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Everyday Life: Roles, Motives, and Choices During the Holocaust

Family Life During the Holocaust

The Holocaust radically reshaped the structures and functions of family life—for Jewish families as well as non-Jewish families. The primary sources in this collection show how the upheavals caused by the Nazi regime, World War II, and the Holocaust forced many people in Europe to redefine the meaning of family life. 

Family Life During the Holocaust

The Nazi regime began to apply its ideas about race and national unity to German society shortly after Adolf Hitler was appointed German chancellor in January 1933. Nazi ideology focused on creating a politically unified German society based on membership in the so-called "Aryan" race. As an important building block of society, the family unit became a central part of the regime's efforts to create this imagined "people's community."1 During the years of Nazi rule, German authorities tried to redefine German family dynamics through a variety of racial policies. The racial policies of the Nazi regime excluded and persecuted those whom Nazi ideology defined as "racial enemies"—particularly Jews. This often led to the disruption or breakdown of traditional family roles and relationships. 

The Nazi regime created legal distinctions between Jewish people and so-called "Aryans" that heavily impacted German family life. On September 15, 1935, the government passed the Nuremberg Race Laws, which legally defined Jews as a separate race based on the religion of their parents and grandparents. Anyone with three or more grandparents born into the Jewish religious community was classified as Jewish regardless of their religious beliefs, cultural associations, or self-identification. The new laws not only excluded Jewish people from being citizens of the Third Reich, but they also banned marriages and sexual relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans. Subsequent laws introduced another categorization for people who had both Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry. The Nazi regime classified these Germans as "Mischlinge"—an insulting and dehumanizing term meaning "mixed-race" that was often used to refer to livestock or other domesticated animals.2 

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Nazi racial policies promoted the growth of so-called "Aryan" families, but only if they were deemed "racially valuable." German citizens not only had to document their so-called "racial purity"—they also had to establish what Nazi theories of eugenics referred to as their "hereditary health."3 This was based not just on an individual's health, but also on the medical histories of the individual's entire family tree. People with family members or ancestors who had been diagnosed with conditions such as alcoholism, epilepsy, or certain mental or physical disabilities were not considered to be what Nazi racial theorists called "good racial stock." Germans who wanted to get married had to establish their so-called "hereditary health" with official records such as birth and marriage certificates. Publications such as the featured brochure "But Who Are You?" tried to promote these ideas and help people navigate the required genealogical research. 

The Lebensborn program was another way that the Nazi regime tried to reshape German society according to Nazi concepts of race and heredity.4 Lebensborn maternity centers were created to encourage so-called "racially valuable" women to have children even if they were unmarried. These maternity homes were located away from the prying eyes of friends and family to reduce social stigma. Selected pregnant women were provided with medical care and comfortable conditions for the time of their pregnancy and labor. The Lebensborn brochure featured here shows how the program tried to appeal to prospective participants.

During the years of Nazi rule, anti-Jewish discrimination and violence challenged and disrupted Jewish family life in a number of ways. On the night of November 9 to 10, 1938, Nazi leaders directed widespread violence against the Jewish population of the Third Reich. These anti-Jewish pogroms are often referred to as Kristallnacht. According to the official figures of German authorities, 91 Jewish people were murdered. The actual figure—including those who later died from their wounds—is likely in the hundreds. Roughly 30,000 Jewish men were imprisoned in concentration camps. As a result, countless numbers of Jewish families became fatherless while many women took over the traditionally male role of breadwinner.5 Mass arrests of Jewish men also put pressure on women to organize their release and lead family efforts to emigrate.

The November 1938 pogroms also led to a large increase in Jewish emigration from the Third Reich.6 As permits and visas became difficult to obtain, some Jewish families decided to accept the British government’s offer to send their children to the United Kingdom. In the years 1938–1939, Great Britain admitted roughly 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children under the age of 17 who left the Third Reich in the so-called Kindertransport. While the program promised reunification between parents, children, and siblings, the reality was often far more complicated—as this featured diary entry shows. 

