Diary reveals ordinary Germans’ Holocaust complicity
BLUFFTON, Ohio—The diary of a Jewish German woman who survived the Holocaust convincingly conveys the extent to which the Nazi regime “depended on ordinary Germans to act out its vicious anti-Semitic ideologies and policies,” according to a Bluffton University historian.
The diary of Erna Becker-Kohen further illustrates how “successfully and relentlessly” the Nazis, with considerable help from German citizens, persecuted Jews and isolated them from their neighbors and families, “before they moved on to murdering them,” said Dr. Martina Cucchiara, an assistant professor of history.
Speaking at a recent campus colloquium, Cucchiara said she came across the diary’s loose-leaf pages “by pure chance” last summer in a German archive, where she had been conducting research with the aid of a Bluffton University Research Center grant.
She now intends not only to use the diary in her teaching, but also, with the help of a colleague in Massachusetts, to have it published by a major university press. But first, she will return to Germany to retrace Becker-Kohen’s flight for survival through Germany and Austria and to identify as many of the people and places she mentioned as possible.
The gathering storm
When Hitler rose to power in 1933, the Nazis began to systematically isolate the roughly 500,000 Jewish Germans from their non-Jewish countrymen. In 1935, with adoption of the rights-stripping Nuremberg Laws, the Nazis finally defined who was Jewish—anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents—and forbade all social and sexual relationships, as well as marriage, between Jews and non-Jews, Cucchiara noted. Thus, she said, anyone who maintained intimate relations with a Jew after 1935 became a so-called “defiler” of the “Aryan” race—a label forced upon Becker-Kohen’s non-Jewish husband, Gustav.
When the Nuremberg Laws were implemented, the regime, lacking sufficient numbers of Gestapo secret police, relied on citizens to help enforce them, the historian pointed out. Germans had to break off friendships with Jews and report friends and neighbors who didn’t comply with the laws. “People took to that with great zeal,” Cucchiara said. They could also participate in public shaming of lawbreakers, which she described as a “spectacle that served to intimidate, entertain and foster cohesion among non-Jewish Germans.”
The laws also forced the Nazis to consider the roughly 35,000 “mixed marriages” such as Becker-Kohen’s, Cucchiara continued. The state didn’t forcibly dissolve the marriages “because they feared the backlash from the Catholic and Protestant churches,” but they did urge non-Jewish spouses to divorce their Jewish partners, she said.
Jewish Germans in mixed marriages were marginally privileged, including not having to wear the yellow Star of David, she noted. “Most importantly, after 1941, it bought time, because initially, these Jews were spared deportation to the death camps in the East,” she stressed.
“But the word ‘privileged’ should be used very cautiously,” she added, because the diary makes clear that despite Becker-Kohen’s marriage to a non-Jewish man, “she suffered the same ‘social death’ and merciless persecution at the hands of authorities and neighbors as all other Jews.”
In her first diary entry, at Christmas 1937, Becker-Kohen wrote about expecting her first child the following March: “We will both be subjected to much contempt and hatred because I am a Jew and my husband is a defiler (of the “Aryan”) race. Although he stands by me, because he loves me so very much, he too will not be able to change the fact that people will reject not just me but his child as well.”
She and her husband lived in Berlin, where Gustav worked as a scientist. In early 1941, she wrote: “We live in a quite ‘respectable’ area, where many families of civil servants live honorably but as good National Socialists they believe that they must not leave a Jew in peace. Their hatred knows no bounds.”
She also recorded her ostracism: “If someone even dares to speak to me in the street, he immediately receives a warning from the local Nazi warden. … Recently the wife of the pharmacist expressed the wish to become my friend. I told her that this was impossible because I was a Jewess. She told me that she did not care … but I retorted that three days from now she will no longer even greet me in the street, and that’s how it was. … When I ran into her a few days later, she looked the other way.”
Becker-Kohen’s life grew harder with new restrictions during World War II, Cucchiara said. As food rationing began, for example, Jews received fewer rations and could only shop from 4-5 p.m., when “most shops had been cleared out,” she explained.
