- The Women's Camp in Moringen: A Memoir of Imprisonment in Germany, 1936-1937
A Tragic Footnote
It is a rare and memorable moment for a historian when she encounters an entire book devoted to a subject that was little more than a historical footnote for her until that time; even more so when the book is not a scholarly study, but a first-person description of the topic at hand. Such was my feeling as I began reading Gabrielle Herz's memoir of her imprisonment under the Nazis during the 1930s.
For many years I have taught survey courses of the Holocaust period in which I mention a Nazi law enacted during the mid-1930s to deter the return of emigrants, particularly Jewish refugees. It stated that German nationals returning to Germany from a foreign country after an absence of several months would be sent to a "re-education camp," as their German values would ostensibly have been corrupted during their lengthy stay abroad. The law's real purpose, naturally, was to deter the return of emigrants who had left Germany soon after Hitler's rise to power but were lulled into thinking that the wave of rabid antisemitism had come to an end late in 1933. This perception, combined with the difficulties of earning a living outside of Germany and acclimatizing to a new culture, had led during the early months of 1934 to a small wave of what history books refer to as "reverse Jewish immigration" into Germany, which the law intended to stem. Few books dealing with the Holocaust, whether scholarly research or survivor testimony, provide readers with any additional details about this matter. Consequently, mention of the law was usually relegated to the status of little more than an interesting footnote in [End Page 272] my lectures about Nazi legislation or refugees from the Third Reich. Reading Gabrielle Herz's memoir changed that for me.
Moringen, originally an old established workhouse, functioned as a holding and punitive center for women while also being used as one of the aforementioned "re-education" camps. Herz's memoir, written after her release and subsequent immigration to the United States, describes her incarceration in the camp after her return to Germany following a six-month absence in Italy, where she had begun making provisions for her family's emigration. Returning home after her husband fell ill, so that he was unable to wind up the family's affairs in Berlin, Herz found herself accused of a crime and sentenced to a three-month "custodial sentence." While other detainees were often set free within weeks or months if nothing incriminating was uncovered, Jews were released only when they undertook to leave Germany once and for all.
In effect, Moringen was a precursor of the more infamous women's camp of Ravensbrück, established in 1939 near Berlin. As Jane Caplan puts it in her introduction, which describes not only the author but the entire concentration camp system: "The women's camp at Moringen constituted one small building block in this system and Gabrielle Herz's imprisonment was one particle in the physics of Nazi terror" (p. 5). By recounting the history of one woman in one particular camp, Caplan states, we can learn both about the structure and dynamics of incarceration in Nazi Germany and about how individuals experienced it.
Herz, described by her children as "modest" and "unpretentious," was 50 years old when she was sent to the camp at Moringen; her husband, until Hitler's rise to power, had been a successful editor at the Ullstein publishing company. The pair had explored several emigration venues, including Palestine, before her incarceration. Although her arrest as a Remigrantin—a returning emigrant—was part of a phenomenon, there are no statistics as to the number of Jews arrested and detained under these regulations. We do know, however, that she was one of 1,350 women who passed through Moringen between 1933 and 1938. The other camp inmates in this period were usually...