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Identity is more than either/or: A time when Jews voted to be Germans

Mike Ticher
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Published: 25 March 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

MIKE TICHER reflects on the plebiscite, 100 years ago, when his ancestors cast a vote to be Germans not Poles, and the message it sends to today’s nationalist demagogues

A HUNDRED YEARS AGO this month, my great-grandfather Benno Tichauer travelled 700km to cast a vote – a vote for Germany. He was among thousands of Jews who almost unanimously made the same choice in a plebiscite on March 20, 1921 that was supposed to help settle whether the border province of Upper Silesia would remain with Germany or become part of newly independent Poland.

The vote has long faded into obscurity outside academic research circles, but at the time it captured intense international attention. Britain and France, in particular, had a direct interest in the outcome, as their military forces had overseen the often violent period leading up to the vote after the western powers at the Versailles conference failed to agree on the future of the region.

Australian papers carried extensive reports sourced largely from London or Paris. One report on the front page of the Melbourne Herald on March 23, syndicated from the Times in London, drew an analogy between the situation in Upper Silesia and “when Solomon was asked to adjudicate between two women who each claimed to be the mother of a baby”.

The “baby” was a province of just over two million people that included the sprawling industrial conurbation around the cities of Katowice and Bytom (Kattowitz and Beuthen in German) that was seen as crucial to the economic future of both countries. Until the First World War it marked the point where the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires met at the “Three Emperors’ Corner”.

With the defeat of Germany and the collapse of those empires it became one of the many regions subject to competing claims from newly independent states such as Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The vote went 60-40 in favour of Germany, which drew support largely from the urban areas, surrounded by a predominantly pro-Polish countryside. But rather than awarding the entire province to Germany, the nascent League of Nations resolved on a clumsy partition, which gave Poland the lion’s share of the valuable industrial areas and left Beuthen and what now became Katowice on opposite sides of the new border.

What did all this have to do with the Jews?

Economically and socially the German Jews of Upper Silesia had risen rapidly in the century before the war. Although only a tiny percentage of the population overall, they formed an influential part of the prosperous urban middle class. As a result of Prussia’s grotesquely weighted electoral system, that also gave them a political influence out of all proportion to their numbers.

The relaxation of formal restrictions on German Jewish life in the 19th century also allowed many to seek their fortunes far from their hometowns, and especially in Berlin. My great-grandfather followed that route in the 1890s with his parents, four brothers and a sister, before he moved to Würzburg in northern Bavaria to study the new technology of X-rays, pioneered there by Ernst Röntgen. (Benno died in 1924 of cancer, very likely caused by his work as a radiologist.)

In 1921 he joined almost 200,000 other exiles who were permitted to vote on the basis of their birthplace in returning to Upper Silesia to cast his ballot. This mass movement of people was a national occasion for Germany, a combination of patriotic duty and chaotic family reunion for the individuals involved.

President Friedrich Ebert saw off travellers from Berlin with rousing speeches. Elaborate preparations were set up along the way to provide food and drink for the returnees, including by Jewish volunteer groups who also catered for the religious needs of the Orthodox.

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There was no question who the Jews would vote for. One community representative in Beuthen reported that Jews voted “completely and unequivocally” for Germany. A Jewish woman who was unable to return from Frankfurt to vote thanks to the recent birth of her first child lamented her absence as “my failure as a German”.

Benno’s daughter Trudi, who fled the Nazis in a perilous journey across the Swiss border in 1942, told me in the 1990s about her father’s vote for Germany without a second thought, as if it were simply a given. They were German, after all.

There were negative and positive reasons for the Jews to pick Germany. The negative was that the alternative, Poland, was seen as irredeemably anti-Semitic. This was based primarily on the prolific evidence of statements by local and national leaders, and frequent outbreaks of violence against Polish Jews across what some called the “pogrom border”, such as the November 1918 outrages in Chrzanow, less than 40km from Katowice, described by Hadley Freeman in her recent memoir House of Glass.
Reading the accounts of German Jews who subscribed unequivocally to their Germanness before and after 1921, it seems to me wrong to retrospectively strip them of the right to determine their identity as both Jews and Germans

But it also depended on a view of Poland as “backward” compared with Germany, a framing that uncomfortably extended to Poland’s poorer, less well educated, religiously more traditional Jews, compared with their predominantly bourgeois, assimilated, increasingly secular German counterparts.

This chimed with the Jews’ enthusiastic identification with Germany as a cultural nation. The Breslau Jüdische Liberale-Zeitung wrote in January 1921: “It hardly needs to be pointed out what the transfer of Upper Silesia to Poland would mean for our co-religionists. But that is not what makes it such an obvious, happily fulfilled duty for the Upper Silesian Jews to vote for our German fatherland. Rather, it is the consciousnesss of their firm bond with the German cultural community.”

Needless to say, faith in that firm bond was shattered in the ensuing decades. Only two years after the plebiscite vote, anti-Semitic riots fuelled by proto-Nazi groups rocked Beuthen in the wake of the devastating inflation year of 1923. In early 1942, a transport of elderly Jews from Beuthen was one of the first to be gassed as the Nazis transformed nearby Auschwitz into a full-scale extermination camp.

Benno’s sister Clara, who had owned a brewery with her husband in Berlin, was murdered in the camp – less than 50km from her birthplace – the following year, aged 72. At least two of Benno’s nephews and their wives, his niece and a granddaughter suffered the same fate, as well as others in the extended family, and two other nephews who took their own lives.

With the benefit of that terrible hindsight, it has become commonplace to view the devotion of assimilated German Jews to “the fatherland” in the pre-Nazi years as a delusion, a colossal misunderstanding of Jewish identity. As a non-Jew, it is not for me to pass definitive judgment on that interpretation.

But reading the accounts of German Jews who subscribed unequivocally to their Germanness before and after 1921, it seems to me wrong to retrospectively strip them of the right to determine their identity as both Jews and Germans.

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Remembering and validating that dual identification is even harder since the region has been wholly part of Poland since 1945, and the entire non-Jewish German population was expelled or fled, compounding the destruction of the Holocaust.

Today only about 200 mostly elderly Jews live in the region, and they have no connection to the pre-war community. The Brama Cukermana Foundation in nearby Będzin tries to keep the history of the Jews on both sides of the old borders alive through education.

But its co-founder, Karolina Jakowenko, says the story of the German Jews of the region is “absolutely unknown and forgotten”, despite the best efforts of the foundation and the Upper Silesian Jewish House of Remembrance in Gliwice (formerly Gleiwitz).

“The history of the Jews is not taught in schools, unless there is a teacher who is interested in it,” Jakowenko says. “Firstly, we don’t learn the history of Germany … and secondly, the German Jew is totally absent: as a German and as a Jew.

“Living in the former borderland, it is even more difficult to understand and to educate.”

Photo: Benno Tichauer and his daughter Trudi (courtesy Mike Ticher)


About the author

Mike Ticher

Mike Ticher is head of news at Guardian Australia, and recently completed a postgraduate thesis on the Jews of Upper Silesia

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