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The Jewish fate

Anti-Semitism was a significant element of the Nazi ideology. A hostile attitude towards Jews and racist behaviour turned into a policy of bureaucratic persecution and terror pursued by the Nazi regime. After the Nazis came to power, Jewish citizens were systematically excluded from social and economic life. In the following years, the anti-Jewish policy was aimed at looting and exiling Jews. In 1941, deportations to ghettos and concentration camps started. Thousands of Jews from Cologne were murdered. 

History of Jews in Cologne Until the End of Weimar Republic

During the time of Weimar Republic, about 16,000 Jews lived in Cologne, which constituted 2.3% of the population. This community was very diverse in social, political, and religious terms. Most Jews were assimilated, which means that their everyday customs and lifestyle were adapted to the Christian environment.

To many of them the awareness of being Jewish was somewhere in the background. However, there were also some religious conservative circles and a quite significant orthodox group which had united as a community centre as early as in the 19th century.

At the beginning of the following century, the group was strengthened as a result of an influx of Jews from Eastern Europe, who were strongly influenced by the Jewish religious tradition from the East. 

Religious, Educational and Social Institutions

The Jewish population mostly lived in the city centre of Cologne and in the middle-class suburbs. This was reflected in the distribution of Jewish institutions in the city.

Apart from the three large synagogues in the city centre: the liberal one in Roonstraße, the conservative one in Glockengassse, and the synagogue of the orthodox community in St.-Apern-Straße, there were also synagogues in the suburbs. Synagogues in Mülheim and Deutz were religious centres of old congregations, while the house of prayer in the developing industrial suburb of Ehrenfeld was only built in 1927.

Oratories and prayer rooms were institutions of the internally diverse eastern Orthodox groups, mostly residing in the Griechenmarktviertel district. Special educational centres, such as the Talmud Torah school in Hohenstaufenring or the eastern Jewish Talmud Torah school in Quirinstraße offered studies of the Bible and the Talmud.

Moreover, Jews had their own education system, partly coming under the municipal school system, and partly functioning outside it. Apart from the religiously liberal municipal elementary school in Lützowstraße, there were the following schools at the community centre in St.-Apern-Straße: the Moriah school founded in 1907, Yavne Reformed Grammar School founded in 1919, and a teachers’ college. The most important Jewish charity organisations were the Jewish Shelter for the Sick and the Old, the Abraham-Frank-Haus orphanage, the Jewish children’s home, and the Jewish apprentices home. 

Assimilated Jews

Despite such a diversity of Jewish institutions and organisations, until 1933 a large part of Cologne Jews was hardly or not at all interested in them. Most Jewish children attended Catholic and Evangelical elementary schools in their districts or non-denominational secondary schools. Jews were members of non-denominational social associations and cultural organisations. They perceived themselves as German citizens of Jewish origin.

In the second half of the 19th century many Jewish families from the assimilated circles managed to enter the middle and upper classes, as a result of which a large Jewish middle class and a noticeable economically successful and educated upper class were established. Many Jews played important roles in the politics, economy, science, art and culture of Cologne. 

Boycotts and First Professional Bans

Attacks on Jewish citizens started immediately after the Nazis came to power. The first step of discrimination against Jews was a boycott of Jewish-owned shops, department stores, law firms, and medical practices, which started on April 1 and continued for a few days. The boycott was announced by the press, posters and flyers. As part of it, shops and companies were marked with such signs as ‘Don’t buy from Jews’ or ‘Jewish shop’.

Storm troopers in front of the shops harassed the owners and put pressure on customers. Jewish entrepreneurs were assaulted and driven through the streets; SA and SS officers forced them to wear humiliating and defamatory posters. Jewish lawyers were arrested in the court building on Reichenspergerplatz and driven around the city on dustcarts.

