Why I Did Not Leave Nazi Germany in Time

by Werner Weinberg

Dr. Weinberg is professor of Hebrew language and literature at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio.

This article appeared in the Christian Century March 21, 1982 p. 478. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We did not leave because we thought Hitler would fail; we thought we would be able to endure the threats; it’s difficult to tear one away from ones home, culture and friends.  Nobody could possibly see the "final solution;" it was considered immoral to leave, it was a feeling of duty to stay; where would you go and where would you stay.  Opportunities decreased rapidly; in many situations one could not leave; an international conference convened by President Roosevelt did not permit the immigration of any more Jews.  Finally, the borders were closed.

The life of a Jew of my generation and background is most fittingly divided into a pre-, during- and post-Holocaust existence. Any other periodizing, such as peacetime/wartime/new beginning, or childhood/youth/adulthood, becomes insignificant measured by the criterion of the Holocaust.

Already the third, the post-Holocaust, phase has for someone of my age lasted longer than the first two put together. And seeing the changes wrought by the passage of time -- changes not of facts but of our perception and evaluation of facts -- I find myself idealizing my pre-Holocaust period, and I notice that the acute awareness of my suffering during the Holocaust is losing some of its sting. I do not know which of these two changes is the greater distortion of facts and of truth.

The post-Holocaust period, in turn, is clearly subdivided into separate phases. First there was the immense effort to start life anew, even to want to live after the great death. Only when that was settled, so it seems to me, were we ready for the shudder of disbelief, the onslaught of horror. There followed the crisis of faith -- “God after Auschwitz” -- and then the apportioning of guilt: guilt of the bystanders, Christian and Jewish; guilt of the perpetrators, their people and their progeny; and also the guilt of the victims.

Comparatively late there began the phase of investigation: How could it have happened? And its counterpart: How can a recurrence be prevented? Almost simultaneously with this phase the first signs of a potential recurrence became manifest: the slumping economy, the social and moral turmoil, the preponderance of violence and cruelty in much of the world, the rise of neo-Nazism.

To recognize this potential recurrence it is not necessary to see uniformed stormtroopers in the streets; it is not necessary to acquaint oneself with the republication of old hate literature, with the brand-new growing literature and the publicity given to the “Great Hoax” theme. It is enough to witness the ignorance about and lack of interest in the Holocaust, its relegation to academic research, to monument-building, to the archives and even to entertainment. Naturally, my impartial mind tells me that it is normal, certainly inevitable, and probably even good that these events are losing their immediacy and receding somewhat into the distance. This enables them to be seen in “their proper perspective” -- to be shelved, so to speak, alongside the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Crusades and the Inquisition; or, for that matter, alongside any manifestations of inhumanity on a large scale in which people other than Jews were sufferers.

But I observe that with regard to the Holocaust my mind can be impartial only at rare moments, while my emotional response has become rather more impassioned as time passes. For me the prevailing composure will easily appear as indifference, callousness and the wish not to be bothered on a personal level. More than by anything else, the present attitude is brought home to me by certain questions I am sometimes asked -- and it makes no difference whether the questioners’ interest is genuine, feigned or just polite. Here are three questions of the kind:

Why did you allow yourself to be led to the slaughter like sheep?

Did you ever contemplate escaping from the concentration camp?

How come you did not leave Germany when there was still time?

The most painful aspect of these questions is that I am expected to answer them. Even when they are asked without malice or reproach, the questioner still expects a deliberate, logical explanation, supported if possible by a few convincing and easily remembered arguments.

Why is it so difficult for me to retain my calm in the face of these questions? Why do I react to them with exasperation? Why do they make me angry and unhappy? Is it simply because I know for a fact that they can be asked only with historic hindsight? For at the time resistance and rebellion and heroism of the bold and daring kind were simply not among the existing options, and emigrating was a trauma, not a simple matter of packing up and going.

