What German Children Wanted

Researching her book 'How Nice to be a Jew' has shown Hanna Livnat that there was a positive side to ignoring the Nazi ascent

And why shouldn't 11-year-old Hans Ungers of the Berlin Jewish School imagine taking the overland route to the Land of Israel? In 1934, when thick clouds blocked the blue skies of his beloved Germany, when the uncertainty, confusion and desperation of grown-ups increased all the time, was there any better refuge than the imagination?

His poetic description was published in Germany on December 21, 1934, in issue 21 of the Jewish children's magazine Kinder-Rundschau, which was devoted to the subject "What I Would Like." The magazine had been founded by Zionist groups a year earlier, after the Nazis were voted into power. It aimed to encourage Zionist identity in Jewish children as a response to the great crisis in their lives, primarily by promoting the dream of immigrating to Eretz Israel for a life of fulfillment and pioneering. Many children accepted the idea. Ungers' classmate, Sigbert Cohen, without a doubt a more practical child, wrote: "I would very much like, when I grow up, to travel to Palestine. When I finish my schooling, I would like to learn to work the land in a Zionist training course."

Beginning in 1933, the Jews were placed under various edicts and limitations, but they still had no idea what lay ahead. At this time of crisis, Jewish organizations worked feverishly to publish a series of children's newspapers that were included in regular editions for adults, and which featured original fiction and translations from Hebrew. The writers and editors decided not to discuss current events - on principle.

"Magazines and newspapers are constructed to respond to real-life events, but they chose not to do so," said Hanna Livnat, who heads the Yemima Center for the Study and Teaching of Children's Literature at Beit Berl College and wrote about the magazine as part of a book on the identity-shaping process of Jewish children in Germany between 1933 and 1938. "They did not say to their readers, 'Pack your suitcase and leave Germany immediately,'" she said in an interview ahead of today's commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Livnat's first inclination was to be judgmental about the policy of concealment. "The more I read deeply, I thought to myself, why didn't they say, 'Take your children and leave; the situation is dangerous'? But as I went on, I saw that they did brilliant work.

"By shaping an alternative identity, the central ideological Jewish organizations in Germany sought to create an atmosphere of stability and optimism for their readers, to fill the space left vacant by the crisis, to distract them from their distress, and to give them a feeling of belonging to replace the identity they were stripped of. What good would it have done if they had demonstrated that everything was collapsing? They decided to give them a substitute, which was 'How nice to be a Jew.' And this was at a time when German newspapers, Der Sturmer and such, were depicting Jews as disgusting."

Livnat borrowed the phrase "how nice to be a Jew," which also serves as the title of her book, from the first issue of Kinder-Runschau.

Like several other Jewish children's newspapers founded at around the same time, Kinder-Rundschau took upon itself to keep up its young readers' spirits under difficult circumstances. And so it declared in its first issue, published October 4, 1933: "Every Jewish girl and boy should find something here to cause them cheer and show them how nice it is to be a Jew. ... We'll tell you a lot, especially, of course, about Palestine and the life of Jewish children there."

The magazine sometimes expressed the simple desires of German children, which are often, paradoxically perhaps, the most moving ones. Looking toward the frightening future with innocent, and normal, eyes, 11-year-old Helen Sommerfeld of Berlin wrote: "First of all I would like my school days to end already. I would very much like to help my parents in the shop. At the same time, I would like to learn a profession, so I may be independent when I grow up. I would very much like to own a car, only of course if I know how to drive it myself. And in addition to all this, I would like us all, the Jews, to be able to look forward to the future with joy and pleasure!"

In the book, which is based on Livnat's doctoral thesis for Tel Aviv University and was recently published by the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, the author takes a look at Orthodox children and those affiliated with the Zionist and central liberal movements.

"German Jewry at that time was not a large community," said Livnat. "In 1933 it numbered a half million people in all. If we assume that a third of them were children, some of whom managed to emigrate over the next few years, we see how large an investment was made for such a small audience. Some 300 titles and four children's and young people's newspapers were published between 1933 and 1938. The Zionist newspaper had the largest circulation. By 1938, when Jewish publications were banned, 108 issues of Kinder-Rundschau had appeared."

Particularly in the wake of the Nuremburg Laws, the newspapers made an effort to give children an alternative identity, a Jewish one. "Most German Jews were unfamiliar with Judaism," Livnat said. "These papers devoted themselves to the holidays. Joy and dancing were prominent. Not poverty and sadness."

It seems that the children absorbed cultural Jewishness through the magazine's pages.

"The entire system of values changed," Livnat said. "If before this a Jewish child knew he was European, German, listening to Haydn's music and reading Goethe and Schiller, all that changed. The children were writing about holidays, about the lovely Shabbat they had experienced, and describing synagogues."

The terrible situation in Germany was completely missing from these books and papers, which depicted only the positive elements of life. The children also refrained from describing the Nazis or anything else in their immediate environment. "Sometimes [editors] chose to translate only a writer's positive stories and poems, even deleting problematic sections, which shows that there was a policy of censorship," Livnat said.

Sometimes it is possible to find traces of the children's uncertainty and confusion between the lines. In 1935, for example, 15-year-old Julius' question was published, about whether Jews could acquire sports badges from Reich scouts groups. The editorial board's chilling answer is given in dry and bureaucratic language: "It is not known whether there is any specific provision in this matter."

What is strange is that while the Nazis are not mentioned, the newspapers published descriptions of Arabs and of Yemenite Jews. "The children were told that the Jews in Yemen were extremely unfortunate because they were pursued by the Arabs, and that the Yemenite Jews were dirty," Livnat said. "In contrast they emphasize their own cleanliness, fastidiousness and socialist values. In newspapers and books, the Jewish homes in Yemen are depicted as caves; there are difficult descriptions of studies taking place in squalor, and an infant whose face is obscured by flies. And just as the Europeans approach native inhabitants [of colonized lands], they say: 'We will reach the Land of Israel and teach them; we'll raise the flag of enlightenment.'"