Adolf Hitler ascended to power in Germany on January 30, 1933, when President Paul von Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor of the Reich. He now had the opportunity to implement his racial ideology and worldview regarding Jews. At that time, Germany's Jewish population numbered 525,000 out of a general population of 67 million. After the March 5 Reichstag elections, the new government removed the constraints on violence against Jews, and assaults on Jewish businesses and vicious beatings of Jews by Nazi thugs became commonplace. On March 20, the German government established the first concentration camp, Dachau, near Munich. On April 1, the government launched an official boycott of Jewish doctors, lawyers, and merchants. Because of international outrage, Hitler limited the boycott to one day. On April 7, Hitler approved decrees banning Jews and other non-Aryans from the practice of law and from jobs in the civil service, and forced Jewish government employees to retire. On April 11, the government issued a decree defining a non-Aryan as a person "who is descended from non-Aryan, especially Jewish parents or grandparents. This holds true even if one parent or grandparent is of non-Aryan descent. This premise especially obtains if one parent or grandparent was of Jewish faith." On May 10, Jewish and other books deemed of "un-German spirit," were burned in public bonfires in Berlin and university towns. The books included works by Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Emile Zola, H.G. Wells, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, and others. In September, Jews were banned from the fields of journalism, art, literature, music, broadcasting, and theater. (1)
Germany's Jews reacted to these events with alarm and disbelief. The elite among them experienced an especially deep dismay. They assumed that their economic and social position and contributions to German life and culture would shield them from danger. It did not. Most members of the B'nai B'rith lodges came from this class. As such, they faced an additional threat: the Nazi press reported that the government placed "the B'nai B'rith and similar lodges and associations with foreign ties" under special political observation because "these organizations are subsidized by foreign capital, spent in the effort to spread pacifism among the German people whose martial spirit they may weaken with their brotherhood-of-man ideas." (2)
The Nazis viewed the B'nai B'rith and its members as subversives and part of world Jewry's conspiracy to destroy the Aryan race and rule the world. Thus they focused on destroying them. Its main office in Berlin was often searched, and in smaller cities the Gestapo placed officers of the B'nai B'rith under constant surveillance. Heinrich Himmler justified the terror measures undertaken by the Nazis against them as serving the struggle against "the subversive activities of purely Jewish Lodges and organizations." In 1933, his primary target was the B'nai B'rith. (3) In July 1933, an incident occurred in Nuremberg, Germany that illustrated the kind of "special" treatment B'nai B'rith members could expect. Alfred Cohen, president of the International Order of B'nai B'rith, learned of this occurrence through a letter sent to him by Walter Freudenthal, a physician and B'nai B'rith member living in New Rochelle, New York. Freudenthal's letter included a report given to him by a German B'nai B'rith member who just arrived in the United States. Freudenthal vouches that the newcomer "is absolutely trustworthy." The details in the report shocked and deeply distressed Cohen.
You have heard no doubt about the 20lh of July, 1933 affair in Niirnberg where the Nazis arrested the 300 most prominent Jews of the congregation.
The excuse for the arrest of these Jews has been that they are members of the B'nai B'rith lodge. The treatment which has been accorded to these men is so horrible that I hate to repeat all details. Sixty, seventy, and eighty year old men; Doctors, lawyers, and businessmen have been forced to kneel down for an hour and bite the grass off with their teeth. After this they were forced to run for an hour or an hour and a half on one of the hottest days. All this has not been done by the regular police, but by some Nazi storm troopers. When all this was over, they were examined and were told, 'Now you can go home, but if you mention anything in public, we will go after you and kill you.' This was done by Nazi storm troopers. The Police did nothing to relieve the situation. (4)
The cruel and humiliating behavior of the storm troopers exemplifies the kind of treatment B'nai B'rith members and other Jews would be subjected to by the German government.