At the same time, the Nazi regime was planning the first professional bans for Jews. The Civil Service Restoration Act of April 7, 1933, provided a basis for dismissing not only unpopular but also ‘non-Aryan’ employees from public service and similar institutions. Anyone who had a Jewish grandparent was considered ‘non-Aryan’. Pursuant to the Act, it was no longer possible to employ Jews in public service. The municipal administration of Cologne had already started to prepare to the introduction of the new policy several days before the Act came into force. In order to speed up the dismissals, from the end of March all city branch offices were asked for information about Jewish employees and employees married to Jews. The requested information was provided immediately. 

Social Exclusion

Over the following weeks and months, numerous measures were taken to introduce further limitations on the practice of different professions. Doctors and dentists lost their health insurance approvals, lawyers were deprived of the right to represent. Other bans concerned Jewish pharmacists, midwives, alternative practitioners, nurses, and academics. Following an Act of the Reich Chamber of Culture from September, Jews were eliminated from such fields as literature, press, theatre, music, and fine arts.

The systematic exclusion of Jews from the political and social life of the city was equally significant as their exclusion in economic and professional terms. As a result of pressure or in order to ingratiate themselves to the new authorities, people forced those of Jewish origin to give up their offices and functions, and finally also their membership in sports clubs and youth organisations, economic lobbies and unions. 

The Nuremberg Laws

In 1935, anti-Semitic laws of the annual Nuremberg Rally of the Nazi Party: the Reich Citizenship Law (Reichsbürgergesetz) and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour (Blutschutzgesetz), put an end to the concept of assimilation and the idea of co-existence of Jewish and non-Jewish Germans.

Reichsbürgergesetz was the first law to differentiate between Reich citizens and national citizens, thus invalidating the political equality for Jews that had been established in the German Reich in 1871. According to the new law, ‘a Reich citizen is that subject who is of German or related blood only’.

This differentiation deprived Jews of their right to vote in all political areas, and they were no longer allowed to hold public office. The ‘blood protection act’ touched on the private life of particularly the Jewish but also the non-Jewish population in an explicit and extremely humiliating manner. Marriages between Jews and ‘citizens of German or related blood’ as well as extramarital relationships between these groups were prohibited and carried the most severe penalties. The regulations determined who was to be considered ‘of German Blood’, Jewish, ‘of mixed blood of the first degree’, and ‘of mixed blood of the second degree’ in a mischievously detailed way. 


Immediately after the Nazis came to power, Jews started to escape and emigrate. Many Jews soon realised that they no longer had any future in Germany.

Still, persons and organisations that declared German patriotism did not abandon hope for improving their situation and until the mid-1930s tried to fight discrimination with arguments and references to the merits of the German Jews. On the other hand, those who wanted to emigrate were faced with great problems. Nearly all countries tried to control the immigration of Jews from Germany by establishing quotas, imposing conditions concerning age, health, and property, and requiring guarantees. To many people these obstacles proved insurmountable.

Aid Programmes

In May 1933, the Cologne Jewish community appealed to its members to maintain dignity and strength in their situation and to remain loyal to the community and the Jewish nation. At the same time the community restructured its social offer. Apart from the strengthening of the sense of community, it mostly wanted to organise aid for numerous people in a difficult economic situation. Aid programmes were devised, the operations of charity organisations were extended, and special services were established. This soon brought the Jewish community together. Conflicts within the community faded, and the circles that had kept a distance from Jewish organisations before 1933 felt it necessary to reconnect. Associations that had been competing for political reasons decided to cooperate, and the number of members particularly of Jewish sports and youth clubs increased because young Jews had been expelled from non-Jewish clubs. Jewish pupils not only from Cologne started to move to Jewish schools. In terms of culture, the Jewish Cultural Association Rhein-Ruhr established in 1934 started to organise theatre performances and concerts, thus making it possible for Jewish artists and Jewish audiences to take part in the cultural life, despite the discrimination.

The Jewish Cultural Association Rhein-Ruhr established in 1934 helped Jewish artists, who otherwise would not be able to practice their professions, to offer the Jewish audiences a comprehensive programme. 

