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The City and the Holocaust



Kaiser Wilhelm I in Berlin circa 1871

Berlin was the capital of Prussia and then from 1871 to 1945 and again today, the capital of Germany. On the eve of the Second World War Berlin had a population of 4.34 million, and it was the second largest city in Europe.


Jews had been living in Berlin since the end of the thirteenth century; in 1573 they were expelled, and a hundred years later, in 1671, Jews again came to settle in the city.


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Jewish population kept growing – despite efforts by the kings of Prussia to limit their number – and by the middle of the nineteenth century it had risen to two thousand.


Berlin was the first centre of Haskalah, the Jewish cultural enlightenment movement, its most renowned exponent Moses Mendlessohn, lived there. It was in Berlin, in 1778, that the Judische Freischule was established, the first Jewish institution of learning in which the German language was taught and general subjects were included in the curriculum.


In the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century the Jewish population of Berlin increased greatly- from 3,300 in 1812 to 142,000 in 1910. The rapid rise was the result of a mass influx of Jews from the provincial towns; from the eastern provinces of Imperial Germany, especially from Posen (today Poznan, Poland) and from Eastern Europe.


A high percentage of the Berlin Jewish population was therefore made up of Ostjuden – Jews from the East – a situation that had considerable impact on both the Jewish and the non-Jewish population of Berlin.


Jews in Berlin were prominent in various aspects of the city’s economic, intellectual and cultural life. The city was also the seat of the head offices of most of the national Jewish organisations – such as the Central –Verein Deutscher Staatsburger Judischen Glaubens (Central Union of German Citizens of Jewish Faith), the Ezra Society, the Zentralwohlfahrtstelle der Deutschen Juden (Central Welfare Organisation of German Jews), and the Central Lodge of B’NAI B’RITH in Germany – and of most of the Jewish periodicals published in Germany.


Up to the end of the First World War, control of the Jewish community was in the hands of wealthy liberals; after the war the Judische Volkspartei, or Jewish People’s Party – an alignment of the Zionists, including Mizrahi and the Union of Eastern European Jewish Organisations – gained in strength in the Jewish community organisations and in 1928 a representative of that party, Georg Kareski, was elected president of the community.


Jewish owned shop in Berlin circa 1930

In 1930 the liberals were returned to power and Wilhelm Kleeman became president. The spokesman for the positions taken by liberal Jews was Leo Baeck, Berlin’s leading liberal rabbi.


In 1923 the Berlin community took the initiative for the formation of a Preussischer Landesverband Judischer Gemeinden (Union of Jewish Communities in Prussia), in order to strengthen its own status among the other communities and to facilitate contacts with the government authorities.


In the early 1930’s Berlin is estimated to have had 115 Jewish houses of prayer, the community itself maintained seventeen synagogues with a seating capacity of 25,000; on the high holidays extra halls were rented that doubled the available seating capacity, the services being either liberal or traditional.


The community also supported dozens of religious congregations, including Orthodox prayer houses and a Sephardic synagogue. In the 1930’s the community school system consisted of fifteen kindergartens, several elementary schools, two junior high schools and one secondary school.


Adas Israel, the separatist Orthodox community maintained its own elementary and secondary school and a girls’ school. By the late 1920’s one-seventh of all the Jewish children were attending Jewish schools.


There were differences of opinion among the Jews concerning the educational role of the community – whether it should maintain a separate Jewish school system, based on Jewish values or whether it should prefer a national German framework, with a minimum emphasis on Jewish elements.


For the Jewish students attending the public schools, the community provided forty-eight Religionsschulen (Hebrew Schools).


Bernard Grunberg, who came to England on a kindertransport recalled his time in a Berlin technical re-training school:


“As life was becoming worse for the Jews year by year, my father decided it was a waste of time for me to continue at school. After spending one year at home, I went in April 1938 to a technical re-training school in Berlin with a view later to emigrating to Israel.


After giving me some training in joinery and metalwork, the Instructor decided I was best suited to general woodwork. But in July 1938 a group of Nazi SS entered the grounds of the school and held everyone at the entrance while they set fire to the joinery workshop. Everything – including the valuable woodworking machinery – was destroyed. I remember helping to clear up the workshop, which could never be used again.”   


