Eighty years ago, this month, a letter arrived in Pardes Hannah, not far from Haifa. It was very hard to read. “My darling children, with a heavy heart, I have to part from you… Darling children, don’t cry. God has decided that this should be our fate” – thus wrote Josephine Bähr from the city of Bassum in northwestern Germany, to her children Ilse and Kurt, who had immigrated to British-ruled Palestine two years earlier. “It hurts me terribly to cause you pain, we are all suffering. God will forgive me.”
On November 11, 1938, shortly after writing the letter, Bähr took her own life. She was 56 years old. Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," which had taken place between November 9 and 10 across Germany and Austria, proved too much for her to take. The physical violence, the desecration and destruction of synagogues, the looting of stores and property and, above all, the arrest of her beloved husband Leopold, destroyed her soul.
“Suicide is a common response to the insult and humiliation experienced by many Jews in that November pogrom. The emotional blow was in many cases harsher than the physical abuse,” says historian Prof. Moshe Zimmermann, coordinator of the heritage program at the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin. In many cases the background to the decision to commit suicide, he says, was a question that vexed many Jews: “How is it that we, who have been part of this nation, are so proud of it and have contributed to it, are becoming pariahs?”
>> Read more: These Jewish children were eyewitnesses to Kristallnacht
In her letter Bähr lays out the chain of events that led her to her difficult decision. “Yesterday, they first took Father and then they took me. They left Father [in detention]. Meanwhile, they took everything, all the books. Who knows what they’ll find there,” she wrote her children in Palestine. “Father, who was so good to us and loved us. I cannot cope with all this."
Leopold and Josephine Bähr (neé Ruberg) lived in Bassum, a city in lower Saxony. Leopold was a cattle merchant. He was very proud of the Iron Cross he had been given for his military service in World War I. Josephine was a housewife.
In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, only 30 Jews lived in Bassum. The Bähr's two children went to Palestine in 1936. Ilse settled in Pardes Hannah, later moving to Kfar Warburg. By November 1938, only six Jews remained in Bassum.
On Kristallnacht – the pogrom instigated by the Nazis across Germany, following the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a young Jewish man named Herschel Grynszpan – the windows and doors of Jewish houses in Bassum were smashed, and apartments were ransacked. Leopold Bähr and two other Jewish men were arrested that night and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Leopold was 65 at the time. His wife Josephine, left alone, took her own life.
In her suicide letter, she urged her children: “Stay together, and if our beloved Father comes back, give him all the love that you saved for me.” She signed the letter with the words “Your mother, forever.”
A few weeks after his arrest Leopold was released and returned to Bassum. Six months later only three Jews remained in the city, and he was one of them. His children, in their new homes in the Land of Israel, could not collect the money needed for an immigration certificate for him. In November 1941 he was sent to Minsk, where he was murdered.
His granddaughter Ruth Leshem, Ilse’s daughter, was born that year. “Both my mother and father lost a family in the Holocaust, but in our house nobody talked about it,” she says now. “The motto was: look forward.”
Only as an adult, after becoming a mother herself, did Leshem learn that her grandmother had committed suicide after Kristallnacht. “It was extremely difficult for me to read her letter,” she relates. “I don’t know how I would react to receiving such a letter today. How can you go on living after something like that, with all the guilt feelings?”
For decades the letter was kept by the family, and then in 2002 Leshem donated it to Yad Vashem. This week it was displayed for the first time in an online exhibition called “The Kristallnacht Pogrom – It Came from Within.”
Josephine Bähr’s suicide was not an isolated incident. Studies show that dozens of Jews took their lives due to the pogrom, with researchers estimating that the total was in the hundreds. Some of them drowned themselves in rivers, some hanged themselves, and others jumped out of windows or poisoned themselves with pills.
Among those who killed themselves were a few who had a claim to fame. Prof. Phillip Freud, a relative of the founder of psychoanalysis, committed suicide after being beaten in his bed; he was among the 30 Jews in Vienna who killed themselves on the night of the massacre. In Munich, Emile Krämer, a famous banker, jumped to his death from a window. An artillery officer named Lothar Fuld, who had fought in the German Army in World War I, also committed suicide, in Berlin; he was the father of Bracha Fuld, the legendary fighter in the Palmach strike force who was killed in a battle against the British in Palestine, in 1946. At least 15 other suicides were documented in Berlin after Kristallnacht.
Prof. Zimmermann adds that in killing themselves, people like Josephine had wanted to send a message. “Some of them wore their Iron Crosses, which they’d received from the German Army, on their chests. Others left on a desk all the works of Goethe. The idea was to declare: 'I am dead, but I was a good German no less than you were, and with that I depart this world.'”
A letter in this vein was left behind by retired teacher Hedwig Jastrow, who killed herself at the end of November 1938, at age 76, also as a result of the Nazi rampage.
“Nobody must undertake any attempts to save the life of someone who does not want to live! It is not an accident nor an attack of depression,” she wrote. “For 43 years, I have taught German children and have helped them in all matters… Departing this life is a woman whose family were German citizens for 100 years, swearing allegiance to it and always keeping their oath.”
Added Jastrow: “I have done welfare work on behalf of the German Volk during times of war and peace. I don’t want to live without a Fatherland, without Heimat [a homeland], without a flat, without citizenship, being outlawed and defamed.” Her letter will soon appear in the Hebrew periodical Bishvil Hazikaron, published by Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.
In a book by Christain Goeschel called "Suicide in Nazi Germany," the author quotes from other letters left behind by Jews who killed themselves after Kristallnacht. One of them was Dr. Emil H. (his full name was withheld to protect his privacy), a 73-year-old doctor from Hamburg. He left behind two suicide notes, since his first attempt on November 11 failed. Later that month, he succeeded in ending his life.
His wife gave the two letters he wrote her before his death to the German police, which is how they survived to this day.
“My dear Else!” he wrote. “It will be incredibly difficult to part from you. I have loved you so much. I thank you for all your love and faithfulness! Keep on loving the children and grandchildren! Please apologize and think of me with love. Your sad H.” the doctor wrote in his first note. In the second, he wrote: “My dear Else! I cannot live any longer and do not want to live anymore. Let me sleep quietly, do not call a doctor and don’t let them take me to a hospital. Thank you for all your love. Your H.”
The exact number of Jews who killed themselves in the wake of Kristallnacht is unknown. Eighty years on, no one knows how many Jews died during the massacre, whether by murder or suicide. Many historians cite the number 91, the official figure quoted by the Nazis. But it is clear to everyone that the true number is much higher.
“Estimates are that 300 or 400 Jews were killed, but it could be 1,000 or 1,300. The fact is that no one knows for sure, since no one has checked all the sources,” said Dr. Bastian Fleerman, a historian who is in charge of monuments in Dusseldorf, in an interview to Die Welt earlier this month.
In an unprecedented and comprehensive archival project, just completed in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, of which Dusseldorf is the capital, it was found that over 100 Jews were killed that same fateful night in just that one state. This includes people who committed suicide. Thus one can indeed surmise that the total number killed across Germany was much higher.
Since the profound sense of humiliation was a cause of many of these suicides, Zimmermann notes, the first clause in the German constitution that was ratified in 1949 determined that it was unlawful to violate one's human dignity.