restricted access The B'nai B'rith Encounters Nazi Germany, 1933
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The B'nai B'rith Encounters Nazi Germany, 1933

Adolf Hitler ascended to power in Germany on January 30, 1933, when President Paul von Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor of the Reich. He now had the opportunity to implement his racial ideology and worldview regarding Jews. At that time, Germany's Jewish population numbered 525,000 out of a general population of 67 million. After the March 5 Reichstag elections, the new government removed the constraints on violence against Jews, and assaults on Jewish businesses and vicious beatings of Jews by Nazi thugs became commonplace. On March 20, the German government established the first concentration camp, Dachau, near Munich. On April 1, the government launched an official boycott of Jewish doctors, lawyers, and merchants. Because of international outrage, Hitler limited the boycott to one day. On April 7, Hitler approved decrees banning Jews and other non-Aryans from the practice of law and from jobs in the civil service, and forced Jewish government employees to retire. On April 11, the government issued a decree defining a non-Aryan as a person "who is descended from non-Aryan, especially Jewish parents or grandparents. This holds true even if one parent or grandparent is of non-Aryan descent. This premise especially obtains if one parent or grandparent was of Jewish faith." On May 10, Jewish and other books deemed of "un-German spirit," were burned in public bonfires in Berlin and university towns. The books included works by Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Emile Zola, H.G. Wells, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, and others. In September, Jews were banned from the fields of journalism, art, literature, music, broadcasting, and theater.1 [End Page 245]

Germany's Jews reacted to these events with alarm and disbelief. The elite among them experienced an especially deep dismay. They assumed that their economic and social position and contributions to German life and culture would shield them from danger. It did not. Most members of the B'nai B'rith lodges came from this class. As such, they faced an additional threat: the Nazi press reported that the government placed "the B'nai B'rith and similar lodges and associations with foreign ties" under special political observation because "these organizations are subsidized by foreign capital, spent in the effort to spread pacifism among the German people whose martial spirit they may weaken with their brotherhood-of-man ideas."2

The Nazis viewed the B'nai B'rith and its members as subversives and part of world Jewry's conspiracy to destroy the Aryan race and rule the world. Thus they focused on destroying them. Its main office in Berlin was often searched, and in smaller cities the Gestapo placed officers of the B'nai B'rith under constant surveillance. Heinrich Himmler justified the terror measures undertaken by the Nazis against them as serving the struggle against "the subversive activities of purely Jewish Lodges and organizations." In 1933, his primary target was the B'nai B'rith.3

In July 1933, an incident occurred in Nuremberg, Germany that illustrated the kind of "special" treatment B'nai B'rith members could expect. Alfred Cohen, president of the International Order of B'nai B'rith, learned of this occurrence through a letter sent to him by Walter Freudenthal, a physician and B'nai B'rith member living in New Rochelle, New York. Freudenthal's letter included a report given to him by a German B'nai B'rith member who just arrived in the United States. Freudenthal vouches that the newcomer "is absolutely trustworthy." The details in the report shocked and deeply distressed Cohen.

You have heard no doubt about the 20th of July, 1933 affair in Nürnberg where the Nazis arrested the 300 most prominent Jews of the congregation. [End Page 246]

The excuse for the arrest of these Jews has been that they are members of the B'nai B'rith lodge. The treatment which has been accorded to these men is so horrible that I hate to repeat all details. Sixty, seventy, and eighty year old men; Doctors, lawyers, and businessmen have been forced to kneel down for an hour and bite...