In This Review

Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany
Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany
By Marion A. Kaplan
Oxford University Press, 1998, 290 pp.

Marion Kaplan, a professor of history at Queen's College and CUNY, has written a beautifully researched, heartbreaking study of the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. She pays particular attention to women, forced, she argues, to play roles "as breadwinners, family protectors, and defenders of business or practices" once reserved to men and, partly because they were less engaged in German public and economic life, more willing than men to envisage emigration as the only means of survival. With the help of memoirs and interviews, and a sensitivity both subtle and profound, she examines the effects of the Nazi regime's increasingly sadistic anti-Semitic measures on Jews' public and private lives, on children at school and at home, the fate of the Mischlinge, the worsening of the Jews' condition after the pogrom of November 1938, the era of forced labor and deportation during World War II, and the situation of those Jews who succeeded in living underground or who actively resisted.

Two conclusions stand out. One is about the relentlessly imaginative and varied list of deprivations, humiliations, petty cruelties, and legal torments inflicted by the Nazis on Germany's Jewish minority -- 525,000 people accused of poisoning the Aryan majority. These measures were taken in a discontinuous way -- lulls contributed to Jews' ambivalence about leaving -- but their accumulated weight caused Jews' suicide rates to jump. The second concerns the behavior of "ordinary" Germans. There were those who tried to help and hide Jews, but the evidence of "public, gratuitous and unnecessary cruelty" is overwhelming. The 1930s, Kaplan argues, were "highly ambiguous," giving "no clear indication of the genocide to come," but racism "demeaned the perpetrators as it devastated the victims," so that "social death" could "lead to physical death." These are important contributions to our understanding of Nazi Germany -- and of the effects of racism in general.