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Echoes of Memory

A Student in a Nazi School

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By Rabbi Jacob G. Wiener

I was born a few years before Hitler and his Nazi Party took control of Germany. At first, Jewish youngsters were still allowed to attend German public and high schools. But with Hitler assuming power in 1933, everything changed suddenly, immediately, unannounced.

Even though I had already noticed subtle antisemitism some time before, now it hit us daily. We had never expected this would happen in Germany, such a “highly cultivated” country which German Jews loved and served loyally. There were a few teachers who had already become Nazis before 1933 and had sported their uniforms publicly. But after the Umschwung, as Hitler’s ascendancy to power was called, every teacher wanted to show that he was going along with the new regime. I say “he” because women teachers were a minority and mainly employed only in kindergartens or early childhood schools. Umschwung literally means “to swing around,” to change, and that was the trend of that time.

Now all teachers had to join the Nazi Party, in which they were brainwashed to follow the party’s antisemitic policy. They were also forced to refute their former political beliefs. If they did not, they were “retired” from their jobs. Henceforth, many teachers would come in dressed in Nazi uniform. My class teacher called me over and tried to explain this new situation, as it affected his relationship with me. “I will have to teach Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, but be assured I will not let the class express the Judenhass [hatred of Jews] against you.”

A new course of study was introduced in school in the early 1930s called Rassenkunde (race knowledge). The teacher wanted to spare me from being in class when he would teach this subject. Therefore, he taught it on Saturdays when I did not attend school.

One day, another teacher explained in class, “I want to show you how a Jew looks.” Of course, I, the only Jew present, was to be his sample.

“You can recognize a Jew simply by his features,” he said. “A German, a Nordic, is tall, has blond hair, blue eyes, a straight nose, and detached ear lobes. A Jew is short and stocky, has dark eyes, a crooked nose, and his earlobes are tied to the skin.”

“Oh, no, sir,” I replied. “You are wrong. I also have blue eyes and detached earlobes.”

That did not stop him from making further statements about Jews. “Every person on earth belongs to a race. The Jews are no religion, no ethnic or cultural group; they are a race like everyone else. Now, there are superior and inferior races. We, the Nordic, the Aryan, are the superiors. The Poles, the Gypsies, and the lowest, the Jews, are all inferiors.”

Having the courage to stand up, I countered, “You are wrong, sir, there is not such a thing, as you say, as superior or inferior. I would rather say that we humans are all different. And thank G-d for that. We need each other. I will give you an example: A baker knows his baking job. He is superior in it, more so than someone who has not studied baking in detail—for instance, a mechanic. The latter normally knows more in his profession of mechanics than the baker, and vice versa. Thus, every person has one area in which he is more knowledgeable and another one where he is not as proficient as someone who has studied it in more detail.”

In another subject called Philosophical Propadeutic (history of philosophy), the teacher used the book The Myth of the Twentieth Century by Alfred Rosenberg, an Estonian non-Jew with a Jewish name. Man, according to his idea, was a combination of blood and flesh without a spirit. His body was guided by “intuition” which man had the power to evoke. Hitler, he claimed, possessed this intuition, which he was able to implant in all his followers.

There was another change for students attending school during Hitler’s time. At the entrance to the building, students had to lift their arms and say, “Heil Hitler!” I was exempt from doing so.

It was a miracle that I was allowed to continue at a German high school and Oberealschule (a higher-grade advanced learning school) until I graduated in 1936 and received a degree called Abitur (a special diploma which granted immediate entrance to a university). There was already a numerus clausus, a quota, for the number of Jews who would be accepted in public institutions in Germany.

At the time of my graduation, a young Jewish Hebrew teacher, Mr. Gustav Rosemann from Bavaria, settled with his family in Bremen. We became very close friends. He persuaded me to join the Jewish Orthodox Aguda Organization. I decided that it was time to stop attending German schools. With the Nazis growing in power and antisemitism on the rise, I felt it was best to study and live with fellow Jews. I remembered that a German schoolteacher had tried to explain why he had joined the Nazi party. “We want to be more German,” he said. I told him that I was leaving school because I wanted to be more Jewish.

©2008, Rabbi Jacob G. Wiener. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

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