The B'nai B'rith encounters Nazi Germany, 1933.
Adolf Hitler ascended to power in Germany on January 30, 1933, when President Paul von Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor of the Reich. He now had the opportunity to implement his racial ideology and worldview regarding Jews. At that time, Germany's Jewish population numbered 525,000 out of a general population of 67 million. After the March 5 Reichstag elections, the new government removed the constraints on violence against Jews, and assaults on Jewish businesses and vicious beatings of Jews by Nazi thugs became commonplace. On March 20, the German government established the first concentration camp, Dachau, near Munich. On April 1, the government launched an official boycott of Jewish doctors, lawyers, and merchants. Because of international outrage, Hitler limited the boycott to one day. On April 7, Hitler approved decrees banning Jews and other non-Aryans from the practice of law and from jobs in the civil service, and forced Jewish government employees to retire. On April 11, the government issued a decree defining a non-Aryan as a person "who is descended from non-Aryan, especially Jewish parents or grandparents. This holds true even if one parent or grandparent is of non-Aryan descent. This premise especially obtains if one parent or grandparent was of Jewish faith." On May 10, Jewish and other books deemed of "un-German spirit," were burned in public bonfires in Berlin and university towns. The books included works by Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Emile Zola, H.G. Wells, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, and others. In September, Jews were banned from the fields of journalism, art, literature, music, broadcasting, and theater. (1)
Germany's Jews reacted to these events with alarm and disbelief. The elite among them experienced an especially deep dismay. They assumed that their economic and social position and contributions to German life and culture would shield them from danger. It did not. Most members of the B'nai B'rith lodges came from this class. As such, they faced an additional threat: the Nazi press reported that the government placed "the B'nai B'rith and similar lodges and associations with foreign ties" under special political observation because "these organizations are subsidized by foreign capital, spent in the effort to spread pacifism among the German people whose martial spirit they may weaken with their brotherhood-of-man ideas." (2)
The Nazis viewed the B'nai B'rith and its members as subversives and part of world Jewry's conspiracy to destroy the Aryan race and rule the world. Thus they focused on destroying them. Its main office in Berlin was often searched, and in smaller cities the Gestapo placed officers of the B'nai B'rith under constant surveillance. Heinrich Himmler justified the terror measures undertaken by the Nazis against them as serving the struggle against "the subversive activities of purely Jewish Lodges and organizations." In 1933, his primary target was the B'nai B'rith. (3) In July 1933, an incident occurred in Nuremberg, Germany that illustrated the kind of "special" treatment B'nai B'rith members could expect. Alfred Cohen, president of the International Order of B'nai B'rith, learned of this occurrence through a letter sent to him by Walter Freudenthal, a physician and B'nai B'rith member living in New Rochelle, New York. Freudenthal's letter included a report given to him by a German B'nai B'rith member who just arrived in the United States. Freudenthal vouches that the newcomer "is absolutely trustworthy." The details in the report shocked and deeply distressed Cohen.
You have heard no doubt about the 20lh of July, 1933 affair in Niirnberg where the Nazis arrested the 300 most prominent Jews of the congregation.
The excuse for the arrest of these Jews has been that they are members of the B'nai B'rith lodge. The treatment which has been accorded to these men is so horrible that I hate to repeat all details. Sixty, seventy, and eighty year old men; Doctors, lawyers, and businessmen have been forced to kneel down for an hour and bite the grass off with their teeth. After this they were forced to run for an hour or an hour and a half on one of the hottest days. All this has not been done by the regular police, but by some Nazi storm troopers. When all this was over, they were examined and were told, 'Now you can go home, but if you mention anything in public, we will go after you and kill you.' This was done by Nazi storm troopers. The Police did nothing to relieve the situation. (4)
The cruel and humiliating behavior of the storm troopers exemplifies the kind of treatment B'nai B'rith members and other Jews would be subjected to by the German government.
A few days later, another report to Alfred Cohen supplied additional details about the incident. It related that the arrested men were "compelled to parade through the streets of the city before large crowds who gathered to watch the spectacle of their Jewish neighbors being humiliated." The report states that the B'nai B'rith Jews were arrested because of "the preposterous charge that the B'nai B'rith was fomenting a revolution against the Nazi government." Afterward, none of the men were willing to talk to reporters. (5)
It was once assumed that after Hitler's accession to power, the general press served as the main source of information about the Nazi government for the Jewish leadership in America as well as for the public. For the first few weeks, this may have been so. But soon Jewish leaders began to get more detailed and explicit information about Nazi actions against Jews through direct contact with the victims. The Berlin office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which was in close contact with needy Jews, served as one source. Another major source was the authentic letters that German Jews sent to relatives and major Jewish organizations in the United States. (6)
The B'nai B'rith was one of major beneficiaries of these letters. German B'nai B'rith members wrote personal and emotional letters to relatives living in the United States, voicing their fears and describing the nightmare they found themselves in. The letters were originally written in English or translated from the German into English at the B'nai B'rith office. The letters movingly express the consternation and terror the writers felt as their world collapsed. The letters quoted here are from those sent directly or forwarded to the American B'nai B'rith offices in Cincinnati. Because the letters are reliable testimonies and written from the heart, they add a personal and intimate dimension to our knowledge of what B'nai B'rith members and other Jews in Germany were undergoing.