I think that of the two reactions -- anger and unhappiness -- unhappiness comes first. I am speaking of myself, of course, but I have reason to believe that others in my position harbor similar feelings. I am unhappy first because I am seized by a feeling of inadequacy and helplessness when I strain and concentrate to find answers; second, because I despair of my ability to formulate that which I fleetingly and vaguely view during intensive introspection; and third, because I know that I lack the power or whatever else it takes to convince my questioner. Finally, I am unhappy because I am practically certain that the entire process of trying to answer these questions is an exercise in futility; the questioner is not really that interested, and he or she is right, because there are now many more important questions.

It is my unhappiness about this inadequacy, ineffectiveness, powerlessness and sense of futility -- which seem to be built into the problem -- that causes my anger. And that anger is intensified by my realization that despite all reasoning to the contrary, I cannot but perceive these questions as an assault upon my person. Instead of remaining a natural mechanism for soliciting information, which they are, they assume the shape of an interrogation in which the questioner is also the tormentor.

For when all is said and done, are we Jews not being judged guilty of lack of foresight, of gullibility, of inertia, of cowardice, of irresponsibility, of a defeatism by which guilt is transferred to an army of anonymous bystanders who may include the questioner? The surviving victims are put into the grotesque situation of having to explain what others did to them, and of meeting with incomprehension should they refuse, or declare themselves unable, to answer. The surviving perpetrators are not approached; one would not expect a true answer from them. The situation is somehow reminiscent of the law enacted immediately after the Crystal Night requiring the Jews to pay for the damage done to their businesses and homes.

And yet, the victim-survivor is the only reliable “expert” and eyewitness to whom to turn and, by the very fact of having survived, is also morally obligated to provide information. So why should we be coy about answering a few straight questions? Therefore, I feel I must overcome my resistance and resentment, must dismiss the feeling of engaging in an unwilling exercise in apologetics, and try earnestly, if not to supply straight and simple answers, at least to clarify and line up some of the evasive arguments that I have harbored for a long time, and to articulate them as well as I can.

There is another compelling reason for such a course of action: survivors are a vanishing breed, but questions like those quoted will be around for a long time to come. And of whom will they be asked? Of Jews. The “expertise” about the martyrdom of the Holocaust will be inherited by generation upon generation of Jews. The surviving Jew, therefore, has the added obligation to provide future Jews with authentic material with which to withstand the onslaught of future questions. Naturally, not only non-Jews will ask the questions; fellow Jews will ask them as well -- what is more, they are doing so already.

Even the most basic question is being asked of me in all sincerity and will continue to be asked of Jews, no matter how outrageous it may appear to us that we, of all people, should provide an answer. I refer to the question: How could a country of such high culture as Germany become the nation of the Holocaust? In response I routinely say that millions of words of learned analyses have not yet provided an answer, and I advise the questioner to inquire of a German Aryan, not of me. But this is, of course, a subterfuge, and I notice the resulting disappointment. By some special logic the Jew is the expert on all aspects of the Holocaust. This is true of the survivor and will be true of the Jews hereafter. And since the still-living survivors do have direct access to some of the facts, they must lay the foundation for eventual answers.

There is, then, no getting out from under the obligation to face the questions asked ad hominem: about meekly going to the slaughter, about hiding behind the barbed wire of the concentration camp, and about not leaving Germany while the leaving was good. For, after all, there were some who did not go like sheep, there were a handful who did attempt to flee from the camps, and there were many thousands who left Germany in time. For a beginning, I shall pick only one of these three sample questions for a sample reply -- the easiest: Why didn’t you leave Germany while there was still time?

One reason this is for me the easiest of the three is that it is the most limited as concerns time and space. I am offered the temporary comfort of not having to consider eastern European Jews, who paid a still higher price in suffering and death, or Austrian Jews, who shared in our fate but began doing so at a later time.

Even so, I still have one reservation. When this question is asked with the implication that those who left Germany early were the only farsighted ones -- people of action, without illusions and false sentimentality -- I reserve for myself the right to keep silent. Why should I heap insult on injury for myself and the other 200,000 German Jews who did not leave while there was still time?

Here, then, are a number of formulated thoughts in connection with that question.

1. I was 18 when Hitler came to power, and I was beginning my education toward a professional career.

2. During the first year of Hitler’s rule most of us thought that he would disappear from the stage now that he had been given responsibilities. We had no doubt that he would fail, just as those before him had failed, and that would be the end of him and his histrionics.

