Yishuv faced a difficult dilemma. At that time (August 25, 1933), a “transfer agreement” was signed with the German Nazi government. Both parties had a vested interest in the agreement. The Nazi leaders hoped that through it they could minimize the worldwide boycott on German products. During these years, the Nazi leaders were still of the opinion that they should promote voluntary Jewish emigration from Germany in order to “be rid” of the “Jewish problem.” On its part, the Jewish side hoped that the agreement would enable German Jews who wanted to immigrate to Palestine to bring with them a more significant portion of their possessions.

In 1931, following the global economic crisis, those who emigrated from Germany were forced to pay exceedingly high taxes for the transfer of their property to points abroad; this policy remained in effect during the Nazi period. As part of the agreement, German Jewry was given the option of depositing a minimum of 1,000 lira in a German bank, and with the money, German products were purchased for export to Palestine.

In Israel, the importers sold the German products and deposited the funds in a bank account, from which a significant sum was returned to the immigrants on their arrival. It is estimated that tens of thousands of German emigrants did just this in order to prevent simply giving their capital to the Nazi German tax authorities. Inevitably, the agreement and its results, i.e. the import of German products to Palestine during the time of the boycott – aroused a stormy debate. On the one hand, there was severe opposition to the transfer agreement, but on the other, there were also voices of support, for example, on the part of the German Olim Association, which was afraid to negatively impact the transfer of property belonging to German Jews who had not yet come on Aliyah.

Public activity surrounding the boycott continued throughout the 1930s, and the transfer agreement remained in effect during these years. It is estimated that some 140 million German marks were transferred by this mechanism to Palestine until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Economically, the transfer agreement was a great success, both in terms of German emigrants and for the Palestinian economy. The negotiator for the Jewish side was Haim Arlozorov, but he was murdered in Tel Aviv before the agreement was signed. The circumstances of the murder and its motives are to this day not entirely clear, but there is a possibility that the motive was related to Arlozorov’s role in the Negotiations with the German-Nazi side.

Termination of Employment Letter to Ladislaus Farkas from Fritz Haber

Over 100 scientists were forced to leave large research institutes beginning in 1933, most due to their Jewish origins

In 1911, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the support of scientific research was founded in Berlin. The goal of the society was to encourage research in various fields, mainly the natural sciences. As was the practice at that time, the society was named after the German Kaiser Wilhelm, patron of the initiative. Although Kaiser Wilhelm resigned in 1918 and left Germany, the society and its network of institutes continued to bear his name until after World War II. The first two institutes established were the institute for chemistry and the institute for physical chemistry and electrochemistry, both in Berlin.

The various research projects were usually financed through private donations, to no small degree from wealthy German Jews, while the state paid the researchers’ salaries. The researchers had the special privilege of investing all of their time in research alone, and were not required to teach in any academic institution.

Over the years, additional research institutes were established, ultimately totaling 28 different institutes, a substantial portion of which were in Berlin, but also in other German cities.

Many Jews were among the outstanding researchers in these institutes. Among the well known names were Albert Einstein, Karl Neuberg and Max Bergmann, but also Fritz Haber and Laudislaus Farkas. The story of these two scientists is an example of the fate of over 100 scientists who were forced to leave large research institutes beginning in 1933, most due to their Jewish origins, but also sometimes as a result of their political beliefs.

Fritz Haber, Ladislaus Farkas

The first director of the institute for physical chemistry and electrochemistry was Jewish chemist Fritz Haber (1868-1934). While Haber was one of the most gifted scientists in his field, as a Jew, he was unable to advance in his academic career, and as a result, in 1892, he converted to Christianity. One of Haber’s great scientific achievements was discovering how to create ammonia through the synthesis of hydrogen and nitrogen, a discovery that was a breakthrough for the mass production of agricultural fertilizers, but also enabled the relatively simple production of explosives for military use. Following the discovery of nitrogen fixation, Haber won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1919, despite his more recent developments in the means of chemical warfare, which were widely used in the battles of World War I, as a result of which tens of thousands of British and French soldiers were killed. Haber’s wife, chemist Clara Immerwahr, could not make peace with her husband’s role in the development of these means of warfare in his institute in Berlin, and took her own life in 1915.

In the framework of the institute for physical chemistry and electrochemistry, Fritz Haber gave young and talented scientists a place to work and opportunities to conduct research in their fields. One was the chemist Laudislaus Farkas (1904-1948), descendant of a Jewish family from Hungary. In 1928, Farkas completed his studies in Berlin and immediately joined the staff of scientists in Haber’s institute. The talented scientist was greatly admired by the director of the institute.

Following the Nazi rise to power in January 1933, all members of the academic staffs of German academic institutions were fired already in the spring of that year. As director of the institute, Fritz Haber was forced to fire the Jewish researchers and other Jewish employees from their jobs. This can be seen from his letter of dismissal to Laudislaus Farkas on April 29, 1933. In the letter, whose tone is very personal, Haber expresses his deep regret that he is being forced to take such a step, and explains that he has no choice, given the new legislation. A day later, Haber met with the president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, physicist Max Planck, and submitted his resignation from the directorship of the institute. Planck tried to convince Haber to remain in his job, but Haber explained that under the new circumstances, he was unable to continue in his research, since his very work was affected by racist considerations. Haber left Germany. Already in 1933 he was appointed as a professor at Cambridge University in England, but the drastic change in his life led to a deterioration in his health, and the famous chemist died in January 1934 at a Swiss sanatorium.

Termination of Employment Letter to Farkas from Haber

Laudislaus Farkas also emigrated from Germany, initially to England, but in 1936 he was awarded a professorship at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in physical chemistry. Under his influence, this field began to develop in Israel, and Farkas is considered the father of this science in Israel. On December 30, 1948, when Farkas was en route to a work trip in the United States, his airplane crashed over Italy, and the young scientist met his death. His personal archive is located in the archival collection of the National Library.