The contents of these letters had a strong affect on America's B'nai B'rith executives and influenced what they, in turn, communicated to their colleagues and their general membership. The correspondence of these executives allow us to gain a deeper understanding of their distress and the terrible predicament they faced in deciding how to respond to what the Nazis inflicted on their brethren. The German Jewish letters together with the B'nai B'rith executives' letters highlight the anguish of both groups during the initial months of Hitler's regime.
The B'nai B'rith
The B'nai B'rith (Sons of the Covenant) Order was established by twelve young German Jewish men in New York in 1843. Four of the founders had been members of the Freemasons or the Odd Fellows. But when these organizations began to systematically reject Jewish applicants, these men decided to create a Jewish fraternal organization modeled on the Masons. In its early years, the B'nai B'rith articulated a concept of Jewish ness that existed separate from the synagogues and rabbinic authority. As enunciated by these founders, they wanted "to show, by means of honor, good manners, support of public welfare, respect for the law, our love of our homeland [USA], that Judaism corresponds with the principle of pure ethics and humanity." According to the historian Deborah Dash Moore, the organization proclaimed "a bold new vision of Jewish identity." Consequently, the B'nai B'rith represented the "first secular Jewish organization in the United States." In later years, many non-religious Jews identified as Jews solely through their membership in the B'nai B'rith. (7)
B'nai B'rith's goals encompassed values of humanity, tolerance, and charity, and sought to unify Jewish society under the ethical and intellectual values of Judaism. B'nai B'rith chapters were named "Lodges," and its members referred to as "brethren." A country with more than one chapter was called a "District." The American B'nai B'rith was composed mostly of Jews of German descent, as were the national order's executives. Until 1938, when Henry Monsky, a man of eastern European Jewish descent, became president, all of the organization's national presidents were of German Jewish descent. In 1933, the American membership totaled 30,000, making it the largest Jewish fraternal organization in the United States. (8)
The history of the B'nai B'rith in Germany began in 1882. That year a number of Jewish men established the country's first B'nai B'rith Lodge in Berlin. They did so as a consequence of the rising wave of antisemitism among the populace and in fraternal organizations. By 1880, an antisemitic movement had appeared in Germany. The movement gained impetus from Kaiser Wilhelm's court preacher Adolph Stocker, who founded the country's first antisemitic political party, the Christian Social Party, in 1878. His cause acquired an aura of respectability through the articles of the prominent academic historian and public figure, Heinrich von Treitschke, who warned against Jewish dominance in German life and asserted that "the Jews are our misfortune." At the same time, the radical publicist and journalist Wilhelm Marr endowed the movement with a new term, "antisemitism," and co-founded the League of Antisemites in 1879. By 1885, twelve additional German B'nai B'rith Lodges had been established. (9)
From 1882 to 1925, most German B'nai B'rith members belonged to business, industry, and the legal and medical professions. In general, B'nai B'rith membership made up the most influential economic and social elite within European Jewish society. Many of the leading personalities in Jewish life, regardless of their political position, were members. At the time of the Berlin Lodge's founding, the largest and wealthiest German Jewish elite lived in Berlin and occupied an important position in the city's cultural and intellectual life. By 1925, Germany contained 107 Lodges with 15,278 members. However, as a result of the country's deteriorating economic situation, by 1933 B'nai B'rith membership declined to 13,000. Rabbi Leo Baeck served as president of the German District B'nai B'rith from 1925 to 1937, when the Nazis disbanded the organization. (10)
Reaction of German B'nai B'rith Members to Hitler's Policies Against Jews
The ongoing violence, April boycott, and stringent decrees and regulations led members of Germany's B'nai B'rith Lodges to write letters to their relatives in the United States describing the situation in Germany and their reaction to it. Some of the letters, originally written to family members, later found their way to the B'nai B'rith's American headquarters. Other letters were written directly to the organization's American executives. The letters offer insights on how the Nazi campaign affected the writers, their families, and friends. The letters vividly convey the alarm, disbelief, and anxiety about the future that they and other German Jews of their class felt as they saw their lives and communities being destroyed. The letters also express the uneasiness and insecurity felt by Jews who knew that they and others were under constant suspicion and surveillance.
In a letter, written in April 1933 by an elderly physician to his daughter living in the United States, he expresses his anguish, disillusionment, and anger at what happened to him and those in his profession.
I myself face a complete breakdown of my nerves. I surely could not have managed to keep quiet in case of a controversy. What that would have meant, other doctors have found out with their lives. Now after a few days in Paris where people do not look at you with eyes of hatred, where they are friendly and human, I can breathe again, which I could not do lately at home.
And for that I had to lose my father in the war; for that I had to leave wife and children to risk my life as a volunteer during the war. I had to lose everything and build up after the war an existence so that my family would not suffer hunger. For that I was proud when I was sixty years old to have only few enemies and many friends and to enjoy reputation and esteem--to now end my life as a second grade citizen.... Now in cold reasoning hundreds of thousands of Jews are being destroyed spiritually, physically, morally and now finally economically. And even if this present storm should subside, it will break out time and again as soon as economic difficulties make Hitler's success impossible. You cannot allow a big party of untamed youth to shout continuously 'perish Jews.' Then Jews simply have to perish. That is what these brutal elements now demand. I bespeak you to destroy this letter because I do not wish to contribute one iota lest Germany's reputation should be damaged by me. Indeed thanks to my friends and my position, I have not received anything but good from Germany so that I now do not wish to seem ungrateful. But now unfortunately everything is dark. And in this spirit I just wanted to open my sick heart to you to relieve myself. But I ask you to please be careful so that not through you anything may become known. For every attack in foreign countries reacts in Germany on its Jewish citizens. They alone have to suffer for what others sin.... Finally, be very careful when you write to us because after the inquiry at the American consulate every one of your letters has been opened.
