Helga Levy: Classroom Discussion

Helga Levy (39 minutes)

Historical note:

Berlin, a beautiful and cosmopolitan city, was the old capital of Prussia and after 1870, of the united German empire.  Undamaged in World War I, it was considered a great Weltstadt or “world city” even after the Germans lost that conflict.  The population just before the second World War was 4.5 million, including several hundred thousand Jews – a large proportion of all German Jews lived there.  Many of these were well-to-do professionals, respected and fully integrated into the life of the city.  Some were even decorated veterans of the first World War.  It is believed that about five thousand of them escaped the Holocaust, a small number of those never leaving the city throughout the war.  During the first years of the conflict Berlin was occasionally bombed by the Allies, but escaped massive destruction until the last few months of the war.  By the time Hitler committed suicide and Russian troops arrived in April it had been largely levelled. The city was then divided into four occupation zones: British, French, American and Soviet.  The first three later united as West Berlin, but East Berlin remained separate until the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989.  Since then the city has seen a renaissance of architecture and cultural life, and is again the capital of unified Germany.

Ideas for classroom discussions

1.  What was the status of Jews in Germany before Hitler came to power?

(Jews were fully integrated; they had the same rights as any other citizen.  Many were professional people: doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors, government bureaucrats.  The majority were middle-lass shopkeepers or office workers.  Most lived in cities.  On the other hand, anti-Semitism was a fundamental aspect of German culture, going back centuries but only occasionally coming to the surface.)

2.  How did the events of the 1920s affect the Jews?

(The economic collapse, caused by the enormous debt and reparations from World War I, was blamed by many on them.  Many Jews were well-to-do and did not appear to suffer much from the economic dislocations; also, the Jewish community took care of its poorer members, giving the impression that there was vast, unseen “Jewish wealth.”  Many bankers and financiers were Jews, and so were many leaders of the socialist and communist movements.  All this seemed to point toward a Jewish role in Germany’s troubles.  But it took a Hitler to explain why the Jews wanted to undermine Germany.  Discuss the real reasons for the depression.  Why were people so willing to believe that the Jews were responsible?  This is the same as asking: how were the Nazis able to rise so quickly?)

3.  What were some of the early warning signs that Jews would be persecuted?

(Discuss Helga’s uncle, harassed for “race defilement”; use of the expression “Heil Hitler” at school; using biology class to measure the girls’ heads.)

4.  According to Helga’s story, how were the Jews reduced to second-class status?

(Discuss the gradual enactment of restrictions and discriminatory laws; show how rights can be taken away more easily if they are taken one at a time.  Discuss: if all the Jews’ rights had been taken away at one time, would the German people have accepted such a drastic move?)

5.  How did the Nazis decide whom to arrest and send to camps, whom to kill outright, and whom to leave free?

(Those who could contribute to the economy were left free, and some were used as slave labor, like Helga – at least until prisoners of war from other conquered nations could be brought in to replace them.  The very old and very young, the sick or weak, and political prisoners would go to concentration camps, and probably not survive long.  They were put to work until they died, or were killed when no longer useful.  Helga would have been sent to a camp after teaching her job to the newly arrived Balkan prisoners.)

6.  How was it possible for Helga to survive the entire war right in Berlin?  Why didn’t she go elsewhere?

(Points to consider: does Helga “look Jewish”?  Was she religious – that is, could she have been easily identified as a participant in Jewish life?  Would she have been in even greater danger outside Berlin, where she didn’t know her way around and would have ‘stood out’ more?  Could anyone outside Berlin have helped her, as her parents’ friends in Berlin did?  Did she have responsibilities at home? etc.)

7.  What personal characteristics might be needed to survive an ordeal like Helga’s?

8.  When Helga’s parents were told they had two hours to prepare to be shipped out, why didn’t they flee immediately?  Did they understand what was about to happen to them?  Where could they have gone, and how?  What would you do in their situation?

(Discuss why so many Jews remained in Germany even after Hitler came to power, given the fact that he never concealed his attitude toward the Jewish “race.”)

9.  What lesson can we learn from Helga’s story of the Jewish girl who collaborated with the Nazis?

(Why do people abandon their own?  Can we really save ourselves by selling out?)

10.  If you were Helga, how would you respond to the “revisionists” who say the Holocaust never happened?

11.  Why is it important to hear about the Holocaust directly from a survivor like Helga?

12.  What are some of the early warning signs of possible future injustice or oppression that students can see today?

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