3. For the next three years (approximately through 1936) we thought we would be able to endure the discrimination, the impoverishment, the threat to life and limb to some of us, as other Jewish generations had endured. For together with the blows that fell on us there grew an inner regeneration, an awakening of Jewish consciousness, a pride in our Judaism, a readiness to suffer for it and eventually to triumph through it which I do not believe is paralleled in any three-year period of Jewish history. Far too, little is known as yet about this short-lived inner Jewish renaissance under outside pressure. But just count the publications of the Schocken-Verlag or the Jüdischer Verlag in Berlin during those three years. And let us not forget that along with this newly found wellspring of strength we were still proud of and practicing our German heritage, and often we felt that we were the only true Germans.

4. How many people have ever given thought to what it means to tear oneself up by the roots and leave an environment that has been one’s physical, cultural and emotional home perhaps for generations? The uprooting I mean is totally different from the “Get thee out of thy country” imperative that went out to Abraham, which carried with it God’s promise about “a land I will show thee” (Gen. 12:1). An uprooting that is totally involuntary causes great pain. Even in the concentration camp, moving to a different camp or having to leave a barracks with which you had become familiar and go to a different one was a misfortune. Strangely, in the flight of refugees we seldom consider the initial stage: that of being uprooted. We begin to develop a degree of empathy only after they have become “boat people,” so to speak.

5. I readily admit that many of us feared the shock of being uprooted and tried to avoid it if at all possible. But to understand this reaction, you will have to believe me when I say that nobody could possibly have foreseen the “final solution.” I am quite sure that this also applies to the Nazi leadership during the earlier years. To me, everyone who says that he or she foresaw the slaughter of our people, and that it was all written in Mein Kampf, is a liar, or has forgotten the limits of the human mind before Auschwitz. When in October and November 1944 the first evacuees from Auschwitz arrived in Bergen-Belsen (a camp where prisoners died only from starvation, exhaustion, disease and maltreatment) and told us about the gas chambers, we did not believe them.

6. There was even a moral objection against emigrating. I remember that as a child I sometimes caught the phrase: “Der musste nach Amerika” -- that is, “So-and-so had to go to America.” This was said of someone who, perhaps generations ago, emigrated to avoid army service, to evade the police, to escape creditors, or someone who just could not make a living at home. In short, the association with emigration was negative; a person “in good standing” did not emigrate. We had been brought up on the precept Bleibe im Lande und nähre dich redlich: “Stay in the land and make an honest living.” Ironically, most of us had no idea that this so typically German proverb was nothing but Luther’s translation of a verse from the Hebrew Psalms (37:3). In some families this prejudice against emigration in any form went back to emigrants after the political upheavals of 1815 and 1848, to the very scions of “our crowd” in this country.

7. In the summer of 1935 the graduating class of my Hebrew Teachers Seminary organized a trip to Palestine. One of the students stayed there illegally; a second would have liked to stay, but his father forbade it sternly. All others returned and assumed their new positions in Germany.

8. Many Jewish leaders felt they had to stay as shepherds of their flock. But some of the most highly placed leaders advised other Jews to remain as well. This feeling of duty to stay was not limited to, say, rabbis; I felt it strongly as a teacher in a Jewish grade school, and also as a son. For if an opportunity had offered itself to me as a young man, it was certain that I would have had to leave my mother in the midst of the danger I sought to escape. Many cases of able-bodied young persons who were given the chance and left, of rabbis who made use of their special standing outside the immigration quota, filled us with sadness and indignation. The situation was not yet one of “everyone for himself,” and for some it never came to that.

Beginning perhaps with the Nuremberg Laws in the fall of 1935, and from then on increasingly through 1938, the terror grew and the belief of a Jewish future in Germany faded away. Then many of us who had not done so before began to contemplate emigration.

