Indifference and Cruelty: What Made Nazi Germany Possible
Géraldine Schwarz Reckons With Her Family's WWII History
My grandparents thought the past was buried forever beneath the wreckage of the Third Reich, but it reared its head one morning in January 1946, when Karl Schwarz found an envelope in the mailbox with a return address that immediately implied bad tidings—Dr. Rebstein-Metzger, Lawyer, Mannheim. In the letter, the lawyer made clear that his client, a certain Julius Löbmann living in Chicago, was suing Mineralölgesellschaft Schwarz & Co. for approximately 11,000 Reichsmarks by virtue of a law instated in the American zone to give reparations to Jews who had been dispossessed under National Socialism.
Neither my father nor his sister—who usually likes telling family stories—told me the story of this letter and what it unleashed. I knew that Opa had belonged to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), and I also had a vague idea that at the start, the Mineralölgesellschaft had once belonged to Jews. My father must have told me that detail when I began to study the Third Reich in class, but I was still too young to take an interest in the ramifications of this secret. It was only much later, after a remark by Aunt Ingrid, that I decided to dig around in Opa’s filing cabinets in the basement of the Mannheim building, which had stayed in the family after the death of my grandparents.
Among the papers, which had yellowed with age but whose typed characters were still readable, I discovered a contract stipulating that Karl Schwarz had purchased a small oil company from two Jewish brothers, Julius and Siegmund Löbmann, as well as from their brother-in-law Wilhelm Wertheimer, who was also Jewish, and whose sisters Mathilde and Irma they had married. The Siegmund Löbmann & Co. business was located by the Mannheim harbor near the river Neckar. But it is mainly the date that matters: August 1938, a year of relentless descent into hell for the German Jews, as they experienced a sharp acceleration of persecution and discrimination and were forced to abandon their assets for a very low price.
I started to search for the Löbmann family and found few traces of them. I hoped to identify Julius’s descendants in Chicago, where he was living when he claimed reparations from my grandfather, and I trembled when a thread of Internet searches led me to a “Loebmann” family living in Chicago. But my next discovery, of a long list of Loebmanns in the Chicago White Pages, put an end to my hopes. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. I tried looking on the Wertheimer side. And this was how I stumbled upon an article mentioning a certain Lotte Kramer, née Wertheimer, one of the last living people who had witnessed the Kindertransport, a British rescue operation that gave more than 10,000 Jewish children safe passage from Germany and Central Europe to Great Britain between 1938 and 1940. I found her in a retirement home in Peterborough, a little town an hour north of London. On the phone, she confirmed that she was the daughter of Sophie Wertheimer, the sister of Mathilde and Irma, and immediately agreed to meet me.
Lotte Kramer is 95. She’s a small, frail woman, with delicate movements, polite as only the British can be. She had arranged two armchairs facing each other, close enough for us to hear each other, and she told me her life story, and what she knew of the Löbmanns’ lives. “My mother, Sophie, and her two sisters were very close,” she said, taking a black-and-white photo of three young women down from the wall. The youngest, Mathilde, has a handsome face, determined and open, with a big bow in her hair and another at her neck. Next to her, Irma, the oldest, wears a crocheted collar that brightens her tired features. The third one, Sophie, is seated with a medallion around her neck and has an uncertain gaze, filled with vague hope.The change was felt across the whole region. “Suddenly, anti-Semitic propaganda was everywhere, in the street, in the newspapers, on the radio,” Lotte remembers.
Lotte was born in 1923 in Mainz, a large city in Rhineland-Palatinate, where she grew up. She often traveled the 60 miles separating Mainz from Mannheim to visit her much-loved cousin Lore, the daughter of Siegmund and Irma Löbmann. She remembered their long walks in the gardens at the foot of the Wasserturm, their strolls in lively streets, and the unmissable Kaffee und Kuchen her aunt Irma, “a splendid cook,” would make. “We sometimes went on vacation to the countryside all together, to a village where the Löbmann family originated, where they still had family living on a farm. We were very close.” The Wertheimer sisters had three brothers: Siegfried, who moved to America in the twenties; Paul, who fled to France when the Nazis came; and Wilhelm, who invested in Löbmann & Co. at the beginning of the thirties to help his brothers-in-law save the company, since it had been hard hit by the economic crisis of 1929. Thanks to this intervention, business was back on track, before lapsing again due to growing discrimination against Jewish companies under National Socialism.
Lotte was nine years old when Hitler came to power. In January 1933, the German president, General Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, finally gave way before the growing electoral success of the NSDAP, which became the country’s first political party with more than one third of the votes in 1932. He named the head of the party, Adolf Hitler, chancellor. The latter hurried to dissolve the Reichstag, held new legislative elections, and carried out an aggressive political campaign marked by dubious negotiations, threats, and political pressure, all with the goal of enlarging his parliamentary base into an outright majority.
