Museum Fellowship Book Reviews
Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi
Between Dignity and Despair by Marion A. Kaplan is a view of Jewish life in Germany after Hitler’s rise to power. What makes this book unique is its focus on the lives and voices of Jewish women in Nazi Germany. The incremental restrictions and humiliations imposed on the Jewish community of Germany altered individual and family experiences dramatically. This book’s uniqueness is in its depiction of the effects of this historical period on the diverse Jewish community, and how women in particular coped with these changes.
Students often ask how the Jews of Germany could not have foreseen what the future held for them. In hindsight, examining the laws and restrictions which step by step took away the freedoms and citizenship rights of the Jews seems a clear portent of what was to come. In Between Dignity and Despair, however, Kaplan takes the reader slowly along the Holocaust timeline to show the impact these restrictions had on everyday life. These changes caused hardship and suffering, but viewed individually, did not necessarily indicate the terror that was to come. She highlights employment restrictions which took away the jobs of husbands, first those of the professionals and state employees. Not only does the author discuss how the lack of income affected families, she then delves into the psychological effects of these changes. In numerous cases, it was the women who soothed the husbands, made economic changes in the household to survive, and took courses or sought employment themselves to help their families make it through the difficult times.
Marion Kaplan explores how Jewish life in Germany was taking its last breaths long before victims were sent to the extermination camps. Social pressures and restrictions slowly but ultimately led to Jewish elimination from German society. The focus of the book is to show how this isolation affected Jewish families, and again, how it was mostly the women who tried to shield their children and husbands from the fallout. Children who were excluded from clubs and schools, who were bullied as a result of their Jewish identities, went for solace to their mothers. It was often the women who approached German authorities for special favors or pardons.
And, as Kaplan points out, women often had a different view of how to ultimately deal with the pain and pressure of continuing to live in Nazi Germany. It was the women who chose to leave, often seeking the proper papers and documentation. Whereas more often men wanted to fight the system, women sought escape. On Kristallnacht in 1938 it was the women who tried every means possible to have their men released from the concentration camps. As continuing restrictions removed whatever power was left to Jewish men, Jewish women stepped up to take on these new roles.
Kaplan explores all of these topics through a scholarly review of interviews, letters and written memoirs. She uses anecdotal accounts to illustrate her research and through her work creates a tapestry of families and individuals to weave together the pieces of family life in Nazi Germany. Her book powerfully recreates, not only the historical aspects of time and place, but the profound changes these wrought in the traditional roles of the family. Between Dignity and Despair is a personal and unique approach to the study of the lives of Jews in Nazi Germany.
On a personal note, I would like to discuss my personal interest in this topic. Years ago, I learned that my husband’s grandmother, Oma, had fled Germany in 1939. She emigrated to America with her only child, a daughter, leaving behind a husband, an earlier privileged life, and most of her possessions. Arriving in the United States, she took a job as a domestic. Her adolescent daughter was boarded with other relatives and learned English and American customs after her placement in primary grade classes in public school. Oma never complained about the hardships she endured or the life she left behind in Germany. In fact, she was always reluctant to discuss her experiences in Germany and the fate of her husband after her departure. She appeared angry and resentful towards his decision to remain behind. I always marveled at this little woman’s strength, independence and resourcefulness, traits that seemed more likely to be found in contemporary women, yet traits that helped her to correctly perceive what the future in Germany would have held, and impelled her to save herself and her child at all costs. Between Dignity and Despair offered a lens with which to examine her experiences and choices.
As a postscript, when I attended the Belfer I conference a number of years ago, I had the opportunity to consult the records at the USHMM and was able to ascertain the fate of Oma’s husband. He had been transported to Riga where he was shot in 1941. Oma passed away over twelve years ago. I never knew if she had discovered the truth.