Jewish youth movements were active in Berlin, supported by the various Jewish politically oriented organisations. The community maintained youth centres, provided summer vacations in the country for thousands of children , arranged foster homes and made vocational training facilities available.


A Winterhilfe soup kitchen in Berlin

The Jewish youth had their own gyms and playgrounds, Bar Kochba was the leading sports club, and a Maccabi organisation was established in 1921.


The Berlin community provided welfare services, with its institutions serving as a model for the entire country. The Jewish Welfare Office co-ordinated the operations of the various Jewish welfare organisations and the community maintained twenty-four regional welfare and youth offices, an office for aid to the disabled, twelve orphanages, dozens of day nurseries for the infants of working mothers, poor-houses, a network of soup kitchens and Winterhilfe.


The community also ran its own medical facilities such as a 350-bed hospital which remained in operation throughout the Second World War, a hospital for the disabled, two medical clinics, institutions for the blind, the deaf and the mentally ill, and a training school for the staff of these establishments.


The community also had loan institutions, a vocational training and counselling office, a section providing assistance to academically qualified persons, an employment office, and an emigration advisory office.


The Jewish community was the largest Jewish employer, its annual budget for 1928 amounted to some 10 million marks, of which 30 percent was used for religious activities, 12 percent for education and vocational training, 30 percent for welfare and aid, and the remainder for maintenance and miscellaneous purposes.


Revenue from taxes covered 60 percent of the expenditures. The separatist community, Adas Israel, in addition to its schools, provided welfare services and maintained its own cemetery.


In 1925, 50 percent of the breadwinners were salaried employees, of whom 80 percent were office workers, 18 percent manual workers and 2 percent house servants. The economic depression of the early 1930’s, coupled with the growing anti-Semitism, caused many Jews to apply to the Jewish employment office, with 50 percent of such applicants coming from the commercial sector, 25 percent from among the skilled workers, 15 percent from the ranks of unskilled workers, and 10 percent from the professional class.


In that same period a large number of Jews opted out of the organised Jewish community, either in order to convert – mainly to enter into a mixed marriage, or in order to avoid paying the community tax by not belonging to any recognised religious denominations.


Under the Weimar Republic, Berlin was Germany’s centre of culture. Many Jews gained fame as theatre directors, actors like Kurt Gerron, playwrights, film producers, musicians, artists and journalists.  Despite the difficulties caused by the economic situation, Jews achieved success in the professions, many earning distinguished reputations in medicine, and held posts in the city’s universities and academies. Jews were also prominent as entrepreneurs.


At the same time, however, Jews became the targets of anti-Semitic attacks. In the wake of the murder of two leaders of the leftist Spartacus League, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg who was born in Zamosc, Poland, in 1919, a wave of riots against Ostjuden was launched.


Joseph Goebbels delivers a speech in Berlin 1933

Similar riots also occurred during the short-lived revolutionary attempt, the Kapp Putsch, in March 1920, in November 1923, an area in the Eastern part of Berlin that was inhabited by Jews from Eastern Europe was the scene of a pogrom.


In 1926 Joseph Goebbels was appointed Gauleiter of Berlin and he founded Der Angriff (The Attack), a Nazi Party organ, which he used to spread anti-Semitism and incite the population against Berlin’s Jewish press.


Goebbels exploited the February 1930 killing of Horst Wessel, an SA storm-trooper man in Berlin, to launch a campaign against the city’s Jews. On the Jewish New Year of 1931, Jews on the way home from the synagogues were attacked on the Kurfurstendamm in western Berlin.


The next year, 1932, saw a spate of attacks on Jewish university students and lecturers in the city. The election campaign that year served to intensify the anti-Semitic atmosphere. This was followed by a decrease in the number of Jews opting out of Berlin’s Jewish community, and a rise in the community’s tax revenue and in separate Jewish cultural activities.


In the September 1930 elections the Nazi Party received 14.6% of the vote, four times as much as in the 1928 elections. The collapse of German democracy was accompanied by a crisis in the functioning of the Berlin city council.