Gustav did most of the shopping—Erna rarely went out in public for fear of physical attack—but she still had to get milk in the morning for their young son, Silvan. Because she couldn’t enter a shop before 4 p.m., she had to send in Silvan, who was considered of “mixed blood” and exempt from most anti-Jewish measures, the historian said.
After a 1942 incident, when her son was 5, Becker-Kohen wrote: “The other women had no mercy and instantly raised a huge fuss over the fact that the Jewess sends her child to go shopping at a time when she is prohibited from doing so herself. Now they will no longer serve my son. How hard people are! Even mothers have no compassion.”
Outside the shop, children, encouraged by their parents, threw rocks at mother and son, added Cucchiara.
Seeking refuge in the church
Even before that episode, Gustav decided it was too dangerous for his wife and son to remain in their Berlin home. And after Nazi authorities drove Erna’s elderly mother out of her home in Frankfurt, Becker-Kohen—desperate for a place for herself and her mother to stay—turned, Cucchiara said, to “the only institution she trusts: the Catholic church.”
She had converted to Catholicism sometime as an adult but, as she wrote during Holy Week in 1940: “I tell everyone I meet that I am Jewish, for I am consumed by the fear that people could come to believe that I use my Christian faith to cover up my Jewish heritage. … Gustav and well-meaning priests caution me against this but I will continue to do it even it if means putting myself into danger.”
She turned to the church throughout the war “for solace and aid,” seeking priests, nuns and fellow Catholics “in the hope of finding refuge, acceptance and some peace,” Cucchiara pointed out. Without the help of a small number of them, she said, “Erna most likely would not have survived the war.”
“At the same time, her harrowing experiences convey the troubling reality that many, if not most, Christians, Catholics and Protestants voluntarily and even eagerly participated in the persecution of Jews, even within their own faith communities.”
Among those “harrowing experiences”:
- banishment from residences, two Catholic convents and her Catholic church;
- one arrest and an attempted second one she was able to evade by hiding;
- a serious fall that required treatment she would be denied at the local hospital;
- an unsuccessful suicide attempt that apparently caused permanent heart damage;
- two serious illnesses
After the war
As the war’s end neared in spring 1945, she wrote that it “has become a race for freedom. Will the Americans get here in time? If the authorities make a move against me, I could still be lost. … The waiting is almost unbearable. … The enemy approaches.”
Then, on May 5: “It is almost unbelievable. We have survived the war. Everything went well. Not a single shot was fired. Although for me, it meant liberation from mortal danger, I cannot share the joy of the population.”
Following that was what Cucchiara called “something quite incredible, almost unfathomable”: “I don’t like soldiers. Blood clings to their hands. In this case, the blood of my countrymen.”
Learning that most of her large family died in the gas chambers in Poland, lacking any word on her husband’s whereabouts and sending her son to live with relatives in Switzerland—where children were commonly sent to recuperate after the war—she again considered suicide, the historian said.
In January 1946, however, she found out her husband was alive. He managed to join her in Austria, but he could not walk upright and was in constant pain, the result of an untreated spinal injury that occurred while he was in a forced labor camp. His health improved, as she noted in a 1950 diary entry, but he died two years later at age 47.
Becker-Kohen then left Germany with her son to join her sister in Chile but returned in 1954. In her last entry, in January 1963, she wrote: “After years of wandering, I have finally found my way back into community, and we have made friends. … Every once in a while I travel to Austria and spend time in the cemetery at the foot of the mountains. Next to Gustav’s grave there is a chapel with a mosaic that depicts Moses with the snake. It tells me that, just like Moses saved Israel from the deadly bite of the snake, so Christ, through the cross, brought salvation and healing.”
The hopeful ending aside, Cucchiara said Becker-Kohen’s story is not one of triumph, as those of Holocaust survivors are often portrayed. It is, instead, a story of “hard suffering, and the suffering continued,” she maintained, citing the diary as a rare record of Jewish survivors in Germany.