Can Nazi Racial Laws Teach Us?

What if one day you wake to find you're not who you think you are -- and your country hates you for it? That's what happened to several hundred thousand people under Germany's 1935 Nuremberg racial

Jun 25, 2003 at 2:06 pm

What if one day you wake to find you're not who you think you are — and your country hates you for it?

That's what happened to several hundred thousand people under Germany's 1935 Nuremberg racial laws — the spouses, children or grandchildren of Jews. Hitler branded them "Mischlinge" — "half-breeds." Mostly Christian, some didn't know of their Jewish lineage until they were damned for it.

Cynthia Crane, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, collected, translated and interpreted 10 Mischlinge women's stories of persecution under Hitler. Divided Lives: The Untold Stories of Jewish-Christian Women in Nazi Germany was released in paperback last month.

Though Mischlinge had much higher survival rates in the Holocaust than those considered fully Jewish, they suffered similar persecution as racial laws stripped their freedoms.

When young Ursula Bosselmann's mother confessed her Jewish heritage to her, life as she knew it ended.

"From one minute to the next everything changed: There was no future, no destination, no joy," Bosselmann told the author. "Suddenly we were no longer Germans ... and we hadn't the slightest notion about Jewish culture or religion.

... There I stood at 18 looking into nothingness."

Crane says interest in her book has surged since the terrorist attacks on the United States. Lighter-skinned African Americans can understand how a part-Jewish woman's blonde hair and blue eyes could have been both her curse and her salvation. People of mixed Muslim/Christian backgrounds feel similar tugs of allegiance and the distrustful eyes of a nation.

The women's questions of identity and allegiance resonate with modern generations as the numbers of mixed marriages skyrocket. Families of blended races, ethnicities or religions are becoming not an exception but the norm.

Crane focused on women because the Mischlinge experience is largely a family experience. Those considered "Aryan" were pressured to divorce, effectively sentencing their Jewish spouses to death. Men in Germany hid or emigrated more freely, but the women often stayed to care for their families.

"I don't think people realize what a huge impact Hitler's coming to power had," Crane says. "Families were torn apart."

Her grandfather fled Nazi Germany to restart life in the United States, for a time leaving behind his "Aryan" wife and Crane's Mischlinge father, who was beaten daily at school.

Mischlinge experienced a complex set of emotions when they were branded part of a Jewish "race" about which they knew little to nothing. Some internalized hate and wished for death. Some felt hatred for their Jewish relatives or their newfound identity. Others hated those who relabeled them.

Then, after the war, their Jewish identities helped some Mischlinge by separating them from the Germans, who were castigated as Nazis.

Thus they were victims and victimizers, Jews and Christians, outsiders and insiders, according to Crane. Most of the women she interviewed still search for a cultural, religious or national identity. Many suffer symptoms of trauma. One committed suicide after relieving herself of her story.

"They could not escape the fact that they were victims at one time, that the people with whom they lived had been their persecutors," Crane wrote.

She likens their struggle to that of African Americans and Native Americans. After the persecution ceases, how can anyone live peaceably among her tormentors? Crane notes it's a question not just for Mischlinge but also for war-weary Israelis, Palestinians, Rwandans and Botswanans.

"Perhaps it is just part of the human condition — not really a disease that can be healed or a trauma that can be purged," she says. "We grasp at techniques such as dehumanization, stereotypes and violence to talk about or act against 'enemies.' "

What do you do when the enemy is yourself?

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.