The great bulk of the AJR’s membership has always consisted of Jewish refugees from the German-speaking lands of Germany and Austria that were situated to the west of the Iron Curtain after 1945 and formed part of Western Europe for the entire period of the Cold War. That also applied to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the reunification of Germany brought about the reintegration of the former GDR into a reunited Germany; from then on, Jews who had been born in Leipzig, Dresden or East Berlin could look back on their native cities in much the same way as those who had been born in Frankfurt or Hamburg.
That was not the case for those refugees who were born in the formerly German areas to the east of the Oder-Neisse line, since 1945 part of Poland, or, in the case of the enclave of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), of Russia, for the entire German element in those areas was systematically removed after 1945. If they had returned, Jewish refugees from Silesia, East Prussia and eastern Pomerania, areas that had been part of Germany until 1945, would have seen only cityscapes from which everything German had been erased. The same is true of the port of Danzig (now Gdansk), which enjoyed the status of a free city between the wars, of the provinces of Posen and West Prussia, most of which became part of Poland after 1918, and of Baltic cities like Memel (now Klaipeda in Lithuania) or Libau (now Liepaja in Latvia) that were mainly or partly German-speaking until 1945.
The German and Austro-Hungarian Empires that extended across Eastern Europe before 1918 contained large concentrations of Jews in their eastern reaches, communities that were often German-speaking and in many cases identified themselves more with German culture than with that of the local nationalities surrounding them. Their admiration for Germany, the country of Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven, is one of the ironies of history, given that it was Nazi Germany that destroyed the Jews of Eastern Europe, often with the willing assistance of the local populations. This article will concentrate on the eastern territories of the German Empire, and next month’s will cover Austria-Hungary.
Those areas of the German Empire the population of which was in the majority Polish, Posen (Poznan) and West Prussia, became part of the newly re-established state of Poland after 1918. Posen had long been a source of abundant Jewish emigration to the cities of Germany to the west, and that increased after the First World War, as Jews opted for Germany in preference to Poland. The family of Herbert Friedenthal, who was born in the city of Posen in 1909, became Herbert Freeden after emigrating to Britain and was one of the founding editors of this journal when it first appeared in 1946, was typical of the middle-class, German-speaking Jews who moved to Berlin to avoid Polish anti-Semitism and to demonstrate their preference for the liberal, progressive values and the high intellectual and cultural standards with which pre-Hitler Germany was synonymous for Jews across Eastern Europe.
Small towns in the province of Posen often contained Jewish communities from which emerged impressive numbers of famous figures. The small town of Rawitsch (now Rawicz), for example, was the birthplace of Marcus Brann (1849-1920), the noted Jewish scholar and historian who succeeded Heinrich Graetz at the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau in 1891; the mathematician Alfred Loewy (1873-1935); the sociologist and Zionist Arthur Ruppin, who was born there in 1876, moved with his family to Magdeburg in 1886 and was to play a pioneering part in the creation of the city of Tel Aviv; and Max Auerbach, who moved to Berlin, where his son Frank, a Kindertransportee now celebrated as one of Britain’s greatest artists, was born in 1931.
Most of West Prussia, including towns such as Thorn (now Torun) and Graudenz (now Grudziadz), was allocated to Poland after the First World War. It became known as the Polish Corridor, the area that divided the main body of Germany from East Prussia, which, with its German majority, remained part of Germany until 1945. However, Danzig, the largest city in the area, situated at the mouth of the River Vistula, had a large majority of Germans and could not be allocated to Poland without seriously breaching the principle of national self-determination that underpinned the territorial settlement created by the Treaty of Versailles. To give the new state of Poland, which would otherwise have been landlocked, an outlet to the Baltic Sea, the victorious Allies declared Danzig a free city under the control of the League of Nations, thus ensuring that German territory could not block Poland’s access to maritime trade and commerce.
Danzig, a classic Hanseatic city, had a Jewish population of some 10,500, residing amidst a German majority whose language and culture it largely shared. In the interwar years, the city became an important place of refuge for Jews fleeing Poland and the Soviet Union since it was both a free city to which entry was not limited by visa restrictions and a port of emigration. Though the Nazi Party took control of Danzig after 1933, the city remained separate from Germany – Hitler’s attempt to incorporate it into the Reich by force in September 1939 led to the outbreak of the Second World War – and the Jewish community was to a small extent better placed than its counterparts within Germany. Many of Danzig’s Jews shared the fate of Sigismund Markus in Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum who commits suicide to escape the marauding Nazis, but many more succeeded in emigrating, probably because it was somewhat easier to emigrate from a free port than from Nazi Germany proper. The chairman of the Jewish community of Danzig was then Ernst Berent, who played a major part in organising the emigration of the community before escaping to Britain in November 1938, where he became an active member of the AJR.
Of these eastern provinces, it was Silesia that played host to the greatest concentration of Jews. Its largest city, Breslau (now Wroclaw), contained the third largest Jewish community in Germany after Berlin and Frankfurt, numbering over 23,000 at its peak. Breslau’s Jews excelled in a wide range of professions and activities, from the scholar Heinrich Graetz to Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of Germany’s first workers’ party. Abraham Geiger, one of the founding fathers of Reform Judaism, held the post of Chief Rabbi in Breslau in 1840-63, during which period he helped to found the Jewish Theological Seminary, the first modern rabbinical seminary in Central Europe. But the city was also the setting for the widely read novel Soll und Haben (Credit and Debit) (1855) by Gustav Freytag, Silesian-born but not Jewish, in which honest, virtuous Germans are contrasted with the mercantile villainy of Jews and the uncivilised wildness of Poles. It is perhaps not surprising that the Viadrina, the first Jewish student fraternity, was founded at Breslau University in 1886, becoming the model for Jewish self-defence organisations across Germany.
Among the Silesian Jews who fled to Britain were Nobel Prize-winning scientists like the physicist Max Born and Fritz Haber, a chemist whose work made possible the fertilisers that feed the world (and the poison gas used by the German army in the First World War), the sociologist Norbert Elias, Alfred Kerr, Berlin’s premier theatre critic, and the spinal injuries specialist Ludwig Guttmann. Hans Reichmann, chairman of the AJR in 1954-63, came from a Silesian family, while his wife, the historian Eva G. Reichmann, was born in Silesia, as was her sister Elisabeth, who in Britain married the writer Max Beerbohm.
Far to the east, stretching along the Baltic coast as far as the Lithuanian border, was East Prussia, which had been colonised by the Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century and whose indigenous population had been largely germanised. In the sixteenth century, this Duchy of Prussia came under the rule of the Elector of Brandenburg, who ruled from Berlin. Only with the partition of Poland in the late eighteenth century was the predominantly Polish region of West Prussia acquired by Frederick the Great, thus linking East Prussia to the rest of his realm. It nowadays requires an effort of the imagination to recall that the Russian city of Kaliningrad was until 1945 Königsberg, capital of a German province and city of the philosopher Immanuel Kant.
The most easterly of the major German cities, Königsberg also contained a significant Jewish community, its numbers boosted by Jews fleeing from neighbouring Tsarist Russia. It was a centre of liberal, progressive politics in the nineteenth century, when Jews like the outspoken left-winger Johann Jacoby (1805-77) and the Liberal Eduard von Simson (1810-99) were notable players on the national stage. Jews also lived in the vanished German towns of Elbing and Allenstein (now Elblag and Olsztyn in Poland), Insterburg and Tilsit (now Chernyakhovsk and Sovetsk in the Kaliningrad enclave of Russia), or Heydekrug (now Silute in Lithuania).