This Day in Jewish History / Nazis Uphold Jewish Rights

In a region disputed by both Germany and Poland, World War II-era Jews maintained civil rights up until 1937.

On September 30, 1933, the government of Nazi Germany informed the League of Nations that it would respect the civil rights of the Jews of Upper Silesia, explaining that an earlier move to apply anti-Jewish legislation from Germany proper to the region had been a technical error.

Although today part of Poland, sovereignty in the disputed region Upper Silesia, with part of its population Polish-speaking and part German-speaking, had been divided between Poland and Germany following World War I. The arrangement was formalized in the “German-Polish Accord on East Silesia,” signed in Geneva on May 15, 1922. One of that convention’s conditions was that all minorities in Upper Silesia would have their civil and political rights guaranteed. Within months after the Nazis took power in Germany, however, in January 1933, they began to pass legislation that prevented Jews from holding civil-service jobs, and then restricted their admission to universities and employment in a variety of other professions. These laws were implemented in Upper Silesia as well.

Franz Bernheim was a Jewish resident of Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, employed as a warehouse worker by the Deutsches Familien-Kaufhaus department store there. In April 1933, he was laid off from his job by virtue of his Jewish ancestry. On May 17, Bernheim, who by now had relocated to Poland, filed a petition with the League of Nations, which was charged with overseeing the terms of the 1922 German-Polish Accord, claiming that his firing was a violation of Germany’s commitment to the Geneva Convention. Initially, the League’s German representative, Friedrich von Keller, tried to deflect discussion of the petition on procedural grounds; when this failed, he  claimed that domestic German legislation was not intended to supersede the terms of the Accord, and that any attempt to apply German anti-Jewish laws in Upper Silesia had been due to the incompetence of certain bureaucrats.

Bernheim was assisted in his petition by a number of Jewish organizations, and in the end, not only did the German government agree to pay him compensation for his dismissal, but it also agreed to reinstate the Jewish physicians, lawyers and civil servants in Upper Silesia who had also been relieved of their jobs. From then until July 15, 1937, which was the date on which the 1922 German-Polish Accord was set to expire, the 10,000 Jews of the region continued to be exempt from anti-Semitic legislation in Germany.