Ditsong National Museum of Military History
The Nazi yellow cloth star is possibly one of the most notorious symbols ever introduced. Images of it invoke scenes of Jewish oppression, deportations and mass killings. The Ditsong National Museum of Military History is indebted to Mr Munroe Swirsky of Johannesburg for granting the author access to an authentic yellow star. This particular emblem was worn by Edith Abramsohn, a German Jew who survived the war and later immigrated to South Africa.
The Yellow Jewish Star worn by Edith Abramsohn (M Swirsky)
Symbols of Discrimination prior to the 20th Century
The system of forcing Jews to wear emblems such as the yellow star has its roots in the Middle Ages. Similar practices were introduced to identify and discriminate against Jews due to their perceived inferior status.
The Islamic Umayyad Caliphate of the Middle East and North Africa first introduced specific clothing and distinguishing symbols for both Jews and Christians in the 8th Century. Christians were required to attach honey coloured patches to their clothing while Jews had to wear yellow belts and specifically designed hats. In later years it became obligatory for Jews to hang a piece of lead around their necks with the word Dhimmi (non-Muslim) inscribed on it. Jewish women were further forced to dress in one red and one black shoe and to tie a bell around their necks or on their shoes.
In 13th Century Europe, Pope Innocent III issued a decree at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 declaring that all Jews must be marked with specific emblems and items of clothing to distinguish them from Christians. Most of Europe’s monarchies endorsed the ruling and issued their own proclamations on the subject.
The most widely used emblem was the Rouel or Rota (wheel in French and Latin respectively) badge sown onto the wearer’s clothing. Similarly, the “Two Tablets of the Laws” symbol was instituted in England, a yellow badge in Spain and a red star in Portugal. The wearing of the Judenhut (Jewish hat) was enforced in the Holy Roman Empire. This was a tall cone-shaped hat which possibly became the inspiration for the traditional witch’s hat and the infamous dunce cap. The Church also attempted to enforce the wearing of full length robes by Jews in the 14th Century.
Such practises continued in Europe until the early 19th Century. The French Revolution and the subsequent emancipation of the Jews brought an end to the wearing of the Jewish badge and other discriminatory clothing.
Jewish Oppression by Nazi Germany: The Re-introduction of Emblems
Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 was to have a considerable impact on the Jews in Europe. Hitler had continually expressed his loathing of the Jews since his early days as a political agitator and placed the bulk of the responsibility for Germany’s defeat in the First World War (1914 – 1918) at their feet. He also believed that the Jews posed an ominous threat to, what he termed, the pure blood of the Aryan race. Anti-Semitism became a defining aspect of Nazi Germany and Jews found themselves victims of ever-increasing discrimination and persecution, culminating in the Holocaust which took place during the Second World War (1939 – 1945).
As part of this process, the Nazis resurrected the practice of forcing Jews to wear symbols to distinguish them from everyone else. The first suggestion in this regard was provided in a memorandum submitted in May 1938 by the Reich’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. The suggestion was echoed by Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, in November of the same year following the Kristallnacht attacks on Jews, their properties and businesses.
It was only after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 that the German Governor-General of the newly occupied territory, Hans Frank, directed that all Jews over the age of twelve were to wear a white armband with the blue Star of David inscribed on it. From there the practice spread throughout German occupied Europe, in particular after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in July 1941. Initially there was no restriction on the distinguishing symbol, its colour or shape. Eventually, the yellow Star of David worn on the left breast became the standard symbol, not only to stigmatize and humiliate the Jews, but to facilitate isolating them into ghettos prior to their ultimate deportation and annihilation in terms of the Nazi’s final solution.
The initial design of the yellow star varied from area to area. In Germany, Alsace, Bohemia and Moravia the star was outlined in black with the German word for Jew, Jude, written in the centre in Hebraic style. The star worn by Edith Abramsohn is an example of this version.
The star worn in the Netherlands and France was exactly the same except that the word for Jew was replaced by either the Dutch word, Jood, or the French equivalent, Juif. The Belgian version only included the letter J while the letters HZ were similarly located on the Slovak emblem. In Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Lithuania and Latvia the emblem was simply the yellow star with no black backing or lettering found on it. A similar emblem outlined in blue was issued in Croatia.
A Yellow Star issued in Belgium (M Swirsky)
In many areas the Jews themselves were responsible for producing, purchasing and distributing their own badges. In most cases the punishment for being found without an emblem could range from a severe fine to imprisonment or, at worst, summary execution. In certain ghettos Jews with distinct skills such as doctors, skilled factory workers and members of the ghetto council were allowed to wear a different form of the emblem to identify their status.