Nazi Germany's territorial expansion and the outbreak of World War II challenged the very nature of the family as a source of safety and stability. The German annexation of Austria in March 1938 and the annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland a year later caused many families in these regions to flee Nazi rule. Weeks after the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the Third Reich annexed parts of western Poland and transformed the remainder of German-occupied Poland into an admininistrative district known as the General Government. Nazi authorities there soon imposed multiple anti-Jewish laws, including the introduction of ghettos.7 German authorities separated Jewish families from the rest of the population and forced them to live in terrible conditions within these ghettos. The experiences of life within these ghettos transformed family roles and dynamics. Children often had to smuggle food for their relatives, as shown in the featured source, "Food, Money, and Human Life."8  

On June 22, 1941, German forces and their allies attacked the Soviet Union. Mobile killing units known as Einsatzgruppen began murdering civilians in the occupied territories of the USSR.9 Members of the German army, German police, and the SS all became involved in these campaigns. The German men in these units still played a role in the lives of their families far from home, and they often mailed letters and parcels home to Germany. The featured letter from Karl Kretschmer to his family shows how mass murder became another one of the everyday details that one father shared with his family—as casually as he described playing cards or going to the movies.

Nazi concepts of race and national unity targeted Jews, Roma and Sinti, and people with disabilities as biological threats to the so-called "people's community." But Nazi policies also persecuted other members of German society for not being politically or socially acceptable to the regime.10 Among them were Jehovah's Witnesses, a Christian religious minority that refused loyalty to the Third Reich due to their religious beliefs. Labeling members of this group as "antisocial," Nazi courts removed hundreds of children from their parents' custody. Authorities placed many of these children in reformatory schools.11 The decision in the case of Franz Josef Seitz describes how one Jehovah's Witness fought for custody of his teenage son.

The primary sources in this collection offer key insights into the upheaval of traditional family roles in Europe between 1933 and 1945. Showing the intersection of politics and daily life, the collection draws attention to the complex and rapidly changing circumstances facing both Jewish and non-Jewish families during this period. These sources not only show how Nazi policies and escalating persecution changed family life, but also how the role of individual choice shaped family dynamics.

To learn more about Nazi ideas about national unity and the so-called "people's community," see Visions of Community in Nazi Germany: Social Engineering and Private Lives, eds. Martina Steber and Bernhard Gotto (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). 

To learn more about these policies, see Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933–1945 (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009).

The Nuremberg Laws distinguished two types of so-called "Mischlinge." A "Mischling" of the first degree was a person with two Jewish grandparents who did not belong to the Jewish religion or who was not married to a Jewish person as of September 15, 1935. A "Mischling" of the second degree, or quarter-Jew, was someone with one Jewish grandparent. To learn more about Nazi racial classifications, see Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, vol. I, 3rd Edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 61–77. 

For more on this policy, see Eric Ehrenreich, The Nazi Ancestral Proof: Genealogy, Racial Science, and the Final Solution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).

Lebensborn translates to "Fount of life." For more on Lebensborn, see Catrine Clay and Michael Leapman, Master Race: The Lebensborn Experiment in Nazi Germany (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995).

To learn more about the experiences of Jewish women during and after these pogroms, see Marion Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 125–144. 

Roughly 36,000 Jews left Germany and Austria in 1938 and 77,000 in 1939.

German authorities established several hundred ghettos on occupied Polish territory between 1939-1941. For more details, see Geoffrey P. Megargee et al., eds, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Vol. II: Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe (Bloomington: Indiana Press University Press, in association with USHMM, 2013).

To learn more, see Lenore J. Weitzman, "Resistance in Everyday Life: Family Strategies, Role Reversals, and Role Sharing in the Holocaust,” in Jewish Families in Europe, 1939–Present: History, Representation, and Memory, ed. Joanna Beata Michlic (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2017), 46–66.

To learn more about the Einsatzgruppen, see Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002). 

To learn more about how the Nazi regime targeted different groups in the Third Reich, see William F. Meinecke, ed., Nazi Ideology and the Holocaust (Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2007). 

In the chapter "Escalating Persecution," Detlef Garbe describes the situation of the Jehovah's Witnesses children and their families. See Detlef Garbe, Between Resistance and Martyrdom: Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Third Reich (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), 169–203. 



All 21 Items in the Family Life During the Holocaust Collection

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