Wandlungen im Geschlechterverhalten jüdischer Familien (1933-1939)

Gender Reversals in Jewish families (1933-1939) 

Author: Marion Kaplan 


As the Nazi onslaught began, Jewish women and men faced increasingly dangerous situations. Their normal middle class lives and expectations overturned, Jewish families embraced new strategies that they would in all likelihood never have entertained in ordinary times. For women, this meant new roles as partner, family protector, and often breadwinner. 

Increasingly women found themselves representing or defending their husbands, father or brothers. Many tales have been recorded of women who saved family member from the arbitrary demands of the state or from the Gestapo. In these cases, it was always assumed that the Nazis would not break gender norms: they might arrest or torture Jewish men but would not harm women. Thus, traditional gender norms afforded women greater freedom at first, and they regularly mediated between state and family. They took on a new, assertive role in the public sphere, interceding for family members with German emigration, police, and finance officials. 

Women took on more demanding tasks. Some actually assumed responsibility for the entire family’s safety. Liselotte Müller traveled to Palestine to assess the situation there. Her husband, who could not leave his medical office, simply told her, „If you decide you would like to live in Palestine, I will like it too.“ She chose Greece. Ann Lewis’s mother went to England to negotiate her family’s emigration with British officials and medical colleagues. Her daughter noted: „It was thanks to her […] determination that we were able to leave Germany […] and it was always to be a great source of pride to her that it was she who obtained the permit allowing us to come to England.“1  

Women often found themselves in threatening situation, in which their bravery benefitted from luck. Taken as a hostage after her husband fled their small Hessian town, Therese Plaut phoned the mayor, a former classmate, from jail: “Aren’t you ashamed to leave me sitting here?” she asked. He released her.2 Most significantly, women exerted enormous energy to get their men out of concentration camps after the November Pogrom 1938. 

As men lost their careers and businesses due to the “April Laws” 1933, among others the“ Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”, and to ongoing boycotts, women adopted roles that were often new to them. Most Jewish women had not worked outside the home in the early 1930s, but by the later years those who remained in Germany worked for their husbands or families or took on opportunities to train or retrain for an always-gendered job they hoped to fill abroad. Women studied chocolate making, corset-making, tailoring, industrial ironing, cooking, hat making, glove making, and many other skill sets. Others learned typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and – of course – foreign languages. Younger women also acquired knowledge about farming on agricultural collectives that trained youth for Palestine. But the statistics there were also gendered, only 1/3 of the farm trainees were female. 

Fleeing Persecution 

Emigration, which became more crucial as impoverishment and violence increased, was skewed toward men. Yet, women often saw the danger signals first and urged their men to leave Germany. Marta Appel’s memoir noted that in a discussion among friends about a doctor who had just fled in the spring of 1936 most of the men in the room condemned him: “The women protested strongly: they found that it took more courage to go than to stay […] All the women, without exception, shared this opinion […] while the men, more or less passionately, spoke against it.”3 Women were more amenable to emigration than men because those husbands still employed or whose businesses were slowly declining. saw themselves as breadwinners and could not imagine how they would support their families abroad, without the language, capital, or skills needed in countries of refuge. In addition, men’s connection to their work and women lack of ties to the public worlds of jobs or businesses made it easier for women to leave. Although their decision was as fraught with practical consequences as their husbands’, since they would also face the uncertainties and poverty associated with refugee life, women did not have to tear themselves away from their life work whether a business or professional practice, whether patients, clients or colleagues. Women, whose identity was more family-oriented, struggled to preserve what was central to them by fleeing with it. Summing up, Peter Wyden recalled the debates within his own and other Berlin-Jewish families:

“It was not a bit unusual in these go-or-no-go family dilemmas for the women to display more energy and enterprise than the men. […] Almost no women had a business, a law office, or a medical practice to lose. They were less status-conscious, less money-oriented than the men. They seemed to be less rigid, less cautious, more confident of their ability to flourish on new turf.”4 

But it is extremely important to remember that perceptions by women or men were not the most important factors affecting emigration. No one could clearly predict what would happen. That conclusion emerges largely from hindsight. In the first five years, Nazi deception and cynical dishonesty confused Jews and non-Jews. And, it became harder and harder to leave because new laws every few months robbed, Jews of the means to start life anew elsewhere.5 Most importantly, the major obstacle to mass Jewish emigration lay not in perceptions, but in the restrictions of foreign countries against immigrants. Finally, with the war, the Nazis set further roadblocks before Jews hoping to escape and emigration was officially prohibited in October 194l. 

