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Family Life

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

Family Life During the Holocaust

For both Jews and non-Jews, the Holocaust radically reshaped the meaning, structure, and functions of family life. Spanning the beginnings of the Nazi regime, the onset of World War II, and the escalation of the Holocaust, this collection examines the redefinition of the family in Europe between 1933 and 1945. 

Adolf Hitler's appointment as German chancellor in January 1933 marked the beginning of a dictatorship based on terror, racism, and antisemitism. Central to the Nazi regime's aims was the creation of a "racially pure" German society. The family unit—as an important building block of society—became a focus for creating the desired "people's community."1 Through a variety of racial policy measures, Nazi authorities sought to redefine the structure and function of the German family. Meanwhile, they excluded and persecuted "racial enemies"—particularly Jews2—in ways that often led to the disruption or breakdown of traditional roles and relations. 

Amost immediately upon assuming power in Germany, the Nazis created legal distinctions between Jews and non-Jews. On September 15, 1935, the government passed the Nuremberg Laws, defining 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 a Jew regardless of their religious beliefs or cultural associations. The new law not only excluded Jews as citizens of the Third Reich but also banned marriages or any sexual relations between those perceived as Jews and non-Jewish Germans. Subsequent laws that introduced another categorization called Mischlinge applied to "mixed-raced" individuals.3 As a result, couples seeking to marry were required to prove their "Aryan" descent to avoid the production of "interracial" children.

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At the same time that "mixed race" Jewish families were criminalized, "pure Aryan" families were elevated and promoted by the Nazi state. The establishment of the Nuremberg Laws was followed by another policy, introduced in 1933, known as "ancestral proof."4 Through official records such as birth and marriage certificates, German citizens had to document their "racial purity" and "hereditary health" based on the health of their ancestors.5 Publications such as the brochure "But Who Are You?", included in this collection, attempted to assist fellow Germans with required genealogical research. 

Another step in Nazi racial policy was the establishment of the Lebensborn program.To reverse a shrinking population of "racially pure" Germans, maternity centers managed by Lebensborn encouraged women to become mothers by providing them with comprehensive care and comfortable conditions for the time of pregnancy and labor. The short pamphlet presented in this collection was a way Lebensborn reached out to women eager to give birth to "Aryan" children.

The Nuremberg Laws and the Lebensborn program used the instruments of law and government to establish "racially pure" families.  By the late 1930s, escalating violence also threatened Jewish families. On the night of November 9 to 10, 1938, Nazi leaders directed a series of pogroms against the Jewish population of the Third Reich. During the events known as Kristallnacht, about 30,000 Jewish men were imprisoned in concentration camps. Consequently, hundreds of Jewish families became fatherless while many women took over the traditionally male role of breadwinner.7 Mass arrests of Jewish men also put pressure on women to organize their release and the family's efforts to emigrate.

The Kristallnacht pogroms also led to a large increase in Jewish emigration from the Third Reich.8 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. Between 1938–1939, Great Britain admitted some 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children under the age of 17, deported from the Third Reich in the so-called Kindertransport. While the program promised reunification between parents, children, and siblings, the reality—as this diary entry shows—was far more complicated. 

Upon Germany's expansion and the eventual outbreak of war, Jewish families found themselves in circumstances that challenged the very nature of the family as a source of safety and stability. Following German annexation of Austria in March 1938 and part of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland a year later, the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 signaled the outbreak of World War II. After a swift defeat of the Polish army, the Third Reich annexed western Poland and transformed the remainder into an admininistrative district known as the General Government. Nazi authorities there soon imposed multiple anti-Jewish laws, including the introduction of Jewish ghettos.9 Poor conditions in these designated Jewish districts—stemming from enclosure, lack of provisioning, and insufficient housing—deeply affected the functioning of the family. Several selected documents reflecting everyday obstacles families faced in ghettos are presented in this collection. They touch upon issues of transforming family dynamics, such as deteriorating relations and role reversals within the family unit, exemplified by children smuggling food for their relatives.10  

On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and mobile killing units known as Einsatzgruppen began operations in the occupied territories of the USSR.11 Members of the the German security police conducted mass killings with Wehrmacht and other units, including the SS. Involved in the mass murder of Soviet Jews, those men were also sons, husbands, and fathers. Far from home, they were sometimes challenged by their participation in the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." While dispatched on these gruesome assignments, they often mailed letters and parcels home in support of their families in Germany. An example of correspondence between a member of Einsatzgruppen and his wife and children appears in this collection, reflecting the proximity of family life to acts of genocide.

Besides Jews and other groups targeted for racial reasons, Nazi policy persecuted other members of German society.12 Among them were the Jehovah's Witnesses, a 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. Claiming that their families lacked the appropriate values to properly raise German citizens, authorities placed many Jehovah's Witnesses' children in reformatory schools.13 A court appeal, featured in this collection, details a Jehovah's Witness's battle for custody of his teenage son.

Through the selected documents, photographs, and multimedia, this collection offers key insights into the redefinition of family roles in Europe between 1933 and 1945. Showing the intersection of politics and daily life, it draws attention to the complex and rapidly changing circumstances facing both Jewish and non-Jewish families during this period. These sources not only illustrate the Nazi policy and escalating persecution as a main factor behind changes in family life but also highlight the role of individual choice in shaping their effect on family dynamics.

German: Volksgemeinschaft. For in-depth analysis of the Volksgemeinschaft concept, see the edited volume Visions of Community in Nazi Germany: Social Engineering and Private Lives, eds. Martina Steber and Bernhard Gotto (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). 

Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933–1945 (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009).

The Nuremberg Laws distinguished two types of Mischlinge citizens. 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 Jew as of September 15, 1935. A Mischling of the second degree, or quarter-Jew, was someone with one Jewish grandparent. For the definition of various racial categories in the Third Reich, including Mischlinge, see Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, vol. I, 3rd Edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 61–77. 

German: Abstammungsnachweis.

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: "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).

The experiences of Jewish women during and after the events of Kristallnacht were explored in the published paper by Marion Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Women in the Aftermath of November 1938 (New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1996), later expanded in the book Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 125–144. 

Approximately 36,000 Jews left Germany and Austria in 1938 and 77,000 in 1939 as an aftermath of Kristallnacht

The Nazis established several hundred ghettos on 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).

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.

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

For details on how the Nazi regime applied to various victim 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 20 Items in the Family Life During the Holocaust Collection

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