The Yellow Star in the Concentration/ Extermination Camps
A complex system of identifying badges to categorize the prisoner was established in the concentration and extermination camps set up throughout the Third Reich and its occupied territories. There the Nazis made no distinction between Jews, political prisoners and criminals and their emblems became the only mark of difference. The emblems were a series of inverted triangles in different colours for each category of inmate that were worn on the left breast and the right trouser leg. The colours were green for convicted criminals, red for political prisoners, purple for pacifists, pink for homosexuals, black for anti-socials and brown for gypsies. Jews wore two yellow triangles with the second one inverted over the first to form the yellow star. The categories would be combined if required. For example a Jew who was also believed to be a political prisoner would be forced to wear a red triangle superimposed on the yellow star.
Opposition to the Emblem
In certain territories, in particular those of Western Europe, attempts to introduce the yellow star were met with various levels of opposition by officials, the local communities and even high ranking officers of the Wermacht (German Armed Forces). While all Jews over the age of six in German occupied France were forced to wear the badge, bureaucratic obstruction by French officials in the unoccupied southern sector resulted in such measures not being imposed even after the region was occupied by German forces in November 1942.
Denmark and Norway were the exceptions as the system was not introduced in these countries. It is an unproven myth that the Danish King, Christian X, vowed that should such a measure have been forced upon Jews in Denmark, he would have insisted that everyone including himself wear the badge as well. In Norway, Jews were merely required to carry identification cards with the letter J stamped on it.
The Emblem and other Effects of Edith Abramsohn
The yellow star of Edith Dorothea Abramsohn has fortunately been preserved along with her Kennkarte (identity document) and a baptism certificate issued by the German Catholic Church.
The Kennkarte of Edith Abramsohn (M Swirsky)
The kennkarte, issued on 17 March 1944, confirms that Abramsohn was born in Berlin on 12 December 1909. Her full name was Edith Dorothea Abramsohn, but the name ‘Dorothea’ has been crossed out due to a law enforcing all Jewish women to take the middle name ‘Sara’. Similarly, Jewish males were required to take the middle name ‘Isreal’.
Baptism Certificate, Edith Abramsohn (M Swirsky)
Many Jews were given the opportunity by the German Catholic Church to obtain baptism certificates while some went as far as actually converting to Catholicism to avoid arrest, deportation or execution. Nazi policy did not exempt those Jews who had converted, however, as the anti-Semitic philosophy was based on race and not religion. In terms of this no Jew could ever be converted to a pure German. This certificate was issued to Abrahamsohn by the church on 20 March 1937.
It is unknown whether Abrahmsohn was sent to a camp during the war. German Jews were the last in occupied Europe to be deported. Thankfully she survived the Holocaust and immigrated to South Africa after the war. At this stage no evidence has been located to document her life in this country.
The yellow star and other such emblems set Jews apart from everyone else and foretold their eventual removal from society and ultimate demise. Judy Lysy, who as a child survived the Holocaust, stated in an interview that her initial thought after being told to wear the emblem, was that it made her a bad person.
The institution of such emblems and laws by the Nazis can be viewed in much the same manner as the pass laws and other Apartheid legislation introduced by the National Party after 1948 marginalised South African black people and signified their perceived inferiority.
1. Internet source: Jewish Badge during the Nazi Era (Holocaust Encyclopedia)
2. You tube video: The Jewish Badge (2013)
3. N. Ferguson, 2006; You tube video: The Development of the Final Solution (2015)
4. Internet source: Holocaust Badges (Holocaust Memorial Center)
5. Internet source: Jewish Badge during the Nazi Era
6. Internet source: Holocaust Badges; Internet source: Shoah Resource Centre (Badge Jewish)
7. R. Manvell & H. Fraenkel, 1966
8. Internet source: Jewish Badge during the Nazi Era; You tube video: Key Historical Concepts in Holocaust Education (2017)
9. M. Swirsky, interview 2020; Internet source: German Special Issued IDs for Jews
10. You tube video: Holocaust Survivor Judy Lysy (2017)
Mr Munroe Swirsky, Johannesburg, 20 May 2020.
https://www.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%205953.pdf(Shoah Resource Centre: Badge Jewish)
The above sites were accessed in May 2020
You Tube videos
Holocaust Survivor, Judy Lysy, Wearing the Yellow Star (20 February 2017).
Yad Vashem, Key Historical Concepts in Holocaust Education: The Jewish Badge (20 April 2017).
Yad Vashem, The Development of the Final Solution – Dr David Silberklang (12 April 2015).
This Week in Jewish History, The Jewish Badge – Dr Henry Abramson (20 June 2013)
N Ferguson, The War Of The World: History’s Age Of Hatred (London, Penguin, 2006)
R Manvell & H Fraenkel “Terror In Europe” In Purnell History Of The Second World War (Vol 3)
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