In the July 1932 elections the Nazis obtained 28.6% of the vote as against 37.4% on the national level; in the November elections that same year, the Nazis lost some of their support and gained 25.9% of the vote.


On the night of 30 January 1933, the SA celebrated Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor by staging a torchlight parade in the streets of Berlin. Jews who had been active in anti-Nazi political parties and organisations fled the city.


It was at this point that the first wave of suicides hit the Jewish community, a phenomenon that was to repeat itself time and again for as long as the community continued to exist. On the night of the Reichstag fire on the 27 February 1933 SA storm-troopers attacked the offices of the Centralverein.  


The “Aryanisation” of Jewish owned enterprises began in 1933, as early as the 11 April one of the cities newspapers announced that the businesses owned by its publisher, Rudolf Mosse, had been “Aryanised.”


On the 1 August the Berlin –Lichtenberg municipality revoked trading licenses   that had been granted to Jews. On the 20 July 1935, the Berlin policed closed down the Jewish –owned stores on the Kurfurstendamm.


Until the Kristallnacht pogrom, however, it was mainly the salaried employees who bore the brunt of Nazi policy in Berlin, as in all of Germany, whereas Jewish businesses continued to operate on the local as well as the international scene.


Hitler Youth on the streets of Berlin

The Jewish leadership of Berlin sought to work out new principles that would assure the city’s Jews a continued existence as a religious minority, within the framework of Nazi policies. The community bylaws were adapted to Nazi demands.


A wall- to- wall coalition was formed, in which Alfred Klee, of the Judische Volkspartei, played a major role; Heinrich Stahl, of the Liberal (Reform Jewish) Association, was president of the community. At the end of 1933 an agreement was reached for the establishment of the Reichsvertretung Der Deutschen Juden (Reich Representation of German Jews), its head office was located in Berlin.


There was an upsurge of Zionist activities in the Nazi period, in which the Zionist organ Judische Rundschau, edited by Robert Weltsch, played a major part. He- Haluts and other Zionist youth movements gained substantial strength, and Hakhsharot – agricultural training centres were set up for their members, including those of the religiously observant youth organisations.


Recha Freier founded Youth Aliya, which aimed to take young Jews to Palestine. Zionist activists, aided by emissaries from abroad, helped organise “illegal” immigration to Palestine. Welfare agencies and educational institutions also greatly increased the scope of their operations; Jewish students from the public schools transferred to the community maintained schools, and the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums (College of Jewish Studies) expanded the range of its work.


In response to the book burning staged by the Nazis in front of the Berlin Opera on the 10 May 1933, the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Cultural Society of German Jews) was established, launching its activities in the autumn of that year. The Jewish press improved the quality of its contents and raised its circulation. The Jews of Berlin turned inward, beginning a new life that saw the flourishing of Jewish culture.


Like the rest of German Jewry, the Jews of Berlin suffered from the Nazi restrictions and persecution campaigns. The relaxation of anti-Jewish measures on the eve of the Olympic games in Berlin, in the summer of 1936, was of short duration, coming to an end as soon as the games were over.


On the 30 May 1937, a Razzia (raid) against Jews took place in the streets of Berlin, for all onlookers to see. The year 1933 also marked the beginning of a steady rise of Jewish migration, from all over Germany, including Berlin. Detailed figures on the movement of Jews to and from Berlin in the period 1933 to 1937 have not been preserved; of the 22,636 Jews who emigrated from Germany in 1937, 5,558 are known to have had their homes in Berlin.   


By the end of 1937 the Jewish population decreased to 140,000 and by September 1939 to 82,788 – which was about 50% of the Jewish population figure in 1933.


In Germany as a whole, the number of Jews in that period was reduced to approximately one-third of the number in 1933. This disparity between the rate of emigration from Berlin and that from the rest of the country may have meant that the Jews of Berlin felt more secure than other Jews.


In January 1939 the Zentralstelle fur Judische Auswanderung (Central Office for Jewish Emigration) was set up in Berlin, on the model of an office that the Nazis had first established in Vienna, under the control of Adolf Eichmann.