Your Father (11)
No doubt the letter writer was in contact with colleagues and friends, and certainly knew about the attacks and decrees against Jews. His letter illustrates the personal trauma, bitterness, and fear felt by many German Jewish professionals who saw their lives and careers shattered after Hitler came to power. It illustrates the extreme caution they had to exercise when protesting or voicing criticism of the government, since doing so could cost them their life. The writer also reminds his daughter to exercise care in what she writes because Germany's Jews are under constant surveillance. He explains that her letters are being opened after he made certain inquiries at the American embassy. He also mentions the unpleasant truth that German Jews will pay a heavy price for every negative action against Germany instigated by Jews living abroad. This comment reflects the harsh reality that the German government blamed Germany's Jews for anti-German rallies and other activities undertaken by their brethren in other countries. He purposely did not date or sign the letter, and mailed it from Paris where he was on a trip with his wife. (12) In another letter, dated March 23, 1933, the wife of a physician and B'nai B'rith member in Vienna writes to her cousin in the United States. Although she lives in Vienna, she describes the conditions in Germany that affect Jews of the "intellectual" class. She asks her cousin to "please consider this letter as one from my husband, whose secretary and spokesman I have become in this emergency." The cousin later brought this letter to the B'nai B'rith office.
Aside from the daily violence and the daily threats and menaces of more persecutions to come, which the highest officials have openly said, we can report that the most dangerous threat of all which over-hangs German Jews is as follows: (my report is very condensed and stresses the situation of the intellectual workers, since my husband is a physician).
All Jews exercising so-called 'free vocations' as lawyers, physicians, artists, etc. are placed under what is called 'exception rules.' In plain words, that means that Jewish lawyers are not allowed to plead cases before German law courts, that Jewish doctors have been removed from the staffs of hospitals and cooperative health institutions more or less violently, and the actors and orchestra leaders are no longer permitted to act or to lead....A highly organized boycott system is being carried out against Jewish tradesmen of all kinds so that our coreligionists in Germany find it absolutely impossible to earn a living.....
I beg of you, dear cousin Severna, to hand this S.O.S. communication to the authority you think should see it. For the sake of caution I am not mentioning my address in this letter. Should you be unable to find it, I am sure your father will have it. I will not write you any personal news for we feel so depressed and downhearted.... When replying, please be very careful not to be too explicit and keep in mind the fact that the letter will possibly be opened and read by officials. (13)
As in the first letter, the writer of this letter is also afraid to write her address. She is worried that German officials may trace the letter to her and she and her family will be in danger for what she wrote.
Another wife of a Berlin physician and B'nai B'rith member wrote a letter to a relative in the United States that describes her experience of witnessing the April i national German boycott against Jews in Berlin. This letter was personally handed to Richard Gutstadt, Director of the B'nai B'rith National Bureau of Membership, by a Rabbi Liebman. Gutsdat forwarded the letter to Isaac Max Rubinow, secretary of the American B'nai B'rith, and cautioned him that "the name of the writer cannot be divulged nor can the method of its evasion of the Nazi censorship." He assures Rubinow that "all the facts herein are absolutely authentic." Rubinow passed the letter on to Alfred Cohen. (14)
I wanted to see for myself just what was happening and so went down the Kurfurstendam [sic]--a street much like 5th Ave. in N.Y.--very long, block after block of both large and small exclusive shops interspersed by large coffee houses and movies. Here on a Sat. afternoon it is a sort of promenade and window shopping, but the site that met one's eyes yesterday! On the large windows of all shops bearing even the semblance of a Jewish name these brown shirts had pasted plain colored posters about 3 feet long bearing the words, 'Deutsche Whart Euch--Kauft nicht bei Juden' (Germans beware, do not buy from Jews). On office buildings where Jewish lawyers, notaries, or doctors have their small signs... they smeared over the signs of the Jews and pasted smaller placards. 'Jews---geht nicht hier' (Jews do not enter).... A bunch of these troopers--all young smart alecks and very important--harassed Jewish shopkeepers all day long. These young devils like a lot of hungry wolves let loose... with buckets filled with red paint and with large paint brushes, rushed from one shop window to another and not satisfied with having put huge posters against the Jews thereon, printed in huge letters at the side of the posters JUDE. These were followed by other troops with white paint buckets who hastily painted a large shield of David [underlined in the original] on the same windows....Up and down these devils flew, across the wide streets over to the opposite side while the crowds of people (there was scarcely a Jew to be seen on the streets, they were mostly at home, being afraid to venture out), looked on, some with serious faces--many (and mostly the bourgeois type, the kind of women one could imagine in France during the revolution) grinning and smiling approvingly as though it was a huge joke! Can you imagine my feeling?... Hundreds and hundreds of stores, delicatessen shops, the finest Berlin has, were all, without exception, smeared up in this way. And what a sight! And on many, oh so many, in large white letters they printed 'Ich bin Jude' [I am a Jew]. Well, my dears, my heart ached and bled and it was all I could do to keep the tears back....Throughout the entire breath and length of this long, long, Kurfurstendam we never saw one single policeman [underlined in the original], not one officer of the law to protect any outrage that might have occurred...Can you imagine a civilized land condoning such atrocities? Can you imagine in the twentieth century that troops of young snips should have the right to perpetuate such horrible deeds as the smearing of respectable shops with all these dirty epithets? Juda-Juda everywhere. Kauft nicht bei Juden-kauft nur bei Deutsche. (Don't buy from Jews buy only from Germans)
Jews who fought and died for their Fatherland should not be looked upon as Germans? And then, when one thought they had finished with their dirty work---to see them wild with glee and victory heaped upon helpless Jews, (and oh how helpless) this handful of people is against the infamous mob backed by the government of tyrants and Jew haters--to add the finishing touch---the shield of David painted in white on all the windows. Well, that Shield has led Jews throughout centuries and protected them from greater atrocities than those that are being heaped on them today by this barbarous country.... God has never left us yet and my faith in Him has never been shaken.
