Accompanying the thematic focus “1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany” of the State Agency for Political Education Rhineland-Palatinate, the Osthofen Concentration Camp Memorial will present the lives of Jewish prisoners at the Osthofen Concentration Camp from January to June 2021.
Among the at least 3,000 men who were imprisoned in the Osthofen Concentration Camp from March 1933 to July 1934 were numerous Jews. Like most non-Jewish prisoners, some of them were taken into “protective custody” because they had actively fought the rise of the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) as supporters of the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands), SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold, the trade unions or other groups of the labour movement. Others fell victim to antisemitic acts of revenge motivated by personal animosity, rivalry, envy or economic interests. In August 1933, the Hessian Chief of Police Werner Best publicly called for Jews to be brought to the Osthofen Concentration Camp if they “disregarded the demanded restraint”. In the following period, there were increased denunciations and arrests of Jewish men who were accused of “immorally approaching non-Jewish girls”, “making impudent statements against the National Socialist state and against individual National Socialists” or behaving “unsocially” in any way. Antisemitism, which had repeatedly led to verbal and physical attacks on Jews during the Weimar Republic, could now be openly shown and was accepted by large sections of the population.
The appeal of the Chief of Police was also the reason why more Jewish men were imprisoned in the Osthofen Concentration Camp than in most of the other early concentration camps. Of the approximately 1,850 prisoners known by name at the moment, at least 152 were of Jewish or “half-Jewish” descent. This corresponds to a share of slightly more than 8%. The actual proportion of Jews in the camp must have been significantly higher. In 1946, the former prisoner Hermann Hertz testified that in May alone 200 Jewish businesspeople had been brought in from Worms. Although they represented a significant group of inmates, the Jewish prisoners received little attention in research for a long time. The knowledge of the public was dominated by the political prisoners, who formed a so-called camp community with the support of the Association of those persecuted by the Nazi Regime/Federation of Antifascists (VVN/BdA) in the 1970s. They also campaigned for the establishment of a memorial site. Additionally, there are only a few testimonials of Jews imprisoned in Osthofen. The sad explanation for this is obvious: many did not survive the Holocaust or left Germany forever.
It became clear from the testimonies of the few surviving contemporary witnesses as well as the reports of non-Jewish prisoners that the Jewish prisoners in the Osthofen Concentration Camp were treated especially brutal and degrading. Humiliation, kicks and beatings were the daily occurrence. The horse dealer Ernst Katz from Hungen was knocked unconscious by guards on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, because he refused to eat pork. In a “cage” fenced in with barbed wire on the site of the concentration camp, the guards forced Jewish prisoners to walk in circles until they collapsed from exhaustion. The greatest harassment, however, was the emptying of the latrines, into which the excrement from the outhouse flowed. Jewish prisoners were almost exclusively assigned to this work. They had to clean the latrines with tin cans, their dishes or their bare hands. Some guards had fun kicking the prisoners or tripping them up, so that they fell into the disgusting broth. Jewish prisoners were also often longer imprisoned than others. In some cases, their families or themselves had to “pay” for their release with food or wine.
For the Jewish men and their families, imprisonment in the Osthofen Concentration Camp was the beginning of a period that was marked by systematic exclusion, uninhibited violence and economic ruin. Most of them lost their employment or were prevented from continuing their business and thus got into great financial distress. Former friends and acquaintances turned away from them; clubs, professional associations and institutions of public and social life excluded them. Some of them became victims of the excesses of violence during the November Pogrom in 1938.
The steadily worsening situation caused many Jewish people in Germany to leave their homeland. Those who remained were deported with their families to concentration camps and ghettos from 1941 onwards. Of the 152 men of Jewish or “half-Jewish” descent known by name who were imprisoned in the Osthofen Concentration Camp, 42 died in extermination and concentration camps, in ghettos or have been missing since they were deported to the East. 8 died before the deportation, some of them due to consequential damage from the imprisonment in Osthofen, abuse suffered during the November Pogrom or through suicide. 60 succeeded in emigrating, most of them went to the USA (33) or Israel (12). 7 managed to elude the persecution and hide, or they were spared because they were married to Christian women. Only a few of the survivors decided to live in Germany again after 1945. The fate of 35 of these men imprisoned in Osthofen is yet unknown.