August 10th, 2005

Before we began

From the early years until 1945

Although historians believe that Jews have been living in the area now known as Germany since the third century, it was not until the 19th century that they began organizing beyond regional level. The first association for Jews across the German territories was the League of German Israelite Communities (the Gemeindebund), founded in Leipzig on 29 July 1869. The inaugural assembly declared that its main task would be the fight to obtain equal legal rights for Jews. It was followed in 1893 by the constitution in Berlin of a Central Society of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith (the Central-Verein). By 1927 this numbered about 70,000 individual members in 21 regional associations. The Verband der deutschen Juden (Association of German Jews) was formed in 1904.

Prior to 1933, however, there was no single association to represent all Jews. Soon after the Nazis seized power, the Central Committee of German Jews for Assistance and Construction (or Zentralausschuss) saw the light of day. This in turn produced the Reich Representation of German Jews (Reichsvertretung) on 17 September 1933. Rabbi Leo Baeck was elected to be the first chairman of the Zentralausschuss. In the light of the Nuremberg Race Laws the Reichsvertretung was instructed by the Nazi regime in July 1939 to change its name to Reich Association of Jews in Germany (Reichsvereinigung). This body was placed under the direct supervision of the Gestapo, or Secret Police. Its office in Berlin was closed down on 10 July 1943 and the association was dissolved, its assets confiscated and the remaining staff deported.

Before the Shoa the Jewish population in Germany numbered between 500,000 and 600,000. The census of 16 June 1933 – which provided the initial statistics for ostracizing and extinguishing Jewish life – listed precisely 502,799 persons as “Jews”. Six years later so many had emigrated or been driven out of their homes that the figure had fallen to 215,000. In 1941, when deportations to the death camps began, the number of “German Jews” had declined further to 163,696, and a subsequent survey on 1 April 1943 only accounted for 31,897. Of the 15,000 or so Jewish men and women who still found themselves in Germany at the end of the war, about a third must have survived Nazi persecution by living in hiding.