- Süssen Is Now Free of Jews: World War II, the Holocaust, and Rural Judaism by Gilya Gerda Schmidt
Our scholarship generally tells a lot about ourselves. It is clearly the case for Gilya Gerda Schmidt’s study of Judaism in Süssen, centering on the Holocaust. A scholar of religious studies, Schmidt provides us with a microhistory of this very small town in the state of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany. As she shows, Jewish life in Süssen ended with deportation on November 28, 1941, although there was “a brief continuation when three of the sixteen who had been deported, and who survived the hell of the labor and concentration camp, returned in 1945” (vii). The author also references attempts to resume life after the war, touching on emigration, requisitions, restitution, and reparations. Her ultimate objective is to capture the “ordinary legacies of ordinary Jewish families” (15), while at the same time ensuring that the history of so-called Dorfjuden (village Jews) is not forgotten.
Originally from Süssen herself, Schmidt and her family immigrated to the United States more than fifty years ago. Her background in and ties to her original Heimat seemed to spark her interest regarding Jewish life in Süssen early in her biography; a random encounter with a publication about the surviving Jews of Baden-Württemberg in a used bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee, then encouraged her to explore this topic in more detail. A decade of archival research, the collection of oral testimonies, and various personal encounters in Germany and beyond eventually provided the stage for this study which merges local, public, and personal history. All of this work allows Schmidt to paint a detailed picture of rural Jewish life in Süssen before, during, and after Nazism.
The author organizes her monograph in a complex and, at times, convoluted manner. After briefly introducing her ties to the subject at hand, Schmidt captures attempts of reconciliation (16) after the Nazi period. She continues by exploring the history of Jewish life in Süssen. “Jews have lived in Swabia as far back as the Middle Ages” (3), Schmidt notes, and she does not shy away from telling that history in great [End Page 212] detail. Along the way, she introduces several individuals and families before primarily focusing in particular on the Ottenheimer and Lang families. In this context, Schmidt describes the impact of National Socialism on Jewish life in detail. Changes in daily life in Süssen became apparent, for example, when the Nazis became “particularly zealous to give the cattle fair a nationalistic character” and thus excluded Jews from it in 1934 (99). Schmidt dedicates six out of twelve full chapters to the Lang family and spends a fair amount of time on deportation, liberation, requisitions, and restitutions. She is able to paint a complex picture, immersed with personal stories and anecdotes. Attempts to connect to larger historical trends would be useful, however, for it is less apparent how Süssen compares to other villages.
Overall, Süssen Is Now Free of Jews offers scholars, educators, and the general public plenty to work with. Rightfully taking on the lack of studies concerning rural environments, Schmidt raises important questions. For example, she highlights the complicated bureaucratic and personal circumstances influencing the creation of a Jew-free Süssen in her introduction. These events connect to conversations about grey areas with regards to collaboration, complicity, and support. Her research is extensive and nicely nourishes her personal connections to the events. The author’s personalized writing style and her willingness to interject her own voice and encounters into the broader history allow the reader to connect on a much deeper level to content, individuals, and narrative. At times, however, Schmidt simply tries to do too much, especially when attempting to capture the history of surrounding villages and areas. This overreach leaves her audience overwhelmed and makes the overall study less useful as a microhistory. Limiting her...