Süssen Is Now Free of Jews: World War II, The Holo­caust, and Rur­al Judaism

Gilya Ger­da Schmidt
  • Review
By – March 6, 2013

Süssen Is Now Free of Jews offers a focused look at the lives of a few Jew­ish fam­i­lies who lived in Süssen, a small vil­lage in the cen­ter of south­ern Ger­many. The his­to­ry of Jews in Süssen began in 1902 and end­ed with the depor­ta­tion of six­teen Jews on Novem­ber 28, 1941, under­scored by the omi­nous phrase on the bot­tom of the depor­ta­tion list, Süssen is now free of Jews.” Gilya Ger­da Schmidt, rec­og­niz­ing that the over­whelm­ing enor­mi­ty of the Shoah should encour­age us when pos­si­ble to appre­ci­ate the expe­ri­ences of indi­vid­ual vic­tims, their lives, tra­vails, and lega­cies, exam­ines this chap­ter of Holo­caust his­to­ry in rur­al Ger­many through the lens of the Lang and Otten­heimer fam­i­lies. Sparked by the chance dis­cov­ery in a used book­store in Knoxville, Ten­nessee, of a book about the sur­viv­ing Jews in the Würtem­berg region, the author, a pro­fes­sor of Reli­gious Stud­ies, began a decade of research into local and region­al archives to doc­u­ment what hap­pened to the Jews of Süssen. The result is a com­pelling sto­ry of their rich lives before 1933, their fate under the Nazis, and their expe­ri­ences after the Shoah. Schmidt’s abil­i­ty to com­bine archival sources, mem­oirs, inter­views, and per­son­al rec­ol­lec­tions since she lived briefly in the region as a child, is impres­sive and moving.

This impor­tant book sheds light not only on the ques­tion of what hap­pened to these two fam­i­lies dur­ing the Holo­caust but also on what Jew­ish life was like in rur­al Ger­many; on the nature of rela­tions between Jews and Chris­tians before 1933; and for the sur­vivors, what the expe­ri­ence of becom­ing a refugee entailed. Schmidt pro­vides insight into the process of social death” that they endured — the sud­den rup­ture in their lives, the des­per­ate mea­sures they had to take to escape and the humil­i­a­tion they encoun­tered try­ing to start a new life. She is able to put a human face on the process of naz­i­fi­ca­tion, dis­pos­ses­sion, emi­gra­tion, depor­ta­tion, mur­der, and, for the sur­vivors, the long and painful road of rebuilding.

This unique book will be of inter­est to an informed read­er­ship and is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to Holo­caust Stud­ies and to Ger­man Jew­ish history.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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