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John Grenville, The Jews and Germans of Hamburg. The Destruction of a Civilization 1790-1945. London: Routledge, 2012. 334 p.
The title of John Grenville’s book is somewhat confusing in two ways. For one, it is not immediately clear what the author means by “Jews” and “Germans.” Is the book about Jews and non-Jews? Or is it about Jews who were also Germans? My reaction to these rather essential questions was curiosity, probably not the worst strategy for approaching the review of a book. The second unclear point refers to the period investigated in the book. It is not really a history of German Jewry in Hamburg from 1790 until 1945, as the title implies. The recently deceased author, himself a survivor of National Socialism who as a child was send from his hometown Berlin to England with a Kindertransport, presents a profound and very well-written history of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, but not only of those in Hamburg.
The book is divided into seven chapters. Grenville starts by depicting the prehistory of the persecution in two chapters that are short but essential. The first one deals with the period from the eighteenth century to the end of World War I; the second concentrates on the Weimar republic. Both chapters are very readable and form an introduction to the following four chapters, which are clearly the author's primary focus: the period between the years 1933 and 1945.
Grenville dedicates chapter 3 to a detailed description of the year 1933. He turns his attention to the tactics the Nazis employed in Hamburg to come to power, focusing on their brutality. His narrative is framed with deeply moving excerpts from the diary of Luise Solmitz. One of these describes the incident in which her teenage daughter, until then a happy member of the League of German Girls, had to prove her racial descent in school and was subsequently labeled “half Jewish,” a first sign of the rapid isolation of Jewish citizens.
The following chapter covers the years from 1934 to 1938. Here Grenville changes his perspective and describes convincingly how the different segments of the Jewish community, whether secular, Zionist, or orthodox, courageously reacted to the increasingly difficult conditions, with constraints reaching into almost every aspect of daily life, and how they nevertheless refused to be intimidated.
Chapter 5, with the telling title, “Save Yourself If You Can,” sheds light on the decisive years of 1938 and 1939. Grenville examines the first deportation of Polish Jews in October 1938. He depicts the forced expulsion of the Jews from business life in Hamburg without omitting the reactions by non-Jews. While until 1938 the number of emigrants had declined, this changed abruptly with the pogrom of November 9 and 10, the so-called Kristallnacht. Despite the now well-known term, “night of broken glass,” which suggests that Kristallnacht happened in the dark, random violence took place in broad daylight, with many ordinary Germans participating in personal assaults.
Chapter 6 is dedicated to a micro-history of the Holocaust analyzed on a local level. Here Grenville does focus on Hamburg and describes its remaining Jewish community after many had decided to emigrate: those who remained behind were largely women and the elderly, most of them impoverished. The Reichsvereinigung, the organization established by the Gestapo to organize emigration, was now forced to participate in organizing the deportations. In April 1945, after 17 deportation transports to different ghettos and extermination camps, only 674 Jews were left, most of them living in mixed marriages. More than 5000 had been killed.
Grenville concludes his book with “Reflections,” a short epilogue of sorts in which he cautiously tries to find answers to the crucial question of how it could have been possible for a civilization to be destroyed in such a short period of time.
The book also includes a number of photographs of important Jewish buildings, products, and people (though mostly men) from different epochs. Unfortunately, there is no information given about these images, their origin, photographers, or dates. An outstanding feature of the book is its use of personal documents. Grenville extensively cites memoirs, diaries, and similar documents. At great length he quotes from the diary of Luise Solmitz. Her observations and comments on social and political developments and events as well as her hopes and fears offer a deep insight into the heart and mind of an ordinary German. The fact that she was married to a baptized Jew made her especially sensitive to the fate of the Jews in Hamburg. The reader can follow her thoughtful reflections throughout the book. In choosing an integrated approach, like the one preferred by authors such as Leni Yahil and Saul Friedlander, Grenville’s attempt not to “omit the many subtle shades of grey between the ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ which alone can make what occurred understandable” (xi) is highly successful.