The Crystal Night

At the beginning of 1938, the anti-Jewish policy became even stricter. In autumn a new phase of persecution began. At the end of October 1938, hundreds of Jews having Polish citizenship, most of whom had lived in Cologne for decades, were exiled.

Shortly after, the events of the so-called Crystal Night that took place on the night of November 9, put an end to all hopes of the Jewish population for the softening of the regime’s anti-Semitic policy. During pogroms arranged by the Party and the state all over Germany, which the society did not oppose or even supported, countless flats and shops were vandalized, while Jews were assaulted and humiliated. 

Plunder and Dispossession

Synagogues in Roonstraße, Glockengasse and Körnerstraße were burnt down, the synagogue in St.-Apern-Straße was vandalised, and the synagogues in Mülheim und Deutz were destroyed.

After 1933, not only economic restrictions were imposed, but also various steps were taken towards plunder and dispossession of Jews. As a result of a systematic policy of ‘dejudaisation’ and ‘Aryanisation’, assets, companies, shops, houses, and movables were turned over to Aryan i.e. non-Jewish owners. After the November pogrom, this policy of plunder became even worse. Legal regulations continued to restrict access to jobs and the ownership rights of the Jewish population, while special charges Jews had to pay for the damages of the pogroms further worsened the economic situation of the Jewish population.

Moreover, the pressure to sell real estate was constantly increasing. In total, 735 houses and plots were sold by Jews between 1938 and 1944 in Cologne alone. The Jewish workforce was also exploited as part of forced labour in Cologne companies. 

The Establishment of Ghettos and Labelling

From the end of 1938, also the measures to exclude Jews socially became harsher. At first, their passports were marked with a ‘J’, and from the beginning of 1939 they had to put names ‘Sara’ or ‘Israel’ in front of their surnames. Pursuant to the Act of May 1939, tenant protection rights no longer applied to Jews, so they could be evicted from their flats and moved to the so-called ‘Jewish houses’ in designated quarters of the city. Thus, ‘ghettoisation’ of the Jewish population of Cologne, which by the middle of 1939 had been reduced to 8,000 people, was achieved. Everyday life and freedom of movement continued to be severely restricted by numerous regulations. 


Jews were no longer allowed to use phone booths, keep pets, buy books in bookstores, use public transport or leave their place of residence. They could only buy foodstuffs in designated shops, and they had to turn in typewriters, bicycles, furs, and optical devices. From September 1941, all Jews had to wear the ‘Star of David’. Anyone failing to follow this order could be arrested and deported.

Towards the end of 1941, deportations to ghettos and death camps in the east started. At that time, there were 6,200 Jews living in Cologne and 1,400 Jews in the district. Jewish organisations were virtually non-existent, and the Jewish community, limited to a Congregation of Synagogues of the Cologne community and a local branch of the Reich Association of Jews in Germany, had few possibilities for taking action. In the autumn of 1941, the authorities of Cologne-Müngersdorf established an assembly camp in the Fort V buildings, where Jews from Cologne and the region were kept until they were assigned to transports. The last official representatives of the Jewish community were also sent to the Müngersdorf camp, together with the last patients of the Jewish hospital and the residents of the Jewish old people’s home.

The Jewish community had to assign people to transports. They were forced to prepare lists with the names of people to be deported. Those listed were notified of the date and the destination of the transport. They had to gather on the premises of the Cologne Trade Fair, from where they were transported to the Deutz-Tief Station and deported to camps in the German-occupied territories in the east. Except for one piece of luggage each, their possessions were confiscated by the Gestapo and the Cologne Financial Office on behalf of the German Reich. From the autumn of 1941 to the summer of 1942, the Cologne Gestapo deported nearly the entire Jewish population that still lived in Cologne and the region in transports of 1,000 people each.