As they fled to safer countries, gender mattered as well. Men, more endangered at first, often escaped early, hoping to bring their families once they had settled somewhere. Men also had business connections abroad, and many families preferred to first send sons abroad who could then help their families emigrate. Since there were more Jewish women in Germany to start with due to male conversions, marrying out of the faith, and deaths in World War I, the percentage of women rose to over 57% of all Jews by 1939.6 

Those who managed to escape still led gendered lives, although not as much as previously. For example, tens of thousands of Jews from all over Europe escaped to Portugal as German armies invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and France in June 1940. Both Jewish men and women fled, some with only the clothes on their backs. If they had valid documents, they could cross Spain into Portugal by train, but many climbed the Pyrenees to avoid border guards who would have demanded visas. In Portugal, both women and men lined up at consulates, begging for visas to go anywhere. Both genders also appeared at aid organizations appealing for shelter and financial help and at police headquarters pleading for 30-day visas. In these situations, without work, without institutional and familial acknowledgement, without treasured possessions, men experienced a humbled, emasculated self. Hannah Arendt saw “parables of increasing self-loss”7 and described a frustrated middle-aged man who had appeared before countless aid committees. At one such organization, his emotions triggered an exasperated exclamation, “nobody here knows who I am!”8 Nobody knew who he had been, nor the kind of people he had come from, nor the heights from which he had dropped. In despair, he realized that he could not overcome the gap between how others saw him and how he wished to be seen. A social worker, Morris Troper of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Lisbon, wrote to his wife in November 1940:

“The pity of it all is not the physical aspect…but honest, decent-looking men come to me in tears and in quivering voices lament the fact that they are losing the respect of their little children! Think of it – they are sorry they ever escaped. [… What] we need is a bridge […] like a rainbow […] from despair to hope or even to despair with dignity.”9

Other social workers noticed that wives often helped their families move on: “Loyal and enterprising wives […] are a big factor-perhaps the biggest in solving such cases.”10

Generally, only young women born around World War I expected to enter – or had just joined – the job force. And, although women, too, had left full lives and loved ones behind and struggled to maintain themselves in Portugal, apprehensive of what was to come, they rarely felt a career loss as men did or suffered as much from their diminished status. 

Having been the ones early on to urge emigration from Germany on reluctant male family members, they may have felt relief more consciously than status anxiety. Once in Portugal, although both sexes raced from office to office flee the war-torn continent, the longer men remained in a place where they could not resume their work, the greater their status loss and anxiety. By contrast, quietly and resolutely, women persisted. 


Jewish women and men experienced a fluctuation in gender roles starting in their homelands. There, with men facing more physical danger, women took on serious role reversals. They intervened for men with Nazi officials and often acted as breadwinners. During their flight and respite in Portugal, extreme role reversals subsided. Both women and men had lost the comforts of home and both genders pleaded with police, stood in consulate lines, and made do with tight budgets.  

Gradually the strangeness and disbelief with which men and women approached their fate as refugees turned into uneasy acceptance. While in Lisbon, many had time – too much time – to reassess their identities. They had become refugees. Within the limited spaces available to them, they created makeshift communities and safe havens. Life in limbo has at its core anxiety and fear, but also courage and resilience. Most refugees in Portugal showed strength and stamina, as they faced unimagined challenges. For them, Lisbon emerged as a site of temporality and transition, a “no-man’s-land” between a painful past and a hopeful future.11 

I hope that thinking about the gender roles of refugees of the 1940s may help us understand refugees then as well as refugees today as individuals with a treasured past and a precarious present. However, then as now, when the public or the media discuss refugees, they often concentrate on refugees’ current identity rather than on what came before: the homes they fled, the families in which they grew up, the careers they pursued, or their civic and emotional attachments to their homelands. Observers can all too easily miss the obvious: most refugees would stay home if they could, rather than flee persecution over treacherous terrain to seek asylum in unwelcoming places. Warsan Shire, the first Young Poet Laureate of London, explains this even more clearly: “no one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark.”/ She emphasizes that one leaves home only when “home won’t let you stay.”12 

About the author

Marion Kaplan is the daughter of Jewish refugees from Nazism. She teaches as a professor of Modern Jewish History at New York University and has published numerous studies on German-Jewish history from the 18th century to the present, especially on gender and everyday history. Ms. Kaplan received the National Jewish Book Award three times for her books. 

  1. Ann Lewis, Memoir, p. 263-264 (Leo Baeck Institute New York). []
  2. Marion Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair. Jewish life in Nazi Germany, Oxford 1999, S. 20. []
  3. Marta Appel. In: Monika Richarz (Hg.), Jewish Life in Germany. Memoirs from Three Centuries, Bloomington 1991, S. 351-361, hier 356 []
  4. Peter Wyden, Stella: One woman’s true tale of evil. Betrayal and survival in Hitler’s Germany, New York 1992, p. 47 []
  5. Hilde Honnet-Sichel, Jeden Tag neue Angst. In: Margarete Limberg/Hubert Rübsaat (Hg.) Sie durften nicht mehr Deutsche sein. Jüdischer Alltag in Selbstzeugnissen 1933-1938, Frankfurt am Main 1990, S. 183-186, hier 184. []
  6. Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair, S.138-144. []
  7. Dagmar Barnouw, Der Jude als Paria. Hannah Arendt über die Unmündigkeit des Exils. In Jahrbuch Exilforschung, Band 4 (1986), S. 43-61, hier 44. []
  8. Hannah Arendt, We Refugees. In: Menorah Journal 31, 1(1943), pp. 69-77 []
  9. Yehuda Bauer, America Jewry and the Holocaust. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, S. 55. []
  10. Dina Moore Bowden to Schauffler, report, Apr.18, 1941, Schauffler, Yale Fortunoff Archives. []
  11. Arthur Koestler, Arrival and Departure, New York 1943, S. 19. []
  12. Warsan Shire, Home, https://www.umcnic.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Home-Poem-by-Warsan-Shire.pdf. 2.10.2016. []

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