citizenship article

Hermann’s war service

I don’t have in my possession any kind of German nationality document for Hermann Ringel, but there is ample evidence that he enjoyed both the rights and responsibilities of German citizenship during the following 30 years, until the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped away those rights. 

Hermann served the German Reich honorably in the Great War. War service in the German military by itself did not confer citizenship, however. Witness the well-known difficulties in obtaining German citizenship after the war encountered by a certain Austrian corporal in the German Army. That corporal’s name was Hitler, and he did not become a German citizen until obtaining a special decree in 1932. But Hermann’s situation was different because he served as a German citizen, not a foreign national. 

In 2012, when Joanne applied for restored German citizenship based only on our Ringel documentation (we had not traced the Wohlgemuth history at that time), the [State Citizenship Office] readily approved her citizenship claim. Thus, the ultimate arbiter of German nationality confirmed in 2012 that Hermann Ringel was a full German citizen after 1906, despite his Austrian parentage. 

Differences in attitude

As we’ve seen, the marriage of Hermann and Elly joined the Ringel and Wohlgemuth families first in Weissensee and then in Charlottenburg. In one generation, Hermann had made the journey from the shtetl-like Scheunenviertel of his youth to the toniest districts of respectable Jewish society. In business, he had risen in status above his father’s role as a  trader in the markets to become a registered merchant, a manufacturer and wholesaler of ready-made clothing. 

Differences in Hermann’s and Elly’s family backgrounds were reflected in their differing interests and even values. Hermann identified more as Jewish and attended the Orthodox synagogue on Pestalozzistraße, just a few blocks from the family’s spacious apartment at Schlutterstraße 12. When Elly went to synagogue, which was rarely, she went to a liberal congregation. 

Hermann took a particular interest in Zionism and its ideal of a national homeland in Palestine. As much as he appreciated his status as a Jew in Germany, he believed in the vision of the Jewish people reclaiming their historic homeland. He himself might be too old and settled in his life to become a pioneer in Palestine, but he believed in the idea and supported Zionist organizations. 

Of course, Elly had little patience for talk of Palestine and Zionism. She was raised to appreciate the luxuries of life and had no interest at all in ever living in an underdeveloped country in the desert. Both Hermann and Elly enjoyed vacationing in Germany’s mountain resorts and spas, but Elly went for the baths and nightlife while Hermann liked rugged hikes and physical culture.

The first Nazi actions

As a girl, Helga was attracted more to her father’s outlook than her mother’s which she found less meaningful. Her father prevailed on the question of schooling, and Helga was educated at the Theodor Herzl School, a liberal institution named for the founder of the Zionist movement. 

The first physical actions against the Jews came in February and March 1933 with SA raids in Scheunenviertel. Anti-Jewish signage was unfurled in the city’s market halls. The Nazi Party called for a boycott of jewish shops and department stores. On April 1, the boycott began with street demonstrations. Over the following months, crackdowns on Jewish professionals, civil servants and academics would culminate in public book burnings. These measures hit other Jewish sectors hard but early attempts to shut Jews out of the city’s commercial markets were more difficult to implement. 

Years later, Helga recalled watching from their apartment balcony as Brownshirts paraded past on Goethestrasse. They shouted ‘Heil Hitler’ with their arms outstretched. She also experienced the impacts in education, where there were new restrictions at every level from kindergarten to university. Public primary and secondary schools raised costs and set quotas on Jews, driving students into Jewish schools such as Theodor Herzl, where enrollment swelled in 1934 and subsequent years. By the end of 1937, there were just 2000 Jewish children in Berlin public schools, down from 13,000 in 1933

Emigration as an option

Many families sought opportunities to emigrate and by the end of 1934 about 20,000 Berlin Jews had done so. The trick was to get out with any of your assets, which were subject to confiscatory taxes or forfeiture. Hilde’s husband Peiser was able to move his business to Holland and soon after they moved there themselves. On the Ringel side, Helga’s cousin Wolfie Shatner fulfilled Hermann’s dream and left for Palestine with a group of Zionist pioneers. 

Early in 1935, fresh street violence brought personal assaults on the Kurfürstendamm and mob actions targeted at ice cream shops. By summer, the Nazis cleaned up their act while hosting the Olympic Games in Berlin. The Olympic stadium was close to Charlottenburg, and Hermann was able to get tickets through his Jewish sports club for several events. Helga went and later remembered cheering for the African-American Jesse Owens. 

When the Games ended, the hammer came down on German Jews in the form of the Nuremberg Laws, issued in September, stripping Jews of most citizenship rights, prohibiting intermarriages, and banning commercial interaction between Jews and Germans. These laws would provide the legal foundations for all of the repressions to follow.

One consequence of the law was that it immediately stripped citizenship from German Jews who had left the country and were living elsewhere, which is why Hilde Peiser shows up in a database of people whose German nationality was annulled in 1935. Hermann’s sister Rosa Shatner, the widowed mother of Wolfie who went to Palestine, fled with her daughter Margot to her in-laws’ home in Belgrade in Serbia. His other sister Bette and her two daughters were able to get out to London. 

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