In March 1933, he had to content himself with 43.9 percent of votes. In Mannheim, a city where the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD) were traditionally strongly represented, the number of NSDAP members was no more than a hundred at the end of the 1920s. But with the 1929 economic crisis, the number of unemployed people tripled, and in 1932, the Nazi Party became the largest political force in the city, with 29.3 percent of votes. Shortly after they came to power in 1933, the local Nazi authorities crushed the SPD and the KPD, forbade newspapers, and forced the mayor of Mannheim to watch the flag of the republic burn before shutting him up in a hospital. Quickly, a new wave of anti-Semitism began spreading in Mannheim, which was home to the largest Jewish community in Baden, with approximately 6,400 members.
The change was felt across the whole region. “Suddenly, anti-Semitic propaganda was everywhere, in the street, in the newspapers, on the radio,” Lotte remembers. “One day, with my class, we went to see a propaganda film for children, the story of a boy who converts to Nazism. It made a big impression on us—we all wanted to be like him.” Each day when she returned home from school in Mainz, she passed the Center for Hitler Youth. “I was jealous, I dreamed of taking part in it—they looked so happy in their uniforms.” Most of all, it was their normalcy she envied as a little Jewish girl, carrying on her child’s shoulders the weight of the exclusion, humiliation, and shame inflicted on her community.
In an excellent book titled Arisierung und Wiedergutmachung in Mannheim (Aryanization and Reparations in Mannheim), the historian Christiane Fritsche explains how, without any national law to justify it, anti-Semitic measures were undertaken on the local level in many areas. The Mannheim Chamber of Commerce set the tone when, at the end of March 1933, it got rid of its Jewish members, including its acting president and a third of its personnel. At the same time, as in other places in Germany, numerous Mannheim institutions and associations of industrialists, business owners, lawyers, and doctors excluded Jews at an alarming rate at their own initiative and without any outside pressure, depriving them of essential professional networks, sabotaging their reputations and their clientele, and precipitating their financial ruin. The regime itself ruled on the fate of civil servants on April 7, 1933, when it allowed the dismissal of all “non-Aryan” functionaries, including university professors and scientists.Even if the majority of the population hadn’t actively participated, this day proved that such acts would not encounter resistance from other citizens.
Another way of stigmatizing and isolating Jews was to call for a boycott of Jewish agencies, companies, and businesses, not at the national level, but locally. Nazi organizations and representatives of the NSDAP, who were very impatient to act, banded together to start a daylong boycott of Jewish stores planned for April 1, 1933, and announced beforehand through newspapers and flyers. Across the country, uniformed members of the SS and the SA planted themselves in front of businesses, department stores, banks, doctors’ offices, and legal practices to prevent customers from entering, and scrawled anti-Semitic messages on the windows, haranguing the crowd or brandishing placards that read: “Germans! Defend yourselves! Do not buy from Jews!” Many businesses closed their doors and lowered their metal grates, either because they had been warned or because they were observing Shabbat as they usually did. Other businesses were sacked and pillaged, and their Jewish owners were beaten up.
Even if the majority of the population hadn’t actively participated, this day proved that such acts would not encounter resistance from other citizens. Christiane Fritsche explains that a few months later, the minister of economics made it clear to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry that “differentiating between Aryan and non-Aryan companies was not possible,” as “the boycott of non-Aryan businesses would considerably hinder economic reconstruction.” Since the Jews played an important role in the German economy, a certain number of Nazi leaders in Berlin feared that these actions would interfere with economic recovery and the lowering of the unemployment rate, which were the government’s priorities. According to Fritsche, that is one reason why, in the first years, no law was instated that discriminated against Jewish economic activity. But on the local level, this policy was not respected.
One of the most effective instruments in Mannheim was the local Nazi newspaper Hakenkreuzbanner, which advocated daily for the boycott of 1,600 local Jewish businesses, publishing their names and addresses, and sometimes the names of the clients who still frequented them, accusing them of disloyalty to the Führer. The newspaper also threatened to publish the names of “Judenliebchen,” women who had allegedly been involved with Jews. These intimidation campaigns paid off in a medium-size city like Mannheim, which had some 280,000 inhabitants. Public humiliation had more impact there than in a big, anonymous city like Berlin.Jewish entrepreneurs were also often denied public contracts and forbidden from exhibiting in trade shows.
Another method of harassment, Fritsche observes, was to spread false rumors about the dirty kitchen of a Jewish restaurant or the sexual behavior of a Jewish businessman. Sometimes it even went as far as a Schmutzprozesse, a dirty trial intended to discredit someone on the basis of false accusations of crooked business, sexual predation, or the concealment of stolen goods. Even if he was acquitted, the accused would see his reputation destroyed, and his company would usually go down with him.
Jewish entrepreneurs were also often denied public contracts and forbidden from exhibiting in trade shows. Other local rules prohibited Jews from decorating their windows with “Christian” motifs before Christmas, meaning no angels, Christmas trees, or mangers, labeling them as non-Aryan and significantly reducing their sales, which were crucial during the holidays. The four big Jewish department stores in Mannheim were the main targets. The city even forbade its employees from buying anything there and imposed penalties. By 1936, hammered at every turn by these slander campaigns, three of the four had already been sold to “Aryans” due to financial difficulties.
—Translated by Laura Marris
Excerpted from Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning by Géraldine Schwarz. Excerpted with the permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2020 by Géraldine Schwarz. Translation copyright © 2020 by Laura Marris.
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