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The star of ostracism and death

Christoph Hasselbach / gro
September 1, 2016

Seventy-five years ago, the Nazis forced Jews in Germany to wear a yellow badge, which meant they were excluded from society. The identification symbol was a precursor to the Holocaust.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Star of David did not originally denote stigmatization, nor was the six-pointed star an exclusively Jewish symbol in the past. Nonetheless, the star has been associated with the Holocaust since the Nazi era in Germany.

After the Nuremberg Race Laws were passed in 1935, Jews faced increasing social exclusion. The laws had meticulously defined who was Jewish, of mixed race or deemed as Jewish according to German laws. Years later, most of these people – not all of them – had to wear a yellow badge.

'Making the enemy within visible'

Even before the war, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Main Security Office, had thought about how one could make Germany's enemies within visible to the world. Shortly after the Kristallnacht in November 1938 when synagogues were set on fire and Jewish businesses were destroyed, Heydrich wrote, "Whoever is Jewish according to the Nuremberg Laws will have to wear a certain insignia." It made it easier for the Nazis to find Jews and deport them to concentration camps – and not only in Germany.

Right at the beginning of the war in September 1939, Jews living in occupied Poland were forced to wear a white armband with a blue star on it. As more and more countries were occupied by Germany, the Nazis imposed mandatory ID badges on the Jewish population.

Reinhard Heydrich
Heydrich was one of the main architects of the HolocaustImage: AP

Hitler reluctant at first

Before the war, the regime was hesitant about labeling. In 1937, even Hitler revealed his calculated reluctance when he told functionaries of the NSDAP, the Nazi party: "The problem with the identification has been considered continually for two or three years and it will be implemented.... [T]hen you have to have the right sense to know, 'What can I still do, what can I not do?'" He still presented himself as willing to compromise as he apparently feared fierce reactions from abroad.

But all inhibitions were abandoned at the beginning of the war. In 1941, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, reminded Hitler about identification for the Jews again and he was given permission in mid-August. On September 1, 1941, the police regulation came into effect.

All the specifications were worked out. "The palm-sized, black, six-pointed star made of yellow fabric with the black inscription 'Jew' is to be placed visibly on the left chest side of the garment." This regulation, based on the Nuremburg Laws, was applied to all Jewish citizens after six years of age. From this point on, it was forbidden for Jews to appear in public without a yellow badge. Anyone who tried to hide the star - with a scarf, for example - was harshly penalized by the Gestapo, who monitored the visibility of the badge.

Deutschland Judenstern Rampe KZ Auschwitz
The deportation of Jews to extermination camps began just a month after the introduction of the star badgesImage: picture-alliance/IMAGNO/Austrian Archives

Isolation, discrimination, control

The victims despaired. Author and specialist for Romance languages, Victor Klemperer, came from a Jewish family but he had already converted to Protestantism before World War I. In 1935, Klemperer lost his professorship in Dresden and was forced to wear a star. In his diaries, which later became famous, he wrote, "Yesterday, when Eva sewed on the Jewish star, I was taken by an insane fit of desperation. Eva was also at her wits' end. I feel shattered, I cannot find composure."

During 2013 at a commemorative ceremony in German parliament, Holocaust survivor Inge Deutschkron recalled, "The majority of Germans I met in the streets looked away when they noticed the star, or they looked right through me, the marked one, or just turned around…[W]ithout doubt, the star created a discriminatory isolation for us." Jews were isolated, discriminated against and controlled.

A precursor to the Holocaust

The identification measure was only a precursor to what the Nazis called the "final solution" of the Jewish question, meaning extermination. Apart from wearing a badge, Jews were not allowed to leave their residential district without police permission.

The perfect framework had been put in place for the Holocaust. It was no coincidence that deportations to the extermination camps began only a month later, in October 1941. Victor Klemperer and Inge survived, but millions of others did not.

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