Antisemitism in the classroom

Fred Marcus

Fred Marcus

Fred enrolls in fifth grade at a German public school in the fall of 1933. Because he previously skipped a grade in a private elementary school, he is the youngest in his class. Further, due to new laws restricting Jewish enrollment, he is one of only a handful of Jewish students in the school. The hostile environment in the classroom reflects the growing aggression against Jews in German society.


Fred Marcus: I was enrolled by my parents into a private school. And in what turned out to be not so fortuitous results, I made the first four school years, I completed in three. So that from then on, for the rest of my school life, I was always the class baby, which did not always have salutary results. And after these three years, then, I moved over to the Friedrichswerderscher Gymnasium, a school that to which college-bound and university-bound kids still go in Germany after their four years in basic public school. And this was a public school, too.

It was an all-boys’ school with large classes and I would say between 35 and 40 kids. And I entered that school in the fifth grade, having skipped the fourth, because of that private school. This was the school year of 1933-1934. And some significant events took place that made me aware of how Germany was changing. One was when one of our teachers entered. In Europe, to this day, it is customary for kids to stand up by their seats when the teacher enters. And the teacher will say, good morning, please be seated. And we do it in this country only when a judge enters in the chambers. But you do it every period; when the teacher comes in, you stand up. And as of one day, the greeting, from “Good morning,” changed to ”Heil Hitler.” And I remember this strange feeling. By that time, I was nine years old. I knew already, of course, what was going on, that I had to stand there and lift my hand and mumble “Heil Hitler.”

The other experience I want to share is very important in my life, concerns music lessons. We had music twice a week. We went to a music room, which was just like any other room, except that it had a piano in it. And a very nice teacher with a great, big mustache was our music teacher.

And his pedagogy and classroom management consisted of ‘rewarding’ us—if we were a school group here now, the kids would all titter—by letting us choose the closing song at the end of every lesson: “Well, boys, you have been very good today. You may choose the closing song.”

And invariably, my classmates chose to sing the Nazi marching song known as the “Horst-Wessel-Lied”, which they sang all verses. Horst Wessel was a young fellow who was stabbed to death in one of the street fights between Communists and Nazis during the 1920s. And with his death, the Nazi movement had its martyr. If you want to arouse people’s emotions, it’s very important to have a martyr.

They had a martyr, you know, and—and they glorified him, and they wrote this marching song about him. And it has many stanzas—marching songs, by their nature, have to have many stanzas, so you can keep marching—and one of them is indelibly inscribed on my soul and in my memory, are the words, “Wenn’s Judenblut vom Messer spritzt, dann geht’s noch mal so gut.” “When the blood of the Jews runs off our knives, things will go twice as well.”

And twice every week, my beloved classmates—the leaders in the class, the Nazis in the class—and they weren’t all Nazis—yelled out that song, and twice a week, they sang that at me, while I and my five, six other Jewish classmates sat down with our heads bowed, and in great pain and embarrassment.

I had totally blocked this experience until I we came to San Jose, California, in 1964—I remember the year—as director of education of a large synagogue there, Temple Emanuel. And the rabbi, in the spur of the moment—who has been my mentor all my life, still is—asked me to come and speak to the confirmation class, one sunny Sunday morning.

And it was a small class, about 20 some kids. And I remember sitting at the table with them and talking just like I am talking to you now. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, came that experience. And it was so powerful that at the—at the end of relating it for the first time after 30 years, I blushed. The pain, the anger, and the embarrassment were still so strong.

And I kept blushing for maybe five or six times. It’s the proof of modern psychiatry working and psychology working. Once you talk it out, now I can talk it—talk about it with equanimity. But I couldn’t do that at that time.

And you might ask, why did that teacher not suggest once, “Well, fellows, we sang—sang the same song. Why don’t you pick something else?” He knew what was going on. And the simple answer is, already, in 1933, he was afraid.

That was the climate in which we lived. That even a teacher was afraid to say something that might be construed against the Nazi government, which some kid would repeat to his father who is a Nazi functionary, and the man might have been reprimanded, or he might have been taken into “protective custody” for some time, just because he wouldn’t let this Nazi anthem be sung in his classroom.

“And as of one day, the greeting changed from ‘Good morning’ to ‘Heil Hitler.'”

USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, Interview 9214

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