The first train left the Köln-Deutz Station for the Litzmannstadt Ghetto in occupied Łódź on October 22, 1941. A few days later another train left for Litzmannstadt. On December 7, 1941, a deportation train left for the ghetto in Riga, while on June 15 and July 27 the destination was Theresienstadt. Cologne citizens were also on a group transport on June 15, 1942, which left Koblenz via Aachen, Cologne and Düsseldorf for Sobibor. On the deportation train that left the Köln-Deutz Station for Minsk on July 20, 1942, about a half of the deportees were Jews from Rhineland. After these first deportation actions related to the plan to murder the whole Jewish population, many groups of up to 50 people were taken to the Theresienstadt ghetto. The last such transport took place in March 1945. Later deportations concerned those who had survived based on the logic of the Nuremberg Laws as people ‘of mixed blood’ or in ‘mixed marriages’. An unspecified yet large number of Cologne Jews were also deported from countries to which they had escaped and which came under the rule of Nazis during the Second World War. They were usually sent to assembly camps, such as Mechelen in Belgium or Gurs in France, from where they were transported to ghettos and extermination camps. The same happened to a group of about 600 ‘Eastern Jews’, who had been taken from Cologne to the Polish border in October 1938. Everyone who had not managed to emigrate to a safe country was caught by the Nazis after the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland.

Nearly all deportees fell victim to genocide. They either died as a result of inhumane conditions and acts of violence in ghettos or they were deported to death camps and murdered. The fate of 2,514 people from Cologne and the region transported to Theresienstadt is documented in the greatest detail: 231 survived, and the others died in the ghetto or were transported to Treblinka or Auschwitz death camps and murdered. As studies have shown so far, out of those deported to Riga only about 80 people survived. None of those deported to Minsk lived to see the end of the war. 1,164 people, including pupils and teachers from the Jawne school, did not get to the ghetto but were murdered in nearby Maly Trostenets immediately upon arrival. According to the most recent research, out of 2,000 men, women, and children deported from Cologne to Litzmannstadt 25 women and men survived. 

An example: The Martyr's Way of Those Deported From Cologne to the Litzmannstadt Ghetto

The Litzmannstadt Ghetto, established on April 30, 1940, in a district close to the centre of Łódź, was the second largest, after the Warsaw Ghetto, and the longest operating ghetto. In an area covering some four square kilometres which was heavily guarded and fenced with barbed wire about 160,000 Polish Jews lived. In the autumn of 1941, about 20,000 ‘Western Jews’ were brought there from Berlin, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, Luxembourg, Prague, and Vienna. The living conditions in this forced community, which involved hunger, death, and constant ‘resettlements’ to Kulmhof and Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps, are described in relatively well-preserved accounts of Cologne citizens.

Despite dreadful conditions, the deportees were full of hope and tried to adjust to the life in the ghetto. In the summer of 1942, 1,060 of them fell victim to the mass murder, which had begun at the end of 1941. This took place in Kulmhof/Chełmno, located 55 km to the northeast, in gas vans. In September 1942, during the following murder actions the victims were children and the elderly, including at least 180 people from the Cologne transports.

After these deportation actions, involving unprecedented brutality and round-ups that lasted many days, etched in the memory of the ghetto inhabitants as ‘Allgemeine Gehsperre’, the survivors had to organise their lives once again. Many of them had lost their family and friends by then, and they were on the verge of starvation. In the summer of 1944, right before the liquidation of the ghetto, 140 Cologne citizens were murdered in Kulmhof. The dates of death of nearly 400 deportees from Cologne who died in the ghetto are known, and in many cases the exact cause of death have been established; for example, Max Hertz was hanged on February 21, 1942.

At least another 50 people were deported to Auschwitz in the summer after the liquidation of the ghetto. We have not been able to determine the exact date, place, and circumstances of death of about 200 people. Only 25 men and women of those deported from Cologne to the Lithzmannstadt Ghetto survived. They had been transported to other camps and labour commandos and lived to see the liberation in 1945 in such places as Bergen-Belsen, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and Groß-Rosen concentration camps or on the infamous death marches.


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