What jobs weren't there before 1940?

Saved stories: eleven Jewish families in the 20th century

Kim Wünschmann

The historian Dr. Kim Wünschmann is a research assistant at the Chair for Contemporary History at LMU Munich, where she coordinates research and teaching between the university and the Center for Holocaust Studies at the Institute for Contemporary History. She researches the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust, Jewish history and culture, and the fate of civilians in war.
Email: [email protected]

Before millions of European Jews lost their home, property or life as a result of National Socialist persecution and extermination, Europe was the most important center of Jewish life worldwide. European Judaism was extremely diverse in its traditions, cultures, languages, professional orientations, political orientations and forms of religious practice.

Feast of Tabernacles in Berlin's Scheunenviertel (& copy Federal Archives, Image 183-1987-0413-510, photographer P.Buch)

At the beginning of the 20th century, almost three quarters of the 11 million Jews in Europe lived in the three large multiethnic states of the dual monarchy Austria-Hungary, the Russian Tsarist Empire and the Ottoman Empire. These domains extended over large parts of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

Sephardim and Ashkenazim

The descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, the Sephardi, lived especially in the Ottoman Empire. In the film about her life, Guler Orgun tells the story of her Sephardic family who found a new home at the other end of the Mediterranean after being driven from the Iberian Peninsula in the empire of the Ottoman sultans. The tolerant climate that the Jews encountered there enabled them to flourish again. Cities like Smyrna (Izmir), Saloniki (Thessaloniki) and the cosmopolitan Constantinople (Istanbul) were centers of Sephardic Judaism. In Turkey as well as in the Balkans, the Sephardim clung to their own language, Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino). In the family of Matilda Kalef-Cerge, who could look back on 300 years of settlement in the Serbian city of Belgrade in the 1930s, Ladino was not only spoken in everyday life. Judeo-Spanish was also the ceremonial language in which the high holidays such as the Passover festival, which commemorates the exodus from Egypt, were celebrated at home. Matilda Kalef-Cerge further recalls that in Belgrade there was a division between the Sephardi, who made up the vast majority of Jews in the city, and the Ashkenazi minority, those Jews who originated in the Jewish communities of medieval Germany and northern France to have. This separation between the two communities began in childhood.


Ashkenazi Jews traditionally settled mainly in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition to their own religious customs, they were linked by the Yiddish language. Yiddish was spoken in the "shtetls", those villages and small towns in Poland, Lithuania, today's Ukraine and Belarus, which had a high proportion of the Jewish population. Yiddish was also heard in the Jewish quarters of western metropolises such as Berlin, Paris and London. Migrants from Eastern Europe brought it with them as their everyday language. These so-called “Eastern Jews” were clearly visible in the streets through their traditional clothing style. Rosa Rosenstein, whose family came to Germany from Poland, reports (vividly) about life in Berlin's Scheunenviertel. In the numerous Jewish shops her mother could find all the goods she needed to run the strictly kosher household. Rosa attended the district's Jewish girls' school and, like her siblings, was a member of Jewish associations. Contacts of the family with the non-Jewish environment were limited to the business relationships of the parents.

Tradition and modernity

While many European Jews maintained a traditionally religious lifestyle until the 1930s and 1940s, the influence of modernity led to an increasing secularization of Jewish life. After Jews had received civil equality in most countries in the 19th century - exceptions were the Ottoman Empire until 1908, Russia until 1917 and Romania until 1918 - they strove to complete emancipation by adapting to the society and culture of the respective country Nation to which they felt they belonged. Basically, the Western European Jews saw themselves predominantly as members of a religious community and at the same time as loyal citizens of their country - the "Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith", founded in Germany in 1893, expresses this attitude in its name. This self-image differed from that of the East and Southeast European Jews, who viewed themselves as a national community, as members of a Jewish nationality. Nonetheless, secularization also took place in Eastern Europe. Jews organized themselves in socialist, communist or Zionist parties. Many began to work on Shabbat, also on Saturdays, in order to benefit fully from the economic upturn.


Teofila Silberring, who comes from an acculturated German-Polish family in which everyone spoke Polish and no one spoke Yiddish, remembers how her father, who was a socialist, sometimes went to work on Saturdays. The Viennese Lilli Tauber also says that her father kept his tailoring shop open on Saturdays. This would have been unthinkable a generation earlier in his religious family. But not only age was decisive in the question of acculturation, gender also made a difference. While her father began to detach himself from the rituals of the Jewish religion, Lilli Tauber's mother kept the tradition at home, ran a kosher kitchen and observed the holidays. In general, many Jewish women in their traditional role as housewives were less exposed to the influences of the Christian environment than their husbands. In affluent, middle-class families, there was not infrequently a juxtaposition of Jewish tradition and the customs of the Christian majority society. This is how Jindřich Lion describes the fact that a tree was set up in his liberal parents' house in Prague for Christmas.

After all, at the beginning of the 20th century it also happened more frequently that Jews were baptized or, as shown in the film about the Orgun family, converted to Islam in order to have it easier in the majority society. There were also cases in which Jews entered into mixed marriages with Christian partners. Kurt Brodmann, whose parents also had many non-Jewish friends in Vienna, explains how widespread the phenomenon was in these circles. The fact that his own father was forced to give up his career as an actor in order to be able to marry into his mother's Jewish-Orthodox family, in turn, testifies to the not always tension-free coexistence of tradition and modernity, which the worlds of European Jewry before the Second World War coined.

First World War and the interwar period

The First World War from 1914 to 1918 represented a deep turning point not only in the lives of the Jewish population. Jews were also affected by the initial enthusiasm for the war. In the soldier's uniform they hoped to finally be recognized as full members of the national communities. In Germany around 85,000 Jewish soldiers fought in the imperial army; 12,000 fell for their fatherland. In France there were 46,000 Jewish soldiers, in Great Britain 40,000 and almost 300,000 Jews wore the uniform of the Austro-Hungarian k.u.k. Army - the latter included the fathers of Kurt Brodmann and Jindřich Lion.

The war radically changed the European map. The three large multi-national empires Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire disintegrated and instead new state structures emerged such as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia. Poland regained its independence, the territory of Romania was significantly enlarged, Hungary was made smaller and Austria was retained as a rump state. These territorial reorganizations in Eastern, Central and Southeastern Europe meant that Jews often found themselves between the fronts in national conflicts. Numerous pogroms took place in Ukraine, claiming tens of thousands of victims. The more than 3 million Jews of Poland also faced violent anti-Semitism in the late 1930s. Haya-Lea Detinko recalls that the death of the influential statesman Jozef Pilsudski in 1935, under whose political leadership the Jewish population in Poland was largely spared from discrimination, caused their situation to deteriorate significantly. The Catholic Church in particular promoted racial hatred among Poles by defaming Jews as Christ murderers. Only Czechoslovakia was a functioning democracy among the Eastern European countries. Its President Tomas Masaryk fought anti-Semitism and promoted Zionism. As Jindřich Lion testifies, he found great admirers among the Jews.

The inter-war period in Europe was not least a heyday of Jewish intellectual creativity. Jewish intellectuals, artists and scientists played leading roles in European cultural life. Judaism itself experienced a renaissance and was rediscovered by a generation that had already grown up without religion. Until the National Socialists made anti-Semitism a state doctrine in Germany in 1933, took back emancipation and openly persecuted Jews, one could believe that the history of the Jews in Europe would lead to overcoming the traditional inferior position and integrating them into non-Jewish majority societies.