The blood-thirsting army which Hitler and his cohorts have been building up have had their first outlet... The protests of the Jews in the foreign countries played right into their hands and they used their already prepared and fully organized 'boycott' as THEIR protest to the lies [underlined in the original] about Germany, which, as they claimed, the Jews over here broadcast. These demons say, 'this is your own work--now take your medicine.' ... I am now worried until Pesach is over, for I can't help thinking in the face of the placards announcing that the Jews need Christian blood for the Passover feast, that some horrible thing is brewing. Let us hope not....I doubt if anything I have written you in such minute detail will come into the press, and that is why I have written my personal account of it.
They claim that all this was done in retaliation of what was done to Germany in the foreign countries. Could any country, in 48 hours, have a complete list of every Jewish shop in Germany? This mind you included seamstresses, little shoemakers, tiny shops in basements that sell vegetables---and all this in the smallest hamlets and towns. You have no idea how this was organized to the nth degree. And then these fiends say, it was 'in retaliation of the boycott instituted by Jews alone.' And that therefore the Jews here must suffer....
The letter makes evident that the writer is a member of the middle or upper middle class. She wrote the letter in English and translated the German phrases she uses into English. The shock she evinces relates to the fact that she never encountered this kind of action and violence against Jews of her standing and class. She cannot fathom that such an action took place in an upscale district of Berlin and not in some lower class and poor area of the city. She fears that this is not the end, but that the government has plans for additional and more horrible actions against the Jews.
Reaction by the American B'nai B'rith
In May 1933, B'nai B'rith headquarters received a detailed report outlining the "position of the Jews in Germany and their disfranchisement." The anonymous writer recognized the dire situation of the Jews and admits being pessimistic about the future. The writer notes that an exodus of Jews from Germany has begun. Many of those who had connections and money could and did leave. In 1933, approximately 37,000 Jews left Germany. (15)
The position changes from day to day. But even if one adopts the most sober view, the tragedy is such that one fears to consider its issue. There is one thing that can definitely be said, and that is that the conditions for the Jews, as far as one can judge from present viewpoints, will not improve; on the contrary, they must become worse, for--as the present-day official German government circles openly declare--'We are only at the beginning of the measures against the Jews.' Therefore, one must unfortunately take into consideration that we are likewise facing the beginning of a big exodus. The flight now is merely a small commencement....Passing over the terrible outrages against the Jews, there are, of course still some isolated cases, and still no Jew in any way conspicuous can sleep quietly in his bed. (16)
In addition to the letters and memos sent from Germany to the American headquarters, the B'nai B'rith Magazine published articles and reports that kept the Order's members abreast of the terrible situation confronting Germany's Jews. David Ewen, an author of numerous books about music, wrote a number of pieces in the magazine entitled An American Jew in Naziland. He related that he went to Germany "to study first-hand conditions at the present moment [italics in the original] four months after Hitler's rise to power." He related what he witnessed and heard on his travels in Germany. He spoke with non-Jewish Germans and German Jews who were willing to talk to him. He concluded, "that the German Jews spend sleepless nights behind heavily bolted doors .... I found that the Jews of Germany are so terrorized that they have begun to fear their own shadows." He spent one evening with a Jewish family in Berlin whose eldest son had been "murdered in cold blood in the forests of Grunewald by the Nazis" and "hung upon a tree to rot." The son who told him about this tragedy said, "If it ever should come out that I said this to you, an American, then God pity me and my family!" Another time, he rode on a train with a Nazi trooper. The trooper told him that "there exist prison-camps for Jews in deserted sections of the country, where thousands are today imprisoned under the most gruesome circumstances." The trooper told him this "with an undisguised pride and triumph in his voice, as though he were telling me of a most heroic achievement!" (17)
A number of non-Jews who traveled through Germany also kept the Order and its members cognizant of Nazi actions against Germany's Jews. Pierre van Passen, a Canadian-American journalist and author, worked as the foreign correspondent for the New York Evening World from 1924-1931, and then for the Toronto Star. A non-Jew, he visited Germany quite often and had many German Jewish friends and contacts in the German government. Thus, he was very aware of Nazi actions against Jews. From June through October 1933, he wrote a series of articles in the B'nai B'rith Magazine describing what he saw and heard. In July 1933, he sent a personal letter to Isaac Rubinow. In it, he details what he learned in interviews with German officials and in clandestine meetings with German Jews. He concludes his letter to Rubinow by saying, "From what I learn, and I don't like to say it to a Jew, the worst is yet to come. The Jews have simply to make up their minds in America to get all [underlined in the original] Jews out of Germany. If this is not done, they will systematically be starved and done away with. We must abandon hope that Hitler will relent." (18)
The American historian and Columbia University professor, Harry Elmer Barnes, also contributed a piece to the magazine. Titled "Hitler Imperils Germany," he provided a brief historical survey of anti-semitic ideology in nineteenth century Germany. At the end of the article, Barnes predicted that "Hitler's accession to power will be an unmitigated disaster to Germany and the world." (19)