On the 5 March 1938, the Berlin Jewish community, like the other Jewish communities in Germany, was deprived of its status as a recognised public corporate body. In August 1939 it was re-established as a “society” under the aegis of the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland; in the interim period, between March 1938 and August 1939, the community was administered by an emergency committee of three – Heinrich Stahl, Moritz Henschel, and Herbert Selinger.


From August 1939 on, the community was classified, in legal terms, as a “Jewish religious society,” administered by a five-man committee and supervised by the Gestapo. Up to March 1940 Stahl was the chairman of the committee; he was followed by Henschel, who remained in office until February 1943, when the society was dissolved on the orders of the Gestapo.


On Kristallnacht which took place on November 9-10 1938, most of the synagogues of Berlin were burnt down, and Jewish schools, the offices of Jewish public institutions and Jewish medical clinics came under attack.


Jewish department stores were stormed and ransacked, and the shattering of the shop windows of the Jewish clothing stores on Leipzigerstrasse gave the pogrom its name. Dozens of Jews were murdered, and several thousand were arrested and taken to concentration camps, mainly Sachsenhausen- Oranienburg, which was located north of Berlin.


Jewish woman in Berlin wearing the compulsory star of David patch

In the wake of Kristallnacht, twelve hundred Jewish commercial enterprises in Berlin were put up for Aryanisation; buyers were found for seven hundred, while the remaining five hundred were declared unsuitable for sale.


Emmy Bonhoeffer the sister-in-law of the German Resistance martyr Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer recalled;


“I remember that the husband of my sister Lena, when he went in the morning after the day of the Kristallnacht, he went by train to his office down-town and he saw that the synagogue was burning and he murmured, “That is an insult for cultured people, an insult to culture.”


Well, right away a gentleman in front of him turned and showed his Party badge and took out his papers. He was a man of the Gestapo and my brother- in-law had to show his papers, to give his address and he was ordered to come to the Party office next morning at nine o’clock.


When my brother –in-law came home in the evening he told my sister what had happened and she said, “Couldn’t you keep your mouth? What will happen now?” They will take you in a concentration camp?”


I don’t know how he talked himself out of it but his punishment was that he had to arrange and to distribute the ration cards for the area each beginning of each month for years, until the end of the war.”


Other developments that followed Kristallnacht were the closing down, looting and burning of dozens of Jewish institutions and the confiscation of their property, among them the Lehranstalt fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the rabbinical seminary, the Jewish community library and museum, the archives of the community and of the Centralverein, and the library of the Adas Israel community.


Also confiscated were the Jewish manuscripts, documents and books in the libraries of Berlin universities, in the Bible Research Institute of the University of Berlin, in the Prussian State Archives and in the Berlin City Council archives.


Religious services were permitted in four synagogues but that was increased to nine in early 1939, the Nazis permitted only one Jewish newspaper to be published which was Das Judische Nachrichtenblatt in Berlin after November 1938.


As of the 3 December 1938 Jews were no longer free to move about as they liked. Under the Judenbann (ban on Jews), they were prohibited from entering government office compounds. The Berlin police also prohibited Jews from using bath-houses and public swimming pools. Later on during the early years of the Second World War period the only place where Jews were allowed to take walks was the Weissensee Jewish cemetery, but by May 1942 even this pleasure was denied to the Jews of Berlin.


Also in December 1938, the evacuation of Jews from residences in the prestigious parts of Berlin was launched, the official pretext being Albert Speer’s plans for the re-building of Berlin. At that point the Jewish community’s housing advisory office – which was subject to city police orders – was given wide powers regarding the housing of Berlin’s Jews.


In the final stages when the community was being liquidated, the data accumulated by that office was a major source for drawing up the lists of Jews to be deported to the death camps.


In the immediate post- Kristallnacht period, the Jewish community leaders saw their major task as facilitating the emigration from the Reich of the greater part of German Jewry and in the meantime creating temporary frameworks that would enable the Jews to hold out until they could emigrate.


Sigmund Weltlinger a member of the Berlin Jewish Council recalled:


Rabbi Leo Baeck

“I did not leave because in my life I have seldom gone out of my way to avoid danger, because I was deeply rooted in Germany – I had grown up in the sphere of German culture and found no obstacles, I had friendships with all and did not believe that there was any threat to me personally for my body and life.


