The Righteous in Germany

In 1933, around 520,000 Jews lived in Germany, representing less than one per cent of the country's total population. The majority of them lived in the larger cities - Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Breslau, Hamburg, Hanover and Leipzig. Follow Hitler's rise to power, that religiously and economically divergent community was faced with immense challenges and was subjected to brutal repression. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 removed all rights from German Jews and became the foundation for the Third Reich's antisemitic politics.

As a result of the open discrimination, Jews made the decision to leave the country. Their priority was to protect their children. Charities and relatives abroad helped to get them out of Germany and were prepared to take in the children. Between the years 1938 and 1940, 7,500 Jewish children from Germany, from Austrian territory annexed in March 1938 and from that part of Czechoslovakia annexed in January 1939, were sent to Great Britain in the so-called Kindertransports. Many of those children would never again see their parents, who would later become victims of Nazi crimes. In selecting children to be transported, Jewish organisations in Germany gave priority to orphans and to those children whose parents, especially the fathers, were already prisoners in concentration camps. Between 1933 and 1939, around 400,000 Jews left the territory of the Third Reich (Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia). Many of them would later, in 1940, find themselves under German occupation in western Europe.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, around 200,000 individuals, considered "Jews" under the Nuremberg Laws, still lived in the Third Reich. In the autumn of 1941, Jews began to be deported to the east - to, among other places, the Łódż ghetto, to Mińsk and to Riga. From the spring of 1942, they were sent directly to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Jews - World War I veterans and those with non-Jewish spouses - were then deported to Theresienstadt.

Those who managed to avoid deportation until as late as 1943, on the basis of a Schutzbriefe (a document stating that they were an essential worker), sought shelter for themselves and for their families. They began "to go underground”.

A crucial moment was the so-called Fabrikaktion in February 1943, which induced the remaining Jews in Germany to go into hiding. At that time, the Gestapo arrested around 7,000 Jews who worked as forced labourers in armaments factories in Berlin. Some had been warned by non-Jewish employees about the round-ups. Jews rounded up in the streets and in the so-called "Jewish houses" were then also arrested and deported. So, from the beginning of 1943, going into hiding was the one chance for survival.

Before the War, the largest Jewish community was in Berlin. Of the 160,000 Jews living there in 1933, 90,000 had emigrated, 55,000 had been deported and murdered and 7,000 had committed suicide before deportation. Only 8,000 remained, of whom 1,400 were in hiding. The majority received various forms of help. However, not everyone who offered help and shelter realised that they were assisting Jews.

Jews in hiding referred to themselves as "U-Boats" (submarines). According to estimates by historians, around 10,000-12,000 individuals attempted to go into hiding. They usually sought to save themselves in the bigger cities, mainly in Berlin. For help, they would turn to pre-War friends, individuals known for their pre-War political activities or, in the case of Christians with Jewish origins, to members of religious communities. A network to help Jews was, in many instances, comprised of many individuals. First contact with such a network was often coincidental.

Above all, help was provided by non-Jewish family members of those in hiding. A prt of the data indicates that up to 47% found shelter with their families.

Changing one's religion and circle to non-Jewish was not, however, a guarantee for surviving the Holocaust. Before the War, Erna Becker-Koen, a Jew living in Berlin, converted to Catholicism. Her husband Gustav, an engineer, despite constant pressure from the authorities, refused to leave his wife. In 1937, Erna gave birth to a son, Silvan, who was also baptised. The growing dislike of them by their neighbours caused Erna, together with her child, to leave Berlin and, from 1940, she lived in various places in lower Bavaria and Austria, receiving support from priests in the local parishes.

Opposition to the Nazi regime was a strong motivation to extending help to Jews. Before Hitler's rise to power, many of those who helped were members and sympathisers of left-wing parties, trade unions and Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1935, these people found themselves on the margins of National-Socialist society. Some were persecuted for their political or religious views and, themselves, had to go into hiding.

The greatest challenge for those in hiding was to obtain a roof over their heads and ration cards. A widow,  Johanna Eck, hid four victims of persecution in her home, two of whom were Jews. Before the War, Eck knew the family of one of them, Heinz Guttmann. His father, Jakob, and Eck's husband had fought together in World War I. In 1942, Jakob, his wife and children, were deported to the east from where they never returned. Heinz avoided being arrested and wandered the city streets. All, to whom he turned for help, refused fearing for their own safety. Eck took him into her home and shared her food with him. She then spent many days away from home, trying to obtain ration cards from friends. In November 1943, her home was damaged during an air raid. Eck received a housing allocation and found a new hiding place for Heinz. She remained in contact with the boy and continued to help him. Through the woman who was hiding the boy, Eck met Elfrieda, a Jew, who also needed support. Eck registered her at her own home under a false name. After the War, she was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations of the World.

It is estimated that, between the years 1941 and 1945, around 10-15,000 Jews were in hiding within the Third Reich, among them, over 5,000 hiding in Berlin itself. The estimated number of individuals who emerged from hiding is estimated to be from 3,000 to 5,000. Around 3,000 individuals are known to have been actively engaged in helping those in hiding.



E. Becker-Kohen, The Evil That Surrounds Us, Bloomington.

The Germans and the Holocaust: Popular Responses to the Persecution and Murder of the Jews, ed. Susannah Schrafsteter and Alan Steinweis, New York: Berghahn 2016.

Jews in Nazi Berlin. From Kristallnach to Liberation., ed. B. Meyer, H. Simon and Ch. Schütz, Chicago and London 2009.

M. Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair. Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, Oxford 1998.

S. Schrafstetter, Flucht und Versteck. Untergetauchte Juden in München: Verfolgungserfahrung und Nachkriegsalltag (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag 2015).

Überleben im Untergrund. Hilfe und Rettung für Juden in Deutschland 1941–1945. Reihe: Solidarität und Hilfe für Juden während der NS-Zeit, ed. B. Kosmala, C. Schoppmann, Band 5, Metropol, Berlin 2002.


by Dr Natalia Aleksiun

English translation: Andrew Rajcher