A few days later, another report to Alfred Cohen supplied additional details about the incident. It related that the arrested men were "compelled to parade through the streets of the city before large crowds who gathered to watch the spectacle of their Jewish neighbors being humiliated." The report states that the B'nai B'rith Jews were arrested because of "the preposterous charge that the B'nai B'rith was fomenting a revolution against the Nazi government." Afterward, none of the men were willing to talk to reporters. (5)
It was once assumed that after Hitler's accession to power, the general press served as the main source of information about the Nazi government for the Jewish leadership in America as well as for the public. For the first few weeks, this may have been so. But soon Jewish leaders began to get more detailed and explicit information about Nazi actions against Jews through direct contact with the victims. The Berlin office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which was in close contact with needy Jews, served as one source. Another major source was the authentic letters that German Jews sent to relatives and major Jewish organizations in the United States. (6)
The B'nai B'rith was one of major beneficiaries of these letters. German B'nai B'rith members wrote personal and emotional letters to relatives living in the United States, voicing their fears and describing the nightmare they found themselves in. The letters were originally written in English or translated from the German into English at the B'nai B'rith office. The letters movingly express the consternation and terror the writers felt as their world collapsed. The letters quoted here are from those sent directly or forwarded to the American B'nai B'rith offices in Cincinnati. Because the letters are reliable testimonies and written from the heart, they add a personal and intimate dimension to our knowledge of what B'nai B'rith members and other Jews in Germany were undergoing.
The contents of these letters had a strong affect on America's B'nai B'rith executives and influenced what they, in turn, communicated to their colleagues and their general membership. The correspondence of these executives allow us to gain a deeper understanding of their distress and the terrible predicament they faced in deciding how to respond to what the Nazis inflicted on their brethren. The German Jewish letters together with the B'nai B'rith executives' letters highlight the anguish of both groups during the initial months of Hitler's regime.
The B'nai B'rith
The B'nai B'rith (Sons of the Covenant) Order was established by twelve young German Jewish men in New York in 1843. Four of the founders had been members of the Freemasons or the Odd Fellows. But when these organizations began to systematically reject Jewish applicants, these men decided to create a Jewish fraternal organization modeled on the Masons. In its early years, the B'nai B'rith articulated a concept of Jewish ness that existed separate from the synagogues and rabbinic authority. As enunciated by these founders, they wanted "to show, by means of honor, good manners, support of public welfare, respect for the law, our love of our homeland [USA], that Judaism corresponds with the principle of pure ethics and humanity." According to the historian Deborah Dash Moore, the organization proclaimed "a bold new vision of Jewish identity." Consequently, the B'nai B'rith represented the "first secular Jewish organization in the United States." In later years, many non-religious Jews identified as Jews solely through their membership in the B'nai B'rith. (7)
B'nai B'rith's goals encompassed values of humanity, tolerance, and charity, and sought to unify Jewish society under the ethical and intellectual values of Judaism. B'nai B'rith chapters were named "Lodges," and its members referred to as "brethren." A country with more than one chapter was called a "District." The American B'nai B'rith was composed mostly of Jews of German descent, as were the national order's executives. Until 1938, when Henry Monsky, a man of eastern European Jewish descent, became president, all of the organization's national presidents were of German Jewish descent. In 1933, the American membership totaled 30,000, making it the largest Jewish fraternal organization in the United States. (8)
The history of the B'nai B'rith in Germany began in 1882. That year a number of Jewish men established the country's first B'nai B'rith Lodge in Berlin. They did so as a consequence of the rising wave of antisemitism among the populace and in fraternal organizations. By 1880, an antisemitic movement had appeared in Germany. The movement gained impetus from Kaiser Wilhelm's court preacher Adolph Stocker, who founded the country's first antisemitic political party, the Christian Social Party, in 1878. His cause acquired an aura of respectability through the articles of the prominent academic historian and public figure, Heinrich von Treitschke, who warned against Jewish dominance in German life and asserted that "the Jews are our misfortune." At the same time, the radical publicist and journalist Wilhelm Marr endowed the movement with a new term, "antisemitism," and co-founded...