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Apr 2006 Journal

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1 April 1933: the first action against the Jews

On 1 April 1933, the newly installed Nazi regime, barely two months old, launched a one-day boycott of Jewish businesses and professions. The boycott was the first state-sponsored measure against the Jews, the first step on the long and dreadful road that led to the Nuremberg Laws, the Crystal Night pogrom, and eventually the 'Final Solution'. It initiated the process of official, state-inspired discrimination against the Jews and their separation from society as an inferior group no longer protected by law from the depredations and cruelty of the Nazis. The boycott began what the historian Lucy Dawidowicz called 'the war against the Jews'. It should not be allowed to drift into obscurity.

Hitler entrusted the organisation of the boycott to a Central Committee for Defence against Jewish Atrocity and Boycott Propaganda (Zentralkomitee zur Abwehr der jüdischen Greuel- und Boykotthetze), headed by the notorious antisemite Julius Streicher. Particular targets of the boycott were department stores and other multiples, which were often Jewish-owned; the Nazis knew that attacks on these would be popular with their antisemitic following and with the many shopkeepers and small businessmen whose pervasive fear of chain stores and economic modernisation was easily turned against the often imaginary threat of Jewish competition. The inefficiency with which this committee approached the boycott, originally planned for three days, led Hitler to call it off after one day, and it failed to shatter German Jewry economically.

That was not what struck Jewish observers at the time. For the first time, Jews were at the mercy of Nazi thugs and SA hooligans, while the police stood by and watched. SA men marched through the streets of German cities daubing Jewish-owned businesses with the Star of David and crude anti-Jewish graffiti, while Brownshirts swaggered and postured outside Jewish shops to intimidate the owners and deter customers. Groups of thugs invaded universities, courts and hospitals to evict the Jews they expected to find there. In Kiel a Jewish lawyer was killed.

Above all, Boycott Day was a psychological hammer blow to the German Jews, for it struck at the very core of their identity - by 1933 often more German than Jewish - and at their sense of security as German citizens. On its 25th anniversary, Robert Weltsch, who in 1933 had been the editor of the Jüdische Rundschau and in 1958 was a prominent member of the AJR, wrote in AJR Information:

In this earthquake the edifice of concepts cherished by the German Jews collapsed. The ground was dragged away from under their feet. Most of them could not understand what was happening. They had been bona fide Germans, certainly law-abiding, patriotic citizens; Germany was their nation and country, they were brought up in the German language and culture, they were grateful and loyal to the fatherland and had taken part in fighting its battles. They did not know anything else, as far as political loyalty was concerned. Now suddenly they were confronted with a hostile world which taught them that they were Jews. Being a Jew had not had much meaning to them until that day. Now it was the only refuge that was left to them.

Far worse things were to befall the Jews in the subsequent 12 years. But the boycott marked a critical turning point at which Jews were marked out for special discriminatory treatment. The AJR, greatly to its credit, recognised that, and its journal regularly published articles on the five- and ten-year anniversaries for, to quote Weltsch again, 'it was April 1st which for the first time aroused that mixture of indignation, surprise, terror and despair, which made the Jews understand that an epoch of their history had come to an end'. Though the German Jews had not suffered losses in the Holocaust on the scale of Polish or Hungarian Jewry, the refugees from Germany were concerned to stress that German Jewry had endured Nazi rule for the full 12 years of the Third Reich; they were also painfully aware that their own homeland had given birth to Nazism and had rejected them as outcasts.

But they also took pride in German Jewry's reaction to the indignities inflicted on it. The Jews of Germany drew together in a new spirit of communal solidarity, showing great courage in the face of overwhelming adversity. On 4 April 1933, Robert Weltsch published a celebrated article in the Jüdische Rundschau entitled 'Tragt ihn mit Stolz, den gelben Fleck!', in which he urged his readers to wear the Yellow Star as a badge of pride that demonstrated their moral superiority to the mean-spirited barbarity of the Nazis; he could not know at that date that the Yellow Star would later be used to label those to be deported to their death. Twenty years later, at a meeting organised by the AJR at Woburn House, Rabbi Leo Baeck, who had survived Theresienstadt, was able to contrast the steadfastness of the Jews with the moral cowardice displayed by German society on that 'Tag der großen Feigheit', where justice itself fell victim to a boycott.
Anthony Grenville

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