Every issue of the magazine also contained editorials or comments by Alfred Cohen in his column, "The President's Page," about the situation in Germany. Initially, he remained optimistic and tried to exude confidence that the German people would eventually reject Hitler, and the country would return to its liberal and humane past. In his May column, he wrote, "In a month or in a year a nation cannot convert itself from a power for the just and good and virtuous to one of mere might and brutality and injustice." And despite the present humiliation and degradation of that country's Jews, "our trust is in Germany's recovery of its better self." (20)
The American movement to boycott German goods and services began as part of spontaneous worldwide efforts to take some action against Germany because of Nazi assaults against the Jews in March 1933. The organized American Jewish community was not united in their position concerning protests and a boycott against Germany. The American Jewish Congress, Zionists, and Jewish labor organizations favored mass public protests and an economic boycott against Germany. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the B'nai B'rith favored quiet diplomacy and petitions asking the American government to protest to the German government about their attacks on Jews. They were the most persistent Jewish organizations in urging the United States to intercede diplomatically with Germany. From 1933 on, they bombarded the State Department with pleas for an official protest to the German government.
The differing approaches to protests and boycotts also reflected the ethnic composition of the two groups and the tension between them. The constituency of the American Jewish Congress, Zionists, and Jewish labor groups were primarily Jews of eastern European extraction. They remembered and resented the patronizing attitude, which the German Jewish establishment displayed toward them, the ostjuden [eastern European Jews]. The B'nai B'rith and AJC were composed of Jews of German descent. Many of them had relatives in Germany and many of them still admired and felt connected to German culture. They reasoned that mass public protests and a boycott would provide a pretext for the German government to retaliate against that country's Jews. They also feared that mass protests might alienate gentile Americans, because many Americans viewed what was going on in Germany as a concern of Germany alone. Of all the groups, only the B'nai B'rith had thousands of members in Germany and their concern for them reflected their attitude toward the boycott and mass demonstrations. (21)
The economic depression and America's experience in WWI put Americans in a pacifistic and isolationist mood. Added to this was American Jewry's concern that this would lead to an increase in American anti-semitism. Henry Ford's 1920-1922 libelous anti-Jewish campaign in his Dearborn Independent newspaper and his publication and distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was still fresh in the minds of many American Jews. And in February 1933 William Dudley Pelley, who saw himself as the American fiibrer, founded his virulently antisemitic Silver Shirt Legion. This and other American antisemitic groups that sprung up caused American Jews to fear that what was happening in Germany could happen in America as well. This fear was reinforced by an antisemitic speech delivered in the United States House of Representatives by Louis T. McFadden, Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. In his speech, McFadden quoted from the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion and from anti-Jewish articles published in the Dearborn Independent. His speech was later reprinted and distributed by a number of antisemitic organizations in the United States. (22)
For their part, Germany's B'nai B'rith members strongly opposed the American B'nai B'rith being involved in anti-German activities in the United States. They were terrified that this would incite additional Nazi actions against them and all German Jews, and sent numerous messages from confidential sources as well as cables to the American B'nai B'rith Executive Committee imploring B'nai B'rith members to desist from engaging in protest or boycott action. One such telegram pled, "By all means, avoid participation in actions." (23)
B'nai B'rith's American leaders were very much influenced by the wishes of the German B'nai B'rith lodges. To ascertain the German lodges' position Alfred Cohen cabled Dr. Schnable, the president of the Austrian District, and asked him to visit Berlin to confer with the leading B'nai B'rith members in that city in order to communicate their wishes as to what the Order should do. In Berlin, Schnable met the Czechoslovakian District president Joseph Popper. Both men spoke with members of the executive committee of the German Grand Lodge. The two presidents reported that:
The brethren in Berlin believe and speak in the interest of the brethren and the entire Jewry of Germany and they expressed their wish that a quieting influence must be exercised upon Jews and public opinion in general, and that particularly every participation of our lodges in protest meetings should be discouraged. They are afraid that the mention of the name B'nai B'rith in connection with foreign Jewish protests the entire anti-German propaganda will be charged to the German Jews in General, and particularly to our B'nai B'rith Lodges. (24)
After receiving this report, Isaac Rubinow wrote a "strictly confidential" letter to all the members of the Executive Committee reiterating that the German B'nai B'rith members were adamant: "By all means, avoid participation in actions [undoubtedly meaning public protest demonstrations]." He concluded by saying, "this puts a mandate upon us not to participate in public protest meetings and not to allow the use of the name B'nai B'rith for this purpose." (25)
In a letter to Leon Lewis, a B'nai B'rith member in Los Angeles, Isaac Rubinow explains to him B'nai B'rith's position regarding the boycott and participation in public protest meetings. He writes that the "Executive Officers advise against official [underlined in the original] B'nai B'rith protestation...for the reason that it might mean not only absolute ruin, but perhaps death for many of the 14,000 members of the B'nai B'rith living in Germany, and especially for its leaders, some of whom are among the best known Jews in that country." (26)
A few weeks later Rubinow wrote to M. Gordon Liverman, a British Justice of the Peace, communal activist, and president of Britain's District Grand Lodge No. 15. Rubinow explained to him the American B'nai B'rith's official position.
