The End of German-Jewish Life: Ostjuden as a Metaphor for All Jews

Anti-Semitism escalated in the post-war climate of inflation and unemployment. Fears of invasion by East European Jews resurfaced in the Weimar Republic, and the Ostjudenfrage came to symbolize the wider "Jewish question." Liberal German-Jewish intellectuals who remained committed to the fatherland were generally unable to acknowledge East European Jews as members of a shared nation.

Other German Jews grew more accepting of their eastern counterparts as they were confronted with the reality of German-Jewish incompatibility. The title of Joseph Roth's The Wandering Jews, which portrayed the plight of East European Jewish refugees in the wake of World War I, took on a new meaning following Hitler's Nuremberg Laws of 1935. In his preface to the second edition, Roth explained that the title no longer referred exclusively to the East European refugee but also to the German Jew, who was "more exposed and more homeless even than his cousin in Lodz." Having lost their civil rights, German Jews were either forced into exile or left homeless in their own land.

As the German public grew more unified in their hostility toward the Jews, few anti-Semites cared to distinguish between eastern and western Jews. The old image of the "alien" Ostjude became an all-encompassing metaphor that paved the way for the indiscriminate devastation of Jewish life throughout Europe. 

Deutschland und seine Juden

Theodor Lessing, (1933), Rosenberger 242A-3.

Lessing compared the prospect of relinquishing one aspect of German-Jewish identity for the other to making an impossible choice between one's father and mother. His murder at the hand of the Nazis in 1933 renders his commitment to German culture all the more tragic.

Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude

Jakob Wasserman, (1922) 183-384.

An assimilated German Jew, Wasserman felt neither a religious nor a national connection to Judaism, and viewed the Ostjuden as foreign. "If I spoke with a Polish or Galician Jew and tried to understand his way of life and thinking, I could stir myself to feel compassion or sadness, but never a sense of brotherhood. He was entirely strange and, when individual human sympathy was lacking, even repulsive."

Der Giftpilz

Verlag der Stürmer (1938), Rosenberger 468C-104 [Story: "So kamen die Juden zu uns," (How the Jews Got Here)]

This Nazi propaganda textbook cautions children against Jews. In this story, young Fritz learns about the "Jewish Swindle" from his father: all German Jews are former Ostjuden who stole German money to become rich and then shed their "filthy clothing, lice-ridden beards, and vulgar language" in order to resemble Germans. However, Fritz learns, they can never shed their "Jewish noses, ears, and crooked legs."

Juden auf Wanderschaft

Joseph Roth, (1927), Rosenberger 434-385.

Roth's depiction of the decline of East European Jewish life after World War I weaves together his sympathy for the "simple people" of the ghetto and his antipathy to an increasingly homogeneous bourgeoisie. In his somber preface to the 1937 edition, Roth lamented the shared fate of all "wandering Jews," both western and eastern in origin.

(not illustrated) Joseph Roth (1894-1939). The Wandering Jews translated by Michael Hofmann. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.