9. Before the open panic started, reaching the decision to emigrate was still an individual process; some arrived at it earlier, others later. People who were still employed or in business probably tarried longer than those without means. But aside from this factor, individuals have different thresholds, even with regard to acting and reacting in the face of grave danger. Once the decision had been made, the urgency grew quickly, and the feeling was: the sooner the better. But at that time there was, connected to the willingness to emigrate, still the consideration of where to go and how to build a new future there.

10. Now there was this true tragedy: in the measure that the need to emigrate became evident, in the same measure the opportunities for emigrating decreased rapidly and radically. The American immigration quota was overdrawn, and the consulates handed out waiting numbers that stretched ahead years into the future. The certificates for Palestine sharply decreased because the mandatory power did not want to alienate the Arabs. As far as England itself was concerned, the demand for housemaids -- one of the few ways of being admitted to England, except for a number of children transports -- was saturated. Those countries that sold entry visas asked ever-higher sums, and there were ever fewer Jews who could raise the money.

All in all, long before the German exit door was slammed shut, immigration countries barricaded themselves effectively against the Jews. The causes were economic and social, combined with the fear of displeasing Hitler or outright sympathy with his goals and methods, among them anti-Semitism. By that time, every Jew in Germany spoke his own “Get thee out,” but God did not show him a land.

11. I wonder whether those who ask such a question as “Why did you not leave Germany while there was still time?” realize that not everyone could have emigrated. There were definite qualifications and conditions, and those who did not meet them could not leave. Our conversations were governed by such things as affidavits, sponsors, certificates, quotas and visas, requirements of age, skills and health, relatives abroad, rumored loopholes in immigration laws from New Zealand to Chile. Thousands, tens of thousands of German Jews simply could not emigrate if their life depended on it -- which it did. And if I, a healthy young man with a certain sense of adventure, could not emigrate, what about young children and old people, the sick and the handicapped?

12. The greatest irony, something that to us could only appear as a cruel hoax, was the international conference on the refugee problem held at Evian, France, in July 1938. If President Roosevelt had deliberately convened it as a political measure to demonstrate to his constituency in the U.S. that the state of the economy, especially the unemployment situation, did not permit the immigration of any more Jews, he could not have chosen a more effective means. Strange that he should not have realized what the outcome would be; we Jews in Germany knew that the conference would lead to precisely nothing, for each of us had heard the regrets and refusals of the different countries privately, before at that conference delegate after delegate from country after country stated them publicly. There were gloating headlines in the German press day after day during the conference: how right Hitler had proven to be, how the world was beginning to see things his way, how nobody wanted the Jews.

There were tiny sparks of hope -- and I want to single out Australia and the Dominican Republic for a blessing -- but they only emphasized the total darkness on the face of the earth. We read the newspapers with a growing dread; we were glued to the radio in honor. Right there in Evian our fate was sealed. We did not have to wait another two months for Chamberlain’s journey to Munich to know that the world was buckling under to Hitler. As directly as Chamberlain’s Munich led to the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland, as surely Roosevelt’s Evian made possible the Crystal Night. The message was loud and clear: do what you want with your Jews -- it’s an internal affair. And we, the rest of the world, won’t lift a finger.

13. It is commonplace to say that the Crystal Night was the dress rehearsal for what was to come. It is seldom realized that it was also a last chance. The world was being tested once more for its moral fiber, and once more the world failed. For a few days after the event, border police in neighboring countries -- Holland, Belgium, France -- were less strict about repelling Jews who dared the desperate nighttime dash over a frontier in the woods. Then this loophole was closed too, and the trap shut on us.

As for the Jews left in post-Crystal Night Germany there was nobody anymore who had any hesitation about leaving. Never mind tearing up old roots or striking new ones; it was a mad scramble. But emigration was available for only a few; the rest were caught. Quiet despair settled over us. We continued our different tasks under ever-worsening conditions; I went on teaching at my Jewish grade school. Many of us were very pessimistic, depressed and gloomy; many anticipated still worse to come, even though nobody imagined -- or could have imagined -- Einsatzkommandos and gas chambers.

One more thing I did not anticipate: that 40 years later a well-meaning student of a brand-new academic subject called “Holocaust Studies” would ask me: “Why didn’t you leave Germany while there was still time?”