Why didn’t they just leave?

If you live in a free, democratic society, it is difficult to imagine how Nazi Germany worked. It’s natural to ask: why didn’t the Jews just leave?

In 1933, when Hitler came to power, the population of Germany was 67 million. There were approximately 505,000 Jews. The Jewish community was less than 1% of the overall population and half of these people survived. They saw what was coming and successfully emigrated. In contrast to Poland where three million Jews were killed, representing the largest national group. Three million of the six million Jewish victims were Polish.

One thing that helped me understand how difficult it was for Jews to leave was to examine the Nürnberg Laws. In Berlin, there is a memorial near the Bayerische Platz underground station where the laws are presented on street signs. On one side, the law is printed in black and white, with the date the law went into effect. On the other side, is a corresponding color image.

Jews who convert to Christianity and are baptized are still Jewish by race. October 1936

Image of baptismal chalice on other side of sign. Source: University of South Florida










This memorial is located in a Berlin neighborhood established between 1900-14. Doctors, lawyers, intellectuals, artists and civic officials lived in this district. Albert Einstein was also a resident. The memorial is thought provoking and engaging because it makes clear how Jews in Germany were legally controlled and marginalized. Over time, their lives became constrained to the point there were no real options.

I borrowed these images from a website, created by The University of South Florida’s College of Education, with English translations of each sign from the Bavarian Quarter Memorial.

It was not an easy process to emigrate. Refugees needed an exit visa to leave Germany, which meant giving up bank accounts, real estate, businesses and valuable assets to the state. On the Night of Broken Glass (November 9, 1938), thirty thousand Jewish men were taken to concentration camps, namely Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Many died during the weeks in camp, but those who survived were released several weeks later, and took the experience as a warning to leave as quickly as possible. Refugees also needed entry visas and work permits for their new country. Survivor testimony and other historical documents often describe the process of applying for visas all over the world, but not obtaining them. Anne Frank’s family is a good example of this. Her father could not get visas for all four of them, which is why they went into hiding. He wanted to keep his family together.

Trains to life, trains to death. Kindertransport memorial at Berlin-Friedrichstrasse train station, unveiled in 2008. Source: http://www.kindertransporte.de

After November 9th, the Kindertransport program started to send thousands of German, Austrian and Czech Jewish children to safety in England. I know a survivor, born in Berlin, who was one of these children. After his father returned from weeks of torture and cruelty in Sachsenhausen, he took immediate action to save his two boys. The boys were sent via the Kindertransport to England where he was placed in a refugee home for boys in London. The parents also eventually got there. This survivor knows that he is “lucky” to have had his parents and older brother, but sometimes lamented the absence of his extended family in his life. Until he was nine, he had grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. What would it have been like to have grown up with these people?

In 2006, two Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) were laid for his grandparents at their old apartment in Berlin: 33 Bleibtreustraße. They were killed in Riga, Latvia.

Stolpersteine “stumbling stones” for Julius and Margarete Liepmann in Berlin.

A German camp survivor I was close to for several years, was born in 1920 and was in his teens during the 1930s. The reality of what the Nazis were doing hit him when he was no longer allowed to play soccer on his local team. Soccer is German’s national sport. Traditionally, German children attend school in the mornings and are excused in the early afternoon to have a hot meal at home. Afternoons are spent at sport clubs, music lessons and other extracurricular activities. For many boys (and girls, these days), soccer is what they live for and that’s how it was for this man. To comprehend the feelings of anger, shame and frustration, of being shut out, rejected, is impossible. I knew this man when he was in his eighties. He had a number on his arm from Auschwitz and survived four years in the camps. But the most painful thing, he told me, was being kicked off that soccer team.