If you think Jewish-gentile intermarriage presents a conundrum to the modern Jewish community, then imagine how it perplexed the Nazis, whose whole ideology depended on strictly hierarchical racial/ethnic classifications.
After all, when your entire MO is to exterminate an entire group people, while simultaneously expanding your so-called Master Race, the existence of Aryan-Jewish couples and their “Mischling” offspring is inconvenient to say the least.
Evan Burr Bukey’s “Jews and Intermarriage in Nazi Austria,” of which I’ve just read a review (and can’t wait to get my hands on the book itself), addresses this fascinating topic, looking at the Nazis’ often contradictory, even absurd, policies vis a vis intermarried couples, and at the experiences of the families themselves.
I had always been under the impression that the Nazis went by something not unlike American slaveholders’ “one-drop” rule of racial definition: that even people with just a trace of Jewish ancestry were considered Jewish and singled out for deportation. Indeed, an often-explained rationale for Israel’s Law of Return welcoming anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent (even though traditional Jewish law stipulates that one must have a Jewish mother) is that such people were Jewish enough to be persecuted by the Nazis.
However, according to Bukey’s book (at least as related in Steven Beller’s review on H-Net, an online humanities and social sciences journal), in Austria at least that was not the case. Apparently 85-90 percent of Austrian Jews with non-Jewish spouses survived the Holocaust (It’s not clear to me how the situation in Austria compared to that of Germany or the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe.)
Nonetheless, fully two-fifths of the discussions at the infamous Wannsee Conference of 1942 were consumed with “what to do with the relatively small group of intermarried couples and their offspring,” and while the official conclusion, according to the review, was not to exterminate, there were “many attempts by Nazi radicals to overcome what they saw as this blemish on German racial purity” — and intermarried families were still persecuted and at risk of deportation and death, “especially toward the end of the Nazi regime.”
According to the review, the reason for not aggressively going after Jewish-Aryan families was twofold: fear of stoking “popular unrest,” and a “genuine confusion on the part of many in authority … as to who was or was not a ‘Jew.’”
Seems that despite their racial theories, the Nazis often relied on cultural/religious definitions of Jewishness, classifying as Jews those who were half-Jewish by ancestry but were members of the Jewish religious community.
Also, the review notes, while “radicals might want to eradicate all trace of Jewish blood in German society,” others “worried about losing the German blood that the half-Jewish/half-German Mischlinge did after all have.”
Intermarried Jews and their children presented the Nazis with “a logic-defying puzzle that produced bizarre moral results: many individuals vastly improved their situations by their mothers claiming that their children were the product of adultery or prostitution, rather than their legitimate children with their Jewish husbands.”
The book apparently is filled with fascinating vignettes about how different families coped, and what’s striking, notes the reviewer, was how many couples stayed together throughout the horrible ordeal, and the “considerable courage that the vast majority showed in doing what otherwise would seem a simple thing: sticking to your spouse.”
I’ll share more details once I read the book itself. I encourage everyone to check it out; although, as an academic book, it costs a whopping $85, much of the text is accessible on Google Books. And please feel free to chime in on the comments if you are knowledgeable about this topic or have relevant personal family stories to share.
In the meantime, I suppose there is nothing quite like reading about the horrors (and absurdities) of the Holocaust to put into perspective the comparatively minor challenges and problems facing Jews and intermarried Jewish couples today.