When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Jews were living in every country of Europe. A total of roughly nine million Jews lived in the countries that would be occupied by Germany during World War II.
In 1933 the largest Jewish populations were concentrated in eastern Europe, including Poland, the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Romania. Many of the Jews of eastern Europe lived in predominantly Jewish towns or villages, called shtetls. Eastern European Jews lived a separate life as a minority within the culture of the majority. They spoke their own language, Yiddish, which combines elements of German and Hebrew. They read Yiddish books, and attended Yiddish theater and movies. Although many younger Jews in larger towns were beginning to adopt modern ways and dress, older people often dressed traditionally, the men wearing hats or caps, and the women modestly covering their hair with wigs or kerchiefs.
NAZI GERMANY’S MADAGASCAR PLAN
In the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany hatched a seemingly outlandish scheme: exiling Europe’s Jewish population to the African island of Madagascar. Support for the proposal first picked up steam following a June 3 memo from the German Foreign Office, and it was nearly put into action before Allied gains in World War II made it untenable.
The desirable solution is: all Jews out of Europe.” That was how Franz Rademacher, head of the German Foreign Office’s “Jewish desk,” began a memo to the Nazi high command in the summer of 1940. The scheme called for the Jews to have their European citizenship revoked and their property and personal fortunes seized to help fund a new “super-ghetto” in the Indian Ocean. Once resettled, they would languish under the rule of a Nazi SS police force. Rademacher argued that the island reservation could be spun as propaganda to show the world the “generosity” of the German people. On an even more sinister note, he pointed out that “the Jews will remain in German hands as a pledge for the future good behavior of the members of their race in America.” The Jews on Madagascar would not just be exiles—they would also be hostages.
Two German Jewish families at a gathering before the war. Only two people in this group survived the Holocaust. Germany, 1928.
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