- Süssen Is Now Free of Jews: World War II, the Holocaust, and Rural Judaism by Gilya Gerda Schmidt
Germany’s Jewish population was largely urbanized, but dotting the landscape were numerous small towns and villages where, over the course of generations, Jewish life had taken root and flourished. Loyally contributing to the well-being of the small communities in which they and their families had prospered, Jewish citizens gained a measure of acceptance. With the arrival of the Nazis all this was to change. Jewish-owned businesses were seized and Jewish lives were shattered. No less than their co-religionists in larger towns and cities, Jews from rural communities who, beset by obstacles, failed to find a place of refuge abroad, were at the mercy of a regime that saw fit to deport them to their deaths. All too often municipal and regional party and administrative officers, deeply implicated in the vilification of Jews and the expropriation of their property, zealously participated in removing Jewish families forever from their midst. As this study recounts in disturbing detail, non-Jewish neighbors, some empathetic, others indifferent, still others evidently hostile (and eager to swoop in and appropriate goods and property), silently watched them go.
In this work the author sets out to accomplish a set of related goals. Among these is to fill in significant gaps in the local history of her hometown, Süssen, located in a deceptively picturesque corner of provincial Baden-Württemberg. For comparison, she also explores Jewish life in a few nearby rural communities. In so doing, she seeks to provide a detailed case study of Jews in the countryside (Landjudentum) prior to and during the Holocaust. Acutely sensitive to the prosaic experience of daily life, including the importance of family ties, she also seeks to provide a historically grounded account of German Jews’ richly textured “ordinary lives.”
The history of a pair of locally prominent extended households, the Ottenheimers and the Langs, lies at the heart of this study. By the 1920s both families, their collective livelihoods grounded in local textile manufacturing and cattle trading, had succeeded, despite all difficulties, in obtaining a measure of economic prosperity and attendant social status. Contributing to the local economy and proud of their regional German identities, they enjoyed participating in the Jewish life of their own and neighboring Jewish communities. [End Page 118]
None of this was to last. Beginning in 1933, local Nazis spared few efforts in stigmatizing the Jewish property owners, businessmen, and merchants of Süssen—a preliminary step in their dispossession. In 1936, to prepare the ground for excluding Jewish cattle traders from participation in the rural economy, a local publication featured an unflattering, Stürmer-inspired photo of Leopold Lang; the paper labeled him a “prime example of a cattle Jew.” In July 1938 Leopold’s brother, Louis, with whom he shared the family cattle business, was deprived of his trade license; in November, at the time of the Kristallnacht, the two brothers were arrested and held in Dachau. Though released soon thereafter, the Langs’ inevitable impoverishment played out amid a hellish cascade of material tragedies: the seizure of cash from a private safe, the forced, undervalued sale of the family home (with proceeds withheld in a blocked account), and ruinous taxes and fees.
In a pivotal chapter, “Deportation of the Lang Families,” the author’s patient research yields a detailed, nuanced, and disconcerting account of the Jewish residents’ forced departure. It analyzes the unsettling repercussions for the town, which soon after was declared “free of Jews.” A properly critical reading of early postwar testimony allows the author to recount in detail the pivotal role of local officials in the expulsion of the Jews of Süssen. Particularly poignant is a description of the Lang family’s November 1941 nighttime forced march to the station under local police guard, with the knowledge and complicity of non-Jewish residents of the town. The Langs made their way to the...