And I thought, I shall get through this – I did not run away from it.”


At the outbreak of the Second World War an estimated 75,500 Jews were living in Berlin, the community employment office sought to find them productive job opportunities. In March 1941 the Berlin Jews were also subjected to a labour draft; they were paid a wage from which various deductions were made, including a “head tax” that went to the community


In early 1941 some 74,500 Jews were still living in Berlin, and in October of that year another 1,350 had emigrated, the last group left the city on 18 October and five days later further emigration of Jews from Germany was prohibited.


On the 19 September 1942 the yellow star was distributed to the Jews in community offices, for which they had to pay ten pfennig. This well organised distribution process enabled the community officials to carry out Gestapo orders to update the existing card index of Jewish residents in Berlin.


On the Day of Atonement in 1941, while Rabbi Leo Baeck was preaching, three top officials of the community, the president Moritz Henschel; his deputy Philip Kotzover, and the director of the housing office Martha Mosse were called out of the synagogue and summonsed to Gestapo headquarters.


At the Gestapo they were told of an impending action under which a substantial number of Jews were to be deported from Berlin. The community was ordered to submit without delay up to date lists of the city’s Jews, including their addresses, and to turn the Levetzow Street synagogue into a transit camp for one thousand evacuees.


Later, other such assembly points, pending evacuation, were set up in such places as the Jewish home for the aged, the community office building  and the Jewish hospital.


The deportation of Jews, under the cover of evacuation of the apartments they were occupying, now became the established process. A few days prior to the date fixed for their reporting to the assembly place, deportees were advised that in view of their impending departure for emigration (Abwanderung), their apartment leases had run out; they were also ordered to submit to the community office a declaration containing a detailed list of all their property.


This declaration was used by the community and the chiefs of the housing authority in Berlin in the re-possessions of Jewish property in the city. A Judischer Ordnungsdienst – a form of Jewish police – was established to make sure that the deportees would report at the appointed time.


Hundreds of Jews committed suicide rather than force deportation, in order to stem the panic, the publication of obituary notices was restricted and a special section was formed in the Jewish hospital to handle the suicide cases.


Some Jews tried to go underground and others tried to escape to neighbouring countries, the Gestapo activated a network of Jewish informants that succeeded in locating many Jews who had gone underground.


The villa at Wannsee where the infamous conference was held in 1942

The first transport left Berlin on the 18 October 1941 taking some one thousand Jews to the Lodz ghetto in Poland and from there to certain death by starvation or death in the gas vans at Chelmno.


Nine transports carrying 10,000  Berlin Jews left for the East, and probable destruction  their final destinations was to Lodz, Riga, Minsk, Kovno up to the 20 January 1942 which was the date of the infamous Wannsee Conference.   On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking Nazi party and German government leaders gathered for an important meeting.  


The meeting or conference (as it came to be known), was organized by Adolf Eichmann (SS-SturmbannfŸhrer), at the order of Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the German State Police and of the SD ("Sicherheitsdienst", "Security Service of the SS").


The conference was held in a suburb of Berlin at a villa by a lake known as Wannsee. The goal of this conference was the debate of the so-called "Final Solution of the Jewish Question". Heydrich wanted to harmonize the organisation and implementation of that "Final Solution" with every office and administrative department that was to participate in it. 


The first transport for the Theresienstadt Ghetto left Berlin on the 13 June 1942 the first transport to the Auschwitz death camp left Berlin on the 11 July 1942, carrying 210 Jews. In May 1942 the Jewish Communists underground exploded a fire bomb at the anti-Soviet exhibition “The Soviet Paradise,” which the Nazis reacted brutally and in retaliation 500 Jews were seized of whom half were shot on the spot and the remaining half were deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.


The Haluts underground in Berlin ordered its members to go into hiding, in June 1942 the services provided by the Jewish community were curtailed; the schools were closed down and some of the community staff were deported to the death camps.


Alois Brunner the deputy of Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for Jewish deportations as part of the RSHA, was not satisfied with the rate at which the deportations were being carried out and took personal charge of the deportations in November and December 1942.


