SA (Sturm Abteilung or “Brownshirts”) call for the boycott of Jewish shops in Friedrichstraße, Berlin; April 1, 1933.
The sign says: “Germans, Attention! This shop is owned by Jews. Jews damage the German economy and pay their German employees starvation wages. The main owner is the Jew Nathan Schmidt.”
There are a number of issues for Jews just “blending in”, which broadly speaking worked differently in Eastern and Western Europe.
In Western Europe, maltreatment of Jews was mostly incremental. The Nazis didn’t start mass murdering people right out of the gate (though it was clear that things were going to get bad for the Jews, and people did openly speak in the ’30s of the possibility of Jews being killed en masse, albeit not on the scale it actually occurred). First, citizenship was revoked, certain rights were rolled back, Jews were de-integrated from society, etc. Eventually you got things like the famous yellow stars. The penalties for pretending not to be Jewish were pretty steep, and being killed for being Jewish wasn’t an immediate threat. Additionally, records were used over time to make it difficult to hide Jewish lineage. While Jews “passing” would’ve been relatively easy in Germany, the environment pre-war made it an unlikely choice.
In Eastern Europe, the Germans essentially rolled in followed by killing squads and created ghettos in cities. However, there were a couple of issues. First, you did have some of the same effect as in Western Europe, where people feared the Germans finding them unregistered more than they feared what’d happen if they didn’t. Creating ghettos and killing everybody wasn’t announced.
In Kiev, for instance, Jews were told that they had to assemble with their possessions for resettlement a few days after the occupation began–anyone violating the order would be shot. But upon their arrival, they were all shot in a ravine at Babi Yar–only a few who managed to slip away survived. While some Jews might’ve feared what would happen, the prospect of being hunted down was present, and culturally speaking restrictions on Jewish residence in Europe wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon.
Additionally, in Eastern Europe much more than western, Jews weren’t very integrated. It’d be a dead giveaway if someone could only speak Yiddish (which would’ve happened in rural areas, though most people could probably converse in the local language) or couldn’t find non-Jews to vouch for them or couldn’t document a name that wasn’t Jewish.
In all these cases, the penalty for trying to “pass” was death, and the Nazis had whatever historical records were available to hunt down those who tried.
However, some people did. While it was difficult to do it, among the millions of Jews some were bound to try it, and some succeeded. Just yesterday I heard someone asking about documenting Jewish genealogies because their Litvak (Lithuanian-Jewish) ancestors intentionally obfuscated their Jewish heritage. And I know a woman (this anecdote is illustrative, not a source–that’d be against the rules) who survived the war as a girl in a Belgian orphanage–it was assured that there was no documentation tying her to being Jewish, and by all appearances she was just a young girl who was abandoned.
A better-known example is the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which sheltered thousands of French Jews (and others escaping Nazi persecution). Note that France had an integrated Jewish community (so people could “pass”) and didn’t have the incremental persecution increases in Germany, so there was more incentive to try to avoid the Germans figuring out you were Jewish at all. It required a organized effort, and lots of forged documents–if you mysteriously had no record of birth in the local church, the Nazis wouldn’t just shrug and move on.
So in short, you’d have to decide way in advance to pass in Germany, and it’d be difficult to in Eastern Europe. In either case, the incentive to hide being Jewish wasn’t immediately apparent, but the risks of it were.
Young Ukrainian boys with wooden clubs chase a battered and bloodied Jewish woman during the Lviv pogroms; ca. 1941
“On June 30, 1941, Lvov was conquered by the Germans. Pogroms against the Jews began that day, carried out by Ukranian civilians and the German Einsatzgruppe C. The Ukrainians were incited by rumors that the Jews had participated in the murders of Ukrainian political prisoners in the Soviet regime’s NKVD (security police) prison. Jews were forced to take the bodies out of the prison, and then the pogroms commenced and continued until July 3. In those few days, some 4,000 Jews were killed.”
Chances are the reason most of these photos are of women, is that their men were already dead.
(A professor once told me that mediocre, normal people are the most dangerous in situations of persecution.
The logic being that a mediocre person is in a situation of unsure status within the system. They do not have any skills which cement them into a position of need or power, nor are they clearly defined as a target of persecution. In order to signal to others that they are a ‘true believer’ and not part of the doubter’s camp or aligned with the ‘enemy’, these mediocre people often rely on exhibiting dramatic and excessive acts of violence against the targeted population.
An interesting example is the Cambodian Communist mass killings and the importance of thought crime to the Khmer regime. The Khmer were obsessed with trying to find physical symptoms to inner states, as thier main ‘enemy’ was not one defined by the ethnic but of political beliefs. Since you can’t tell by looking at someone what ideology they follow, the Khmer relied heavily on semiotics in order to find possible non-believers (soft hands meaning hadn’t worked in agriculture, wears glasses implying education enough to necessitate them to read, et al). In Tuol Sleng, the Khmer’s main torture center, even after a prisoner confessed to being a traitor or harboring negative thoughts about the regime, they weren’t executed right there, however, they were kept imprisoned and continued to be tortured. Why were they kept alive, when the main purpose of TS was to identify and execute traitors? One hypothesis is that, in order to clearly demonstrate their hatred of the ‘enemy’ and signal that they are a ‘true believer’ of the Khmer’s ideals, especially in the context of the Khmer’s paranoia, the perpetrators continued to torture the imprisoned, confessed ‘traitors’, in an outward display of hatred.)