To begin her talk about the erasure of Jewish spaces in Nazi-era Berlin, USC Shoah Foundation’s Robert J. Katz Research Fellow Teresa Walch asked the audience to think about what exactly determined whether a certain neighborhood or space is “Jewish.”
Is it the presence of a synagogue and kosher deli? People walking around in traditional Jewish clothing? What if the Jewish population of the neighborhood is nonreligious?
Her point was that it is often impossible to tell.
“Sometimes you just don’t know if the place you’re walking around is a Jewish neighborhood,” Walch said. “This was the case in 20th century Berlin too.”
Walch’s research during her month-long fellowship at USC Center for Advanced Genocide Research focused on the topic of her in-progress dissertation at UC San Diego: the Nazi-led exclusion of Jews from Germany and how “Jewish spaces” were systematically erased in the years leading up to World War II and the Holocaust.
In her public lecture on Feb. 9 at USC, Walch outlined the process by which Jews in Berlin lost their rights, access to public spaces, ability to move freely, and finally their own homes, from 1933-38. Throughout her talk, Walch referred to the testimonies in the Visual History Archive that she has discovered of Holocaust survivors who describe living through this period and its affect on them.
The attack on Jewish spaces in Berlin began with vandalism of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries by local SA police forces and Hitler Youth, Walch said. Antisemitic posters and flyers began to appear on local news bulletins around the city, stoking fear and hatred of Jews. In fact, the earliest acts of antisemitism and restrictions were instigated at the local level, by neighbors and local police, and then later legitimated at the federal level.
The next step was for public spaces to be marked for Jews or non-Jews only. Jews were banned from hotels, theaters, libraries, parks – even benches had signs designating whether Jews were allowed to sit there.
Walch showed a clip from the testimony of Harold Blitzer, who echoed what many child survivors were most affected by during this time: being banned from swimming pools. However, Blitzer laughs about “smuggling himself” into the pool anyway, being careful to hide his circumcision while changing into his bathing suit.
Walch noted that Jews at the time had varying reactions to these new laws. Some accepted them, afraid of the consequences if they were caught. Others obeyed but only out of a sense of indignation (if they don’t want us, we don’t want to go there anyway). Many others kept patronizing these public spaces and businesses anyway out of defiance. Their ready excuse was often that they just hadn’t seen the sign proclaiming the area closed to Jews.
However, some had an easier time defying the law than others. People who were more assimilated or “didn’t look Jewish” were more likely to take the risk, Walch said, and slower to accept their new reality.
While some business owners tried to resist, public pressure and the threat of boycotts usually left them feeling that they had no choice.
In response to their exclusion from most community gathering spaces, Jews did form their spaces, such as cafes and artistic venues. They also began gathering in synagogues – even those who hardly ever attended religious services.
“These became vital sites of refuge and Jewish community building as restrictions became more severe,” Walch said.
As the years went on, people began to accept the Nazi ideology of the “Jewish problem.” They actually became more fearful of Jews despite the restrictions intended to keep them separate, and the Nazis became even more obsessive about labeling Jewish spaces. Walch said this may be because they began to realize how difficult it was to tell who was a Jew and who was not.
As a result, Jews and non-Jews grew even more distant. They stopped speaking to each other in public, and the Jewish population turned inwards, with many people simply not spending time outside the safety of their homes or in any space where there would be Aryans.
Eventually, Jews were forced to sell their belongings and leave smaller towns completely. They were consolidated into apartment blocks in larger cities like Berlin before finally being deported to concentration camps.
By the late 1930s and early 1940s, Walch said, all traces of Jews in Germany began to disappear. Synagogues were blown up or damaged and never rebuilt, cemeteries fell into disrepair and streets were renamed. Jewish homes were taken over by the state and the items inside confiscated. Only in recent years has the Jewish community of Berlin begun to flourish again with a new wave of Israeli immigrants.
Throughout her talk, Walch shared how the Visual History Archive has added to her research. She said the survivors’ descriptions of the November 1938 pogrom in Berlin made her realize that it was much more violent than she previously thought. She also appreciated how the testimonies include ample discussion of life before the war, so she could get a detailed picture of how the restrictions affected ordinary people.
Walch concluded her talk by arguing that these actions against Jewish spaces in the years before the war all added up to reinforce the belief that Jews did not belong in Germany.
“It matters that Jews and Germans stopped greeting each other on the streets and in the stairwells of their apartment buildings. It mattered that initially hesitant pub owners succumbed to pressure to put up ‘Jews Unwanted’ signs,” she said. “And it mattered most of all that Germans abetted and accepted the radical segregation of Jews whether due to antisemitism, indifference, fear for their own safety or hopes of material gain, because all these actions visibly reified the belief that Jews are not and cannot be German and therefore have no rights to Lebensraum, or living space, in the national community.”