As you can well imagine, the situation was an extremely complicated one for us. Our concern for the welfare not only for our brethren in Germany but all German Jewry is very great. We find ourselves, however, confronted by a very serious problem as to what the best procedure would be. We were between two forces--the pressure from our lodges throughout the United States to take an active part in public protests and our fear that this may work to the injury of our brethren in Germany. (27)
Alfred Cohen also had an additional very worrisome reason to oppose public demonstrations and the boycott. On May 22, Max Kohler, a prominent attorney, historian, author, and important B'nai B'rith leader, wrote to Isaac Rubinow that the German American New Yorker Staats-Zeitung (New Yorker State Newspaper) newspaper published an interview Hitler gave to the newspaper. The New Yorker Staats-Zeitung wrote that the Fiihrer said, "If the Jews of England and the United States boycott German goods, he would make the Jews of Germany suffer for it." Rubinow passed Kohler's letter on to Alfred Cohen. Considering the German government's legislation and actions against Jews during the months of March and April, Cohen took Hitler's threat most seriously indeed. (28)
Shortly thereafter, Cohen wrote an editorial in the B'nai B'rith Magazine titled "B'nai B'rith and the German-Jewish Tragedy," explaining to the membership why the organization opposed any participation in mass demonstrations and other public protests.
With the Hitler government threatening reprisals against Jews, should B'nai B'rith have rushed forward with loud protests? In the eyes of the unthinking this might have enhanced the prestige of B'nai B'rith. 'How courageous is B'nai B'rith'! they might have said. B'nai B'rith put aside the opportunity for valor (5,000 miles from the scene of danger) and with what power is in its hand and in cooperation with other Jewish agencies, set in motion the diplomatic efforts that are already historic. Even those who were at first hot for public protest have come to see that discretion is the better part of valor in an hour when lives are in the balance ... For B'nai B'rith there was, besides a poignant special cause to restrain it from action that might seem rash in the moment. It has fraternal ties with many Jews in Germany where the finest of Jewry is included in the membership of B'nai B'rith. Hostile public words or actions by B'nai B'rith in America might have reflected dangerously on the B'nai B'rith of Germany of whom it might have been said by their enemies, 'They have instigated their fellow members in America against us.' The conscience of B'nai B'rith could never have acquitted itself had any ill-considered action by the Order of America caused injury to our brethren in Germany ... This policy directs and will continue to direct every move of B'nai B'rith. (29)
This perspective guided Cohen's and B'nai B'rith actions throughout 1933 and after.
The attitude of the German Jews was understandable. In a real sense, they were hostages to the Nazis, and could pay a terrible price for anti-German actions by Jews living abroad. This attitude was reflected in the 19ZOS by Rabbi Leo Baeck, who was leader of the German District of the B'nai B'rith. When Alfred Cohen asked him what American Jews might do to help B'nai B'rith members in Germany a few years before Hitler ascended to the chancellorship, Baeck advised him to act cautiously and with restraint. After street assaults against Jews in Berlin in 1931, Cohen cabled Baeck and asked him "Is any action by B'nai B'rith or American Jewry desirable to arouse public opinion here?" Baeck replied by cable: "Hearty thanks. At present nothing." It was clear that America was not Germany. And actions taken by American Jewry 5,000 miles away might not be appropriate given the situation of Jews in Germany. So Cohen continued to rely on Baeck's lead and resisted taking initiates he thought would endanger the B'nai B'rith Order in Germany. (30)
From February through May, the B'nai B'rith and the American Jewish Committee received numerous cablegrams and private advice from organizations and responsible individuals in Germany strongly urging that efforts be made to prevent mass demonstrations and all expressions of antagonism against Germany. The German Jews feared that these would lead to reprisals and retaliation by the Nazi government against them. German Jewish leaders who sent cablegrams included Kurt Blumenfeld, president of the German Zionist Association and Julius Broadnitz, president of the Central Union of Jews in Germany. On March 25, Herman Goring, the number two man in the Nazi hierarchy summoned them and other German Jewish leaders to a meeting and warned them that if American Jews did not stop the anti-German propaganda he would not be able to guarantee the safety of the Jews in Germany. (31)
B'nai B'rith and American Jewish Committee officers took these threats seriously. Their concern for the fate of Jews in Germany, who would suffer for these activities, led B'nai B'rith and American Jewish Committee to oppose all mass demonstrations and other public protests against the German government. They considered "such forms of agitation as futile" in preventing actions against Germany's Jews. (31)
In the spring of 1933, B'nai B'rith, the American Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee received invitations to join the boycott movement against Germany. B'nai B'rith refused to join, arguing that an organized boycott could prove to be a double-edged sword, hurting German Jews more than helping them. Part of Alfred Cohen's objections stemmed from his not wanting to risk the lives and property of the thousands of B'nai B'rith members in Germany by a strong Jewish boycott.
