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To Be a German Jew in 1938 Was to Live in Disbelief

A new digital exhibit, the 1938Projekt, catalogues the final days of European Jewry and shows how easy it is to become inured to the progression of a deteriorating situation

Alexander Aciman
November 09, 2018

The night before my family had its property seized and was kicked out of Egypt, everyone went to the movies. This may seem like callous, even glib behavior on the eve of what was probably one of the most difficult events one can endure, but it is also a Jewish tradition as old as time. As was the case with French Jews who threw lavish parties in the months leading up to their deportation, or the Poles who helped manufacture the very weapons that would be used against them a year later, for my family the impending loss of their property, their homes, and even their lives seemed so surreal as to be almost impossible. They don’t actually mean it. They’ll make a show of it but we’ll be fine. There’s no chance we’ll really be gone tomorrow. The tragedy is that we don’t recognize how intractable these political climates are with a sudden timely realization, but rather as a slow burn—imperceptible until only after the damage is done.

This year, as the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht approaches, the Leo Baeck Institute developed the 1938Projekt—an online exhibit that demonstrates just how quickly the lives of German and Austrian Jews imploded. 1938Projekt uses diary entries, letters, and news bulletins from Jews in 1938 to stitch together a story about European Jewry and allow us to experience what it was like to be a Jew in the year that changed everything.

Every day since the start of 2018, the 1938Projekt website has posted a new story showing what happened on that specific day in 1938. In entries from January, it’s obvious that Jews sensed only the first rumblings of disaster on the horizon. Although almost 20,000 Jews had immigrated to the United States by 1938, most did not yet feel the need to leave. And while the Projekt shows us that some German Jews were making arrangements to emigrate in the early months of ’38, we also learn of the businessmen who believed, or at least told themselves and others, that the growing animosity toward the Jews wasn’t alarming enough a reason to leave behind the family business. We can watch, day by day, the slow erosion of rights, peeled away one at a time: the seizure of Jewish businesses, orders that restrict the movements of Jews, rules about what kind of artwork can be shown. We watch the pincers close in a way that simply isn’t possible if you’re living it.

In many cases, even for those who did feel a sense of alarm it was still subdued and it was difficult to understand how a series of unfriendly bureaucratic rules could eventually lead to Kristallnacht only 10 months later: OnJan. 31, the Projekt’s website highlights a postcard from a Jew on vacation in the French Riviera. Jews were still going on vacation rather than selling all their belongings and leaving. Butthree weeks later comes one of the earliest of many heartbreaking letters: Writing to a friend, a young lover contemplates being apart from his beloved because his family had decided to emigrate and hers had chosen to stay behind.

In April, the early deportation of small numbers of undesirables to Buchenwald begins. By summer, the bulletins on the Projekt’s website are more desperate. OnJune 16, a young woman writes to an American man she has met only once, asking for his help in arranging transit. Jews begin writing to distant relatives in the US asking for help. By September, those who had managed to secure papers to emigrate were making their final arrangements. By theend of the month, entire German-Jewish congregations would be empty. The Projekt tells the story a bar mitzvah of 15 teenagers in September attended by people who were planning to emigrate and leave their homes forever only days later—some of them already had their suitcases packed. Still, they decided to congregate and celebrate together one last time for what would perhaps be one of the final services that this synagogue would ever host.

Among the documents that make up the Projekt are a series from the family of the artist Eva Hesse, whose father kept scrapbooks. “We’re emigrating,” says one of the entries in late September. They’d had enough.

The Projekt’s mission isn’t to highlight how German Jews didn’t get the picture. In fact, they may have understood it too well: Anti-Semitism felt like a fact of life and therefore was nothing to be alarmed by. Most of them simply didn’t believe that there was any credible reason why things would suddenly surpass normal levels of anti-Semitism and go from bad to catastrophic. You’d have to have been crazy to have predicted such a thing as the Holocaust. The story of 1938Projekt is more than just a catalogue of the final days of the European Jewry. It is the story of how easy it is to become inured to the progression of a deteriorating situation. Through its lens, we see the time more clearly for what it was: not just another brief chapter in the thousands-of-years-old story called anti-Semitism, but a tinderbox heating up with the passage of each day. It’s easy to look now and see a series of warnings plastered onto the walls of the past, plain and clear for all Jews to see, only for fools to ignore. But if someone were to tell you about a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and swastikas graffitied on the Upper West Side and Nazi marches and Jewish cemeteries being defaced and a president who calls himself a nationalist and ordinances that dissolve the rights of immigrants and of the queer community and a caravan of refugees, and told you to leave behind your family business and your belongings and your home and move across the world to a place where you didn’t know a soul and didn’t know the language, would you? You’d have to be crazy.

Instead, you might just go to the movies.

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.

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