In December when some of the Jews summoned for deportation had not reported, a corresponding number of Jews were seized in the Jewish community offices and either put on the deportation trains or shot on the spot. It is estimated that in the course of 1942 the number of Jews in Berlin was reduced from 55,000 to 33,000.


On the 26 and 27 January 1943, the senior officers of the Reichsvereinigung – Paul Eppstein, Philip Kotzover and Rabbi Leo Baeck were deported to Theresienstadt.


Until the beginning of 1943, Jews employed in the German armament industry were considered safe from deportation; however, on the 27 and 28 February such Jews were rounded up at their place of work and taken straight to the assembly points.


The large number of Jews seized on this occasion required the use of improvised places of detention, including the Jewish community building and a concert hall. Among the Jews arrested were the spouses of Aryans and those who had been exempt from wearing the yellow star; some of these Jews were released, perhaps because of a demonstration that was staged by their wives.


On the 28 January 1943, the Gestapo ordered the Berlin Jewish community to be legally liquidated and a month later on the 22 February 1943 Henschel reported that the order had been carried out. Jews who were not subject to deportation were trained to take over various posts in the Jewish hospital and in the Rest- Reichsvereinigung (Rump Association).


The mass deportations of February and March 1943 all went from Berlin to the Auschwitz- Birkenau death camp and by March 1943 he number of Jews remaining in Berlin was estimated at 27,260, which by the following month had gone down to 18,300.


Josef Goebbels Propaganda Minister for the Reich noted in his diary on the 11 April 1943 that “Berlin’s liberation from the Jews,” was one of the regime’s most important political achievements.


Staged anti-Jewish propaganda photos

In early June 1943 only 6,800 Jews were left in the city and on the 10 June 1943 the offices of the Jewish community, as well as all other Jewish organisations in Berlin were closed down, and the remaining employees were deported to Auschwitz. The capital of the Third Reich was declared Judenrein (cleansed of Jews).


Inge Deutschkron born in Berlin and in hiding from the beginning of February 1943 recalled;


“I remember the day when they made Berlin Judenrein, the people hastened in the streets, no one wanted to be in the streets; you could see the streets were absolutely empty.


They didn’t want to look, you know. They hastened to buy what they had to buy – they had to buy something for the Sunday you see. So they went shopping and hastened back into their houses.


And I remember this day very vividly because we saw police cars rushing through the streets of Berlin taking people out of their houses. They had herded the Jews together from factories, from houses, wherever they could find them and had put them into something that was called “Klu.”


Klu was a dance restaurant, a very big one. From there they were deported in various transports. They were going off not very far from here on one of the tracks at the Grunewald station, and this was the day when I suddenly felt so utterly alone, left alone, because now I know we would be one of the very few people left.    


I didn’t know how many more would be underground. This also was the day when I felt very guilty that I didn’t go myself and I tried to escape fate that the others could not escape.


There was no more warmth around, no more soul akin to us, you understand. And we talked about this. What happened to Elsa? To Hans? And where is he and where is she?


My God, what happened to the child? These were our thoughts on that horrible day. And this feeling of being terribly alone and terribly guilty that we did not go with them


Why did we try? What made us do this? To escape fate – that was really our destiny or the destiny of our people.”


The Jewish hospital, directed by Dr Walter Lustig, was in operation up to the end of the war; it served mainly as an assembly camp for Jews from Berlin and other parts of Germany, pending their deportation to the extermination camps.  The Jewish cemetery in Weissensee was also functioning.


The last deportations from Berlin took place in February 1945 to Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck concentration camps, and the final one went to Theresienstadt on the 27 March 1945.


A total of 50,535 Jews were deported from Berlin to the East, 4,700 Jews married to Aryans survived in Berlin, plus another 1,400 who had gone into hiding, nineteen hundred Jews returned to Berlin from the death camps.


See the Berlin Image Gallery for more photos of the City during the Holocaust




The History of the Second World War – published by Purnell London 1966

Encyclopaedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, edited by Shumel Spector, published by New York University Press 2001   

Wiener Library  

Chris Webb Archive  

Holocaust Historical Society







Copyright Chris Webb H.E.A.R.T 2010



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