In the meantime, Alfred Cohen and Isaac Rubinow wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull and visited the State Department in Washington. The B'nai B'rith leadership felt that the American Order could not sit idly by, but had to take some action. They decided on a petition campaign as the best response to Hitler and a means to maintain Jewish self-respect. As a result, B'nai B'rith embarked on a drive to collect one million signatures from of all "forms of religious belief," to protest Hitler's policies against the Jews. The petition urged President Roosevelt "to express the horror of the American people at the Nazi acts against German Jewry." But Roosevelt chose to remain silent and not interfere in Germany's internal affairs. Roosevelt's inaction is understandable considering he had been in office for only a few months and faced the worst depression in American history that left millions of Americans without jobs and economic security. He had enough problems to deal with at home. (33)
Richard Gutstadt later wrote to Judge I.M. Golden, a prominent San Francisco B'nai B'rith member, summarizing the meetings with Cordell Hull and the petitions sent to President Roosevelt and the State Department. He mentions that Isaac Rubinow has "been instructed to spend the necessary time in Washington to make contacts which will effect the purpose even more effectually than telegrams and letters from constituents." On May 26, Alfred Cohen and Isaac Rubinow, together with Cyrus Adler, president of the American Jewish Committee, and others met with Secretary of State Hull. They requested that the government of the United States issue a "pronounced and direct disapproval of Germany's treatment of the Jews." Secretary Hull said he would take this to the president and get back to them. He assured the Jewish leaders, "I shall continue to watch the situation closely with a sympathetic interest and a desire to be helpful in whatever way possible." No action was taken by him or President Roosevelt. (34)
The debate within the American B'nai B'rith over whether or not to join the boycott movement and to participate in other public protest demonstrations continued till 1937, when all German District Lodges were disbanded by the German government. Having rejected the boycott, B'nai B'rith continued to resort to diplomatic pressure. Alfred Cohen's position regarding mass demonstrations, vociferous protests and organized boycotts remained unchanged even after the Nazis liquidated the Order. He never modified his approach. His efforts changed little. President Roosevelt continued to remain silent and not interfere in Germany's internal affairs, while the State Department refused to openly pressure Germany. Only after Cohen retired in 1938, and Henry Monsky assumed the presidency, did B'nai B'rith's approach undergo a change.
Before Adolf Hitler came to power, German B'nai B'rith members felt themselves, and were considered by their brethren abroad, to be part of the German Jewish community's elite. After President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor of Germany, their world turned into a nightmare. They expressed their shock and despair in letters they sent to relatives abroad and to B'nai B'rith's American office. B'nai B'rith's American leaders adhered to the wishes and pleas of their German brethren and refrained from supporting mass public demonstrations against Germany, believing that the German government would retaliate against German Jewry. They were correct in their assumption. The German government claimed that they were punishing that country's Jews because they were to blame for the so-called "Jewish atrocity propaganda" spread by their co-religionists abroad. Hitler and other Nazi Leaders held German Jews as hostages in order to "fight" against this "atrocity propaganda." B'nai B'rith's American leaders were very much aware of this and they had thousands of members in Germany who would be blamed and punished for the anti-German activities of American Jewry. Thus they preferred instead to engage in quiet diplomacy requesting that the United States publicly remonstrate with Germany about their actions against Jews. The Roosevelt administration and its Department of State failed to do so. (35) The public demonstrations, the rallies and the boycott movement failed to dissuade the German government from persecuting Germany's Jews. Quiet diplomacy failed to move the Roosevelt administration to act against Germany. And no major American Jewish organization, not even the most militant among them, openly protested Roosevelt's silence. Nothing America's Jews did changed Hitler's policy against Germany's Jews. In the end, the fate of Germany's Jews would be decided in Germany and there was little American Jewry could do to change that.
(1.) Michael H. Kater, "Everyday Anti-Semitism in Prewar Nazi Germany: The Popular Bases," Yad Vashem Studies 16 (1984): 129-160; Armin Nolzen, "The Nazi Party and its Violence Against the Jews, 1933-1939: Violence as a Historiographical Concept," Yad Vashem Studies 31 (1003), 249-258; Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, eds., The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 722; Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, vol. 1, The Years of Persecution, 1933--1939 (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 1-72; The Holocaust Chronicle (Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International, 1999), 60.
(2.) Memo to President Alfred Cohen, September 17, 1933, B'nai B'rith Holocaust and Related Materials Collection (HRMC) , Washington, D.C. Alfred Cohen was a member of Cincinnati's German Jewish elite. He was president of the B'nai B'rith from 1925 to 1938. The material from the HRMC was originally copied when the archives were located in Washington, D.C. The B'nai B'rith Holocaust and Related Materials Collection is now located in the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio, where they are being organized, filed, and catalogued. Consequently, no box or folder numbers appear in the endnotes. In the future, all references to items from this collection will simply read, HRMC. The elite status and role of Germany's Jews in German life is described in Michael Meyer, ed., German-Jewish History in Modern Times, vol. 4, Renewal and Destruction: 1918-1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
(3.) Karen Voelker, "The B'nai B'rith Order (U.O.B.B.) in the Third Reich (1933--1937)," Leo Baeck Institute Year Book (1987), 276; Meyer, German-Jewish History, 281-282.
(4.) Walter Freudenthal to Alfred Cohen, 22 September 1933, HRMC.
(5.) Memo for the president, 25 September 1933, HRMC.
(6.) Gulie Ne'eman Arad, America, Its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 110.
(7.) Katerina Capkova, "Jewish Elites in the 19th and 20th Centuries: The B'nai B'rith Order in Central Europe," Judaica Bohemiae 36 (2000), 120; Deborah Dash Moore, B'nai B'rith and the Challenge of Ethnic Leadership (Albany: State University of New York, 1981), 7; Samuel Kaluzny, interview by author, Maiden, Massachusetts, 20 August, 1976. A recent book, Cornelia Wilhelm, The Independent Orders of B'nai B'rith and True Sisters: Pioneers of a New Jewish Identity, 1843-1914 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011) also deals with the process of American Jewish identity.
(8.) Moore, B'nai B'rith and the Challenge of Ethnic Leadership, 168; Ariel Hurwitz, Jews Without Power: American Jewry During the Holocaust (New Rochelle: MultiEducator, 2.011), 32.
(9.) Voelker, "B'nai B'rith Order," 270. For a discussion and analysis of late-nineteenthcentury antisemitism in Germany see Michael A. Meyer, ed., German-Jewish History in Modern Times, vol. 3, Integration in Dispute: 1871-1918, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).
(10.) Capkova, "Jewish Elites in the 19th and 20th Centuries," 127-128; Voelker, "B'nai B'rith Order," 271, 291. Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was a prominent rabbi, lecturer and theologian. He survived the war and moved to England. In 1955 a group of emigre Jewish intellectuals including Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and Robert Weltsch founded an institute to preserve the history of German Jewish culture. They named the institute in Baeck's honor and appointed him its first president.
(11.) Undated anonymous letter sent from Paris, April 1933, HRMC.
(12.) Letters mailed outside of Germany were not opened or scrutinized. Many German Jews who could mailed or had others mail letters for them outside of Germany. This protected them from Nazi officials.
(13.) Letter signed "Steffy," March 23, 1933, HRMC.
(14.) Unsigned letter, April 2, 1933, HRMC. The Rabbi Liebman who passed the letter to Gutstadt may have been Rabbi Joshua Liebman who was a prominent American Reform rabbi in Chicago. Isaac Max Rubinow was a leading economist, statistician, and theorist on social insurance.
(15.) For the emigration figures see Meyer, German-Jewish History, vol. 4, 231-234.
(16.) Report to the B'nai B'rith, May 6, 1933, HRMC.
(17.) B'nai B'rith Magazine, 47 (July 1933): 312-313.
(18.) P. van Passen to Isaac Rubinow, July 20, 1933, HRMC.
(19.) B'nai B'rith Magazine, 47 (June 1933): 261.
(20.) B'nai B'rith Magazine, 47 (May 1933): 228
(21.) See Hurwitz, 32, for a reasoned analysis of the AJC and B'nai B'rith approaches. See also Gulie Ne'eman Arad, America, Its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism, 103-157; and Arad, "Cooptation of Elites: American Jewish Reactions to the Nazi Menace, 1933," Yad Vashem Studies 25 (1996): 31-64, for discussions of these issues.
(22.) Moshe Gottlieb, "The Anti-Nazi Boycott Movement in the United States: An Ideological and Sociological Appreciation," Jewish Social Studies 35 (1973): 225; Leonard Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 111-112, Neil Baldwin, Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate (New York: Public Affairs, 2001), American Jewish Year Book, 36 (September 10, 1934-September 27, 1935): 448-449.
(23.) Isaac Rubinow to the members of the Executive Committee, March 27, 1933, HRMC.
(24.) I.M. Rubinow to the Members of the Executive Committee, March 27, 1933, HRMC; Alfred Cohen to M.Gordon Liverman, J.P., April 18, 1933, HRMC.
(25.) I.M. Rubinow to the Members of the Executive Committee, March 27, 1933, HRMC.
(26.) Isaac Rubinow to Leon L. Lewis, March 28, 1933, HRMC.
(27.) Isaac Rubinow to M. Gordon Liverman, April 4, 1933, HRMC.
(28.) Max Kohler to Isaac Rubinow, May 22, 1933, HRMC. The New Yorker Staats-Zeitung was published in Yorkville, which was a large German American enclave located in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. During the 1930s the neighborhood served as the home base of the pro-Nazi German American Bund.
(29.) Editorial, "B'nai B'rith and the German-Jewish Tragedy," B'nai B'rith Magazine 47 (May 1933): 227.
(30.) Morore, B'nai B'rith and the Challenge of Ethnic Leadership, 166-167
(31.) Arad, America, Its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism, 145.
(32.) American Jewish Year Book, 36 (September to, 1934-September 27, 1935): 428-430.
(33.) Moore B'nai B'rith and the Challenge of Ethnic Leadership, 172-173.
(34.) Richard Gutstadt to Judge I.M. Golden, 11 May 1933, HRMC; report of Alfred Cohen, undated, of the May 26 meeting with Secretary of State Hull, HRMC. A report of the meeting and Hull's response appeared in the American Jewish Year Book, Vol. 36 (September 10, 1934-September 27, 1935): 436. There is an ongoing debate about the reasons for Franklin Roosevelt's failure to issue public statements or address the issue of Germany's Jews in the 1930s. For a recent survey of the two sides of the debate concerning FDR and the Jews during the 1930s and WWII see Lawrence Zuckerman, "FDR's Jewish Problem," The Nation, July 17, 2013.
(35.) Memo to the President Alfred Cohen, 25 July 1933, HRMC.
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2017|
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